I like to say that I grew up in the “Easy Listening” phase of American Roman Catholicism. We sang “On Eagle’s Wings” with a guitar accompanist and hung felt banners around the sanctuary. My cousins attended a church that had alter girls and interpretive dancers. An opera singer who attended our church was sometimes allowed to lead songs and children regularly got smacked in the back of the head for giggling when she stretched to hit really high, screechy notes. Which was better than when her nightclub singer daughter sang and made us all feel like we should go home and shower after watching her squirm around singing about God and love in breathy tones.
Some of my sisters feel strongly that they were damaged by being forced to attend mass each week at this retro-grade institution. But honestly, my memory is of sermons that could basically be summed up as, “kids, listen to your parents and don’t fight with your siblings. And every one needs to stop trying to run each other over in the parking lot after mass.” For me it was about as benign an introduction to Christianity as you could hope for.
Which isn’t to say that it was entirely content free. Like all good Catholic kiddies, I attended catechism classes every Wednesday night for an hour all through grade school. I have an amazing capacity to completely tune out anything that doesn’t catch my interest, so I don’t have any idea what we did each week. But what I do recall is having to memorize things. We memorized prayers like the Our Father, the Nicene Creed and the prayer for confession. We memorized the 10 commandments, the beatitudes and the various works of mercy. It is entirely possible that we actually talked about what these things we were memorizing meant, but again, I wasn’t really paying attention.
The end result was that I couldn’t have told you why Jesus lived and died, but I did know that he told us to love each other and serve those in need. And as much as I love me some good theology, I’d say I got a better religious education than other kids who could explain penal substitution and use “Roman’s Road” to explain (their version of) the gospel. Not that theology is unimportant, of course. But good theology doesn’t often lead to good praxis (practice of the Christian faith). If it did we’d have a world that was already healed instead of a booming market for evangelism tools like golf balls stamped with John 3:16 on the side.
I would say that it’s been a mistake of the church to concentrate on theology at the expense of praxis. Except I’m not sure “mistake” is even the right word. I think a lot of churches favor theology over praxis because people engaging in good praxis are disruptive. Better to let those odd people who are “called” engage in the heavy lifting of serving others and report back to the rest of the church about it when they show up to ask for money. If everyone were actually visiting the imprisoned or feeding the hungry or learning to be poor, people might not be so receptive to the pastor’s denunciation of “the world”. People who have been to the projects may not be inclined to open their wallets for a new, state-of-the-art sound and light system for the church. It’s much safer to stick to theology, apologetics and rallying the team than it is to have actual feet on the ground and skin in the game.
Yes, I am trying to guilt you (slightly) into actually doing things to help people in need. After all, there are an awful lot of people in need right now – both at home and abroad. But it goes much deeper than that. One of the things which I have come to understand about praxis is that it teaches far more about the world we live in than theology ever could. One of humanity’s greatest problems is that we don’t actually understand how life and people and societies and families work. We think we do. We may even be able to tell you about how they are supposed to work. But frankly, our opinions about the problems we face are pretty much based on jack diddly. Praxis fixes that. And that’s why it’s both so important and so dangerous to the status quo.
It’s easy to forget it in a society where everyone is putatively Christian, but Christianity is a very subversive faith. Jesus’ message took everything people knew was true and turned it on its head. And if we’re following his instructions, the same thing will happen to us – everything we think we know will be turned on its head. All the easy bromides and considered opinions in the world cannot stand up to what happens when you bring yourself into intimate contact and relationship with those who are struggling. And that’s true whether you consider yourself conservative, liberal, libertarian, communist or anything in between. None of them can stand up to coming face-to-face with actual reality. This is what praxis does – it brings us face-to-face with reality.
One of the lists I had to memorize as a kid was the Corporal Works of Mercy:
Feeding the hungry
Visiting the sick.
Visiting the imprisoned.
Clothing the naked.
Providing water to the thirsty.
Harboring the homeless stranger.
If I were made queen of all Christendom, I would require every church to dedicate itself to performing Corporal Works of Mercy for a year and nothing else. I really think it would change the church, make our current political divides meaningless and change the course of history. Because if all churches were dedicated to putting members to work serving those in need, not only would needs be met, but the hearts of those serving would be changed. New solutions would be found. Greater mercy, compassion and responsibility towards those suffering would sprout. It would turn everything upside down.
The list of Corporal Works of Mercy is taken straight from Matthew 25. These are the acts connected to salvation by Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “you sent a check to buy water to quench my thirst” or “you supported a ministry that put bibles in prison libraries.” He says, “you visited me. You clothed me. You fed me. You took me in.” In other words, “you came into contact with me. You spent time with me. You knew me.” And it’s this knowing part, as much as the doing that is missing from most Christian’s lives. We think we know Jesus, but unless we’ve actually done what he tells us to do, we’re just kidding ourselves, frankly.
Even though this list was created 2000 years ago, each one touches on what is a pressing problem for today – poverty, mass imprisonment, a lack of clean water in much of the developing world, displaced people, the sick and dying. All of these issues are things which we in the west have attempted to “fix” over the last 60 years. We’ve spent many billions of dollars on the effort, in fact. And what we’ve learned is mostly that we don’t really know what we’re doing. Which shouldn’t be too surprising since few of us have enough contact with the people we’re trying to help and their situations to have any opinions or ideas that are worth two dead flies.
Now, I’m not saying that sending money can’t be good – after all not all of us can travel to rural India to drill wells. And frankly, much of the work which needs to be done is best left to those who have the needs with us playing a tertiary role. But if all we ever do is send money or prayers from far away while spouting our opinions about how things ought to be done, we’re worse than useless. The fact is if money could solve everything, everything would be solved. But clearly that’s not how it actually works. What we really need are good ideas coming from people who understand the actual issues, context and people in need. Which is the role that Christians ought to be playing since we’re the ones who are supposed to be putting ourselves into regular contact with people in need. The fact that this is not what is happening is an indictment of the church at large. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason the church is finding itself increasingly marginalized is because the time came for us to step forward with answers and we had none that were worth much of anything. We’ve been very busy telling everyone what they are doing wrong but have very little to say about how to actually fix anything. Besides believing the right things.
So, let’s say that you are the average American Christian with not so much cash and a busy life. What sort of things could you be doing? I would say that we need to be looking for opportunities to come into contact with and if possible build relationships with those in need. Don’t just donate to the local food shelf, volunteer to staff it and talk with the people coming in. Call the local jail and ask to be put into contact with the volunteer chaplain. Most prisons have an overworked chaplain who could use help with a bible study or book club. I think that every reasonably well off church should have a sister-church relationship with a church in an impoverished community. Many communities have free meals for anyone who shows up a couple of times a month. Go to those even if you don’t need a free meal. Make a donation to cover your family’s servings and talk with the people there. Ask your pastor if there are any church members who are shut-in that you could arrange to visit for an hour once a week. Ask your pastor, small group – or even just your group of friends to “adopt” a kid coming out of foster care or a single mom in need. If you are the person in need – speak up. Share your story. You are in a better position to serve productively than most people who have never had real needs. (I also think that churches should be sending kids from impoverished backgrounds on missions trips alongside their well-to-do-counterparts. It’s not healthy to always be the one receiving. And they have a lot to offer and learn as well.) Whatever it takes to bring real people with real needs into your life, do it. But be prepared to have your whole way of thinking turned on its head. It’s just what meeting Jesus does to people. Even people who think they already know him just fine.