The display of wealth of the city and the urban poor

I came across an article written by Dr Jayakumar Christian, someone I respect greatly. It is entitled The Rise of the Urban Poor. There is much to ponder, but I will only highlight a few things using the following quotes.

Jayakumar Christian talks about the “vulgar display of wealth” of the city, and observes that the rich-poor disparity is an increasing problem.

In a strange way, the city brings to the fore in a pronounced manner the gap [between the rich and the poor]—the worst of urban poverty. The rich display their wealth as if the poor do not exist in the cities. The malls and neon lights overshadow the dark corners where the poor eke out their living. Shining India happily coexists with abject poverty as though poverty was a mere landscape issue. One wonders if this is a consequence of our religious philosophies and worldview . . . There is a parasitical relationship––not manipulation but helplessness. In the process, the poor and vulnerable children get exploited and oppressed.

What is often touted as a ‘lack of political will’ in our governance and bureaucratic leadership is really an intentional (ideological) effort to crush (never allow) any uprising of the poor and to suppress any emergence of hope. This is about a powerful collective playing god in the lives of the poor and wounding the souls of the poor, reducing them to a state of hopelessness.

In terms of the church’s response, Jayakumar Christian has the following (and much more) to say.

Grassroots practitioners/agents of change must:


reflect their ‘inner being’ through their engagement. Poverty and powerlessness are human and relational; therefore responses to poverty must also be human and relational. This requires investment of life. It cannot be reduced to mere action plans; demonstrate covenant-quality inclusive relationships based on truth practitioners must allow truth to confront their public and private life;


be competent to exegete God’s work among the poor-trace the ‘patterns’ in God’s movement among the poor in the city; be competent to analyse the worldview of a people and the ideology that drives the economic, political and other systems that crush the poor; and be countercultural in a society that values entitlement over sacrifice.”

The church—the prophetic community—must rediscover herself in her own neighbourhood. The church must locate its mission in the space . . . between hope and hopelessness, life and joy, and pain and death. The church is the evidence that our God has not given up on the urban poor.

Source: http://www.wciujournal.org/journal/article/the-rise-of-the-urban-poor as at 8/9/2014

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Some unhealthy trends in Christian leadership  

I know of young Australian Christians who enjoyed Mark Driscoll’s preaching. Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church had thousands of worshippers in fourteen locations across four states in the US, with annual revenues of more than US$30 million. But in October 2014 Driscoll stepped down from leadership amidst multiple allegations. As of January 2015, Mars Hill was dissolved. Ben Tertin helpfully outlines some of the issues around Driscoll’s leadership and Mars Hill in his article in the Leadership Journal (Christianity Today, December 2014).

The article can be found by clicking here.

Since I am not an American, I am reluctant to comment on this matter. But the comments made in the article remind me of some unhealthy trends I observe in churches and Christian organisations in recent years. I would like to mention a few here.

Gifts and ability over faithfulness

Although this is not explicitly stated in the mission statements of Christian organisations or the official documents of the church, increasingly, leaders are chosen primarily because of their gifts and abilities. In fact, leaders themselves prefer to work with gifted people who are able to achieve tangible results. At the same time, Christians look to charismatic speakers because of their eloquent speeches and power of persuasion. But of course God is more interested in faithful people who are willing to give themselves totally to serve him. Faithful disciples produce faithful followers of Jesus, and often the process is long and the numbers are few. Gifted leaders, on the contrary, have crowds surrounding them. Their followers are many, but often they have not considered the cost of following Jesus.

Corporatisation and over-reliance of business models

Over the past 30 years I have been involved in not a few churches and Christian agencies. Operating in the context of a changing world, where financial management is increasingly tricky, leaders find that they need people with business and professional skills to run their churches and organisations. As a result, committed Christians with those skills are appointed to take up key leadership roles. Churches and agencies then adopt business models used in the corporate world in order to improve efficiency.

There is nothing wrong in this approach—not in and of itself anyway. But my observation is that this is often done without careful consideration of any inherent conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. In the worst scenario, money is the bottom line, which drives everything that the church/organisation does. For example, in the face of falling revenue, staff members are retrenched despite their faithful service over the years. In other instances, popular leaders and highly efficient workers are given greater pay increases because of the numeric or financial success they bring, while faithful and diligent—but less “productive”—workers are less valued.

We must guard ourselves from this management philosophy and corporatisation of the church. Surely we need sound management of our finances and efficient organisational structures. But we must learn to be love-centred with the help of the Spirit, so that we can truly be an alternative community to a value system that treats people as commodities and money-making machines. In times of financial hardships, we are to stand in solidarity with one another and learn to trust a God who will never fail us and who will provide all our needs.

Celebrity culture

I think celebrity culture has a more subtle effect on us than we think. We all have our faith heroes and we desire a role model to follow. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look up to someone. But it is very easy to turn a leader into some kind of celebrity figure, to the degree that we start to worship them. And we do so without knowing it.

This can happen when a pastor becomes famous because their church membership grows beyond a few thousands. This can also happen when a Christian writer or blogger becomes famous, and when their tweets have gained many followers. But we should never blindly follow well-known leaders, for no one is infallible, regardless of their gifts, charisma, the size of their churches, and their popularity in social media. We should never spend more time on their books and online teaching materials than on the Bible. We are followers of Jesus, and our job is to study the Scripture so that we may know God better.

We should not think that celebrity culture is only found in large churches. It can happen anywhere. Some years ago I met a young man who was well known for his involvement in community development, social justice, and being a peace activist. His punchy writing style and radical peace-making activities were beginning to attract many young people. At the time I was working in the aid and development sector, and I was asked to spend half an hour with him over a cup of coffee. I was surprised that over that short time he repeatedly told me that he had shared the platform with the most well-known peace-activists and those who lived and worked among the poor in the US—those who spoke to thousands of people at conferences and whose books were best-sellers worldwide.

Obviously these famous figures have had an immense impact on his life, and indeed they are his faith heroes. I don’t want to undervalue his (and his faith heroes’) contribution to poverty alleviation and peace-making. But I am afraid that, with a mentality like that, Christians are unwittingly reproducing celebrities in the name of the poor, so much so that we are producing followers of people rather than disciples of Jesus himself.

Power, influence, expansion and world domination

The last trend I want to mention is perhaps not new at all. It seems that there is a renewed trend to use power to extend God’s kingdom. I am concerned when the rhetoric of Christian leaders is about power, expansion, and world domination. The church is not about conquering the world to gain universal dominance through power and influence. Rather, its call is to embody the death of Jesus, so that the world may see the living Christ and risen Lord in its solidarity with the pain and suffering of people in this world.

A (mis)understanding of mission that is based on an expansion mentality can easily lead into empire-building. We are not called to extend God’s kingdom or influence culture by means of (social and economic) power. Rather, Christ-followers are to faithfully live a cross-shaped life and create cruciform Jesus-centred communities that embody the values of God’s kingdom. We are to rely on God’s power in our weakness. We find this in the apostle’s Paul’s teaching.

Paul repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians (6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him. A life of affliction in fact displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ, and in the process believers reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). In his own words, Paul says,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

This notion counters everything that celebrity culture symbolises. It is about faithfulness, not charisma, gifts or abilities. It does not rely on the best business models, but God’s power to provide. And it is not about expansion or dominance. Instead, it is about a cross-shaped pattern of ministry that bears witness to the crucified Christ and risen Lord.

Sarah Whittle on Paul’s view of the church and the purpose of power

I just came across an article written by Sarah Whittle regarding Paul’s view of the church and the purpose of power. It’s really well written, and there are plenty of insights. Here are a number of good points mentioned.

Ehrensperger highlights the need for trust. And, although trust “does not render a relationship symmetrical and does not presuppose that those committed to each other are equals or the same, it presupposes mutual respect on the basis of their shared trust in God through Christ.” This trust is crucial for Ehrensperger’s transformative relationships, which must never exert force, domination or control. She describes power emerging “in communicative action.” “[W]here power-over is exercised in a non-dominating, non- paternalistic but transformative way, where people act together in solidarity, trust is the indispensable core dimension.” It is important that such a transformative power remain in view, and the goal as the transcendence of asymmetrical power. Losing sight of the goal of a transformative power relationship—that is, its own eventual transcendence—and falling back to maintaining the relationship as an end in itself—can only result in a dominating rather than empowering relationship.

 (The above paragraph cites/refers to Kathy Ehrensperger, Paul and the Dynamics of Power, Communication and Interaction in the Early Christ Movement (LNTS 325; London: T&T Clark, 2007), 29, 183.)

 So Paul’s master story of Christ’s incarnation and self-emptying, the downward movement of servanthood and humility shape his own ministry profoundly. It also shapes Paul’s expectation of his communities. Consequently, they are not to model themselves on the power structures of their social world—those based on hierarchies, asymmetrical relationships of reciprocity such as patron-client relationships, maleness, ethnicity, privileges of birth, and access to resources. Rather, just as Christ has welcomed them, so they are to welcome one another. The strong are obligated to the weak. They are not to perpetuate worldly social structures but to exercise Christ like transformative power with the goal of the transcendence of unequal power relations. Furthermore, members of Paul’s communities, “each of us,” are urged to “please our neighbour, for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (Rom 15:2). Again, the rationale is Christ, who “did not please himself” (15:3)— another allusion to Paul’s “master story.” Here Paul shares the responsibility equally: those without the kind of power required to get ahead in the social world of Rome are still expected to contribute fully to the life of the in-Christ community, without exception.

 Our global church has much to learn from Paul’s challenge to the prevailing social order and the kinds of leadership structures which it generates and perpetuates. Clearly those who are under-resourced, lacking in connectivity, unable to access education, and lacking global influence will continue to struggle at the periphery of the global church.

Source: http://didache.nazarene.org/index.php/vol-13-2 18th September 2014

 Dr Whittle then talks about the role of women, which is very insightful. Take a look at the article (via the web link above).

 

The resurrection: Christ defeating all dominion and its misinterpretation

I am studying the classic text on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. I just found some great quotes from Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner’s commentary (The First Letter to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010]).

Here is the particular text in 1 Corinthians.

Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet’.Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:24–28)

Ciampa and Rosner explain that the destruction of dominion implies the restoration of all of creation and its submission to the Father.

Verses 24–28 reflect the motif of a dominion gone astray and needing to be crushed so that the proper dominion might be restored. The general idea would have been familiar to anyone in the Roman Empire. Just as a Roman emperor would send out his leading general to put down seditious movements and rebellious vassal states and restore the emperor’s authority throughout the empire, God has sent Christ to subdue all rebellion and opposition, to destroy all the enemies of God’s kingdom, and to restore all of creation to its proper submission to the Father for his glory and the good of all creation. As Wright points out, this description of Christ’s role in reigning over all creation reminds us that Christ, “as the final Adam, the start of the renewed human race (compare Colossian 1.18b), is not only the model for the new type of humanity. He possesses the authority to bring it into being.” [N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 342.] (pp. 768–710)

Remarkably the words translated dominion and authority in 1 Corinthians 15:24 are found in the ancient Greek version of Daniel 7:14, “and to him was given the dominion and the honor and the kingship, and all peoples, tribes, languages shall be subject to him. His authority is an everlasting authority, which will not pass away” (NETS translation of Theodotion’s version). (p. 769)

Ciampa and Rosner then say that an anti-imperial ideology is at work.

Clearly, by all dominion, authority and power Paul means all the competing, corrupted and perverted dominions, authorities, and powers that have been unleased through Adam’s idolatrous perversion of the reign given him by God in Genesis 1. An anti-imperial ideology is clearly at work here, as in the texts from Daniel cited above … The dominions which seems to hold sway in the political, religious and spiritual realms would all be destroyed in the face of the glorious appearance of the fullness of God’s kingdom. This would also apply to the tendency in every human heart to assert one’s own ultimate autonomy as a kingdom of one. No rebellious dominion, authority, or power may be allowed to stand if true, peace, liberty, and righteousness are to reign. It is in this environment that God’s oppressed and marginalized people may finally experience the freedom, righteousness and peace for which they have hungered and thirsted. (p. 769)

Later, Ciampa and Rosner tell us how 1 Corinthians 15 can, sadly, be used to support violence and oppression.

Unfortunately, this portrayal of God’s role in the world has too often served to underwrite violent and oppressive rule on the part of those who see themselves as agents of God’s kingdom. While Christians may well have significant concerns about the ideological criticism of Scripture itself, they must always be prepared to engage in the ideological criticism of interpretations and applications of Scripture lest it continue to be used for evil in the guise of righteousness, oppressing the weak and powerless for the sake of the agendas of the powerful. The validity of this theology and expression of political power is wholly dependent upon the infinite wisdom and righteousness of the one who destroys all other opposing powers and imposes his own kingdom on the world. When such a project is carried out (even on a lesser scale) by powerful (but not infinitely wise or righteous) human leaders and governments, whether under the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, or even modern empires, it is done in the name of righteousness and peace and often with a claim to divine (or natural) mandate. But it always ends up reflecting a parody of the perfect kingdom of righteousness and peace that could be established only by the infinitely wise and righteous King known for his self-sacrificial love for all his creatures, especially the weak and powerless. It is a sad irony that texts such as this one which speak of the ultimate condemnation of all empires but God’s have nevertheless sometimes come to empower those who falsely perceive themselves to be following a divine model suited to their own ambitions. (pp. 770-771; emphasis added)

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Power and Paul’s cruciform leadership

I have been thinking about leadership and power. Over at ETHOS there is an article entitled “Reflection on Power and Powerlessness” (Feb 2012). Here are excerpts from the article that speak of Paul’s cruciform leadership (Emphasis added).

But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.

Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, that is, the anointed King who was to come, as anticipated by the prophets. Based on this, Jesus announced his mission to proclaim good news to the poor. Of course, salvation and forgiveness of sin is available to all – both the rich and the poor. But undeniably Christ’s ministry was characterised by his solidarity with the social outcasts and economically disadvantaged. It is true that Jesus used his power to heal the sick and deliver those under the bondage of evil spirits. But he did not exercise any political, social or economic power that one would expect from the royal son of David. Quite the contrary, he died on a Roman cross, which was a symbol of Rome’s dominion over its subjects. But at his obedient death God raised him up, and exalted him to the highest place. Paul bases his ministry on this Christ-story, and models his own life on the paradox of power in powerlessness. He determines not to use worldly power to respond to his opponents. Instead, he ensures that the power of Christ is manifest in his weakness. Both Christ and Paul know what it means to be powerless. Christ is the rightful King, because he was crucified and raised to life. Paul is determined to follow him, and we are called to go and do likewise.

The full article can be found here.

Leadership and power

There is a lot of talk about Christian leadership nowadays. Often there is an assumption that “power” is a harmless as long as it is used rightly. Accordingly, good leadership involves the right use of power and authority. But I wonder whether we should challenge this assumption. Last year I wrote an article about power and powerlessness. It is not about leadership as such, but it does take a look at the pattern of Paul’s leadership. Here is an excerpt.

But how does this cruciform power work? I find Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians really helpful. Most scholars recognise that some members of the Corinthian house churches were unhappy with Paul’s leadership, and he has to defend his apostleship in his letter. Paul does not deny his apostolic calling. But his view of the right use of power is thoroughly based on the life pattern of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. He repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in the letter (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10).  In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him, and it is this life of affliction that displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ and in the process our lives reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). He utters this astonishing statement,

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

On one level this teaching is about how we should rely on Christ in our own hardships. But given the context of Paul’s defence of his apostolic credentials this reveals Paul’s understanding of his authority and power as a leader. Power, then, is about embodying the paradox of the cross. There is no resurrection without death. Strength is found in weakness. Glory is found in a life of suffering, sacrifice and love.”