Sunday, March 23, 2008

Everything Must Change

This is poignant excerpt from a book, "Everything Must Change" by Brian D. Mclaren.

In a modest church in a township near Capetown, South Africa, twenty-some local Pentecostal, charismatic, and Baptist pastors were seated in a circle. Two guests of paler hue were present as well: my local host, Johannes, and me. We had paper plates on our laps and coffee cups on the floor beside each chair. The group had gathered at my request, as part of my search for answers to the two shaping questions that give rise to this book.

Question #1: What are the biggest problems in the world?
Question #2: What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

We were discussing ministry in the postcolonial, post-apartheid world.

One fellow, a handsome dark-skinned man in his early thirties (I'd guess), had been strangely silent so far in our conversation. He made eye contact with me, and as he did, I noticed how his brow was furrowed and his jaw tense. Was he afraid of something, perhaps angry?

Do you want to say something? I asked him.

"Yes, I have something to I... need to say," he began. He moved forward to the edge of his chair, elbows resting on his knees. Slowly, his hands stretched open, and they remained extended this like this until he was well into his impromptu speech. "Brothers, I am not a pastor. I am a healthcare worker. I do HIV/AIDS work in Khayelitsha." At this everyone nodded. Known as an informal settlement to some, a squatter area to others, Khayelitsha is the third-largest township in South Africa. Its shacks made of scavenged building supplies stretch along the nearby airport road as far as the eye can see, providing substandard shelter for immigrants from villages across the eastern half of the country. Around half a million black and colored people had landed there seeking a better life after the fall of apartheid, but now they suffered from the predictable problems associated with migration, poverty, and unemployment: substance abuse, domestic violence, and HIV infection. Many of these pastors were working in Khayelitsha, setting up tents to conduct services there Sunday by Sunday.

The young man continued, "You pastors are..." He hesitated as he raised one outstretched hand toward heaven. "You are causing such destruction in Khayelitsha. It reaches to the skies. I know you mean well, but you don't realize that you cause devastation in the lives of the people among whom I work."

Eyes widened, pastors shifted in their seats, and the young man continued, "You come to Khayelitsha every Sunday and set up your tents, which is good, but I have listened to your preaching, and you are preoccupied with three things, three things only. First, you constantly talk about healing. You tell people they can be healed of HIV, and some of them believe you, so they stop taking their medication. When they stop, they develop new resistant strains of the disease that don't respond as well to the medications, and they spread these tougher infections to other people, leaving them much sicker than they were before. Then you've always telling the people they need to be born again, but after they're born again on Sunday, they're still unemployed on Monday. They may be born again, but what good is that if their problems are the same as before? You know as well as I do that if they're unemployed, they're going to be caught in the poverty web of substance abuse, crime and gangs, domestic violence, and HIV. What good is that? All this born-again talk is nothing but nonsense."

At this, I could see some of the pastors bristling. I wondered if a shouting match would erupt, but the healthcare worker leaned a little farther forward, and the pastors constrained themselves a little longer.

"Then what do you do? After telling these desperately poor people to get born again and healed, then you tell them to tithe. You tell them to "sow financial seed" into your ministries and they will receive a hundredfold return. You could be helping so much. You could motivate people to learn employable skills, you could teach them and help them in so many ways, but it's always the same thing: healing, getting born again, and tithing.

"Even the religious organizations that try to help people with HIV - most of them get US aid money, which only allows them to talk about abstinence and fidelity. They can't even mention condoms, and as a result, a lot of people die. And most of you--you won't talk about abstinence and fidelity, because the subject of sex is taboo among us. And so more people die.

"You know your problem? You Pentecostals and evangelicals specialized. You specialized in healing, in getting people born again, in creating financially successful churches--but you need to go beyond that. It's time to get a better message--something bigger than just those things. If you stop there, all your preaching is nonsense."

Nonsense was the verbal grenade, lobbed a second time now, unleashing the pastors' vigorous response. For the next twenty or thirty minutes, one pastor after another replied with impassioned speeches, testimonies, sermonettes. Some were fatherly; some were brotherly; some were stern; some were gentle. But each defended the fact that being born again and getting healed were biblical, which means they weren't nonsense. We never got to the subject of tithing.

The young man listened. As the older pastors spoke, he respectfully gave them his full attention and didn't defend himself when they used words like "heresy" and "false doctrine" to discredit his words. When there was a lull in the conversation, he responded in a quiet but firm tone: "Brothers, I am not your enemy. I am your friend. I believe in Jesus. I am born again myself. I even speak in tongues, so I'm Pentecostal like most of you. I'm sorry I offended you by the word nonsense. But if you would simply teach them some practical things that relate to their daily lives, that could make such a big difference."

(The meeting ended and the healthworker continued on with a private conversation with Brian.)

"The opportunity that's being missed, the incredible cost as they keep up the routines of their various forms of the Christian religion, that's what makes me so passionate. That's what makes me speak out, even though they try to make me look ridiculous by quoting the Bible to me about being born again, as if that negates all the the truth I told them. I love God. I love Jesus. That's why I'm in Khayelitsha trying to help and serve. But I can't stomach what goes on there in the name of God. I see what's going on--all the shouting and singing and raising money--and I know: this is not what Jesus intended. By talking only about individuals being born again, they keep Khayelitsha and our whole nation from being born again in a fuller sense of the term."

At that moment, I realized this man saw clearly what I had begun to see: that religion, even the religion we are committed to and in which we have found God and purpose and meaning and truth, can become captive to a colossal distortion. It can become a benign and passive chaplaincy to a failing and dysfunctional culture, the religious public relations department for an inadequate and destructive ideology. It can forgo being a force of liberation and transformation and instead become a source of domestication, resignation, pacification, and distraction.

A right understanding of God and faith can train people to hold their heads high, to doubt the lies of a dysfunctional society and to work for its transformation. But a misguided understanding can be an opiate that keeps their heads down in submission or desperation so they continue to serve the societal system that is destroying them, believing its lies, performing to its self-destructive script.

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