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ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Immigration, from One Evangelical to Another Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to tell you about a wonderful family our congregation has come to know and love. They migrated to San Francisco from south of the border at great risk to themselves, a long and perilous journey. Like so many others, they did so because the economic conditions in their homeland had become so bad that they could no longer meet basic needs.They entered the United States without proper documentation, not out of irresponsibility but, on the contrary, in response to the needs of their loved ones. Although they’ve pieced together a livelihood, month to month, for several years now, they live in constant fear. Under our current enforcement policies, families like theirs are being precipitously torn apart, children separated indefinitely from their parents, husbands from their wives. A kindergartner at my child’s school suffers from the trauma of having been held in a Houston detention facility for months, thousands of miles away from his mother. I listened recently to a family testify about federal agents entering their home under false pretenses, being told “Shut up, you f**king immigrants!” and hearing the screams of one family member who was handled with enough force to necessitate hospitalization. The stories my Arizona friends tell me are worse. Their sheriff erected electrified pens, tent cities to detain thousands of immigrants last year. He has

reinstituted “chain gangs” for men, women, and youth, sometimes marching them down the streets for public display. Just a few weeks ago, I heard that a mother of eight, suffering from diabetes, was thrown in jail simply for not having papers. My friend, there are countless stories, in my city and yours, whether or not we dare to hear them. They are chilling stories of human cruelty that, regardless of where you or I might sit on the political spectrum, should bring us both to our knees before Jesus to seek his mind, heart, and marching orders for his church in such a time as this.

As followers of Christ, we are not constrained by the confines of political messaging. As you may be aware, the national conversation about “comprehensive immigration reform” has been stirring, and the pundits and spin doctors are getting busy. But as followers of Christ, we are not constrained by the confines of political messaging. We know that the wisdom of man is the foolishness of God. And though we may have already learned to tune out the vitriolic banter of talking-head media, we must insist on going deeper, being careful, as Colossians warns, that no one take us captive through human philosophy or empty deception. Friend, we must be prepared to hear those who will dismiss our call to “welcome the stranger” as well-meaning but naïve, at which point we must say, “You are right. A Christian response to immigration is not about compassion as much as it is about allegiance — to a God who sees his world and its inhabitants very differently than we do.” If we consider the God of Genesis 1 abundance, or the Jesus who bewilderingly multiplies loaves

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and fishes, then the politics of scarcity (e.g. “It’s good to be charitable, but we simply can’t absorb all these immigrants!”) suddenly begins to lose its power. We can also anticipate silence about the economic plight of our neighbors to the south (and east), for people — you and I included — are reluctant to discover our collective culpability for our neighbor’s misery, especially if redress might come at the cost of our material comfort. Allegiance to the self-emptying Christ of Philippians, who calls us to look beyond our own interests, suggests that turning a blind eye to current international trade policies, which reinforce another nation’s poverty, is profoundly unchristian. We can probably assume that we will not agree on many of the fine points of immigration reform policy, a truly complex endeavor. But we can agree that when dehumanization prevails in our own backyard, we must be willing to ask ourselves if “submitting to our authorities” has more to do with convenience than obedience. Jesus calls us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Perhaps our problem is that we’ve failed to give attention to what actually belongs to God. Friend, as we engage in the debate surrounding the current immigration crisis, let us commit to asking better questions — ones that begin with God and nothing else. Not the economy. Not our national security. Not our environment. Not our family’s welfare. Only our God. And let’s do this together, shall we? n Craig Wong (onbeingthechurch@gum.org) is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based non-profit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. Some resources on immigration can be found at www.gum.org/immigration.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

How Glenn Beck Helps Us with “Social Justice”

admonishment. Politically, if one can assume that the content of talk shows of this genre is indeed politically calculated, the move seems rather reckless, given the growing number of conservative-leaning evangelical megachurches actively addressing AIDS, human trafficking, climate change, poverty, and other concerns that can be considered “justice issues.”While Social justice is the forced redistribution it is likely that some Fox viewers were of wealth with a hostility toward offended, it would appear that the priindividual property rights under the mary objective was to further divide and guise of charity or justice. conquer the church ideologically by canGlenn Beck, Premier Radio Networks onizing freedom from government as an article of faith. Indeed, Beck is generous The earth is the Lord’s in his clarity when he asserts that the term and everything in it. “justice,” or even “charity,” is merely a Psalm 24:1 guise for the forced distribution of wealth “with a hostility toward individual propIf you were spared, perhaps mercifully, erty rights.” the nationally aired debacle over “social As a father of four children, all within justice” in March, let me quickly recap six years of each other, I can relate to this it for you. Fox News personality Glenn hostility. Sharing does not come natuBeck used both his syndicated radio rally. I’ve endured many years of “Mine!,” show and his weekday television show to admonish Christians to flee any church, priest, or pastor that utilized the phrase “social justice” because, according to his logic, it is code language for “communism or Nazi-ism.” The anticipated “I had it first!,” “She grabbed it from me!,” backlash, at least as covered by the main- “How come he has two?,” and “Give that stream media, was as immediate as it was back!” The litany goes on, whether it prolific. Several religious leaders from revolves around toys, candy, or time on the across the ecumenical spectrum spoke video game console. The native instinct up in defense of social justice, a notion is to acquire, possess, protect, and accuthey explained to be a central tenet of mulate more. It is wearying to play the their faith. Leading the countercharge was arbiter for property cases, especially for Sojourner’s Rev. JimWallis, who respond- a group with 24 possible relational pered with an exhortation to the faithful mutations. But what makes the existence “to leave Glenn Beck” in the same way of these grievances most irksome is the that one would leave a show (or a church) fact that my kids don’t really “own” the that promoted or condoned pornogra- stuff they have to begin with.They assume phy. Beck then called Wallis a Marxist, they have a right to the things that my and so on. wife and I have given them to use, to While many were quick to weigh in enjoy, to share. on the theologically and intellectually Thus, Beck’s line in the sand helps us vacuous dimensions of Beck’s comments, by forcing important theological quesit behooves us to go beyond a visceral tions for the church. As Christians, how response and consider the goal of his are we to understand “individual property

rights” in light of the One we worship, the God who owns the earth and everything in it? How do policies that focus on the rights of “individuals” fit within, or compromise, the grand Genesis design of creation that appears to thrive on a diversity and interdependence that is also powerfully captured in the body theology of the Pauline epistles? What does it mean for us to live by grace (i.e. everything I have has been graciously given to me) in a society entrenched in a culture of rights and entitlement? Finally, Beck challenges our definition of “social justice.” It’s important to note that one will not find this phrase in any Bible word search in any translation. It simply doesn’t exist in the Bible, and for one simple reason:“social justice,” theologically speaking, is a redundancy. In other words, the Hebrew word for justice, zedakah, also used for “righteousness,” has to do with living rightly before God and, consequently, with one another. In a word,

“Social justice,” theologically speaking, is a

redundancy. Biblical justice is inherently social.

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biblical justice is inherently social. And because it is social, it goes way beyond notions of retribution, punishment, or material “fairness.” It is about the restoring and healing of relationships, community, wellbeing — in a word, shalom.This is a notion of justice that Americans, on either side of the ideological spectrum, are incapable of discussing, let alone living. And because they can’t, it is imperative that we do. Q Craig Wong (onbeingthechurch@gum.org) is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. Some resources on immigration can be found at www.gum.org/immigration.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Deliver Us from American Exceptionalism

intimidation, scandal, or Diebold shenanigans. The concession speech was honorably delivered before the strike of midnight and with a transcendent message: “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of [Booker T. Washington’s] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the “The far-reaching, the boundless future will presidency of the United States. Let there be the era of American greatness. In its mag- be no reason now for any American to nificent domain of space and time, the nation fail to cherish their citizenship in the of many nations is destined to manifest to greatest nation on earth.” However, this rather victorious dismankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever play of our prized democracy, encourdedicated to the worship of the Most High.” aging as it was, served to deodorize the foul smell of a particularly ugly election John O’ Sullivan, year. Ugly is when a political opponent journalist who inspired America’s is cast as a “terrorist,” and ignorant citimanifest destiny, 1839 zens are allowed to believe it’s true. Ugly “I still believe that America is the last best is when the association of “terrorist” with “Arab” or “Muslim” is left publicly hope on earth.” unchallenged in order to retain voters Barack Obama, (including cruel and frightful bigots). 2008 Ugly is when a reputable community “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive organization, i.e., ACORN, is made a scapegoat for the mortgage crisis…or ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” when all community organizers are dis1 John 1:8 missed, on national television by a political candidate, as irrelevant slackers Professional football commentator John that lack “actual responsibilities.” Ugly Madden often points out that “victory is when the political calculus elevates is a great deodorant” for football squads image over substance, let alone fundathat otherwise stink it up during a par- mental competence. Ugly is when one’s ticular game. Sloppy defense, multiple governing record is reinterpreted to interceptions, and poor play-calling have woo or, as the Bible would say, deceive a way of evaporating when the team man- a gullible and itchy-eared voting bloc. That the democracy we love to tout ages to eek out the win.The deodorant of victory temporarily suppresses an unde- so easily resorts to lies, deception, scapesirable stench…without actually eliminat- goating, and lowbrow pandering—while burning over a billion dollars on highing its source. Such can be said about this institu- powered marketing strategies—should be tion we call “American democracy” at the sobering. Like the repulsive, slimy creaculmination of the 2008 election season. tures I’d find under the rocks in my Whether Republican or Democrat, the backyard as a child, the 2008 presidential general electorate (not to mention the race once again exposes our moral ugliwatching world) marveled as record ness, our profound need for deliverance. numbers flocked to the polling stations We as an electorate are stripped of any without violent incident or reports of presumption of innocence or being excep-

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tional in any way—other than, perhaps, being exceptionally deluded. Of greatest concern for the rest of the world, however, is the way post-9/11 America has become exceptionally barbaric. As one Iraqi put it, “You have shown us your violence. Now show us your liberation!” Such cries are echoed by brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, who watch helplessly as women and children are killed by US-led airstrikes. Whether in Syria, Pakistan, or on the African continent, the US national security apparatus continues its “forward strategy” of unilateral and preemptive action with diminishing regard for the sovereignty of other nations.We torture in secret prisons. And for immigrants, whether they are political or economic refugees (and not only from Mexico or Latin America), the US has become a hostile land where the “tired, poor, and huddled masses” are arrested and detained in brand new, Halliburton-constructed detainment facilities. Therefore, as the church, we must resist the obligatory, inaugural message of American exceptionalism, the enduring myth that our nation has somehow been divinely appointed as a force of good in the world. True change—that is, the transformation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection—cannot be demonstrated for a sinful and deluded people if our hope remains shackled to systems and institutions driven by greed and backed by violence. Let us be, for our new president and the watching world, a visible reminder that the last, best hope on earth is vested not in a nation-state, but in the Eucharist. n Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Eschatological Spending Habits America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) The disciples said, “Send the crowd away… we have no more than five loaves and two fishes!”…Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke them.Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people.They all ate and were satisfied. Luke 9:16-17

from this discovery, they are left to fend for themselves in a ruthlessly competitive world of finite resources. In other words, in a godless world he who hesitates is lost. Thus, I’ve been intrigued recently by the teachings of the late Ayn Rand, the 20th-century champion of the free market and vehement polemicist against the welfare state. Her unabashed defense of the pursuit of self-interest as the highest human virtue produced best-selling books and captured the attention of the business elites (e.g. Alan Greenspan) of rising postwar global capitalism. Her bold views, however, drew scathing criticism and compelled many to temper their association with her school of thought, which, for them, uncomfortably bordered on the veneration of greed. It is difficult to know what Rand would think about high-level managers

In an era of economic malaise, it behooves the church to embody a Christ-fed community where As parents of four young children, we get to observe on a regular basis the human no one is in want. proclivity for self-serving, immediate gratification. Left to their raw instincts, our little ones ask, “How do I get mine and get it now?” Whether it’s commandeering the computer, consuming the last slice of pie, or appropriating their “video game privileges” before doing their homework, the wheels of ingenuity churn with ruthless efficiency in an attempt to hoodwink or otherwise manipulate Mommy and Daddy into giving them what they want. I don’t like to consider how often they succeed. If our biblical theology is correct, however, such behavior should be of no surprise to the Christian who believes that, because of the Fall, our sinful condition commenced at birth. Children inherently begin as morally deficient creatures who, while initially dependent on their parents, have yet to discover their ultimate dependence on a Creator. Apart

being awarded an aggregate $18.4 billion in bonuses (at taxpayers’ expense) in the throes of a recession, but one can assume that she would applaud the “productive genius” of those who can amass wealth in the midst of economic chaos. Like eschatologically misguided evangelicals who justify consuming the world’s resources without restraint because “it’s all going to burn up in the end anyway,” the well-resourced exercise their liberty and prowess to get theirs and get it now. Such supply-side habits go far to explain the post-9/11 rush to seize Persian oil fields; privatize the military; and disguise, bundle, and peddle doomed mortgages to an unsuspecting, international bond market.The house is crumbling. Pity the unfortunate. Take the money and run. I didn’t have to study Ayn Rand, however, to develop opportunistic impulsPRISM 2009

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es that reinforce the delusion that I am self-made and self-determined. Although I am in “Christian ministry,” I’ve been confronted recently by my loving wife and pastors who have helped to surface my unhealthy insistence on being the master of my own economy. I want to be in control of my “investment portfolio” and parlay my gifts and resources in ways that end up serving my own ends over that of the congregation…or of my family. The feeding of the 5,000, therefore, serves as a humbling corrective. The disciples have strong opinions about what they think is the best course of action for the hungry masses, especially given their limited resources. Their vision is small, confined by the need to serve out of their own strength. It is when they yield themselves—and their meager resources—in obedience to Christ that they are able to taste, and enter into, a kingdom that shatters the confines of a fallen world. When Jesus stands at the center of ministry, the triumphal hope of the eschaton is made visible now. As the Obama administration attempts to further deficit-spend (albeit at both ends of the ladder) our way out of economic malaise, it behooves American congregations to embody and proclaim an entirely different reality—a Christ-fed community where no one is in want. This being our vision, the small things suddenly matter: the cooking of meals, the sharing of belongings, tending to the sick, and availing one’s gifts—and frailties—to the whole. Spending ourselves in Christ, in each other, and in his world, we can demonstrate to beggar and banker alike that another world is possible. n Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Our Witness of Undividedness Be ye undivided, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is undivided. Matthew 5:48, paraphrased by Jack Bernard in How to Become a Saint (Brazos Press, 2007) A fellow congregant and I recently found ourselves in the midst of a furor at our children’s middle school where, as parents, we serve on the “site council,” the committee ostensibly responsible for overseeing the school’s academic priorities and budget. Without warning or solicitation of community input, the district announced that a charter high school was going to be co-located at our facility, wresting away the entire third floor of our building. “This is an outrage!” cried the school community, my friend and I among the throng. We soon learned that this closeddoor decision stemmed from California’s Proposition 39, a statewide ballot initiative that was promoted and bankrolled by Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, an ardent evangelist of the then-fledgling charter school movement. Proposition 39 had passed in 2000, and Hastings was appointed to head the California State Board of Education that same year.This confluence resulted in an educational reform policy that gave charter schools a huge legal boost: the power to demand and procure available building space within public school districts. In predictable fashion, this flawed policy pits charter schools against traditional schools in divisive fights for space. Like all forms of sin, dividedness leads to dividedness, and a spirit of “us” versus “them” manifested itself in various ways at our school. For many, it was

easy to vilify the district administrators as cowards for kowtowing to demands of Proposition 39, written or not, for fear of lawsuit. For others, disdain arose for a principal who could have done more to defend his school. Between the two schools, reticence fostered an air of mutual suspicion.The middle school kids viewed the high school students as invaders. And district officials dismissed the parents as fearful, territorial, or smallminded. This last judgment was particularly offensive to those of us who, in the name of social justice, brought the fight directly to the local board of education. All our pushing and striving, even when well intended, makes us aware of the dividedness within ourselves. As Christians, when in the midst of such “battles” as the one at my child’s school, examining our motives serves to reveal the source of our hope. Once, in a moment

“In your advocacy work, are you hoping to bear witness...or to win?” of advocacy fatigue, I remember asking my late pastor, Bob Appleby, “How do I know if I’m investing more time and energy than is fruitful?” He responded with characteristic pastoral insight: “Well, are you hoping to bear witness…or to win?” This humbling question, which I remember finding difficult to answer at the time, required that I come to grips with the fact that I could be worshipping Christ with my lips while taking matters into my own hands. Lord, have mercy upon this divided heart! The desire to receive God’s mercy, in fact, sat at the heart of our church’s recent “season of Jubilee,” a significant moment in our history that provided an important alternative picture to the one that had played out at the school. Our pastors recognized that while, after 25 PRISM 2009

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years of life together, there was much to celebrate, there were also debts to be forgiven, liens to be cancelled, accounts to be wiped clean. There were patterns of relating that had become lifeless or indeed destructive, whether between leaders and the general congregation, among members, or among the pastors themselves. During a time of corporate confession, a subtle yet real divide was exposed— between those in the congregation who largely stood in judgment of others and those who had long ago gone into hiding for fear of judgment. Also exposed were the ways we had come to pigeonhole each other, or indeed ourselves, a sin that resulted in squelching the wealth of gifts and testimonies we could offer to one another. Perhaps most importantly, we recognized ways we had become too certain about ourselves, our gospel, or what it means to be the church, ways that foster division not only within our own ranks but also from those who sit outside. We had to rekindle our first love, say yes to Jesus once again, and relearn what it means to be children in his presence— and in the world. Such seasons of renewal remind us that a hopelessly divided world will remain without hope if we, the church, remain divided as well. Indeed, engagement in the world, as it is in the church, is more often than not messy and unpredictable. Nevertheless, despite our sin and flaws, we are called by Christ to be in these places. Set apart for Christ’s purposes, trusting only in Christ, we are given grace to live miraculously undivided, a shining witness to a world yearning for unity. n Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Peak Optimism “I’m asking you to believe, not just in my ability to bring about real change inWashington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.” Barrack Obama “We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.” John McCain “Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” Psalm 146:3 Do you believe the country is moving in the right direction? In the 30-plus years that the Washington Post has asked Americans this question, the percentage of respondents who say “yes” has never been lower. While the wealthy tend to be considerably more optimistic than the poor, the current overall figure of 14 percent is impressive—given a three-decade stretch that has given us the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, an energy crisis, two recessions, the Iran hostage crisis, and other reasons to despair. And while Democrats predictably assess the situation less positively than their partisan counterparts, only a quarter of all Republicans contend that the nation is on the right track. Social scientists who make a living tracking the national mood typically observe upswings in election years as Americans sniff the hope of change.This year, however, the electorate seems considerably bleaker about the future.Voters may feel strongly about who the next president should be (as do I, by the way), but not with much expectation of substantive change. Such record-setting, bipartisan gloom is probably disorienting for those accus-

tomed to labeling the disconcerted as unpatriotic and anti-American. Indeed, David Frum, the president’s neoconservative speechwriter during the September 11th season, railed on fellow conservatives for doubting the nation’s course, accusing them, essentially, of treason:“War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose, too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.” It makes one wonder what Frum’s social circles look like these days, as the breadth of conservatives, let alone those “pessimistic liberals,” find the state of the union deeply unsettling. Optimism, of course, is a state of mind, a sense one has, perhaps despite the evidence, that everything will work out in the end. Optimism is a psychical resource afforded usually to those with resources at their disposal to control (or possess the illusion of controlling) their destiny. For example, I might feel optimistic about my future because of a reputable college degree, an excellent credit rating, financial reserves, friends in strategic places, and a generally healthy body. However, a sunny outlook dims considerably if I find myself in serious debt, alienated from my friends, threatened by enemies, and sick in body. Now consider the psyche of a nation, ours in particular. Is the deep and resilient reservoir of American optimism finally drying up as supply is outpaced by the demand for answers? We face an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, a shrinking middle class, growing poverty, job loss, and rising prices.What happens when the usual suite of solutions —i.e. tax cuts, corporate subsidies, trade agreements, stimulus checks, troop surges, and endless defense spending—fail to deliver? And what if we discover that most of these “solutions” never really had the struggling class in mind to begin with?

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Add to this the disheartening proliferation of reports about torture, detainee abuse, cronyism, profiteering, and public deception at the highest levels of government, and you have a formula for widespread, reality-based cynicism and despair. There are reasons very few of us like to imagine what life will be like for our children’s children. This should make us, as God’s church, think seriously about the kind of hope we’re embracing and upholding for our generation and the next. Do we actually trust in what Jesus tells us? Do we believe that greed actually does destroy the soul, even though it’s legal, and that, contrary to popular opinion, sharing isn’t scary? That violence is evil, even though the “American Way of Life” depends on its use? That life is found in people, not amusement? That living interdependently is more fundamentally human than the pursuit of individual desires and freedoms? Do the sinking sands of the American experiment expose the possibility that, despite all our pietistic fervor, we’ve been misplacing our hope all along? The current wave of national pessimism may actually indicate that the unbelieving world “gets” this better than most of us evangelicals do. Pagans may not know the hope of a loving God, but do we demonstrate this any better? It seems we either join the groaning masses, or simply “hope for better times.” But the body of Christ is bound not by cynicism or enticing-yet-shallow hopes for change. Our hope is in repentance, that is, the life in Christ found by those who turn from the false promises of a dying order. n Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

The Church’s “Third Rail” of Immigration “If you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’—does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?” Proverbs 24:11-12 Save us now from satisfaction when we privately are free, yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor’s misery. Elton Trueblood, in the hymn, “Christ Whose Purpose Is to Kindle,” 1966

dain for dogs? While some might derive cynical pleasure from watching would-be leaders dance and stammer, the morally spineless nature of such issue-skirting is no laughing matter. A political “third rail” (i.e. touch it and die) issue like immigration is particularly subject to duplicitous sound-bite posturing that, more often than not, hides ugly realities few dare to address. At best, experienced politicians keep the conversation safe, striking an ideological balance between imperatives of “enforcement” and “earned citizenship” or waxing eloquent about the rule of law or the historic role of immigration. Such rhetorical surface banter, I would argue, is buffering our collective conscience from the inhumane treatment we as a nation are currently inflicting upon “the strangers in our midst.” While left and right engage in fruitless dialogue about “comprehensive immigration reform,” real people are suffering under the increasingly heavy hand of our own government.We have all heard about the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids ordered by the Department of Homeland Security’s Michael Chertoff (“Operation Return to Sender”). Few are aware of the recent push to implement “no-match” (of Social Security IDs) letters to force employers to fire their undocumented workers. Fewer still know that hundreds of millions in tax dollars are being spent on private contractors to erect mass detainment facilities throughout the country. And almost absent in the media are human faces to the state-sanctioned cruelty being committed within our own borders. The following snapshots, paraphrased from the report Over-Raided, Under Siege (available at nnirr.org/resources), are just three of hundreds of documented accounts over the past two years alone:

The political theater around the topic of immigration can best be described as painfully comic, as each presidential hopeful frets and spins in a clumsy attempt to communicate a coherent position. It reminds me of that scene in the comedy Meet the Parents where a panic-stricken young man feigns love of cats in order to score points with his future father-inlaw. Beads of sweat appear on the candidates’ brows as the questions fly through their minds: How can I prove tougher than my opponent on illegals? How do I do that without sounding like a racist? What if they ask me about those sanctuary ordinances? The driver’s license proposal? My gardener? Will a compassionate stance make me look soft on crime and terrorism? How about the Latino vote? How do I explain my “yes” vote on the 700-mile fence? Should I divert attention to tough employer sanctions? Those law-breaking meat-packing plants? What if that alienates my business constituency? Is it more “ICE agents stormed the home of Nelly politically expedient, at the given moment, Amaya, entered her bedroom, and conducted to emphasize affection for cats or dis- a search without identifying themselves. ICE PRISM 2008

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roughed her up as they frisked and arrested her, twisted her arm, aggravating an existing injury. Her arm was swollen and bruised after the handcuffs were put on. On the way to the station, she suffered an asthma attack, which went untreated.” “After the trauma of the ICE raid at the plant, electronic monitoring shackles were placed on the ankles of 33 women who were released but kept under house arrest. Almost all being mothers, and the sole providers for their family, they faced insurmountable barriers to provide for their families because they were not allowed to work.” “ICE forcibly separated an 8-year-old girl from her pregnant mother and left her alone for four days at a residential facility.The mother and child cried inconsolably after they were awakened as the mother was taken away. Having fled Honduras earlier to escape an abusive relationship and gang violence, they were denied asylum. The mother and child were only reunited after being deported back to Honduras.” Over 27,000 immigrants in detention facilities last year; 4,000 workplace arrests; 5,000 reported border deaths (since 1994); over 220,000 deportations. Social vilification. Separation of families. Withholding of health services. Physical abuse. We are being told to accept, essentially, that this is just what happens to those who “don’t play by the rules.” God’s people, however, are called to live by a different set of rules.The current immigration crisis, therefore, represents a moral “third rail” for the American church. How we engage it can be the difference between life and death. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Blackwater As an Ecclesiological Problem

covert operatives complete with helicopter gunships, armored vehicles, advanced surveillance technologies, 5,000-acre private bases, and a battery of highpowered lawyers to ensure legal impunity. Imagine? We no longer have to. However, the Blackwater story has only minimally engaged, for better or worse, the American imagination. A Through the church, the wisdom of God in its recent Rasmussen survey revealed that rich variety might now be made known to the less than a fifth of the populace has folrulers and authorities in the heavenly places. lowed this story very closely, and about Ephesians 3:10 half lacks an opinion. While this may dismay folks like me, it really shouldn’t Central to my understanding of church, surprise us. Setting aside the reflectionas taught to me by my pastors, is that we challenged nature of our society, the are a sanctified people, that is, set apart fact of the matter is that the Blackwater from the world so that through the church phenomenon is, quite literally, businessthe world might know him. We are as-usual... very big business, in fact. declared “salt and light” in a dark and Since 2001, Blackwater has received over decaying world as the new Israel, blessed a billion dollars in federal contracts, to be a blessing for the sake of the nations. charging over $1,200 per day for the serBlessing implies a way of life not pos- vices of each employee, which represents sible by any other means.Therefore, the six times the cost of an equivalent U.S. church, when living faithfully, embod- soldier (now increasingly tempted to cross ies something tangibly different than over to the private sector). Blackwater that of the watching world. She exists as is joined by Triple Canopy, Dyncorp, a mysterious, incomprehensible, and Titan, CACI, and scores of other secucompelling presence. Therefore, the rity firms cashing in on one of today’s emergence of a huge and unwieldy highest growth industries. privatized paramilitary from deep withThus, the specter of flack-jacketed, in the church’s evangelical substratum M16-wielding civilians amassed at a importunes a moment for pause. guerrilla warfare training complex in a Anyone reading the papers over the neighborhood near you may seem past six months has engaged, at some novel, if not frightening, but it merely level, the troubling questions raised by represents the logical extension of our Blackwater, one of a growing breed of nation’s devotion to free-market capitalcorporations increasingly entrusted with ism (privatization of the public-sector our government’s military and intelli- in particular), and the use of force to gence functions. Its recklessly lethal preserve it. Acorns, even ones with pecubehavior in Iraq, the recruiting of for- liar shapes and sharp edges, do not roll eign mercenaries (including Pinochet- far from the tree. The rise of for-profit era Chilean ex-commandos), the exor- armies is as American as, well, apple pie. bitant cost to U.S. taxpayers, a swelling Profiting from war through violent black weapons market, compromised means likely generates a sour taste for mission objectives (not to mention troop most observers, but what does the watchsafety), and the serious lack of account- ing world think when Christians are ability is old news, albeit unresolved and behind such entrepreneurial endeavors? no less alarming. Imagine the existence Blackwater’s intimate family ties to some of corporations boasting an army of of the most high-profile evangelicals in

America are no secret. Publicly known is the generous, philanthropic distribution of its family wealth among several esteemed Christian colleges and academic institutions, religious-based policy think tanks, and nationally-known parachurch ministries. Intriguingly, a number of these entities are associated with prominent leaders that helped bolster evangelical support for the Iraq war. Connect the dots. While I am concerned about our tendency towards head-in-the-sand ignorance of such current events, I ultimately seek to suggest that this unchallenged triangulation of evangelicalism, capitalism, and war reveals a crisis of ecclesiology in the American church today. Our lack of an adequate theology of church leaves a vacuum into which the prevailing belief systems and ideologies, whether that of market, democratic ideals, or redemptive violence, take residence. The church, unclear of its calling, identity, or sense of purpose, finds itself vulnerable and drawn to the loudest voice it hears, championing national agendas that fall woefully short of the gospel...and with deadly consequences. Gone is a sense of mission, one that Christ abundantly offers us, that transcends political and national boundaries. Lacking is a witness made supernaturally distinct by the power of the Holy Spirit that renders obsolete the world’s tools of coercion, fearmongering, and lethal technology. Better ecclesiology must, of course, be accompanied by willful obedience. We must pastor our congregations with integrity, and be willing to speak truth to the larger church. For unless we are seeking to understand, incarnate, and instruct what it means to be the church as Christ intends, we must confess our part in all of its most egregious and regrettable manifestations. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries in San Francisco. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.

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ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

MLK’s Message Revisited A few years back, I visited the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta to ponder the legacy of this preacher in a remarkable American era. Although deeply inspired by his leadership, it struck me that, from a gospel perspective, there wasn’t anything particularly heroic or “radical” about Dr. King’s message. He simply acted out faithfulness to the Word of God. He knew that the preservation of economic prosperity for one group by structurally marginalizing another deeply grieved his God. In speaking truth to power, he merely gave voice to what the gospel proclaimed as true. King was simply being Christian. Without diminishing King’s greatness, I want to suggest that we largely prefer to revere him as a champion of civil rights rather than mere gospel servant. Might we put him on a pedestal as a way to lessen our own responsibility to speak truth to power in our own day? Do we reduce the truth to something safe and manageable to absolve us from the kind of sacrifice that the black church in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma endured in King’s day? How we “handle the truth” has serious implications for how the American church addresses racism today. We in the Christian community development and reconciliation business have our favorite books, whether Amos, Ephesians, or the Corinthian letters. We love cherrypicking the verses that proof-text our case about justice, but in doing so, we settle for a “sound-byte theology” that reveals our lack of theological curiosity. We assume we know all there is to know about the gospel and its imperatives. But shallow theology leads to shallow ministry. This is evident in the

prevailing discourse on racial reconciliation, which remains entrenched in a theology that largely addresses sin at the personal, but not systemic, level. Racial reconciliation becomes reduced to a personal discipleship project, solvable through “befriending people of color,” organizing multi-ethnic worship services, and ensuring that everyone’s ethnic heritage is somehow incorporated and validated. We have training materials to decipher our personal bigotry, complete with benchmarks to measure our progress. Helpful as these efforts may be, addressing racism at a purely interpersonal level leaves us blind to the larger powers and principalities at work. We celebrate cultural diversity, while overlooking our cultural idolatries. We seek to dismantle the racial divide, while failing to confront the powers that propagate it. We embrace reconciliation without addressing the larger systems and institutions that divide and destroy. In all our well-intended efforts, we remain blindly entangled in the deep roots of racism. It matters to us that blacks and whites worship in the same room, but does it also matter that despite civil rights victories of 50 years ago, the household wealth of African Americans remains just over half of that of white Americans and jail sentences for blacks average six months longer than whites for the same crime? Can we “welcome the stranger in our midst” while allowing lawmakers to judge immigrants solely in terms of their benefit to the U.S. economy? Can we bring our kingdom allegiance to bear on our nationalistic foreign policy and its impact on the ethnic poor, despite being written off as “liberal” or “anti-American”? I experienced this at a national Christian conference in 2003, where I sought to challenge the church’s noncritical posture regarding the National Security Strategy that just had emerged from the White House. Harshly criticized for “blatantly politicizing the Iraq war,” I grieved the fact that partisan PRISM 2007

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politics subverted the opportunity for us to reflect Christianly about an issue as critical as war and its profound cost on the most vulnerable. King is thus an important model of one who transcended partisanship to speak prophetically about the interlocking systems of militarism, racism, and poverty. Protesting the Vietnam War, he was criticized by his own allies for drifting from the “more important” civil rights agenda. Confuting their criticism, he called attention to the disproportion of minorities in the military, the war-driven elimination of social programs, the inherent contradiction of integrating blacks and whites in combat and segregating blacks at home, and the brutal devastation of Asian villages in the name of “democracy.” Forty years later, we see the fine print of No Child Left Behind that gives the military unimpeded access to public high schools, which in urban centers consist of approximately 88 percent ethnic minority. We see recruiting strategies that employ, as lures, rap among African-Americans or “fast-track citizenship” among Latino immigrants. We see the Patriot Act that facilitates the profiling, questioning, and holding of hundreds of Arab American citizens without legal representation. We see the proliferation of detainment facilities and anti-immigrant policies that send dark and dehumanizing messages to our Mexican neighbors. Understanding that racism is not only alive and well but also deeply embedded in larger systems, idolatries, and powers that hold our society captive, we must affirm with Dr. King our gospel allegiance that transcends nationalism and its self-defined goals, so that we might speak for “the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries in San Francisco.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

The Spiritual Tragedy of 9/11 This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind...that hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. The president of the United States, September 11, 2002 You shall have no other gods before me...You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. Exodus 20:3-6 I was not prepared for what I saw that morning on the TV atop my bedroom dresser. After waking up my wife, we together watched in horror as the first and then second tower of the World Trade Center came crashing down, sealing the fate of what had to be hundreds trapped inside. My mind raced to panic-filled conclusions: There are additional planes heading for the West Coast. San Francisco is surely a target. Air Force jets will try to shoot them down. It will be chaos. Life as we’ve known it is spiraling out of control. Oh, my God! In what for me was a despairing moment of clarity, I was forced to face my dark attachment to the “American Way of Life,” a spiritually pernicious investment in a safe and predictable middle-class existence where the rule of law and the laws of the market assured me my right to personal fulfillment and infinite consumer choices. Invoking Psalm 23 at such a moment would have served merely as a pious incantation of faith in the scramble-intercept capabilities of our F-15 strike fighters. In scrambling, albeit internally, for a scenario that would keep my world intact, I experienced a humbling affinity with the disciple Peter who, when the heat was turned up, thrice

spiritual significance from alignment with a nation on a salvific mission. What is behind our flatfooted acquiescence? Is it the successful persuasion of evangelical leaders like the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who maintained that “God is pro-war” and that “our God-given freedoms must be defended,” or Rev. James Kennedy and Dr. Bill Bright, who declared in an open letter that the administration’s policies are “just and right”? Furthermore, when our president in his 9/11 anniversary oratory misused New Testament scripture (John 1:5) by substituting America for Christ, the Biblebelieving church hardly blinked. Was it our dulled spiritual senses or biblical illiteracy that produced our facility to tune out blasphemy when it came crashing into our living rooms? Or did a weak collective will readily accommodate a biblical interpretation of national matters that didn’t place our personal faith at odds with the edicts of the state? In With God in the Crucible (Abingdon What is behind Press, 2002), Peter Storey recounts his our flatfooted acquiescence anguish as a pastor in the midst of apartto American saber-rattling heid South Africa: “Where did we lose the passionate belief that the gospel is and even blasphemy? given so that God’s justice and peace might reign on earth as in heaven? How told, of course, that if you didn’t square did we manage to so domesticate Jesus... with this line of reasoning, you were that his radical demands for counterliving “with the terrorists.” We were to accept could melt so meekly into our cultural this because, after all, we are the “bright- scene and accommodate with such serest beacon for freedom and opportunity vility to the demands of our Caesars?” With each dark sign that God merciin the world!” We must appreciate that government fully enables us to discern in this day and saber-rattling, the rousing of patriotism, time, it will become increasingly clear and the strong-arming of public and that Storey’s question is one we must global sentiment are standard fare for boldly ask of ourselves. ■ insecure (and opportunistic) empires throughout history. This is simply how Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace fallen powers operate. What is tragic, Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationhowever, is when the Church of Jesus based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Christ so easily appears to toss her ancient Mission District that serves low-income famicreeds in favor of the religious-sounding lies through academic tutoring, youth jobrhetoric of American exceptionalism and training, adult education, health services, and power. American flags adorn the sanc- advocacy. He invites response to this column tuary in an attempt, perhaps, to draw at onbeingthechurch@gum.org. denied his Lord. For me that morning, the cock crowed. This sinful, self-preservationist reflex awakened a deep sense of foreboding as we awaited the public response of our government in 9/11’s wake. That evening on national television, the president declared that the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists that committed these acts and those that harbor them.” The foreign policy implications of this simple statement were as ominous as they were profound:America (i.e. the White House) reserves the right to act upon any foreign entity (sovereign nation or not) at its own discretion and according to its own definitions. With such an arrangement, any number of economic and geopolitical objectives (e.g., access to vital resources and markets) could be pursued and justified under the larger rubric of the “war on terror.” And we were

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ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Beyond “Christian” to an Ecclesial Peace Witness When Christian leaders go to government to call for sweeping structural change, we have more integrity and power when we can say: “We are part of Christian communities that are already beginning to live out what we are calling you to legislate.” ...Our call for [peace] has integrity only if there is growing peace and wholeness in our families and churches. Ron Sider On the evening of March 16, an elder from my church and I had the immense privilege of joining nearly 3,000 fellow believers in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Having been commissioned by our pastors the previous Sunday, we flew to D.C. to represent our congregation at the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, a gathering to mourn and oppose the violence of war and to prayerfully seek peace in the Middle East. The liturgy was both elegant and powerful in its movement between lament and confession, intercession and outcry. It was a significant expression of ecclesial solidarity—an important break in the remorseful silence of God’s people in America in this day and time, and an experience of church that I will treasure always. During our march through the snow down Embassy Row to the White House, our ecclesiastical diversity became more noticeable: the panoply of signboards, icons, and slogans of varying tone and political posture; the old guard and the “emergents”; the conservatively dressed and the tattooed. As we passed Vice

President Dick Cheney’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the clamorous beat of tribal drumming clashed with more soothing repetitions of “Kumbaya.” The less musically inclined chanted their demands for peace. And like the national consulates that lined our walk down Massachusetts Avenue, various denominations (more specifically, their social justice subcommittees), ecumenical societies, and nonviolence movements flew their flags boldly. While the event achieved its goal as a distinctly Christian peace witness, with church folk from nearly every state in the union, there was a conspicuous lack of congregational presence. By and large, most of the churchgoers we encountered had come to D.C. as an outgrowth of personal conviction (albeit spiritual) rather than representing the collective conscience of their local church. Many of them admitted to having come in spite of their congregation: “We didn’t really tell them that we were coming. We’re here pretty much on our own accord.” What’s the difference, one might ask —aren’t numbers enough? Let us consider this question. If numbers were enough, then 3,000 would be considered meager at best (dwarfed, for instance, by the following day’s Pentagon protest populated by secular activists), especially considering the over 100 million Americans that claim to attend church weekly.What if, instead, this same motley crew of marchers consisted of a thousand congregational delegations, three parishioners each, representing churches whose communal engagement with the gospel compelled them to publicly register their opposition to the current war? Moreover, what if such gospel-unified proclamation flowed not from a piece of paper but, rather, out of the life of a Christian community that practiced shalom day after day among its members...and non-members?

I am grateful for my pastors who graciously sent me to Washington well aware of my penchant for confronting the powers “out there,” over and against the sins that daily compromise the health and unity of the body of believers. Like the fist-waving activists of the liberal, anti-war city that is San Francisco, I find it much easier to rail at our nation’s militaristic institutions and industries than to repent from the subtle-yetdestructive forms of violence I commit in my relationships within both congregation and kin. My zeal for the church’s prophetic edge proves hollow when I hold brothers and sisters in contempt, deny forgiveness, or simply insulate myself with perpetual busy-ness. I cannot call for disarmament in the world while fortifying walls in my marriage. Nor can I critique, with integrity, a coercive foreign policy when I find myself as a parent angrily coercing, rather than patiently leading, my own children. From the pulpit, a much-needed word was given to me and to our whole congregation: “You are not called to bear witness to a peace that is composed of the best of human intentions, passion, or rationality, but rather to a peace that is won by Christ alone. Testify with your attitudes, your words, and your conduct the shalom that Christ won by responding to evil not with violence but by the love and forgiveness of his Father in heaven. Go in the peace of Christ that we celebrate at the communion table...and in our life together.” Amen. Let it be so. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth jobtraining, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.

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ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Witnessing to Style over Substance Evangelical liberation from captivity to the invisible religion of corporate power involves, first, the clearest recognition of how such captivity has falsified the gospel under the cover of what seems to be positive religious devotion. J. Stanley Glen, Justification by Success, 1979 We assemble a legendary line-up of worldclass leaders, best-selling authors, professional athletes, and renowned coaches... Host our Maximum Impact Simulcast and be the church known for “taking care of business” in your community! Promotional for a seminar pitched to draw business professionals to Christ, 2007 How can we be “salt and light” in the world? A national convention I recently attended purported to address this question. What I encountered was a glitzy showroom filled with religiousproduct vendors, outreach toolkits, and Scripture-printed freebies in what amounted to a church-marketing emporium. On display were goods and services from the high-tech to the outlandish: for example, cross-shaped cellular transmission towers, revenue-raising Internet dating services, evangelistic golfing, gospel puzzle-cubes, Christian stand-up gigs, and ministry clown apparel. One could also peruse a host of customizable programs to help congregations care for poor people in accessible and manageable ways. And at the drop of a business card, this iPod could be yours! Having never been to one of these before, I was rather impressed by how indistinguishable the convention was

the Beatitudes, which, Jesus seems to say, form the substance of our witness. Poverty of spirit. Meekness. Mercy. Peacemaking. Persecution. Suffering. Unattainable through CD-ROM and web-based tools, being a light in the world appears to have much more to do with presence than productivity, character than impact. In other words, we bear witness not by what we get done, but rather, by Whom we reflect. As one in the business of neighborhood outreach, I find in the Sermon on the Mount a humbling corrective to my proclivity for accomplishments that have little to do with the gospel. How many neighbors are taking notice of what we’re doing? How many volunteers did I manage to mobilize at our health fair? Are student’s grades rising substantially through our after-school tutoring program? What problems have we solved? How many people did we serve? When will we get recognized again for our work in the community? How many readers will respond to this article? When absorbed by questions such as these, techniques and formulas suddenly become very alluring.The notion of worldly strategies (corporate, politi- that Christ is glorified in weakness holds cal, or otherwise) to “spread the good little interest. We want results and we news.” Moreover, even the secular movie want them now. We have a world to industry has insightfully lampooned the impress; we want to showcase our outphenomena. Movies like Saved, The Big comes. But while we may publicly credKahuna, The Jesus Factor, Jesus Camp, and, it God for a particular outcome, secular most recently, Friends of God come to society knows when we’ve simply mind. The world, we must acknowledge, appropriated its strategies. When this is fully capable of seeing through our pious happens, we demonstrate a faith that is exterior.Too often, when the world peers far less substantive or compelling than into the church, it merely sees itself. that of the average pagan. ■ The only difference is that, unlike us, the Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace world doesn’t pretend to be holy. While it is unfair to generalize evan- Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationgelicals as sold out on formulaic gim- based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s mickry or high-tech salesmanship, we Mission District that serves low-income famiwould do well to assume that most of us lies through academic tutoring, youth jobapproach the “salt and light” enterprise training, adult education, health services, and on our terms rather than God’s. As a advocacy. He invites response to this column congregation we have been reflecting on at onbeingthechurch@gum.org. from any secular, corporate trade show in America. It seemed the only thing Christian about the interactive kiosks, flashy banners, and 42” plasma screens was their liberal use of Bible verses or clichés (“...maximize your influence for the glory of God”). In what struck me as a remarkably blatant manifestation of style over substance, the convention pondered not the message of the gospel but, rather, the latest systems to deliver it. As one product rep insisted,“If you don’t catch their attention within the first eight seconds, you’ve already lost ’em.” Critique of evangelical shtick is, of course, not new. Some thoughtful Christians, like Presbyterian minister Glen quoted above, have long exposed the evangelical church’s accommodation

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ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Gracious Assaults of Reality “The wealth of the rich is their strong city. In their imagination, it is like a high wall.” Proverbs 18:11 “I really have a hard time relating to your problems,” the young, single mom from Central America leveled with us at one of our congregational gatherings. For Lydia, who was raped, beaten, and forced to flee her war-torn country, it was difficult to sympathize with our angst about job satisfaction, home ownership, or the quality of our child’s preschool. Seeking spiritual companionship and pleased by the recreational and academic programs available to her children, Lydia was initially very drawn to our church. However, fellowship with us soon became trying, for the discrepancy between her experience of life and that of a college-educated, well-resourced congregation proved a relational chasm difficult to cross. This gap in reality between those of us “the system” benefits and those it crushes is exacerbated when we remain ignorant of the economic and political dynamics that beget injustice in our world. Insulated by such ignorance, we fail to see, much less grieve, the fallen world that Christ came to redeem. Blind to our own complicity and spiritual impoverishment, our lives are left untransformed by the gospel. Jesus enters a needy and grieving world, but we are not there with him. Therefore, we are learning to thank God when the stories of those we seek to serve assault our middle-class sensibilities about what life consists of. Our Salvadoran neighbors in San Francisco

have particularly opened our eyes. One fellow recently shared his grief over the plight of a neighbor back home. “My friend’s farming business no longer makes enough money to feed his family,” he shared.“The government recently adopted the American dollar as the official currency. But because the value of the dollar is the same as it is here, only the wealthiest in El Salvador can afford to pay for goods at U.S. prices. My friend and his family now struggle to survive.” His story shed light on the politics behind a naturalization fair sponsored a while back by the Salvadoran consulate. It took place at the church of a pastor with whom we sometimes partner. At his request, we sent some of our lawyers to help process papers for hundreds of immigrants applying for citizenship under “temporary protection status.” In the foyer, Spanish-language publications were distributed. On the front cover was a photo of the Salvadoran president, Antonio Saca, and George W. Bush shaking hands and smiling, the classic pose used to communicate a political “win-win” for each of their respective countries. Upon further inquiry, we learned that the really “big fish” in the deal was market liberalization, that is, an agreement toward laws and institutions favorable to American-led globalization in Latin America. We also learned that the president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, had personally traveled to El Salvador to bolster public support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Shortly thereafter, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with Saca to cement cooperation around the “war on terror,” as demonstrated by the fact that El Salvador remains the sole Central American nation with troops in Iraq. As one of our Salvadoran friends exclaimed,“My country is like an errand boy for the United States!” A few years prior, several of our Salvadoran friends walked the streets in somber yet celebratory procession to PRISM 2007

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commemorate the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero.They spoke of his assassination in 1980 for speaking truth to those in power, in particular the Salvadoran military that methodically killed its own citizenry in the tens of thousands. We were reminded that this murderous campaign, carried out by the infamous “death squads,” had received extensive funding and paramilitary training from the U.S. government in the service of protecting America’s economic interests in the region. Such stories are hard to hear for most American Christians, particularly for us evangelicals, for they rub against a deeply ingrained—and largely unchallenged —sense of national innocence and superiority. This is what made a recent church gathering in our area particularly remarkable. Hosted by a large and fairly wealthy congregation, the Jesus and Evangelical Power conference had the singular goal of asking Christian leaders from the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East) to come and offer a brutally honest critique of American evangelicalism. With godly humility and character, the four speakers mercifully exposed ways that the American church mirrors its nation’s propensity to see itself as the answer, to espouse self-serving individualism, and to define life terms of material abundance. Their ultimate warning was simply that the church, when captive to arrogance and greed, tragically negates the very gospel message she seeks to proclaim. Praise God for such loving rebuke. Now, will we listen? ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth jobtraining, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Discerning Lies Disguised as Truth “You Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Set You Free” CIA motto, etched in marble at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. A recent stay in Philadelphia gave me opportunity to ponder the relationship between truth and freedom, important ideas in the grand American experiment. My hotel was situated just blocks from where Thomas Jefferson penned the “inalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into the Declaration of Independence.When this sacred parchment was signed by members of the Continental Congress in the Pennsylvania State House in 1776, it captured the imagination of a young republic and gave Philadelphia its enduring, mythical status among the nation’s historical cities. Two hundred and thirty years later, the “birthplace of freedom” holds distinction as the nation’s leader in homicides among cities with more than a million residents. The week I was there, the number of murders in town was just approaching 300, on pace to exceed the previous record-high year of 377. Officials noted with alarm that the rising trend was not so much drug or gang related as it was simply domestic: a violent spouse, an angry neighbor, a vengeful relative. Not unique to Philly, such violence exists wherever economic desperation prevails. But it is a desperation exacerbated by the dehumanizing greed and materialism inherent in a “freedom” essentially synonymous with “free enter-

prise” in this country. It is a system where 1 percent of the population controls 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and over 37 million Americans remain trapped in poverty. In the name of such freedom, our administration (“We come as liberators”) orchestrated the invasion of Iraq, a country now facing a civilian death toll exceeding half a million men, women, and children. Can this be true freedom? Jesus says that we can distinguish true and false prophets by their fruit (Matt. 7:17). This was evident at a quiet funeral 280 miles west of Philadelphia, following the brutal killing of five Amish schoolgirls in the Pennsylvania countryside. In a powerful demonstration of Christian love and forgiveness, a large contingent of the Amish community joined the family at the burial of the disturbed young man who committed the classroom murder-suicide, offering both sympathy and economic assistance. Unencumbered by the false gods of wealth, possessions, and self-serving individualism, our Amish brothers and sisters bore witness to truth that indeed sets people free. That we as the American church might likewise pay attention, repudiate lies, and insist on what is true, I offer this prayer: “Father in heaven, we want to hear the words of your servant Paul in his Colossian letter, who warns of those who would take us captive through vain philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to your son, Jesus. “We confess our vulnerability to the seduction of grand ideas, Philadelphian promises of liberty that have secured, at best, a tenuous sense of peace and security for those with the power to insulate themselves from the ravages of an unjust and failing order. Although with our lips we recite the beatitudes, we inwardly cling to a material dream that fails to satisfy yet

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seems more palpable than Christ’s radical bidding to embrace our poverty of spirit. “Help us, therefore, to discern the truth from lies disguised as truth. Open our eyes to the destructive claims of those who leverage the holy language of ‘freedom and justice’ to justify unholy means in the service of unholy purposes. Give us boldness to reject a liberty that exists only to facilitate the nationalist pursuit of self-serving happiness, a hollow freedom that is achieved on the backs of those without options, an elusive and temporal freedom dependent upon the unsustainable deployment of violent force. “Lord, you call us to give to you what belongs to you, and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, yet we are tempted daily to yield to Caesar that which exceeds the bounds of his authority, while turning a blind eye to the human cost of preserving our access to the spoils of imperial power. In so doing, we fail to speak truth to those who would insist that our well-being is found in tools of coercion and control, smart bombs, torture, and wire fences. “Forgive us, Lord, we pray. Find your Church faithful in believing the hope of the gospel... that your Kingdom is indeed at hand. Then might we truly embody good news to the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to the honor and glory of your holy name. Amen.” ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth jobtraining, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

A Violent Disinterest in Jesus “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was its fall.” Jesus Christ, concluding his Sermon on the Mount “The danger of the pacifist illusion is its campaign to persuade democracies to ignore the true nature of [Islamic extremist] barbarism and to throw down their defenses in the name of peace...The advocates of this campaign would make the Sermon on the Mount a road map for U.S. foreign policy.” Joseph Loconte, WSJ.com Opinion Journal, November 2005 (emphasis added) I heard a story recently about a boy in our church’s youth ministry who was being harassed by a peer at the middle school they both attended. In the hallway, while teachers weren’t looking, the bully would give Joey a hefty shove to provoke a fight. Avoiding a confrontation, Joey would simply shrug him off and walk away. This exchange went on for several weeks until finally the aggressor threw up his arms and asked in exasperation,“Why won’t you fight me?”“I don’t want to go to hell,” Joey replied. This seemed to raise his foe’s eyebrows.“What do you mean?” he asked. “Well,” Joey replied, “Jesus says not to solve conflicts using violence, so I won’t.” Such refusal to return evil for evil would make his Sunday school teacher proud. In that

moment, the young boy demonstrated what it means to take Jesus’ words seriously and obey them. Christian grown-ups in this country, however, roll their eyes at the suggestion that this tale of childlike, cheek-turning obedience to Jesus would have any relevance to foreign policy and the state’s use of force, whether retaliatory or preemptive. “The Sermon on the Mount,” adults will reason, “was intended for the interpersonal realm only. After all, King Solomon says there is a time for war”— an odd perspective, given that a majority of evangelicals insist on the right to own hand guns. Many high-profile clergy of this persuasion are forthright in their support for war: for example, Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, who authored (and cosigned with Bill Bright, James Kennedy, Carl Herbster, and others) an open letter defending the president’s decision to invade Iraq. Paralleling them are Catholic academics Jean Beth Elshtain and Richard John Neuhaus, who argue for the morality of Operation Enduring Freedom using justwar tradition as the fundamental basis of authority. Less nuanced are pastors like John Hagee and Pat Robertson who draw on Abrahamic promises to justify actions such as Israel’s unrestrained and devastating aerial bombardment of Lebanon. Another way we allow our faith to accommodate war is by simply failing to question its legitimacy. This was the case in a published response to a New York Times article on megachurch pastor Gregory Boyd (“Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock,” July 30, 2006), who lost a fifth of his parishioners after preaching a series of sermons called “The Cross and the Sword.” While the Times reporter does capture Boyd’s exasperation with evangelicals’ often single-issue politics, the predominant theme of the article was the seldom-preached warning about the spiritual dangers of nationalism and militarism: “When you put your trust PRISM 2006

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in the sword, you lose the Cross.” In his rebuttal (Breakpoint Worldview Magazine, August 1, 2006), Chuck Colson conspicuously circumvents Boyd’s message altogether by first taking a shot at the “liberal media,” and then focusing exclusively on abortion, portraying Boyd as a pastor engaged in a perilous retreat from the church’s historical pro-life position. He avoids altogether Boyd’s challenge about the incompatibility of Christian discipleship and bellicose patriotism, the possibility that the way of the Cross puts the church at direct odds with the agenda or methodologies of the state. Whether we evangelicals make our peace with war (as Pew Center surveys overwhelmingly indicate) through sophisticated rationalization or benign neglect, there seems to be a common thread: a disinterest in what Jesus has to say. Some seek the wisdom of St. Augustine in a post-9/11 world. Others buy Jerry Falwell’s assumption that all good Christians should support a strong military (a defense budget that nearly equals all other nations’ combined). Still others have reduced the Bible to mere chicken-soup-for-the-soul, relegating the ethical questions of war to those in Washington who are paid to manage the “real world.” One might dismiss “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” as a lefty-pacifist bumper slogan, but scant few evangelicals are willing to actually take that question on. Perhaps we, the American church, just need to be honest and confess that we find Jesus’ words too untenable to act upon. Only then might we repent and find deliverance from the sinking sand beneath our feet. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth jobtraining, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Border Politics, God, and Mammon Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they do not respect justice. They continually promulgate harsh laws to show off their prowess. They oppress [our people] and also violate treaties. They examine for hookworms and practice hundreds of despotic acts. Chinese detainee at the Angel Island Immigrant Detention Center, San Francisco, 1920s My grandmother, in one desperate moment as a young woman, contemplated suicide. Such an impulse was not uncommon among the female peers with whom she shared several months of harsh and humiliating detainment. Held on an island just a few short miles off the longed-for mainland, as many as 500 detainees at a time occupied barracks characterized by unsanitary conditions, poor diet, and cramped quarters. Perhaps greater than the physical hardship, however, was the loneliness of separation from loved ones, combined with the despair of repeated failure to satisfy stringent interrogatories for their release. The inability to recall the minutest of details (“How many steps were there to the front door of your house?”) or the presence of treatable parasites could instantly terminate one’s arduous quest to become an American citizen. Throughout the history of U.S. immigration, the promulgation of harsh

laws and barbaric treatment was not confined to processes of entry. Foreigners suffered the imposition of exorbitant mining taxes during the Gold Rush, costly regulations regarding housing rentals, laws that prohibited harmless cultural practices, enforcement dragnets to expel the undocumented, and draconian measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese Internment, and California’s Proposition 187 aimed at Latino immigrants. Legislation was accompanied by informal oppression of all kinds, including ridicule, exploitation, and violence. Such social subjugation is exemplified by the experience of the mass faminerelated immigration of the Irish in the 19th century. Upon arrival, they quickly fell victim to unscrupulous landlords and employers, were forced into squalid shantytowns, scammed of personal assets, and relegated to the most undesirable jobs. One can describe America’s antiimmigrant pathology in terms of bigotry and racism, but it is economic preservation, or the fear of losing “the American way of life,” that ultimately sits at the heart of every such episode. Throughout our history, and without exception, immigrants have played the role of scapegoat in times of recession, under-employment, and national insecurity. This, of course, is merely a logical extension of the fact that well-being in our society is evaluated almost solely in terms of material wealth and possession. Described sociologically, America puts its trust in the rewards and “virtues” of free-market capitalism. Biblically, to put one’s ultimate trust in anything or anyone other than God is idolatry. The inability of the American church to confess its economic idolatry is evident in the immigration policy debate. We are more responsive to legality than hospitality. We have essentially reduced human beings to economic commodities, labeled as either assets or threats to the American economy. We affirm PRISM 2006

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“pathways to naturalization” while empowering enforcement agencies with greater latitude to detain or deport. Proposals to brand the undocumented as felons, or to criminalize those who extend them mercy, do not appear to disturb many of us.We demonstrate little discomfort with the institutionalization of underpaid foreign labor pools that serve primarily to maintain high corporate profit margins. Perhaps most egregious is our reluctance to examine the relationship between our Latin American freetrade policies and the desperate flight of displaced workers, particularly from the agricultural sector, across our borders. Bowing to the dictates of the market,we lose our moral bearings. Under such a darkened spiritual condition, people are dehumanized and inevitably crushed. Stuart Shepard, representing Focus on the Family, was accurate when he recently maintained that the immigration issue is not something that has traditionally defined a [mainstream] evangelical.That immigration policy is largely off the evangelical radar betrays a failure to recognize that how we treat people, regardless of their origin or commercial value, is a profoundly Christian issue. The disposition of the American evangelical church to pick and choose what it cares about may be consistent with a pluralistic, democratic society, but it eschews biblical integrity. Are we not called to extend mercy to the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst? Are we at liberty to relegate God’s commands beneath the economic imperative of self and state, thereby serving more than one Master? We must ask ourselves how it is that we can exuberantly proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord in this country while quietly kneeling at the altar of Mammon. ■ Craig Wong (onbeingthechurch@gum.org) is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

A Pastor’s Gift of Truth It is madness to wear ladies’ straw and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. Anne Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk I have loved you by telling you the truth. Pastor Bob Appleby, in a final address to his congregation, wearing a crash helmet While I crave eggs, sausages, and hash browns for breakfast, it is the thought of syrup-drenched French toast and coffee that I cherish now that a brain tumor has closed the present chapter of life for my beloved pastor, Bob Appleby. We broke egg-battered bread together every Tuesday morning, a precious ritual that Bob generously shared with me for nearly 12 years. We met down the street from our church in a restaurant that changed ownership and ambience thrice a decade, along with a veritable revolving door of young, tattooed, and nose-ringed waiters. Starch, sugar, and caffeine were the “comfort food” we gathered round so ritualistically, but Bob’s passion for the gospel never allowed our conversation to become too comfortable. Bob understood that while the gospel is good news, it is anything but comfortable. The gospel was indeed discomforting for a young ministry idealist like me back in the’80s, fresh off of nine years with a campus parachurch organization that fancied itself “cutting-edge.” Having had such an experience, I believed I possessed all the “tools” necessary to succeed in whatever ministry I chose. Equipped with just enough to be dangerous, my ambi-

tious ego was countered only by my cursed insecurities, a perpetual pendulum swing between self-aggrandizement and selfflagellation. My grasp of reality proved inadequate. I needed the truth that Bob selflessly offered me, a gospel that challenged my calcified ideas about church and ministry and the worldly metrics of a thinly veiled heroism. Whether or not I could admit it at the time, I too often made ministry about me (a rather enduring tendency, I might add). Through powerful homily or witty sideswipe, Bob constantly reminded me, along with my fellow brothers and sisters, that it’s decidedly not about us. If we as congregation members had our way, we would, almost without exception, make the church about us. For young marrieds, the church would primarily be a place to raise their children with decent morals and free childcare. College grads would simply try to replicate their campus fellowship and “urban-plunge” experiences. The more activist of the flock would use the church to facilitate their pet project of social justice. White-collar professionals would engineer participation to fit their schedule while showcasing their importance and respectability through positions of church leadership. For the fragile and less endowed, the congregation would

Rev. Robert T. Appleby 1940 – 2006 PRISM 2006

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primarily exist as a rich source of emotional coddling in an otherwise harsh and unaffirming world. The ecclesiastically trendy would sign the congregation up at group discount for the next formuladriven church leadership conference at the local Hilton. But Bob loved the church too much to allow us to settle for one bound by the limits of our small agendas and corrupted wisdom. More than for fear of congregational mediocrity or a dissatisfying pastoral experience, Bob led with deep awareness that a compromised church denies the world a chance to encounter hope for its lostness. He taught us that a congregation shaped by anything less than the gospel can never offer more, and usually offers less, than what the world is capable of producing on its own. Because of Bob’s unswerving insistence on what is true, he was not given to flowery words or feel-good sentimentality. Some found in his unbending and sometimes abrasive posture a convenient excuse not to hear. But while Bob certainly was not without flaw, the gospel proclaimed with his life simply exacted the kind of violent response that is to be expected from sinners invested in a rebellious world. God graciously blessed us with a pastor who deemed it far more important to be truthful than liked, prophetic than popular, Word-centered than innovative. We will miss him dearly. But in delivering Christ’s whole and unedited gospel to a stubborn and resistant lot Sunday after arduous Sunday, wanting more for us than we wanted for ourselves, he has left us with a calling, the only calling truly worth losing our lives for. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Deathly Sure of Ourselves “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Proverbs 14:12 “The United States and its allies are on the right side of history.” Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2000 I am not a lawyer by trade, but I too often become one on those occasions when my loving wife finds it necessary to point out my self-centeredness and arrogance. Rather than assume that my sanctification is at stake and therefore invite what she has to say, I leap onto the defensive. Lofty wedding-day notions of unity and submission evaporate. My goal becomes clear: justify myself, prove her wrong, back my position with PowerPoint-like bullets, and close my argument with insinuation that somehow the real problem lies with her. Deluded with a sense of exoneration, I leave the conversation unchanged and unaffected by the fact that my spouse’s spirit (and hence our marriage) has taken a severe hit. In the end, her “charges” are proven true. In that ruthlessly unbending irony in the marital relationship, when my goal is to win...I have already lost. We have both lost. To understand this pitifully common dynamic in my marriage (and perhaps yours) is to understand, in microcosm, an American society increasingly torn asunder by a virulent need to be right rather than one. Listeners can easily turn to the radiocasts or C-SPAN to hear

the litanies: “The Constitution says I’m right”; “Judicial law says I’m right”; “Natural law says I’m right”; “The ‘laws of the market’ say I’m right”; “History says I’m right”; “The ‘American people’ say I’m right”; “My deep, personal faith says I’m right.” Citing their authority of choice, American leaders claim to be right about many things that others might consider egregious: torturing human beings, killing babies (and not only fetuses), bombing human populations (whether in the form of military targets or “collateral damage”), manipulating geopolitics by force, favoring the wealthy over the poor, pushing legislation for personal favors, lying (or obfuscating the truth) before the citizenry, to name a few. Regardless of whether such righteous claims are sincere, the refusal to rethink the integrity of our positions further jettisons our nation’s slide into unprecedented ugliness. As people of God, are we any different? Are we truly interested in what God thinks, or are we more inclined to cling to what we’re familiar with? The way we typically relate as fellow congregants would indicate the latter. We pick and choose those friends that view the world (or the pastor’s flaws) from a common perch. We’re quick to critique the delivery of the sermon rather than sit under its judgment. We apply the homily to everyone but ourselves. We keep our distance from those who might speak into our discipleship, and when they do, we employ deflective strategies: “I was hurt by the way you said that”; “It will take time for me to forgive you”; “I hear what you’re trying to say, but you fail to grasp the complexity of my situation”; “Your perspective doesn’t resonate with me”;“I’m sorry, but that’s just who I am”;“I’ll pray about it.” Confident of our own opinion and resistant to change, we stifle the congregation’s mat-

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uration toward a community of truth, much less one that is able to speak truth to the larger society. The stakes are high. In his New York Times op-ed plea for fellow evangelicals to repent from supporting our government’s war in Iraq, Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia puts it well: “What will it take for evangelicals in the United States to recognize our mistaken loyalty? We have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global church, and there is no denying that our Faustian bargain for access and power has undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world. The Hebrew prophets might call us to repentance, but repentance is a tough demand for a people utterly convinced of their righteousness” (emphasis mine). What Marsh speaks of is our perilous lack of humility, which deadens our collective ears to Christ’s high calling. Rather than having our moral bearings challenged and molded by the gospel, we’ll flock like drooling children to the candy wagons of anyone who sounds Christian enough to satisfy our knee-jerk, pietistic sensibilities. This, of course, is good news to the K Street lobbyists (read Indian gambling casinos), neoconservative war planners, and entertainment moguls (“We offer family-friendly films!”) eager to capitalize on our self-righteous yet easy-to-please religiosity.The church, rather than shine as a unified light to the world’s lost, shall exist only to further their disparate worldly ends. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

A Break in the Deafening Silence “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9, invoked at the mostly evangelical protest of House budget cuts in Washington, D.C., on December 14, 2006 “Posturing yourselves as a bunch of lonely, lefty martyrs may not be the path of wisdom.” An evangelical brother, critical of the protest It was about 11:00 p.m. in Washington, D.C., when I called home to let my wife, Tina, know that the Jim Wallis-led action of civil disobedience at the Cannon House Office Building went well, and that I had already been released earlier that evening by the D.C. Capitol Police. Our housemate and fellow parishioner, Kim, answered the phone and immediately announced to Tina, “Yep, Craig got arrested,” while our four children listened on. With characteristic concern and compassion, my loving wife responded as I might have expected she would: She burst out laughing. So would the rest of my church family upon receiving “news of my chains” during the Advent service that following evening. Alone in her sympathy, my dear 8-year-old daughter, Kiana, cried out with righteous indignation, “That’s not funny! You don’t care about Daddy!” While I look back at my daughter’s reaction that night with warm fond-

ness, I also treasure the laughter of my wife, pastors, and fellow congregants, for it reflected many years of life together as a gospel-centered community. It is not that our congregation is accustomed to participating in public protests and arrests, for we are not. Neither did their ease with my D.C. escapade stem from some sort of commitment to San Franciscobrand contrarianism. Rather, such levity was informed by over two decades of ecclesiological reflection which has led us to understand that the Church exists to incarnate and proclaim Christ’s heart for his world, particularly victims of sin and injustice. Therefore, advocating for the poor in a public action like this was not embraced as the heroic antics of religious progressives but rather as an obedient expression of the Church’s witness. Like the appeals we regularly send to political leaders through the advocacy agency Bread for the World, I went to D.C. representing my congregation as an “embodied letter,” so to speak, to give voice to God’s judgment on public policies that favor the nation’s wealthiest while neglecting the most vulnerable. Consistent with the ideologically bound critique leveled by the well-meaning brother quoted above, the national media predictably cast the event as a meager, “faith-based” show of force by the political left. Glossed over was the fact that many Christians present would personally reject such a characterization —for example, folks like John Perkins, Glen Kehrein, Mary Nelson, and Barbara Williams-Skinner of the Christian Community Development Association; Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action; and Reverend Raymond Rivera and Luis Carlo, key Hispanic leaders in theological education. Predominantly evangelical in representation and in spirit, the good news of God’s kingdom was marvelously

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proclaimed that day through classic hymns, Christmas carols, gospel spirituals, prayers, and the unapologetically Christ-centered preaching of the Word by those who simply love Jesus. Beyond a mere attempt to dissuade the hand of Congress, the D.C. action represented something far more important: the proclamation of Christ’s supremacy over all rulers and authorities. This is a claim rarely heard from, or demonstrated by, an evangelical mainstream that is seduced and co-opted by American political and corporate power. Shor tly after retur ning from Washington, I met bedside with my dear pastor and gospel mentor, Bob Appleby, mercifully recovering after the recent removal of a brain tumor. His perspective encouraged me deeply. Having experienced the tumultuous civil rights era in East Palo Alto and Chicago as a budding pastor, he was intimately aware of the deafening silence of the white evangelical church, a sorrowful apathy that has persisted to this day. Upon hearing of the evangelicals present at the Cannon building protest, he said, “I never thought, in my wildest imagination, that something like this would occur within my lifetime.” For my pastor, what happened on December 14th was an intriguingly significant break in the silence, an observation echoed by a growing number of those attentive to the possibility that God may be graciously waking up his Church in this nation for this time. May it be so. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response to this column at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

The Church-Based Health Fair as Loving (and Threatening) Presence At a church-based community health fair that our congregation recently cosponsored, it struck me that a $600 monthly insurance premium (and $25 co-payments) could not buy the kind of care that folks were experiencing free of charge that day. Amidst Latin rhythms and colorful balloons, visitors were warmly greeted at the door, given a medical clipboard, and oriented in their native tongue. Sending their children upstairs to the adult-supervised activity room, guests were personally escorted to the primary screening area to measure body mass, blood pressure, and glucose levels. With minimal waiting time, medical personnel administered the screenings, answered questions, and documented the outcomes on each person’s chart. Each patient then met with a registered nurse who, upon reviewing the chart, provided immediate counsel, directed them to a diabetic specialist, or sent them directly to an onsite physician to address highrisk cases. Those experiencing pain, shortness of breath, or other alarming symptoms saw the doctor immediately. With initial examinations completed, guests then had their teeth checked and eyes examined. Patients evidencing tooth decay received counsel on hygiene strategies and then met with a low-cost clinic representative across the room. Nearsighted individuals were referred to a local optometry school to apply for free prescription glasses. Physical therapists analyzed the posture of those

experiencing back pain and suggested corrective exercises. Others received immediate massage therapy or acupuncture. Health professionals were on hand to answer questions about prescription drugs, breast cancer exams, smoking-cessation programs, and community clinics. Lastly, individuals brought their concerns to church ministers who provided prayer and counsel. All of this took place in an old urban church building, in a few short hours, involving a good-sized band of uncompensated congregation members, professionals, and partnering community agencies. With no illusion that church-based health fairs are the answer for the nation’s growing number of uninsured, the event was nonetheless a picture of what care looks like when the gospel is the starting point. To illuminate this, it is perhaps helpful to consider some questions that our society has raised: How do we make sure that health benefits are not going to those who are a “drain to the system”? Are those receiving services legal residents? Can they provide documentation to prove it? If not, are they at least capable of making an able-bodied contribution to the economy? How do we provide healthcare for the less fortunate without compromising the best possible care for those who can afford it? Shouldn’t those who have succeeded financially have access to the most advanced technologies? Are the medical services being provided going to get reimbursed? Which folks pose the greatest insurance risk? How do we minimize our exposure to malpractice suits? Are market forces given the freedom necessary to enable the healthcare industry to thrive? How do we provide drug benefits while assuring pharmaceutical companies the ability to continue investing in research for new drugs? Driven by the bottom line, kneeling before the idol of personal entitlement, America leads the world in healthcare spending while leaving 44 million (and growing) without any health insurance. PRISM 2006

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On the Sunday morning leading up to our health fair, our pastor gave us this simple and profound charge: “I want to draw a distinction if I can, between a project and a presence. It’s tempting to do something like this as a project, but God has called you to be a presence. In relationship with our brothers and sisters...we have the opportunity, the rare privilege, of being the presence of the living God in a community that needs what we are offering them... not merely healthcare, but God’s love. So I charge you in that direction and commission you to go and be the presence of God.” Freed by the gospel to love as God loves, the church asks an entirely different set of questions: How will God be experienced when people enter our doors? Are we receiving those that our government views with suspicion, that the state deems an economic liability? Am I working side by side with my brothers and sisters, and collaboratively with secular agencies, in a manner that judges the territorial reflexes of a competitive culture? Will our approach to healthcare serve as an indictment of a system of care held captive to the unredeemed logic of capitalism and individualism? Does our ministry among the poor and sick reflect submission to the reign of God, over and against all other powers and authorities? With the gospel as our starting point, we will relate to people in ways diametrically opposed to that of the systems and structures that claim to serve them. Thus, in the simple act of hosting a health fair, the church can be a presence as peculiar in its love as it is threatening in its allegiance. ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

On Christ the Solid Rock We Stand?

ment in sex. Corporate workaholics seek salvation in stress-producing ladderclimbing. We appropriately denounce such false gods, warning their worshipers that they are building their house on sinking sand. Destruction awaits those whose hope is placed in someone, or something, other than Jesus Christ. But what if the folks we care about are “We have seen and do testify that the being told that America is the hope of Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world? the world.” Such a messianic claim is exactly what John the Apostle, 1 John 4:14 Washington neoconservatives Perle and Frum preach in An End to Evil, a book “A world at peace...That dream has not yet touted as a “bold program to defend come, it will not come true soon, but if it ever America, and win the war on terror.” does come true, it will be brought into being They are unabashedly clear in their conby American armed might, and defended by viction that the hope of the world hinges American might. America’s vocation is not on the advance of American ideals backed an imperial vocation...it is a vocation that by decisive use of American military force. has made us, at our best moments, the hope Perle and Frum, who served respectively of the world.” as chairman of the influential Defense Richard Perle & David Frum, Policy Board and Oval Office speechAn End to Evil: How to Win writer, played key roles in shaping our the War on Terror (Ballantine, 2004) present U.S. foreign policy. They are joined by many others of neoconservative persuasion—including The treasured lyrics of 19th-century Paul Wolfowitz (now heading the World pastor Edward Mote declare, “My hope Bank), John Bolton (now at the U.N.), is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood Douglas Feith (defense undersecretary), and righteousness. I dare not trust the I. Lewis Libby (vice presidential chief sweetest frame, but wholly trust in Jesus’ of staff), Irving Kristol, William Kristol, name.” Sung to this day with great Michael Ledeen,and Charles Krauthammer emotion in American church pews, this —who have aggressively promoted their great hymn is unequivocal in its mes- perspectives through such entities as the sage: There is no hope apart from Jesus American Enterprise Institute (www. Christ. Echoed in countless classic hymns aei.org), the Project for a New American and modern praise choruses, the asser- Century (www.newamericancentury. tion that Jesus is the sole source of hope org), Commentary, the National Review, and salvation is presumably what makes the Weekly Standard and, increasingly, the an evangelical an evangelical. Whether large media organizations, ranging from Fanny Crosby, Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Fox News to National Public Radio. Amy Grant, or Psalty the Talking Hymnal, Their collective prescription for a safer we have always been in agreement: Jesus and better world is remarkably reflected is the answer. in the official National Security Strategy Clear about who our Savior is, we of the United States of America, published confidently unmask the counterfeits. The by the White House in September 2002 drug dealer promises deliverance in the (www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html). form of crystal meths. The mass media Belief in America as world savior is encourages young people to find fulfill- not, of course, original with present-day PRISM 2005

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neoconservatives. Such notions have fueled the political rhetoric of many former administrations, both Democratic and Republican, predating even the Puritan vision of America as the New Israel, a “city on a hill”; the grand, sweeping aspirations of Jeffersonian democracy; and the benevolent expansionist ideology of Manifest Destiny. But the most recent soliloquy of America in messianic terms came on the first anniversary of 9/11 when our president proclaimed in front of the Statue of Liberty that the American ideal is the “hope of all mankind,” adding that “the light shines in the darkness...and the darkness will not overcome it.” Those who know the Bible, which would presumably include us evangelicals, know that this phrase was lifted straight out of the first chapter of the Gospel of John— only the Apostle John didn’t have America in mind when he spoke of the world’s illuminating hope. Our tacit acceptance of such blatant mishandling of the Holy Scriptures raises a number of questions for us. Is it fitting for Christians to remain mum while our world is being told (particularly by one of our own) to put its hope in a nationstate and the power of its myriad horses and chariots? Might it be that we’ve come to adopt a sort of “mix-and-match” doctrine of salvation, bowing to different saviors for differing contexts? If so, are we content to possess a faith that the world can clearly see as duplicitous or, at best, confused? For if we evangelicals are ambivalent about the source of our salvation, then what in the world is our message? ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Embodying Life As God Intended “When we talk about the church in ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,’ we are presupposing that the community between people and God, which is the work of the Spirit, reaches out beyond the church…The church has no monopoly of the Holy Spirit. Nor is the Spirit under its control. The precise opposite is the case: The Spirit binds the church to itself and has the church under its control. It is concerned about the church…for the sake of the rebirth of life and the new creation of all things” Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life:The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (1997)

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to spend a week with a small group of academics and “social ministry practitioners” at the Spring Institute of Lived Theology, led by Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia. Professor Jürgen Moltmann, who g rew up in Nazi Germany, spoke from life experience about the darkness of humanity lived apart from the Spirit of God. Quoting Vladimir Lenin, who said,“Trust is good, control better,” Moltmann presented a cautionary word about the evolution of a “security state” whenever a society’s government operates out of fear and distrust, particularly of its own citizens. A culture of control prevails, accompanied by mechanisms of total surveillance, and this leads inevitably to political repression and violence.“Controls spread mistrust, and mistrust turns the truth into lies; but the lie is the power which destroys life,” explained Moltmann. Ultimately, however, his public lecture, “In God We Trust, in Us God

Trusts: On Freedom and Security in a Free World,” pointed us to the One through whom trust is made possible. Trust, which is “the necessary habitat for freedom,” is founded on the loving God of the universe, who endures our sickness, bears our sins, and shares our grief and sorrows. Moltmann compelled us to marvel in a gracious God who invites sinners into a covenant relationship of mutual trust. God entrusts his Church with the task of manifesting his glory on earth, which is demonstrated when our trust in God, rather than Mammon, produces joyous community where trust and freedom flourish and where no one is in want.The Spirit of God enables us to pursue such community with confidence, despite our own fallenness, through the gifts of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. Life as God intended is born anew, and the watching world is given a sign of hope. I could not listen to Moltmann without thinking about our nation’s college-educated, gainfully employed congregations, including my own in San Francisco. Are we embodying life as God intended,to those we reach out to? Or are we simply mirroring the American cultural disposition to control? Is our community life being shaped by the Spirit of God, or by the impulse to secure, by whatever means necessary, our economic well-being, career advancement, retirement accounts, children’s future, materially equipped homes, physical safety, social standing, or respectable religiosity? Is it evident to others that “in God we trust,”or are we merely bearing witness to our ability to work the system to our advantage? Are we simply state-protected market beneficiaries clothed with a thin religious veneer? Through our neighborhood ministries, we who are accustomed to being in control are becoming increasingly aware of others being adversely affected

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by institutions of control. Such encounters are eye-opening.A pastor advocates for a family inadvertently caught in the middle of an Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid.A college student is deported back to South America by the Department of Homeland Security simply because she was short a single credit for the semester. A young woman is forced to return to Central America immediately after being physically assaulted at an increasingly militarized border. Low-income families face aggressive military recruiting among their children at the local high school, due to the student-records access provision embedded in the No Child Left Behind policy. An aunt grieves how numb to violence her teenage nephew has become, hearing him brag about the shooting and maiming he “got to do” in Iraq. A wife despairs over the angry and detached man her wounded husband has become after extended National Guard duty. Fear breeds mistrust, which inflames the need to control. Institutional controls spread further mistrust, turning truths to lies, which ultimately destroy life. The Spirit of God fosters lives of confession, forgiveness, and repentance, regenerating human community the way God intended. Moltmann graciously confronts us with an uncomfortable choice. Trust or control? Life or death? American church, which will it be? What will characterize our collective lives? Are we able to tell the difference, discern the fruit, or read the signs? If so, are we prepared to choose? ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Blinded By Our Prosperity “You say,‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Jesus Christ to the church at Laodicea, REVELATION 3: 17

“When human beings refuse to use God’s gift of money responsibly, they are handing over their power to Mammon, and he will take control. And when the powers take over, human beings get crushed.” N.T.Wright, Following Jesus (1994) Any who have spent time in San Francisco may recognize at least some of these historical notables: Thomas Larkin, John Fremont, George Dewey, John Sloat, and Frederick Funston. Not only do major streets bear their names, but so also do the city’s most prominent statues.They are honored among those who put San Francisco on the map. Collectively, they laid the foundation for what would become a major Pacific Rim center for multinational business elites. These honored men, however, were not businessmen.They were officers of the United States military, mandated to fulfill America’s “manifest destiny” across the continent and beyond. Larkin scoped out California. Sloat seized Yerba Buena from Mexico. Fremont established San Francisco as a base for Pacific naval operations. Dewey’s flagship sailed from San Francisco to conquer the Spaniards in Manila Bay, and Funston squelched resistance to American occupation of the Philippines. Their efforts were foundational to the global superpower status we have today.

Thus, the monuments that adorn this city’s promenades essentially celebrate our military greatness in service of economic opportunity, embodying the motto,“Gold in Peace, Iron in War.”What the statues don’t reveal, however, are the hundreds of thousands of Filipino and Native American fatalities, the flagrant mistreatment of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and the socioeconomic oppression of mining, aqueduct, and railroad laborers required for this prodigious period of empire building. Such statuary is not unique. Bronze and marble veneration of war heroes and expansionist visionaries, while obscuring the costs, exists in every major city in America. We who enjoy the highest material standard of living in the world have little interest in rehashing the dark subplots of our exceptional tale of progress and prosperity.We’re even less inclined to examine the degree to which our nation continues to be driven by the most primal of human instincts: to pursue our wants, protect what we have, and use force if necessary. Defending our level of affluence at any cost is a message that echoes from the highest levels of government, as when our leaders assure us that “the American way of life is nonnegotiable.” Economic prosperity of one group at the expense of another has, of course, characterized the whole of humankind ever since the Fall. Having exchanged the worship of God for that of idols (Romans 1:23), the darkened mind finds ways to either justify or obscure greed and violence. Left to our own devices, we practice godless ethics among our human kin, trying, at best, to frame our actions as righteous. For example, we couch the whole of our economic arrangements (and the defense policies that undergird it) in idyllic notions of “freedom” and “democracy,” despite the gross inequity, societal fragmentation, institutional cor-

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ruption, and state-sanctioned violence that exist within it.Veiling such ugliness in lofty abstraction is the inevitable strategy of unconverted souls. But what does it say about the American church when we demonstrate unquestioning allegiance to a flawed and duplicitous system? Christ’s revelation to the church in Laodicea, a thriving commercial center, provides a gracious but sobering warning. Unambiguously, Jesus attributes their selfdeceit and blindness to their intimate relationship with wealth. It’s not that they did nothing valuable as a church, for he notes their works (Revelation 3:15).The problem is that their prosperity, made possible under imperial Rome, had lulled them into complacency. Seduced by the rewards of Mammon, the Laodicean church had become content with itself, casting God to the outside (v. 20), a perilous gesture that Jesus appears ready to reciprocate (v. 16). But with incredible mercy, Jesus offers a seat at his throne to the church—if only it will listen and repent (vv. 19-22). As the church of the wealthiest nation in the world, our reluctance to identify with the Laodicean situation illustrates the deceptive power of Mammon.We’re quick to argue the merits of neo-liberal economics, tax cuts, and privatization. But we’re slow to hear the suggestion that we are deceived, blind to our sin, and in need of repentance.To do so requires that we start with Jesus’ perspective, rather than our own. Don’t we all agree that Christians are to start with Jesus? So why don’t we? ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries, a congregation-based nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. He invites response at onbeingthechurch@gum.org.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

Thriving, Punchy, and… Innocuous “United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture— and American culture has triumphed” (Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith [Free Press, 2003]). “America looks like two tribes, one religious and one secular. But the really distinctive feature of American religion is the area in the middle. Most Americans do not become members of a church to sign up for a crusade or sit in judgment of sinners…their religion is mild” (Survey:America,“Therapy of the Masses,” The Economist, 6 November 2003). In a post-election NPR interview,Terry Gross asked David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute whether the rise of evangelical Christian influence through the White House troubled him, a practicing Jew. His response was poignant. “It really doesn’t. I am impressed by the moderation of what is on the agenda of modern evangelicals. It doesn’t strike me as a shocking demand.” In other words, he considered the evangelical church easy to satisfy. Setting aside the fact that the “moral values vote” helped cement his institute’s desired election result, Frum’s astute conclusion about the relative innocuousness of the American church begs serious reflection. Despite our sprawling campuses, multimedia-powered worship, best-selling books, and thriving ministries, the world doesn’t find us particularly compelling, let alone threatening.We are neither hot nor cold. What’s behind our tepid and incon-

sequential existence? Why do we ask of Washington little more than the protection of sexual norms and unborn fetuses? Is it because we lack the theological sophistication necessary to educe the social dimensions of morality? Is biblical ignorance undermining our ability to ethically address racism, poverty, and war? Have a handful of high-powered evangelicals managed to rally three-fourths of the church around their well-honed pronouncement of “non-negotiables”? Or has the vote-seeking marketing prowess of political strategists deftly repackaged the gospel to our liking? While I believe all these factors play a role, I would argue that the church’s current anemia cannot be explained solely by scriptural ignorance or unquestioning deference to moralistic punditry. Doing so dangerously discounts our propensity to choose what we want to hear and reject.The Scriptures assert that ignorance and passivity are willful:“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Luke 8:8); “Do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:8);“We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance; we sang a dirge, you didn’t cry” (Matt. 11:17).What drives our selective hearing? Might there be idols we seek to hide and protect? We usually expose our captivity to idols when our defenses flare up. Last year, with growing concern about our government’s foreign and domestic policies, our pastoral staff produced a series of articles to exegete the current political milieu through a gospel lens. Our hope was not only to stimulate gospel reflection among our own parishioners but also to promote dialogue among brothers and sisters at large. While our electoral bias was not obscured, our explicit goal was to get Christians to think, not to tell them how to vote. The at-large reactions were instructive: “I can’t believe you’re producing this propaganda!”; “Don’t you see how divisive and deceptive you are being?”;“It’s obvious that you base your judgments on debate perPRISM 2005

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formances and polls rather than issues and character”;“How can you arrogantly criticize someone just because they seem less articulate than you?”;“You like to appear ‘thoughtful’ when in fact you’re simply listening to the media”;“Since when have we taken an antiwar and anti-White House perspective?You’ve bought into a bunch of lies!” What was most striking was not the ensuing fount of opposing perspective, but rather the defensive intensity that accompanied it.And while there is nothing particularly unchristian about being punchy, the reactions fired were rarely based on anything remotely biblical or theological. Essentially, we were written off before any meaningful dialogue could start. In other words, in our experience, political dialogue among Christians simply parrots the prevailing culture war. We vilify the same enemies, whether liberals, conservatives, big government, big business, terrorists, CEOs, academic elitists, politicians, talk show hosts, movie producers, etc. And while God freely judges all human agency, it appears that we’ve forgotten that our fundamental battle is “not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities.” We thrash about selfrighteously while the world watches in amusement or disdain. For the sake of the church’s witness, I believe it is time for us to interrogate the secular nature of our political discourse. What’s behind our doctrinaire, knee-jerk responses? Why do our defenses go up when biblical inquiry questions our personal politics? What exactly is it that we are so anxious to defend? Might it be that the real Enemy resides a lot closer to home than we care to admit? ■ Craig Wong is the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a congregationbased nonprofit located in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves low-income families through academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy.


ON BEING THE CHURCH CRAIG WONG

What Does the Church Need to Be in America Today? When I ask other Christians if they think it realistic to expect more for the American church than what it consists of today, I generally get one of four responses: (a) “What more is there?” (shallow optimism) (b) “Are you kidding?” (despairing cynicism) (c) “Who knows?” (disengaged apathy) (d) “Oh, God, I hope so…” (pained but expectant yearning) While some variant of the first three responses is the most common, I vastly prefer the last one because, unlike the others, it implies the promise of a dialogue in which I deeply desire to engage fellow believers.Therefore, I am grateful for the forum provided by this new PRISM column because it expands my opportunity for conversation with brothers and sisters whose taste of the gospel has them wanting more for the American church, particularly in these times. This column is for those of you who believe in what the church can be, not out of confidence in technique or methodology, but rather because of the gospel’s power to deliver people from captivity.You love the church, not because you’ve found a congregation that fulfills your requirements or agrees with your personal sense of things, but rather because she is the beloved bride of Christ, through whom the “wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and

authorities in the heavenly places.”You mourn for the church in this country because you see her largely in bondage. And, like my congregation and me, you long for company. I am deeply blessed to be a part of a congregation in San Francisco led by pastors whose singular passion for the gospel refuses to allow their parishioners to settle for woefully inadequate identification with either “conservative evangelicalism” on one side or “religious progressivism” on the other. From the beginning our pastors have consistently held out the question of what it means to be the church, an ecclessiological pursuit that, if taken seriously, assumes a conversion that will put us at odds with the surrounding culture.We seek to embrace corporately a Good News that, by its very nature, has profoundly political dimensions. In other words, proclamation of a triumphal, cross-bearing King presupposes that war is being waged, in heaven and earth, between God and the pretenders of this age. Therefore, as a congregation we believe we are at our healthiest when our worship leads to collective discernment—and repudiation —of such pretenders. Only then can we begin to embody hope to a nation mired in a massive and exasperating ideological game of red and blue. I begin this column on the heels of a particularly instructive election season, not so much because of what was said, but because of what was not said. Staying true to the advice of their pricey and science-savvy marketing consultants, our presidential candidates catered relentlessly to our economic insecurities, pietistic sensibilities, and self-preservationist instincts.We were inundated, week after arduous week, with endless banter over who can best revive the economy, preserve the traditional American family structure, and lead military excursions with manly competence.What the public discourse remains clear of is any reflection

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on the root causes of poverty and racism, their relationship to U.S. foreign policy, the global costs of our “national interests,” and the impact of fear-driven nationalism on our collective character. Silence on these issues makes perfect sense along the campaign trail, for political strategists are keen to tiptoe around America’s sacred cows. However, the commensurate silence of the American church unmasks her subservience to golden calves she can no longer see. Do we as the church have the wherewithal to call an idol an idol? Are we prepared to suffer the consequences? This is a question that continues to challenge us here in San Francisco, a city that revels in its liberal progressiveness while pricing out its poor; a mecca of tourism whose success hinges on an underpaid, immigrant labor force; a local government willing to speak out on the use of force, while hosting Pacific Rim multinationals whose designs depend on that force. Faithfulness to the gospel in such a context is complex, as I’m sure it is in yours—but let’s work on it, shall we? For if we long for the church truly to be the church in America today, we really have no other option. Together, let us expect greater things of the church, not because it is “realistic” but because the gospel mercifully and graciously insists that we do so. May the conversation begin… ■ Craig Wong is a member of Grace Fellowship Community Church (GFCC) and the executive director of Grace Urban Ministries (GUM), a nonprofit founded by GFCC in 1996. Located in San Francisco’s Mission District, GUM works alongside the congregation to serve among children, youth, and families who face significant socioeconomic adversity. Such ministries include academic tutoring, youth job-training, adult education, health services, and advocacy. Craig and his wife, Tina, are the parents of four young children.

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