It’s surprising to me looking back now, but the first frustration I had with the church was its seeming lack of consistency regarding what I’ll call social justice. At the time, I would have called it a question of neighborliness. I knew the call to love my neighbor as myself, and began more and more to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” When I read the story of the Good Samaritan now, I’d like to think that the man who asked Jesus the same question was attempting to set boundaries around who could and could not be considered his neighbor. It was clear to me who were my neighbors: those who attended my church, and in the broader sense, those who were Christian.
Contact with potential neighbors, on missions trips and in the local community, revolved around the necessity of conversion. After all, the best thing you could do for a non-Christian, regardless of their situation, was to get them to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I sincerely believed that would take care of most of the problems one was facing. Looking at it cynically, my missions work and evangelization operated as a kind of bait-and-switch, where you helped an individual with what she thought was her most immediate need in order to work what she needed more: to become Christian. When I was in high school, my church went through a period where we talked about meeting people’s “felt needs.” It was a two-pronged approach: with their needs taken care of, they would be more willing to become Christian, and maybe they would be so impressed by getting a stranger’s help that they would want to learn why they were so helpful. The move out into the community was a step in the right direction, but it produced more good feelings on our part than converts. I remember in high school taking out a homeless guy to get a soda because I felt like God was telling me to. While we were talking, he told me he was Jesus, among other famous people. Since it’s hard to need Jesus if you are already Jesus, my angle was cut off. Mission abort.
It was music that helped me realize the disconnect between our talk and our actions. I became the worship leader at my church, and gravitated more toward songs that talked about serving the poor and needy, as Jesus did. I began to realize that because we were singing all these songs, we (myself included) began to convince ourselves we were actually participating in the actions described. When my family moved from Oregon to California and I got involved with a church there, I became the coordinator for local community involvement in the hopes that we could overcome the gap and do some of the things we were so good at singing about. It worked for me, only because I knew I was responsible for the success or failure of any venture. I got involved with another church organization that provided meals for the homeless once a week. I began going every week to help out, and tried to get our church involved with providing the meal once a month. The 80/20 rule that applies in most churches, 20% of the people doing 80% of the work, was even more exaggerated in my small church community of college students and young professionals, and the same people helped provide the meal that helped with every other function. Being forced to find places to help out in the community was beneficial for me; I continued to work with the homeless organization long after I stopped attending church. More importantly, though, it helped me realize that there was no necessary connection between the words that I sang in a Sunday morning service and the actions I performed the rest of the week, between my theological principles and my care for others.
I realize that my experience is not everyone else’s, and that many Christians do great things in their communities and beyond. But so do many non-Christians. I thought for years that the only reason I was able to love people the way I did and care about the world was because I had a personal relationship with Jesus. Once I realized that not only was I not doing a very good job, but that my performance also was not tied to theological dogma, Christianity ceased to have the urgent significance it once did for making a better world. According to many Christian, it works, and in a comparatively small number of those, others can see the sincerity and results. My claim is not that it is impossible to lead a caring and compassionate life in Christianity. Rather, it is that Christianity is by no stretch of the imagination the ultimate path to compassionate living. On balance, there are more authentic ways to live a thoughtful and caring life.