When Shiny Plastic Jesus Ain’t Enough
When Shiny Plastic Jesus Ain’t Enough: The Scary Parts of the Bible that My Church Forgot to Mention (Or I Chose to Ignore)
I love blogs. You get to read some random person’s musing about life, God, relationships, school, etc. and never have to respond. You can take in their edited streams of consciousness, bookmark what you find striking, comforting or challenging and toss away the rest. It’s like a one-way friendship with no strings attached!
I started following blogs in earnest after my experience at the Los Angeles Urban Project in the summer of 2012. LAUP gives students the opportunity to spend six weeks in the inner city in order to learn about the Bible’s call for social justice. To an outsider, it admittedly sounds like a cult because they ask interns give up their cell phones, Internet and all modern forms of communication with the outside world to go live in the inner city and learn about Jesus, poverty, and how we should, as Christians, engage with the poor and promote social justice. That summer I was introduced to principles of Christianity that I’d rarely heard before. After all, who goes to live in the inner city willingly? Don’t missionaries just go build houses in other countries for a week?
I grew up in Upland, California, which is approximately one hour and several worlds away from the South Los Angeles neighborhood that I would spend the summer in. I was equipped to do well in school, played lots of sports, took some piano lessons, lived in a nice house with a pool, and spent time with my friends in their equally privileged worlds.
I was set up to succeed. Although there were certainly disadvantaged areas in my community, I did not live there. We didn’t visit them unless we had to, and thus they remained separate from my awareness. I knew people whose families struggled financially, but I didn’t understand. In 2012, my LAUP team and I lived in South Los Angeles for six weeks while teaching at a summer enrichment program for neighborhood kids, and living in South LA was a shock. I met families struggling with money, immigration, and violence in their communities. I couldn’t turn away or retreat to my own world, because I was there too. One eight year old boy told me candidly of his family’s immigration struggles, and I was startled by the stark realities of the problems I had tuned out. Prior to this experience, it was so easy for me to turn away and ignore these issues because they didn’t necessarily affect me, but here I was forced to engage more intentionally with the issues around me. I know that many people struggle to understand the realities of those in different economic situations than their own, but living in the midst of it gave me a radically different understanding of poverty because I could put faces and real people to previously vague problems. I also saw Jesus at work in that community. I saw people, including myself, receive physical healing through prayer. I saw how God was using his followers to bring justice and peace to their neighborhoods.
I began to realize that the Christianity I knew was perhaps not the whole picture. Maybe my knowledge had gaps that glossed over some of the more challenging tenets of this faith. At LAUP, I studied passages to which I had previously spared only a passing thought, including Jesus’ “inaugural address” to the Nazarenes:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion” (Isaiah 61: 1-3 NIV)
Preaching good news to the poor? Talking with criminals? I ain’t Jesus!
But that was only the beginning of my struggles. It was one thing to be in the middle of this experience, trying to take everything in and live day to day, waiting for the end of the program. But what are you supposed to do after an experience like that? How do you respond, how do your daily patterns shift in favor of justice for the oppressed? How does God’s call to love the poor and to trust in Him affect my day-to-day life, my dreams, my choices?
This is the struggle that I now face. I have been prepared for success. I have worked hard, attended a great college and learned a lot. And yet perhaps, though I’d called myself a Christian for the majority of my life, I’d been operating with a skewed or incomplete picture of who Jesus is. The Jesus that I knew was loving, but a little too shiny and clean. This Jesus—the one I met in South Los Angeles—saw those on the streets whom I had overlooked because they made me uncomfortable. He didn’t call people to show up to church once a week and pray before dinner. He called people to leave everything behind, literally, in order to love those whom society had forgotten: homeless people, immigrants, prisoners, and everyone else who wasn’t deemed good enough. I realized that I had read Jesus’ teachings thinking, “This is for me!” And over the course of that summer, and in the time since, I began to realize that it was also about other people. Christianity wasn’t about the rules and words that made me feel better, but about a call to love, trust, serve, seek justice, and follow the call of Jesus with reckless faith.
Upon returning to the “real world”, I had several options.
1. Give away all my money.
2. Drop out of college and start living in the city.
3. Realize that maybe I could think and pray about this more before doing anything drastic.
As a senior in college about to graduate, I am forced to consider how I want to shape my life around the ideals and calls of this Man. I cannot simply go forward ignoring the principles that he has set forth and continuing to live in isolation from those whom he calls us to love. But what does that entail?
From some perspectives, it seems irresponsible to give up the privilege that my family has worked hard for. But Jesus doesn’t call us to live responsibly. However, if I want to take this call seriously, does that mean that I have to take a low paying job and live in the inner city? I don’t know. But He calls us to trust and follow him, saying,
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes…Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:22-24)
I desperately want to trust. I want to be that person who goes where God calls them with no resources and then has an awesome testimony about strangers offering them food and shelter. I want my heart to want what God wants, but I find that I am often distracted by what other people tell me I want, like a nice house, a nice car and lots of money. Although this article has focused on my experience, there are many other people out there who are trying to find their own answers as well. The body of Christ is groaning with the aches that come from disciples trying to follow their own unique paths while pursuing faith, hope, love, and justice.
Now is the time where the road splits. Do I (we?) seek a life of comfort, and choose to ignore the problems facing those at the bottom of society, or do I intentionally join in and fight for justice alongside them? How can I follow Jesus’ example, and how do my career and life choices play into that? There are many blogs out there filled with people trying to figure out those same questions, and reading about their way of addressing injustices while trying to follow the crazy, irresponsible love of Jesus gives me hope. Each person has their own problems that they wrestle with, and each story is unique. But threaded throughout each ongoing, unfinished life whose fingers type those blogs, are the testimonies of God’s faithfulness, his transforming power and love, and faith that he will provide despite their questions and trials.
I wish there was a happy ending to this article detailing how someone called me up one day with an offer for a dream job that both fulfilled me and allowed me to seek justice for the poor and brokenhearted. Or some kind of flashing sign indicating where I should live next year. But there isn’t. Yet. I don’t yet know what part I will play in engaging with those forgotten and neglected but I am certain that Jesus’ upside-down kingdom will continue to open my blind eyes and hard heart and question all the “truths” I thought knew. Now that I’ve seen the things I tried to ignore, there’s no turning back now.
1 I also love footnotes and proper citations. Dear editor, please let me leave them in.
2 My parents definitely thought it was a cult. Just to be clear, it is not.
3 Just to clarify, I do indeed mean physical healing.
4 IS. Not was. The Bible is not a boring history book, people. Ahem. Not that history books are boring.
5 Hooray for the Internet and instant communication!
6 I’m not saying that they were all carried out. I ain’t that crazy. But they did cross my mind.
7 I’d also be cool with being the stranger to offer such things. I’m not picky, just a little blind and unaware of others’ needs.