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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Wednesday
Mar312010

Work as worship - confronting the powerful, caring for the poor

A regular commentor on my blog (thanks Thomas!) left a comment on my post from yesterday.  Here's Thomas' comment:

Hello Dion, On the one hand, I like the holism of your theology. On the other hand, I feel that it does not do justice to the oppressed, from an existential point of view. It offers hope for the future. Yet (to advance just one aspect of this) statistically, hope across the globe fades in so many ways. That is one of the major stumbling-blocks for me. You ain't where the oppressed is, in this moment. Perhaps you could address this in a post sometime.

If I have understood Thomas' concern it is that an approach to 'work as worship' such as the one I espoused in my previous post tends towards addressing the powerful and rich at the expsense of caring for the poor.  If that was the case I would share Thomas' concern!

However, I contend that my theology does not advocate that at all.  Here are a few thoughts that underly my understanding of using our work life as worship in relation to the wealthy, powerful, and the poor.

1.  I agree wholeheartedly that ministry cannot be responsible unless it addresses the plight of the poor.  However, it is a mistake to think that such an orientation, i.e., and orientation towards the poor, must be at the exclusion of addressing the causes of poverty (most often greed among the powerful and rich).

2.  I would say that it is not realistic that every person should be expected to do ministry in all spheres of society all the time.  Thomas, what you may not know is that I served as a minister in South Africa's townships at various stages of my ministry as a Methodist minister (some of these periods were before 1994).  Moreover, I still continue to seek to address and overcome systemic poverty in the role that I currently hold.  I administer two large charitable trusts that do work, and fund work, in economic empowerment, food security, caring for HIV infected persons, caring for AIDS orphans etc.  This probably takes up about a third of my ministry time each week.

3.  If you agree with point 2 above, i.e., that we can't all be expected to minister in all places with equal intention and intensity; or at all levels of society at all times, then the following point needs to be accepted - namely, those who have significant access to the poor (and the systems that abuse and enslave the poor) must effectively and responsibly operate in that area.  But, that would also assume that those who have access to persons in power and access to systems that are powerful in society must engage those systems powerfully and effectively to work for the establishment of Christ's gracious Kingdom of Justice and love from that perspective.

So, if my daily work puts me in place with the poor directly it is likely that my primary ministry activity will be in that space.  However, if my daily work puts me in touch with society and power at another level then I must engage creatively and intentionally for Christ at that level (of course not exclusively!  We must all seek to address various levels of society at various times and in various ways).

I currently have that privilege (and responsibility) because of the ministry position I hold and possibly because of previous publications, research etc.  So, I think that it would irresponsible for me NOT to address the powerful, and systems of power, when I have a chance to do so!

I address this and a few other issues related to wealth, poverty, and ministry through work (and at work) in my new book 'Transform your work life:  Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling'.

That being said, I hear that persons such as myself must always remember why we engage powerful persons and systems - it is for the sake of establishing God's Kingdom that includes all persons.

I have found the following quote from Henri Nouwen quite encouraging (please see the bit in bold if you don't feel like reading the whole quote):

 

Honest direct confrontation is a true expressionof compassion.  As Christians, we are in the world without being of it.  It is precisely this position that renders confrontation possible and necessary.  The illusion of power must be unmasked, idolatry must be undone, oppression and exploitation must be fought, and all who participate in these evils must be confronted.  This is compassion.  

We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty.  We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys.  We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are opressed when we are unwilling to confront the opressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration.

But if confrontation is to be an expression of patient action, it must be humble. Our constant temptation is to fall into self-righteous revenge or self-serving condemnation.  The danger hers is that our own witness can blind us.  When confrontation is tainted by desire for attention, need for revenge, or greed for power, it can easily become self-serving and cease to be compassionate.  - From Compassion: A reflection on the Christian life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison and Henri Nouwen.

I'd love to hear any feedback, and always appreciate constructive input, words of caution and insights that can help to see the Kingdom of Jesus established at every level of society!

Well, to change tack, I am back in South Africa.  We landed this morning after a great flight from Hong Kong.  I am waiting to board my connecting flight to Cape Town.  I have to do a little work this afternoon, but I'm on leave for the following 5 days with my wonderful family!!  Praise be to God!

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks, this is helpful. Still thinking on it (the Easter season is upon me). The answer caught me by surprise (all the better that way).

March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

Hello again Dion.

Firstly, thanks for the illuminating insight into your work. It is indeed a wonderful privilege to be engaged in work like that.

Much theology today of course makes one's service to the poor its touchstone. For example, Howard Snyder: "Whatever else apostolicity may mean, it certainly means incarnating the gospel among the poor. Here, then, is a key test of the church's apostolicity" (2002:27). The meaning is perhaps not perfectly clear here, but it seems to indicate some radical ministrare. Interestingly, when, for an assignment, I sought to establish how Snyder himself was incarnating the gospel among the poor, I drew a blank. :-)

At the start of your post, you refer to "caring for the poor", which on the surface of it suggested to me a concern for their circumstances (I feel uneasy about the their/our/my distinction). This seems to be supported by a definition of "compassion" further down. Yet "compassion" here leaves me uneasy. It suggests that the helper IS not the poor, that the helper is privileged. I once asked a Church what they were doing for the poor. They looked astonished. They said, "We ARE the poor." I asked them what others were doing for THEM -- as they were poor -- and they said nothing whatsoever. I would suspect that this is mostly the case across the world.

Here lies my concern. Accepted, the work of many Christians is a great blessing to society, to the oppressed, to the poor. Yet it is a losing battle. The succour that is actually reaching the poor is not merely dwindling but fleeing away. Vast attempts to stem this are surprisingly impotent. If it is the case that compassion is the answer, then we have a problem of helplessness of a grand order. We are "the empty-handed", said Jayakumar Christian (1999:219). And interestingly, my American colleagues interpreted Christian as referring to the POOR by speaking of "the empty-handed" -- not to the helper (or to both), as I believe is the case.

Teilhard de Chardin, a precursor of a great groundswell of theology today, considered what we are to make of the suffering of the poor, of suffering in general. He replied: “Necessarium est ut scandala eveniant” (1959:340). “Suffering and failure, tears and blood: so many by-products ... begotten by the noosphere on its way.” (:341). Which of course (the noosphere) has to do with neuroscience. :-) However, I quote Chardin as an example of where his presuppositions take him: regrettably there are by-products, that is all.

The point is, and I hope I do not put this too bluntly: what use is theology or its related praxis if it is only of use to those who can be helped -- who are a dwindling minority? Does it have application to those who cannot be served through "compassion" as quoted. In fact the quote at the end of your post would seem to give a nod to the problem, in a way that might delight deconstructionists. What if all one has is "fruitless commiseration"? And yet that hits the point exactly. It is the core question I think. One may speak of the FUTURE as a comfort, yet what is that but fruitless commiseration? "Pie in the sky," as they say.

Anyway, I hope I have succeeded in illuminating my original comment -- a problem I see in a certain form of theology -- but also in revealing that I have not wished to diminish your own work in any way.

With kind regards,
Thomas.

April 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

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