Monday, July 21, 2014

Rethinking Utilitarianism

Something's been bugging me about the middle class Christian values taught to me growing up. You see, I was raised to make my life count, to "make a difference in the world." My Sunday school teachers in high school advised that since my classmates and I belonged to the richest 1% in the world, we should use our opportunities and privilege to create justice for the poor (Isaiah 58 was blowing up like now other back then). The gist of their teaching was, "If you're going to be a lawyer, be a lawyer for the marginalized. If you're going to be a doctor, work in public health with the uninsured." The implicit argument was use your influence for good.

That's all fine and dandy. I'm not saying that wanting to live a life of service to others is for dreamers and fools. Yes, if you have a burning passion to reach out to those that society has thrown away and forgotten, I think that's so cool!

My problem is with the Christians that think they know the *best* (subtext: only acceptable) way to engage in social justice. Utilitarian influences are pervasive if not unquestioned in Christian thought--post-modern, middle class, 'progressive,' American, Pacific Northwest Christian thought, especially. This is not good! Let's unpack this a little.

To put it roughly, utilitarianism values getting 'the best bang for your buck.' Jon Stuart Mill, the 'father' of utilitarianism, was interested in the question: How can we maximize happiness (on the societal leval) and minimize unhappiness? It's about creating the greatest total impact of happiness using the limited resources available--optimization and efficiency are key in Mill's take on 'best' social policy.

So what does this have to do with my Sunday school teachers telling me to 'make a difference' with my educational and career choices? Well, kind of everything.

There's no denying that injustice is rampant around us. What's unfair in the world today? Uhhh, a ton of things. That's a big "duh." (See: racism, sexism, class difference, physical/emotional abuse) It's not hard to see what's wrong. And for those already on the social justice bandwagon (I include myself in this!), it's pretty obvious that there's much to be done.

However, it seems to me that progressive American Christianity's answer to social injustice has been get as much worldly power as you can, and exert it to benefit the poor.

"What's wrong with that?" you may ask. "Why shouldn't we help the largest amount of people possible by attaining the largest amount of political/financial power possible?" Again, the implicit statement is I'm going to use my power for good!!!

Let me put it to you this way: would you consider Jesus' actions during his life to be utilitarian in nature? Did Jesus 'work his way up' in Jewish society so that he could 'change the system from within' from a position of power? NO! In fact, he was reviled and rejected by those in power, Jewish and Roman alike. Rather than rise up in the ranks and use political power to effect a cultural change, he preferred to go from village to village with "no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). "[H]e made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2:7). He knew that the political systems of his time were corrupt (e.g. crooked tax collectors, hypocritical Pharisees), but rather than creating a complete institutional overhaul by force (i.e. taking up worldly power/kingship and exerting influence), he was in fact, victimized by the unjust justice system. Does this not blow your mind?!

Utilitarianism posits that top-down reform is (supposedly) the "best" because it affects the largest amount of people, therefore maximizing positive impact.

How does this manifest in the church? Have you ever met someone who's so well-versed in the ways of "correct" social justice that they "pooh-pooh" "handouts" and "band-aid solutions" such as soup kitchens and emergency shelters? A person like that might say, "Oh, meals for the homeless? You know that only addresses symptoms, not the cause, right? True structural change has to come before THAT can be fixed." To the well-meaning believer engaged in charity work, a social justice snob would deem said work utterly inadequate.

I do not mean to be ranting and rude--trust me, I used to be a social justice snob. I applied to get my MPA at UW, for goodness sake! I was convinced that I need to use my power for good.

However, this utilitarian "policy-level-change-or-bust" mentality is severely restricting. More important, though, is to question of how it agrees with or comes against the will of God. What does the Lord think about this?

On a personal level, I have been reflecting deeply and praying about how God desires to use my life to effect justice in the world, to bring his kingdom to earth. And he's been breaking down my utilitarian mindset.

I am "smart." I can talk to other "smart" people and excel in the world of politically powerful, "smart" people (i.e. when I worked for King County). I'm sure I could exert plenty of influence on behalf of the disenfranchised on the policy level if I wanted to go that route.

But the most important question is: Is that what God is calling me to?

In May I received a word from God that due to the immensity of my giftings (i.e. being "smart"), there was a pressure for me to achieve much. The Lord said, "That is not my way for you. I have shoes for you that fit just right." Well, I just started crying when I heard that. What a relief! God was releasing me from the pressure to 'make it big' in the world to 'make the biggest difference possible.' He was releasing me from utilitarian ways of thinking and inviting me into kingdom ways of thinking.

I am convinced that God is aware of social justice in an intimate, nuanced way that only an omniscient God can. I am thus also convinced that he knows exactly how he is going to address it--and more specifically, how he would like us as individual believers to address it.

Let's not confuse the world's ways of dealing with social injustice with God's specific call for us to engage it. One-size-fits-all approaches to social justice work is total malarkey. And for those who buy into and perpetuate the culture of Christian utilitarianism--be careful!

For God has said,
"[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
May God reveal his ways for you to address social injustice today!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thanks, God!!

"I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord" (Psalm 27:14).

A few months ago, I was sobbing due to the enormous pressure I felt from people at my church constantly asking me if I had found a job yet (I hadn't). After church service one Sunday, I went up to ask for prayer and explained my situation. "That pressure is not from God," my uncle assured me. I nodded, mopping up my falling tears.

I begged the Lord for instructions and direction--if I should go back to school or look for a specific kind of job, etc. I was so frustrated when I didn't receive a clear-cut response! "Lord, I will do anything for you," I would pray. "Just give me the word."

It was once said to me, "April, jobs don't just fall out of the sky." I think that may be the world's way of thinking, but for me, it's been a different story. I am a pretty hardcore and literal believer of "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33). So basically since I've been back from Mexico I've been spending a lot of time seeking the Lord, keeping my eyes open, and believing in his imminent provision.

I've been so hell-bent on taking the stronghold of fear lately (see my last post) that when out of the blue two friends contacted me with two different job opportunities, I had to laugh. Of course, it was God at work on my behalf. I received an offer to interview for one of the positions, and before going to bed one night I prayed, "Lord, is this job a gift from you that I am to receive?" The answer came strong and clear: "Yes." "Hm," I replied, smiling, "Okay." I prayed. "Okay."

So when I went in for the first interview on Thursday and the second interview on Friday, it was so easy and effortless. When you know God is giving you something and it's already yours, you can live with a lot of boldness, peace and rest. Yesterday when I was offered the job it was such a surreal moment of receiving that which the Lord had already promised to me. It was the icing on the cake. After I hung up the phone, all I could say was, "Thank you, Jesus! Wow."

Jobs really do fall out of the sky.

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth  through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created" (James 1:17-18). 

Monday, June 09, 2014

On the war path

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie--the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"
-John 5:1-6
Whew! What a journey it has been since returning from Mexico in March! In many ways it has felt like wandering in the desert with all of the detours, starts and stops and stumbling along the way. When I came back, I was just so broken, very deeply broken. And all I had was a prophetic word that I'd be "moving in different regions with apostolic teams" and the confirmation from God that "It is time to live into your calling." Other than that, I hadn't a clue what to do! "What does it mean?" I wondered to the Lord.

I won't lie, it was tough showing my face after coming back early from Mexico. What a (perceived) failure! Yikes. I mean, the embarrassment and disgrace I felt having to explain to people again and again that I was 'back-back' and didn't have another job immediately lined up...whew. Truly a cringe-worthy experience. Yet in all of this, God was faithfully moving on my behalf.

The thing about trials is that they expose my need for God. It becomes so clear that I need him BAD. I'm not talking about falling into self-deprecating, self-condemning attitudes of "Oh, I'm worthless" or "Oh, I'm a terrible person." It's so different. It's like, "Man, I am jacked up!!! Jesus, come quickly to help!"

You see, much of my life has been marked by fear. Fear has taken so many different forms in my life, you don't even know. Fear of rejection, fear of physical harm/pain, fear or failure, fear of God's abandonment, fear of God not being real, fear of God's call for me--I mean, talk about a pile-up! I just got used to being in a low-grade fearful state constantly. And there have been significant flare-ups a few times in my life where the fear just presses in and threatens to swallow me whole. It paralyzes me, makes me cry and makes me think, "Okay, wow. This is literally going to end me."

The month leading up to my departure from Mexico was another one of those flare-ups. I was struggling with physical pain in my left knee and it almost did me in. Gosh, I was crying so much!!! I felt awful, just absolutely tormented. I prayed, I read the Bible and just did my best to hold on for dear life.

I struggled with the following thoughts:
  • The future is dreadful.
    • 'God has called you to suffer, to share in the sufferings of Christ, and suffer you will!!'
  • Future suffering will destroy, kill and defeat me.
    • 'You will be overcome by pain and all life will be taken from you.'
  • It is futile to fight against pain and darkness.
    • 'Pain will come back again and again until you are defeated.'
    • 'The assaults will get worse and worse until you're finally completely flattened.'
  • You will go from weakness to weakness and God will leave you to the wolves to be consumed.
    • 'God will allow you to be crushed and will leave you that way.'
    • 'He will give you pain beyond what you can bear.'
  • You will not know healing or life on this earth.
    • 'God will continue to allow you to be stripped and beaten and emptied so that you can share fellowship with Christ, so he can keep you close, but you will not experience relief.'
  • Your experience of pain is a confirmation of God protecting you only partially.
    • 'Would a good God allow you to go through such agony?'
  • God has tricked and manipulated you into following him. He has taken advantage of you.
    • 'You labor in vain. You suffer in vain.'
    • God has promised all these good things for you only to lead you to more suffering and pain.'
  • The cost of following Jesus is not worth the 'rewards,' which you won't receive for years to come anyway.
    • 'Your misery and anguish are way more than what God will give you, either in this life or in the future. And are you even sure you'll receive that which he's promised?'
  • You draw additional pain and persecution upon yourself my following God.
    • 'You make yourself a target.'
  • God is a paternalistic, punishing Father.
    • 'He puts you through trials because 'it's for your own good' so you're going to take it and you're going to be thankful for it.'
  • Is Christ enough?
    • 'You're going to lose everything for his sake. Are you sure you want to do that? What's so great about him that you're willing to give up everything and even be destroyed yourself?'
As you can see, I was just being assaulted and pummeled with lies. Basically put, it was terrible! I was miserable. 

But you know, a couple of weeks ago I was driving in the car and began to feel that familiar sensation of fear rising up within me, along with all the familiar fearful thoughts that cause me to get even more agitated. As I was driving, I began to cry. "Help me, Jesus!" I prayed out loud in between sobs.

He did! After that prayer, something switched in me. Instead of being so sorrowful and scared, I started to get mad. I became fed up with being a victim to fear. I became determined to stand up and fight it. I started on the war path to confront fear.

If Jesus were with me in the car that day and had asked me, "April, do you want to get well?" I would have replied, "Yes, I do, *expletive*! *Expletive*! I will not be satisfied until I am!" 

So that's where I'm at. I am on the war path to confront fear.
I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
     I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
I crushed them so that they could not rise;
     they fell beneath my feet.
You armed me with strength for the battle;
     you made my adversaries  bow at my feet.
You made my enemies turn their backs in flight,
     and I destroyed my foes.
-Psalm 18:37-39
Did you know that Jesus has given us everything we need to overcome Satan? He says, "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you" (Luke 10:19).

Have you seen the movie Pacific Rim? Mako Mori is a woman marked by one terrible, fearful memory from her childhood. It continues to torment her and threatens her future as a jaeger pilot:
Her partner tries to reason with her. "Mako, this is just a memory. None of this is real." Can you relate to her continued terror at the memory despite others speaking the truth? I can.

But Mako's story doesn't end there. She is called to face the same sort of monsters that held her in fear for years and years. You guys, just watch the clip.

!!!!!!!!!!!! Get it? She uses a sword! "Take the...sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17). Jesus has given me that sword, and boy am I going to use it!
Today we face the monsters at our door, and bring the fight to them! 
-Marshal Stacker Pentecost, Pacific Rim
Whatever monsters you may be facing, you can overcome them, for you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Philippians 4:13). Know that I, too, am standing with you in the fight.