Why Proximity?

I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but in probably the most important ways I don’t think I really started trying to follow Jesus very closely until January of 2017, when Jesus interrupted our lives in a profound and dramatic way and called us to follow him anew. Two decades into adulthood, we finally had “ears to hear” what Jesus had been saying “to the churches”- and us- all along, that he is enough for us, that he will meet our needs, that we have blessed beyond imagining and therefore we have a responsibility to be conduits of that blessing for others, not dams in the river of God’s grace and abundance. Finally ready to risk pledging allegiance to Jesus alone, finally ready to invest ourselves in God’s economy and store up for ourselves treasure in heaven rather than here on earth, we knew we had to get “small.” As recipients of the many privileges afforded to some citizens of U.S. empire, we occupy an outsize place in the world. We consume more resources than we should, produce more waste than we should, and accumulate more wealth than we should. Our vantage point is from “over,” not “under.” We’re middle class U.S. residents of European descent. When compared to how most people in the world live today and have lived throughout history, we’re fabulously wealthy. For too long we didn’t live like we had even the dimmest awareness of this. Despite our many advantages and great wealth, we kept piling up debt because we had no concept of what “enough” really is or should be. I in particular was enamored with gadgets and the like. When we were homeowners we bought a modest house by “middle class” USAmerican standards that still qualified as very conspicuous consumption so long as the truly materially poor continue to “play house” in cardboard boxes (in the words of Bono). This was the house we “owned” for about a decade:

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Meanwhile, much of the world lives like this, or worse:

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Then one day, God got our attention, a fact which still surprises, and for which I’ll be forever grateful. That story, which I think is worth the read, is told here. As you’ll read in that post, a big catalyst for this change was Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s book God’s Economy, but almost from all sides we were hearing the same message, summed up nicely by Rod White, one of our former pastors from Circle of Hope:

 We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Here Rod and the good folks that make up Circle of Hope are doing some heavy theological lifting, working with Paul’s writing to push past some of our barriers to understanding them as we read them so far removed from the context in which he wrote. What stuck with us, then, and still does today, is the idea that we needed to get “small,” that we needed to work at following Jesus from “under,” not “over.” How can we really love a Savior if our day to day lives seldom afford us an opportunity to need much saving?

Another big influence God is using to re-orient our lives is Ched Myers and his work with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. Our first real exposure to Ched’s thought was in Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell, a follow-up to Myers’ seminal work, Sabbath Economics, in which we read:

Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)

Elsewhere (in Prophecy and Passion: Essays in Honour of Athol Gill) Ched himself wrote:

Above all…Christians must work with and for the poor in solidarity. As Jesus says to his community in Mark 14:7, “the poor will always be with you.” This passage- notoriously misunderstood and misused by preachers and politicians alike- is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church- a place where the poor can find good news!

Since this abrupt interruption in our lives, we’ve been doing what we can to get “small,” to get closer to experiencing life from “under,” not “over.” Perhaps some day we’ll know what it’s like to walk in “Paul’s slavish shoes.” What we know right now is that not only does solidarity with the “least of these” require proximity, but in hindsight- I guess obviously- following Jesus does too. So we’ve moved, switched banks, put the kids in new schools; I’ve changed jobs, and we’ve given away a car. We have a long, long way to go, but if Jesus is really to be our Savior and Lord, we’ve got to stay close. We’re doing everything we can (we hope) to keep up with him. Thus, proximity matters. We have to be close to the ones we’re supposed to love and learn from and be in solidarity with, and doing so is the best way we know these days to stay close to Jesus. This blog is about that journey.

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