Changing the Story of Change: God Chooses New Protagonists

I’m only a bit of the way through the latest Geez magazine and I just read an article that I’ve been meaning to mention now for a while.  Nate Buchanan in Changing the Story of Change: God Chooses New Protagonists helps reevaluate a gospel that centers on those of privilege to help those in need.  He thinks it’s a faulty model keeping the same people of power and spotlight and keeping the story about them.  He picks apart the New Monasticism movement a bit and suggests that they don’t go far enough.

The essence of the New Monasticism movement is articulated by and for people like me, not for single welfare moms.  The model envisioned by members of the movement is of God sending a prophet to t he suburbs to mobilize a great social movement, whereas in the Gospels, Jesus seems to head to the the equivalent of battered women’s shelters, gay pride rallies and drug corners to mobilize his movement.  That’s where is begins

I think Nate is onto something here.  While commendable,  I find that plenty of thinking of the poor and the marginalized are still usually very selfish.  It is all about how WE can help them, or how we can clear our conscious, or how we can make time for someone less fortunate.  There is still a slight sense of exploitation going on.  I see it all the time with our ideas about how we can help the poor compared to when we actually do help them.  It’s fun to talk about and even plan up great ideas, but actually getting down to the task means thinking ahead to plan a meal, not making plans with friends one night or putting yourself or family in danger.  In the end it just usually isn’t worth it, so we slowly back out of it and do something a little more comfortable, like throw money in an offering bucket.

The social workers in Sarnia have been really pushing a new system for working alongside of those in poverty.  It’s called Circles.  It’s one of the first ideas that I have seen that doesn’t create the regular hierarchical models of the needy and the person meeting the need.  This program puts 14 families in generational poverty together along with twenty-eight middle class families and links them together in teams.  Each team is led by the family coming from generational poverty and the middle class are there to support, learn and be challenged.  You don’t even know who is who when you walk into the room.  You are just a person there to learn and help make communities better.  I find it to be one of the best run programs that I know about and it seems to be working great here in Sarnia (more to come on this program later).

I think it is crucial that when speaking of those who we think are poor, we also remember that we are poor.  To live life out of any other reality will lead to pride and self-centeredness.  The poor aren’t there for the wealthy to appease their conscious by helping them.  The poor aren’t there because they need help becoming not poor.  Those that are poor are just living outwardly something that we all are inwardly.  Those that are poor have more to teach us about true life than we may no.

This is why I don’t think helping the poor once a week is really a viable option.  The only option is to become poor alongside of them and live our lives with them, not to make them more like us.  The only way the poor/rich barriers will be broken down is if people refuse to see a fence and live their lives in both worlds seamlessly because there is nothing different between them.  For as long as we are “helping them” from a distance we will never live life with them.  By doing that we are refusing to acknowledge their humanness.  The only way to truely live out our calling to bring the gospel to the poor is to live among them and become like them.  Anything else is to treat them like a disease that is trying to be cured.

7 Comments

  • i haven’t posted a comment on your site for a long time…but i was just curious…after reading lines like:

    “I see it all the time with our ideas about how we can help the poor compared to when we actually do help them. It’s fun to talk about and even plan up great ideas, but actually getting down to the task means thinking ahead to plan a meal, not making plans with friends one night or putting yourself or family in danger. In the end it just usually isn’t worth it, so we slowly back out of it and do something a little more comfortable, like throw money in an offering bucket.”

    and

    “The only option is to become poor alongside of them and live our lives with them, not to make them more like us.”

    why did you opt to write a blog post about how we should become poor? why not just shut your blog down and become poor (whatever, that means)?

  • I think its complicated and that our pursuits to “help the poor” are more like attempts to bandage ourselves up. While I don’t claim to know what the hell I’m talking about, I do think that some of the steps I’ve taken have been intentional steps to actually live among and with those who are normally abandoned by the empire. I don’t think this is a process that is done overnight, I think rather that my life has changed direction and is now going this way as opposed to it being cold turkey and all of sudden I’ve done it.

    The point of this post is to point out our failed attempts to appease our own conscience for helping the poor and pushing us to abandon these attempts in favour of choosing a lifestyle that embodies becoming poor.

    And what does me shutting down my blog have to do with becoming poor? Don’t be bitter that I can keep up a blog and you can’t ;)

  • true, i confess that you are able to keep up a blog, and as of yet, i am not. [darryl begins to clap…slowly]

    the only reason i raised the question in the first place is because while taking steps to ‘actually’ live among the poor, whether they be intentional or not, it still is not becoming poor. and so your critique of people ‘talking’ about helping the poor and not actually helping the poor, becomes repeated, instead this time, it is talk about becoming poor, but not actually becoming poor.

    and the reason i dragged the blog into all of this is because to afford the luxury of being able to ponder and dare i say wrestle with such philosophical questions, as opposed to actually being poor and worrying about basic your needs or the basic needs of your children, just exemplifies the same situation of talking about ideas but not actually doing them.

    but perhaps we need to define what it means to choose to become poor. because its one thing to be poor and have no choice in the matter, it is an entirely different thing to choose to be poor, and what would that entail?

  • The point, I think, is intention. Are you working with the poor to appease guilt or are you working with the poor to become more like them and because you actually believe Jesus is there. Depending on where we lie will determine where we end up.

    I was not trying to focus on a lazy person who talks too much and doesn’t do anything (though I did mention it). So if this post was strictly about talking and not doing, then yes your comment has a leg.

    However, the focus is trying to realign our perspective of the poor and of ourselves. You’re right though, that choosing to be poor or forced to be are entirely different things, and will certainly change the way we should approach it.

  • Just a few comments,

    “For as long as we are “helping them” from a distance we will never live life with them.” This is true, but it’s just as true that “we will never live life with them” if we help them from close-up *yet* view it as *us* helping them. I’ve just finished reading a book on giving by Volf and he talks about the fact that even when we give it’s really God giving through us. So even in the act of giving, we are a vessel.

    “The only way to truely live out our calling to bring the gospel to the poor is to live among them and become like them. Anything else is to treat them like a disease that is trying to be cured.” I’m not totally sold on this, yet I don’t disagree. I’m just not sure that we can prescribe what the the Gospel looks like in every situation. Also, if “we’re” bringing the Gospel to “them”, doesn’t that perpetuate the problem you’re highlighting?

    JT.

  • Yeah, you and Darryl are both right, it’s next to impossible for me to talk about this stuff without constantly contradicting myself in my terms. Frig.

  • I think it’s also pretty easy to beat ourselves up over what our intention is, and I know that mine is generally selfish despite an attempt for it not to be (the very act of trying to not be selfish may not even be possible…?), but if in some way the act truly is helpful, then isn’t that better than nothing? If I donate food, time, or money, and it truly benefits someone else, regardless of what my intentions were, I think that’s gotta be better than doing nothing.

    That said, Nathan, I do think that at the very least perceived intention is important; if you can afford to give someone something that they need, and do so in a courteous manner, then they can better leave the “transaction” with self-respect (be it food, money, time, whatever). Just becoming more educated (as Bridges out of Poverty does) and knowing better why people are in the situations they are in gives us more opportunity to do that…

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