Last week the Poverty Initiative had a chance to reflect with the Union community about its January immersion course in a noon chapel service. Below are the thoughts that Willa Johnson shared. Willa was one of 35 Union students, Poverty Initiative staff, and Poverty Scholars who made the trip. See a collection of images from the trip at our Flikr site.
The Poverty Initiative immersion courses, like all of Poverty Initiative’s work, are aimed at developing leaders who will be able to unite other leaders in a social movement to end poverty. The task of educating ourselves about our history – how it grounds and guides us today – is an essential element of that leadership development.
We learned several things on the immersion that, as Romall might say, give you the willies. We learned about “Christians” justifying slavery using scriptures. We learned about the mayor of NY, Ferndando Wood, who proposed seceding from the Union because he too supported slavery. We learned that, even after their enslavement was over, free Blacks in Baltimore had to abide by a curfew set by white police officers and lived in fear of arbitrary violence from their white neighbors. And we learned about the mother in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia who fought poverty and homelessness with all her might, only to have her children taken from her and then in desperation, lose herself to heroin.
I personally find it easy to get depressed after learning these things. It’s easy to think we as a human race just aren’t capable of treating each other right. If we haven’t stopped doing these things yet, maybe we never will. I even find it easy to wonder if God is yet at work or if God just gave up on us. Because if God were working, why would people be so terrible to each other?
But supposedly, there’s Good News. We’re told there’s a reason to say ‘hallelujah.’ Paul says in Romans that we are made righteous when we believe, and that the One God of all of us uses our faith to manifest her justice. Yes, apparently, the good news is that the same one who wrote a higher law calls us into deep and transforming relationship. And that is good news. But do we believe it?
In Paul’s letter to the Romans- to this church situated in the Roman empire- he writes that God’s justice works through faith in Christ for all who believe. Though most translations read “faith in Christ” the Greek actually allows for “faith of Christ,” meaning perhaps that God’s justice doesn’t happen automatically when we say Jesus is Lord, God’s justice happens, maybe, when we live with the same faith that Jesus had. When we believe in God’s love and God’s power- and when we act in accordance with that belief, that’s when God’s justice happens. Why do we normally hear that we need ‘faith in Christ’ instead of ‘faith of Christ’? Maybe because it’s easier to profess Christ with our mouths than to live Him with our time and our bodies. It’s certainly easier to control a group of people if they’re sitting around talking about Jesus than if they’re standing up and acting like Him.
Decades later than Paul but inspired by the same person, the gospel writer John explained what he thought this faith of Jesus could do. He writes: “Yet any who did accept the Word, who believed in that Name, were empowered to become children of God.”
For the gospel writer ‘The Good News’ is that the same one who holds us to a higher law …The same one who condemns in no uncertain terms the travesties we inflict upon each other and the apathy with which we unhurriedly go about seeing if we maybe could, at some point, consider doing something about them– is the same One who has called each and every one of us ‘my beloved child.’ Is the same One who has said to you and to me ‘I have counted every hair on your head.’ Is the same One who has said to us ‘those who have my faith shall do all this and greater works besides.’
John must have seen some crazy stuff to start talking like that. He must have seen people changed because of Jesus’ message of God’s love for them and for their neighbors. He must have seen people give up everything they owned to chase an adventure with God. He must have seen stuff kind of like what the heroines and heroes of the Abolition movement did: believe enough in their worth as God’s children to fight for the freedom that should have been theirs from the beginning. Believe enough in God’s promises to lay down their lives in order to see them fulfilled. Love their fellow human beings enough to risk it all to liberate them. It is Good News that we are called children of God. It’s Good News that we have what it takes, especially together, to manifest God’s justice on earth. That the One who holds us to a higher law also gives us a higher power. And when we recognize our status as that One’s children, there is no limit to what we can do. Lord, help us live up to that calling.