[What follows is the transcript of the talk I gave today at the weekly chapel service held by my school.]
In the summer of 2004, when I first came to Regent, there was a homeless man named Ross who used to visit the college. Sometimes he would be sleeping on one of the couches. Other times he could be found asking people for change as they emerged from chapel services like this one.
The administration at Regent didn’t appear to be too fond of Ross. Several times I watched as he was kicked out and told not to come back again.
However, there were others of us at Regent who developed relationships with Ross – we got to know him and we were befriended by him. Ross was a gentle giant without a violent bone in his body. A fellow with a wonderful sense of mischief.
Thus, although the administration of Regent may have been relieved, a small group of us were thrown into mourning when, in July of 2005, Ross was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
After Ross died, Regent began implementing its recently completed building program. I watched as workers took the big old comfy couches out of the Atrium and replaced them with smaller, less inviting couches. Couches that wouldn’t tempt homeless fellows to sneak in for a nap. I don’t know if they did this deliberately, but deliberate or not, Regent has become a place that is less and less inviting for those on the margins who often frequent the grounds of UBC.
Thus, I would argue that the loss of Ross has left Regent with an open wound. The poor are no longer with us, and I can’t help but wonder if the absence of the poor signals an absence of the Spirit of the God who is found in and amongst the poor. Watching the homeless vanish from Regent, I am reminded of Ezekiel watching the Shekinah depart from the Temple. An equally symbolic event, signalling what happens when the people of God pursue trajectories that are counter to God’s desires. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is, in fact, the case. I’m just wondering if it is.
Because, you see, Regent likes to brand itself as a sort of radical Christian institution. It has the reputation for being on the cutting-edge of living ‘missionally’ or ‘incarnationally’ (or whatever) in the world. Regent brands itself as an institution concerned with helping Christians to be agents of God’s new creation and, inevitably, this means that it has a reputation for being more concerned with issues related to love and justice than other academic institutions.
However, when I look at how Regent actually embodies its own rhetoric, I am fairly disappointed. What I seem to observe at Regent is a focus on justice that is about guilt-free consumption, and not any sort of justice that is driven by God’s call to solidarity with the abandoned and the marginalised.
Thus, for example, Regent spends millions of dollars building a wind tower so that we don’t feel guilty about the energy we consume. Or, to provide another example, Regent students hold miniature farmers’ markets in the Atrium so that we don’t feel guilty about the food we consume. Or, to provide a third example, we have an artist construct a tree out of paper cups and place it in the Atrium, so that we are reminded to recycle and don’t feel guilty about the ‘fairtrade’ coffee we consume. And so on and so forth. The point being that all of these things are things that brand Regent as a ‘radical’ institution with an emphasis upon justice issues.
However, to me this focus upon just-consumption seems like it is still a long way away from the sort of justice that Scripture tells us should define the people of God. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good start, but it is far from being ‘radical’ (if we even care to use that language) and it is a far cry from what the Lord requires.
Of course, that Regent should go this road isn’t too surprising as the Eco-justice and so-called ‘counter-cultural’ movements are increasingly trendy these days, and are especially popular in a city like Vancouver. Furthermore, for Evangelicals, who were often raised with an other-worldly and fragmented spirituality, a restoration of a focus upon creation, and the just care thereof, is important. I get that.
However, it is worth asking ourselves why Regent, and others in our culture, are so eager to jump onto the Eco-Justice bandwagon, while simultaneously neglecting other fundamental elements of justice which are focused upon the broken bodies, hearts, and minds of our abandoned neighbours – say the poor in the two-thirds world, or the HIV+ folk in the downtown eastside, or the binners just around the corner from us.
Personally, I suspect that Eco-Justice is so much more hip than other forms of justice because it requires little of us but offers us a lot in return. Thus, it costs me nothing to to throw my paper cup in a recycling bin instead of a garbage can, but the pay-off is that I can then feel righteous (i.e. just) about what I did. In fact, I can even feel superior to others by acting in this way – and what is true of individuals at Regent, is true of Regent as an institution. Pursuing Eco-Justice is a relatively easy thing to do, but it pays off big in the boost that it gives to Regent’s brand status.
Speaking of Regent’s brand status, it is worth exploring another strategic marketing claim that Regent makes. Regent advertises itself as an ‘international’ school – hence, it’s obessession with flying flags at various events throughout the year. However, when you actually examine the demographics of Regent’s students, staff, and faculty, you quickly learn that Regent is, in fact, a ‘Western’ school. Therefore, given that the vast majority (70%) of Christians today live in the two-thirds world, and given that the vast majority of Christians at Regent are from the West, we must ask ourselves: is this just? Further, is it just for Regent to make the claim that is is serving the international body of Christ?
Unfortunately, a wholistic approach to justice isn’t nearly so easy as all of the acts of self-branding described above. Now, let me be clear, of what we are speaking about here. Fundamentally, the Christian approach to justice is about restoring right relationships – between people and God, between people and people, and between people and things – within the reign of God. However, lest we lose perspective, the Scriptures are adament that our approach to these things must be one that prioritises the disempowered, the marginalised, the abandoned and the oppressed. Hence, the Deuteronomic focus upon widows, orphans, and resident aliens; hence, the protest of the prophets against those who grind the faces of the poor; hence, Jesus’ liberating practice of exorcism and healing which restored people into right relationships within their communities; hence, Paul’s own movement into marginality based upon the vision of Christ in Phil 2, and the centrality he gives to an international collection on behalf of the poor in Jerusalem; hence James’ definition of true religion; hence, John’s condemnation of an empire that feeds off of the blood of weaker nations (much like Canada, the United States, and the other Western nations so well represented at Regent). Do you get my point? What I am speaking about today is not simply my personal soapbox; rather, it is a call that runs through the entire biblical narrative – a call to all members of the people of God.
And this is hard work. Trying to move into solidarity with the marginalised and the abandoned, as agents of God’s new creation, is a very difficult and costly thing to do. So, for the most part, we don’t do it. Instead, we at Regent employ the rhetoric of justice and radicality, even as we continue to live the lives of privileged students and tenured professors. In this way, our ideology blinds us to the fact that, for the most part, we as individuals and as an institution, are just as apathetic, and just as complicit in the structures of sin and oppression, as everybody else. In this way, the rhetoric of justice is perverted and placed in the service of the unjust status quo – which, by the way, is ruled over by the joint Powers of Sin and Death.
Of course, as those who proclaim the Lordship of Jesus, this should trouble us a great deal. We are, after all, those who are called out from the service of Sin and Death, and called into the kingdom of God with its concomitant practices of love justice, hospitality, generosity, and the downward mobility which defines the Way of Jesus Christ.
What, then, are we at Regent to do?
I reckon we could begin by repenting – both in word and in deed – because the kingdom of God is at hand, and has been at hand for quite some time.
I reckon, as a part of our repentance we could begin to focus less on our brand status, and more on what it means to actually live as members of the global body of Christ.
I reckon, as a part of our repentance, we also could re-evaluate our values, and re-examine the deployment of our resources. Does it make sense to spend millions on building expansions while charging students $1200 per course? Doesn’t this limit the student body to a wealthy minority of Christians or, alternatively, drive a good many students into debt? Is encouraging our student body to participate in societal cycles of debt and bondage consistent with the notion of equipping Christians to live as members of God’s new creation?
I reckon, as a part of our repentence, we could also begin a series of conversations at Regent – conversations between students, staff, faculty, board members, and donors – that explore these things and ask the questions: “How do we live Christianly as an academic institution in today’s world?” and “What does genuine Christian education look like?”
Or we could walk away from this chapel – as individuals and as an institution – and not do anything. It’s up to us. This service is simply issuing an invitation to conversion. It is up to all of us to choose what we will do with that invitation. Will we continue to take our place amongst the wealthy and privileged members of wealthy and privileged societies, or will we choose to root ourselves in the communion of the Saints – that great cloud of witnesses who have abandoned all things in order to faithfully follow Jesus into the groaning places of the world?
The fact of the matter is this: if we walk away from this chapel feeling as though we, or Regent, are committed to justice, simply because we attended a chapel Regent hosted on the theme of justice, then today will have done more harm than good. Such a response would reduce this chapel to a pornographic event wherein stimulation takes the place of genuine participation in real, and loving, action. Let us not confuse talking about justice with the actions and type of being that the God of justice requires.
Furthermore, this chapel could be interpreted as a presentation composed by special interest groups at Regent, suggesting that ‘social justice’ is something that the rest of us are free to walk away from. This is not the case, and such a response would reduce this chapel to a voyeuristic event, wherein observation takes the place of genuine participation in real, and loving, action.
The truth is that we are all called to partake in the work of God’s restorative justice within the world. That each new generation of Christians needs to (re)learn this lesson, simply shows how deeply immersed we are in structures of sin and selfishness. Thankfully, it also shows that God’s gracious and liberating invitation to us is new every morning. Therefore, it is better to think of today as a time when seed has been scattered. Some has probably fallen on stony soil; some has probably fallen on amongst thorns; but I hope that some has fallen into the soil that produces fruit.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us, sinners. Amen.