This article was originally posted on September 2021 by Missio Alliance.
“Dad, why are you working on this situation?”
That was the question my middle child asked as I was reflecting on the work I was doing in the community to support a local young man caught in an unjust system. I was talking about the group of clergy and community members that I’d organized to send notes of encouragement to this young man and how we were planning to watch the upcoming court proceedings, asking the county prosecutor to drop charges that would require future prison or jail time. As our dinner continued, my child pressed me: “There are so many people suffering everyday, why get involved in this person’s life?”
I answered, “I got involved because this story broke my heart.”
I was heartbroken by the physical burden this local son’s mother was carrying around: a five-inch binder, organized with her son’s various medical and behavioral health records, to say nothing of the emotional burden of believing she was alone in this struggle. When I heard that she felt this way, I was moved to compassion and started to openly weep. As I was lamenting the realities of this mom feeling alone in her own community, the words of Jesus in Matthew 11 came rushing in:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
This mom’s burden reminded me of songwriter-artist Andre Henry’s art piece in 2016, where for six months during his time at Fuller Seminary, he carried around a 100-pound boulder as an externalized burden of what it means to be Black in America. It was Henry who placed these words of protest in my imagination: “It doesn’t have to be this way!”
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
The disciples and early followers of Jesus asked for power to defeat the empire and to realize their nationalist dream. God answered, not with power to defeat their enemies, but with power to become witnesses to the resurrection. The resurrection invites a reordering of the priorities of those who have power.
The apostles and early disciples wanted power over people, but they got power to become witnesses instead.
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
God was going to great lengths to expand how the resurrection changed everything. Empire, poverty, hunger, imprisonment, punishment, despair, and death aren’t the only options. The resurrection says, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” The resurrection signals that God’s kingdom is coming—that this kingdom is breaking into the present reality with forgiveness, mercy, grace, compassion, and new life.
The resurrection tells us that we can resist those who cause harm, we can divest from systems of punishment, and we can invest in human dignity and structures of flourishing. The resurrection tells us that working together, we can recreate our institutions to better embody our shared values and work collectively towards a world where no one is left behind.
As the early disciples and apostles bear witness to the resurrection, more and more people get involved and join the community of believers. Luke puts it this way in Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As people fled the death and scarcity of empire, they found a community (of life) that was being formed by the resurrection and its witnesses, changing the way people belonged, behaved, and believed.
This community was embracing what had been present from the beginning: that in God’s economy, there is always enough. They were demonstrating this as they sold their property, as they sold their possessions to give those who had need. It’s almost like the resurrection proved that Jesus was right all along.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
These verses in Luke 12 no longer feel like a burden; it seems that it is a privilege now. Little by little, the community was becoming the people of God, and in God’s economy, there was enough. Or as Luke says, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Since this community had no rival, the community grew.
Building Social Capital
This witnessing community demonstrates what sociologists since 1980 have been defining, researching, tracking, and reporting: the need for us to pay attention to and nurture our social capital, the fabric of our connections and interactions with each other. Across all fields of study, social capital (or its absence) has an undeniable impact on the well-being of individuals, organizations, and communities:
- Economic research teaches us that social capital makes workers more productive, companies are more competitive, and nations and economies more prosperous.
- Psychological studies demonstrate that social capital reduces depression in individuals and increases individual willingness to help others.
- Health research reveals that social capital decreases rates of hearts attacks, suicides, colds, strokes, and cancer. Social capital also has a direct effect on an individual’s ability to recover from or fight illness.
- Sociology experiments suggest that social capital increases test scores and graduation rates. It also reduces crime, juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, welfare dependency, and drug abuse.
- From political science, we know that extensive social capital makes government agencies more responsive, efficient, and innovative.
These scientists, researchers, and demographers have discovered what Jesus already knew and what this witnessing community in Acts is demonstrating—that life is better lived together. We need social capital to live.
Activating our Prophetic Imagination
The empire tells us that we if don’t look out for ourselves, no one else will. Jesus calls this a lie. And he offers us a gift—an invitation to live life in community with him and his Father. Our instinct is to be selfish and possessive, which we see more today than ever; just go to a school board meeting or turn on the news as Christian after Christian claims religious exemptions to wearing a mask for the good of all of us. We are witnessing a whole generation of Christians who are looking out for number one. We are so far away from the community in Acts. But Jesus knows there is a better way to live life, so he resists the empire’s invitation to go it alone.
So coming back to my child who asked me why I got involved, it occurred to me that part of the reason I did so was because of calling, capacity, and proximity. You, like I have at various points in the past, may have responded in despair, “That’s just the way the world is.” But the resurrection reveals that is a lie. The early followers of Jesus revealed in the midst of empire that the world could be reordered; that care and love as organizing values could defeat punishment, dehumanization, and oppression. This community stands out as an example for us today to do the risky thing and trust in the resurrected Jesus. To resist the siren call of the empire and ask Jesus to break our hearts for the stories of pain, suffering, and dehumanization we hear in our communities. To resist apathy and instead to be courageous enough to look around and see the sons and daughters in our unjust systems and come alongside them with what the resurrection offers: hope. As resurrected believers, we need to be the ones to organize, fight injustice, and break the systems in place. And we the resurrected believers need to be the people who reach out and say, “You’re not alone.”