Counting My Blessings

I’m now back in the U.S. of A.  I was only home a couple days when I received an invitation to come to Washington for a week-long program called Civitas, put on by The Center for Public Justice in D.C. Upon return from Civitas week, I shared a seat with a man who had a slight accent.  We talked a bit and he mentioned he worked at the French embassy’s department of culture—it was a nice coincidence to be able to speak some French again.  We ended up talking for some time in French about art and theology mostly.  I had a heck of a time trying to explain my understanding of the different philosophical underpinnings of Christianity and Buddhism.  I imagine that I probably sounded a bit like Borat.  But we exchanged emails and he said he’d put me on the listserv for the culture department.

I tried to say that, in my very limited knowledge of Buddhism I sensed that it is essentially focused on the individual’s efforts where Christianity hinges on the efforts that God has made in Christ.  He brought up the verse, “Prends courage, j’ai vancu le monde” (John 16:33, “Take heart, I have overcome the world”—interestingly enough, a verse that I looked at this morning).  But, he said, that means that we can overcome the world to some degree.  I made a mention of Calvinism, and tried to say, in my broken French, that what we do in the world matters greatly—our efforts at constructing culture—which this man seemed so passionate about—really do matter in the world.  And similarly, our work for justice really does matter in the world, and does not simply fall away when the new heaven and the new earth are created.  This past week has been a strong dose of Calvinist/Kuyperian Reformed Theology.  The title of the week was “Graceful Politics”, and its central question was how to engage the world through the political sphere with a Christian worldview.  This involves reaching across the rifts which so characterize Washington, D.C. to think and speak gracefully with a Christian foundation and develop specific prescriptive policies to the issues facing us today.

In the week’s discussion, there was much talk about vocation.  I heard from people working at NGOs and think tanks, people in ministry and academia and public policy, as well as musicians.  Each day opened with worship, and during that time on one day, the minister for the week made reference to Wolsterstorff’s book I just read.  Wolsterstorff describesshalom that characterizes God’s city, and consists of a harmonious relationship between self and neighbor, self and God, and self and nature.  It is a state characterized by justice as well as beauty.  So the artist’s vocation is not simply of utilitarian value.  Music and art are a real part of God’s city.  Yet I listened as people spoke of the tension that can be felt, especially by artists, between beauty and justice.

The word ‘justice’ came up plenty over the course of the week.  One speaker said, “justice is a privilege and a responsibility”.  I thought of Newbigin’s quote that I mentioned in an earlier entry.  If we were treated justly by God, we would be in bad shape.  Living under the laws of justice and mercy is a privilege as Wendell Berry and Paul Farmer point out.  But we can—and should—still speak of rights in terms of ‘the other’.  As Christians, we live as ones who have been shown mercy, and it is our duty to love God by loving “the least of these” whom God loves—not because of their inherent value according to their merit, but because they bear the image of God, and because he was willing to die that they may have salvation.  Grace is costly.  “But just wherein it was costly, that was wherein it was grace.  And where it was grace, that was where it was costly” (Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, 49).  The grace we have been shown demands a response to work for grace and for justice in the world.

One speaker who works with International Justice Mission (IJM) spoke of the tension between justice and mercy in her organization’s work.  In issues of slave labor, human trafficking and prostitution, people are victims of other people, not social/political/economic forces (although as people like Farmer point out, there are in fact people behind those social/political/economic forces).  But I was struck by this presentation especially, because it seemed so black and white.  During my time in Burkina, I felt at times that I wanted to fight poverty and disease, but it seemed so difficult to find where the enemy really was.  In much of IJM’s work, it seems there is a clear enemy.  (I’m sure that in the real work that they do, there is more gray area—especially in trying to work with a government that turns a blind eye to that sort of injustice and oppression).

But even when a factory owner using slaves is arrested, and one feels a sense of victory over the enemy, I imagine there is still a tension between justice and mercy, between persecution and redemption, between consequence and grace.  Righteous anger is a good thing, and God hates injustice and oppression.  But we must remember that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  Paul called himself the chief of sinners, and a proper Christian approach to justice must acknowledge that the self is not an innocent party—and yet in witnessing the reality of hateful oppression, I can imagine that the only thing one would want to pray for is vengeance on the evildoer.  I think of Bonhoeffer’s statement, “it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts” (Letters and Papers from Prison).  And perhaps as we see the grim reality of wrath and vengeance hanging over our enemy’s head, we can have some idea of the mercy that we ourselves have been shown.

On a slightly similar thought, one speaker spoke of the day-to-day work to love God’s world, and said, “we don’t know until we do”.  This again made me think of Bonhoeffer, “Only those who in following Christ leave everything they have can stand and say that they are justified solely by grace” (Discipleship, 51). It is only after a life of pursuing justice and fighting for it that we realize it is a gift. It also made me think of the possibility that recognition of one’s own sin can follow works of service to one’s neighbor.  It is tempting to think, then, that our work and efforts in this world don’t matter, but in fact our work towards beauty and justice—building towards shalom—do matter and our works are not simply disposed of in the new heaven and new earth.  But one positive effect, I think, of this line of thinking is that it reinforces our solidarity with our non-Christian brothers and sisters.  It emphasizes God’s sovereignty, and reminds us that our own efforts are “small and flawed” as Gideon Strauss has said.

Well besides my week in Washington, coming back home has been a bit of an odd sensation.  When my plane arrived I was just finishing Jeffery Sachs’ book The End of Poverty.  He talked a lot about countries’ geography, and as I flew into New York and drove home (and then the following day drove up to Vermont), I took note in a way I haven’t before of the natural waterways, and the lush greenery and the bridges, tunnels, roads, buildings and all the infrastructure which makes our country function.  My first night back, my parents made a steak dinner, and it was delicious and much appreciated.  But I’ve felt guilty to some degree returning to such comfort.  As I watch BMWs and Maseratis wind through the roads of Greenwich, Connecticut, I think occasionally how many vaccines they could buy.  And seeing such extravagance makes me frustrated and sad to a degree.  But my greater sense of frustration and sadness comes when I look at my own life back here and see how much I am a part of that extravagance that I’m so quick to criticize.  Yet guilt is not constructive—using my blessings to work for a better social order is.  I don’t think God wants me to feel guilty about the opportunities I have, but he certainly wants me to use those opportunities and gifts for His glory, to contribute to His kingdom.  I do, however, want to distinguish between those blessings that can be used for God’s glory—such as a good education—and those luxuries that I might call ‘blessings’ that only serve me.  I think that in any financial decision I make, I should make an analysis of how else that money could be used.  That’s not to say that I can’t ever enjoy a luxury; but my financial decisions—and indeed my whole mode of being—should be rooted in gratitude, as Wolsterstorff says.

In mentioning my internship to people, I have gotten the response several times, “wow, it makes you realize how lucky we are, huh?”  And it certainly does make me remember how lucky I am, but there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that now I can come back and have my glass of cabernet taste a little bit better because I’m reminded how lucky I am.  I mentioned a quote from Wolsterstorff in an earlier entry that I think is relevant here. “There are those in this world for whom the bonds of oppression are so tight that they cannot themselves work for a better society.  Their lot falls on the shoulders of you and me.  For I write mainly to those like myself who live in societies where the space of freedom is wide.  To us I say: the Word of the Lord and the cries of the people join in calling us to do more than count our blessings, more than shape our inwardness, more than reform our thoughts.  They call us to struggle for a new society in the hope and the expectation that the goal of our struggle will ultimately be granted us” (22).  If I came back from Burkina very thankful for all the blessings I have, and simply went about my daily routine, the experience would be a complete and utter failure.

So the question I come to now is, what can I do here?  That question is one that I will have to continue to wrestle with.  Part of it will certainly involve working hard towards a vocation with which I can glorify God.  But it must certainly not be limited to that.  My prayer is that I will not be content in complacency, and that I will be able to constantly ask the question what am I doing to serve God and the world that God loves?