Complexity and Love
I wrote this as a journal reflection last Tuesday after my final Ministry Among the Marginalized class. That was the last Urban Mission course I'll attend in my grad school career. Pretty bittersweet!
As tonight’s discussion drew our course to its close, we reflected on standing in the tensions. How does this rising generation of urban ministers reconcile our deep dissatisfaction with the structures we are inheriting to the call of grassroots neighbor loving? Where can macrostructures be transformed by local relationships? What steps can we take to move our theories down from 30,000 feet into practical, actionable initiatives in neighborhoods filled with real, complicated human beings? How do we lead others both to the mountaintop for a better view and into the streets for palpable change? How do white males like myself do these things in solidarity or allow others to lead?
These questions mark our age. They represent some of the key tasks for Christians seeking God’s shalom into the coming decades, and they must be answered in recognition of the pivotal moment in history at which we live: stagnation and gridlock in national politics, financial instability and soaring inequality, compounding traumas among the alienated poor, a globalized market system that increasingly shifts power to a shrinking elite, structuralized ethnocentrism, worldwide ecological degradation, increasingly isolated individuals lost in a technological milieu and fractured from genuine community.
Today’s problems are increasingly complex and increasingly interrelated. However, they find their nexus in every neighbor and neighborhood. As we come to see each person, family and community as a system nested in systems that are nested in yet larger systems, we can better grasp the global while discovering hope in the local. An ongoing dialectic exists between the micro and the macro that allows influence to spread virally from any point in the vast network of relations that form our society. God has created a world where a remnant can indeed be magnificently powerful. The Church has an opportunity to re-story our world, to change the destructive narratives that shape the systems while simultaneously transforming the systems that keep us stuck in the same old narratives. Shalom, relationship, abundant life, these stories of the Kingdom are the ones we all yearn to hear and to experience. Space exists for them in the vacuousness of current public debate. The time is ripe for change if we will just keep asking the questions, opening dialogue with unexpected tablemates, and exploring new (and old) ways to be humans together on the earth.
Our approach to leadership in the midst of such complexity, possibility and fragility demands empathy, clarity and sensitivity.
With empathy, we come to see all as enslaved to the principalities and powers, whether oppressed or oppressor. We seek out the story of the other for how it has shaped them toward their actions today. And we remember that we, alongside all others, must equally fall at the foot of the cross, that it is only by grace that we can take the bread and the wine and that it will likewise only be by grace that transformation ever finally comes.
Clarity can only come as we continue to examine the multivalent contexts that shape our reality and which gave birth to the marginalized in our midst. The time for relearning, for re-examining, and for reflection is never finished for the wise leader. We must be people of praxis, continually moving back and forth being action and contemplation, between engagement with the world and dialogue around what we encounter.
Finally, leadership today requires utmost sensitivity. This is first toward ourselves, recognizing our gifts and calling, embracing who God made us and finding our role within the Body while remembering that a person made of only thumbs won’t last long. Our sensitivity is secondly toward the other, recognizing when a strong prophetic word is needed to shake the culture's stronghold versus those moments when pastoral comfort most appropriate. Once again, we must stand in the tension, remembering that no single disposition is sufficient. Too often we make a false dichotomy of our options. Leadership toward shalom is not a matter of being right pastorally or being right prophetically. Shalom is a far richer end than mere correctness. It is also joy and delight, friendship and freedom. As my professor reminded us, people are far more apt to be transformed by the light we radiate than our condescending values.
If God can be called a leader, then leadership, in the final analysis, is a matter of love. And only by our love--the love stories we tell, the love systems we cultivate, the love neighborhoods we build--will the marginalized cease their misery, the apathetic cease their callousness, the oppressors cease their injustice. Only through this Christ-like love can all finally become one.