Social Issues

“Radical” review: 107-140

This is another chapter of Radical where I agree with the basic argument David makes. It’s a slightly longer chapter, which seems appropriate since he’s trying to convince an American audience that meeting earthly, physical needs of others is one of the fruits Christians are supposed to bear as believers. Obviously I agree with this premise, although we get there through different theological means.

To me, I see meeting physical needs as a requirement for Christians because ours is a religion that teaches our physical existence is sacred. Immanuel is God with us, God become flesh, God dwelling among us. When we observe the sacraments, we baptize our bodies and eat and drink. All through the accounts of Jesus’ ministry the “good news” was Jesus healing us and feeding us, not just giving us theological nuggets to chew on (although he also did that aplenty). I believe that the ultimate goal of the Christian God is to redeem and restore our physical existence, for us to remain embodied and earthy, except glorified.

Because of that, I prioritize making sure people’s needs are met and work to end human suffering.

However, David’s theological motivations are different. This chapter lacks the sort of impetus I’ve described above; instead, his argument amounts to Jesus said so and it glorifies God. This is not the sort of reasoning I’d ordinarily quibble over– if you are led toward taking care of people and ending poverty and starvation, I don’t exactly care what brings you here. However, this is an influential book, and I am going to quibble because of this:

The point is not simply to meet a temporary need or change a startling statistic; the point is to exalt the glory of Christ as we express the gospel of Christ through the radical generosity of our lives. (135)

There’s this thread of an idea that meeting needs isn’t sufficient as an end unto itself. If the person doesn’t come out on the other side of a Christian handing him soup with some urge to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, then giving him the soup was rather pointless. Meetings needs is a means to an end, and that end is “sharing the Gospel.” Except, the more I read about what Jesus did and said, it becomes startlingly apparent that Jesus took care of people’s physical needs far more often than he talked about the evangelical concept of “salvation.”

In fact, he talks about forgiving sins every so often, but most often he zeroes in on following him. And what does “following him” look like? Helping him help people. Feeding his sheep. Loving people. David talks a lot about the rich man that Jesus instructed to sell all that he had, but ignores the fact that Jesus concludes sell all that you have with follow me. Not “confess me as Lord,” not “admit you’re a sinner and need me to save you from your sin.” He says do what I’m doing. Only God can forgive sin, so what else is left, exactly?

Helping starving children in Africa and Asia isn’t a means to an end. It is an end.

The most glaring problem about this chapter to me, though, is that he constantly conflates his interpretation of the Bible with What is Absolutely True, Factual, and Accurate. The best example of that is here:

Of course, important principles are expressed throughout Scripture on the subject [of money]. One such principle is that wealth is not inherently evil. Scripture does not condemn riches or possessions in and of themselves. (112)

Again, the Bible does not teach that wealth alone implies unrighteousness or warrants condemnation. The rich man in this story [rich man and Lazarus] is not in hell because he had money. Instead, he is in hell because he lacked faith in God, leading him to indulge in luxuries while ignoring the poor outside his gate. (114)

As I read these pages, all I could think was are you sure about that, buddy? for two reasons. Reason number one comes from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. This is one of the first differences they highlight:

Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves. If you make your slice of pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor.

Psalm 52:7 describes the wicked man who “trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!” In our Western mind, this man demonstrated his wickedness in two ways: he trusted his wealth and he destroyed others. Yet the psalmist considers these to be one action … (41)

They go on to explain the linguistic reasons for why that is, but I’ll stop with that. We see this same concept echoed in the Rich Man and Lazarus parable– in fact, David’s argument that he went to hell because he “lacked faith” isn’t supported by the text; in fact, all it says is “remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” There’s nothing there about faith. It’s just about you had good things so now you’re in agony.

I’m not saying David is necessarily wrong here. He could be right. I just think he’s got an over-inflated sense of his interpretation being The Only Correct One.

The last significant problem I have with chapter six comes here:

And this is really the core issue of it all. Do we trust him? Do we trust Jesus when he tells us to give radically for the sake of the poor? Do we trust him to provide for us when we begin using the resources he has given us to provide for others? Do we trust him to know what is best for our lives, our families, and our financial futures? (123-24)

No.

No, I actually don’t.

I’ve known a lot of Christians who trusted to God to “provide for all their need according to his riches in glory” and ended up with malnourished children because they couldn’t afford to buy enough food. There’s tons of stories of people mysteriously leaving groceries on porches, but for every single one of those there’s a Christian kid not having life-threatening medical needs met because these Christian parents don’t have the money to get them treated. And, to be clear, David is specifically talking about sacrificing so much that not being able to receive medical treatment is a significant possibility.

So no. I don’t trust God to provide for me when I have all the hard proof I need to illustrate that this is not something they’re in the regular business of doing. Either God doesn’t provide all our need, or they don’t think that “food” and “shelter” and “healing” are needs. Obviously, Jesus, Immanuel, shows us that they do think these things are important. I agree with David that we are charged with continuing Jesus’ ministry, with feeding his sheep. However, I think that putting ourselves at risk of losing food stability, shelter, and medical treatment isn’t how we’re supposed to go about doing that.

This chapter illustrates really well that David is coming at this from a good place– he really does care about people, about the poor, especially. Where I disagree with him isn’t about the core idea as much as it is a matter of degree. Handsome and I prioritize meeting other people’s needs– our budget revolves around it. However, it is held in balance with the fact that I get two massages every month to manage my fibromyalgia and saving up for things like ellipticals. We all define “need” differently, and I don’t think anyone should judge each other for where we draw the line.

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  • Jurgan

    I don’t think Jesus even once says “believe in me” during any of the Synoptic Gospels (John includes a couple such things, which I believe is because John’s focus was on differentiating Christianity from Judaism). He frequently says “follow me.”

  • Jackalope

    I think as well that if we are able, we have a certain amount of responsibility in the domain of eating, having shelter, medical assistance, etc. Just saying that we’ll trust in God to meet our needs without meeting God halfway doesn’t seem faithful either. Of course there will always be people who can’t do this, but if I have a job that allows me to pay my bills and I choose not to because I’m giving all of my money away, then that doesn’t seem to be responsible.

    • To be fair, David doesn’t take it to “don’t pay bills!” levels. Mostly he encourages a general reduction in acquiring stuff– big houses, nice cars, expensive clothes– but he does believe in giving away anything that he considers “excess.” He just has a harsh definition of what he considers “necessary.”

      For example, Handsome and I were talking last night about this post, and one of the things that we’re saving up for is a fire pit. There’s no way you could define a fire pit as “necessary”; however, we plan to use our fire pit to host gatherings and exercise the fruits of generosity and hospitality with our community. So while it’s not “necessary”, it does contribute to happiness and goodness in the world, so in our minds it’s worth it. We certainly will get the cheapest one we’ll think will last the longest, but David would disagree with us. He would say we should have given that money away.

  • Jurgan

    “The rich man in this story [rich man and Lazarus] is not in hell because he had money. Instead, he is in hell because he lacked faith in God, leading him to indulge in luxuries while ignoring the poor outside his gate.”

    I think the rich man did have faith in God, intellectually at least. At the end, Abraham tells Dives that it wouldn’t do any good for him to go back and tell his friends what awaits them (I always wondered if Jacob Marley was based on this story) because “they have the law and the prophets, what else do they need?” If the problem was “I don’t believe in God,” then seeing someone rise from the dead would certainly change things. However, if Dives did believe in God, regularly attended synagogue, etc. yet didn’t live his faith, then it makes sense. He had thousands of words about the need to help people and he ignored it; why would a miracle change that? Most likely he’d go back to his old ways once the shock wore off.

    • Yeah– ever since I’ve actually read the minor prophets I can’t accept the typical evangelical interpretation of the Rich Man and Lazarus anymore. Those books beat you over the head with “DEAR LORD IN HEAVEN JUST FEED PEOPLE WHY IS THIS SO HARD”.

      • Northwoods Dan

        Spot on. I once did a quick read of the minor prophets in order to get the “big picture” of what they were saying and because I was lazy. I came away with the OVERWHELMING importance of caring for the poor and oppressed. It was really striking with the quick read. I dovetail this with Jesus saying love God and love others, all the law and prophets hang on these two. Things made a lot more sense to me after my dense brain gave way to how complicated I had always made things.

    • Wait. Wait. …you just blew my mind. The interpretation I have ALWAYS heard for the “they still won’t get it even if someone rises from the dead” line was “your friends who don’t believe in God, they CLAIM it’s because they don’t have evidence, but that’s not the real reason. They still wouldn’t believe even if they did see someone rise from the dead. No- on some level, they know [the Christian version of] God exists, but they’re just so sinful, they don’t want to follow him.”

      But if the story is saying that the problem is “the rich guy didn’t help Lazarus”, rather than “didn’t believe the correct things” then… wow.

    • Tim

      Not only all of that, but the Rich Man and Lazarus isn’t a parable about heaven and hell at all, per se. It definitely has more to do with social justice, and it also has to do with Israel and the Gentiles. The Rich Man represents the Jews and Lazarus the Gentiles. Among other things, Jesus was making a point about how Israel had blown it, and what that would mean for the future.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I personally care alot about the poor because I was one of them, and I know what it felt like. My mother was bipolar, and my father left her a few days after I was born. She had a complete breakdown when I was 5 months old, and was hospitalized for two years. I stayed with various relatives then, and also after she came out of the hospital and reclaimed me. She was incapable of working. Sometimes she was incapable of showering, getting out of bed, or doing much but cry and sleep. We lived with my grandmother, who would periodically get frustrated with the situation and threaten to throw us both out. As a child I thought I might have to go live on street. As an adult I know my grandmother didn’t mean it, but as a child I took her at her word. I do ministry with the homeless now, and that time I believed I might be one of them is never far from my thoughts. I could also say I do it because Jesus changed my life, He gave me the courage and the vision to make a life for myself outside of a dysfunctional family.

  • Beroli

    Of course, important principles are expressed throughout Scripture on
    the subject [of money]. One such principle is that wealth is not
    inherently evil. Scripture does not condemn riches or possessions in and
    of themselves. (112)

    Wait what? Does he actually have support for this? (That is, that Scripture explicitly expresses the principle that being rich is not inherently wrong?)

    • Supposedly he thinks that “follow G-d and he will rain down wealth and status on you” is one of the core messages of the Old Testament (like Abraham, or Joseph …) and that Jesus’ Jewish audience was utterly shocked when he started saying things like “how hard it is for a rich man to enter into heaven.”

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s pulling this out of his ass and he never even bothered consulting Judaic resources on this concept.

    • Lindsaydoodles

      The question I always have for believing that having too much money is inherently evil is how do we define too much (aka rich)? My husband and I, who only this year cleared the mark to pay income tax, are considered so, so, so wealthy to much of the world. I carefully budget our food… but when I go to the grocery store, I can often afford to buy things we don’t strictly need. Are we rich? Is that wrong? Would we be rich if we made twice as much but our cost of living went up twice as much too? Would we be sinning if we made an extra $10,000 a year and could afford to (among other things) go on a vacation where we stayed in actual hotel and flew to our destination instead of driving and staying with friends? I have a really hard time with drawing a line on the amount of money one is allowed to have, since it seems so arbitrary and subjective… and if you don’t have any extra money, you have nothing to give. Gah, this subject… it confuses me, and it always has.

  • Finally, another Christian admits being practical in the area of “God provides.” In seminary, I got to know families living below the poverty line, one with as many as six kids crammed in a two-bedroom apartment. They basically lived off student loans and donations from their church, and the husband was considering a doctorate on top of the masters-in-progress to become an apologetics professor. Mom did not have a job outside the home, much less a college degree.

    I smile and nod, but inside I think, how irresponsible and unfair to your kids.