Inscription: Writing God’s Words on Our Hearts & Minds
Part 62: The Sin of Indifference
January 8, 2012
We are continuing our series reading through the Bible. How many of you were able to do read this week? I really encourage it.
Scripture reading: Amos 4:1-3
On Wednesday, Marilyn sent me a text saying “It’s worth like 1,000 points if you would watch my movie with me tonight.” I typically don’t like watching movies and had been planning on working, so I told her I’d watch “a little” then get to work.
The movie was “The Help,” and before I knew it I was sucked in. It is basically the stories of several different black housekeepers in 1950’s Mississippi – very engaging.
* I was struck by how many of the characters, black and white, were victims of that system, seemingly unable to get out.
Afterwards, I got back to work, which included a book entitled “When Helping Hurts.” In it is tells the story of Charles Marsh, a pastor’s son growing up in Laurel, Mississippi. Laurel was also the home to an infamous KKK Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers.
There is no doubt my father loathed the Klan when he thought about them at all. In his heart of hearts, he considered slavery a sin, racisms like Germany’s or South Africa’s an offense to the faith, and he taught me as much in occasional pronouncements on Southern history over homework assignments. “There is no justification for what we did to the Negro. It was an evil thing and we were wrong.” Nevertheless, the work of the Lord lay elsewhere. “Be faithful in church attendance, for your presence can, if nothing else, show that you are on God’s side when the doors of the Church are opened,” he advised in the church bulletin. Of course, packing the pews is one of any minister’s fantasies-there’s always the wish to grow, grow, grow. But the daily installments of Mississippi burning, the crushing poverty of the town’s Negro inhabitants, the rituals of white supremacy, the smell of terror pervading the streets like Masonite’s stench, did not figure into his sermons or in our dinner table conversations or in the talk of the church. These were, to a good Baptist preacher like him, finally matters of politics, having little or nothing to do with the spiritual geography of a pilgrim’s journey to paradise. Unwanted annoyances? Yes. Sad evidences of our human failings? Certainly. But all of these would be rectified in some eschatological future-”when we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”1
Q As you watch that movie, read things like this, you wonder, “Would I have done anything different?”
As I processed all of this, I thought about how moving all of this was, yet this is not our struggle – we deal with racism, but on such a lesser scale.
We have a very different struggle that we face today, but like Rev. Marsh, we are tempted to treat it as a political problem, something that is unfortunate, but not really connected with what happens in church.
* I’m talking about poverty both in the US and around the world.
In America 15% of the population are defined as poor. While I have reason to doubt how “poor” many of these poor are, there is serious suffering in America, especially with the Recession.
* Poverty isn’t just about lack of money; can also be about ignorance, sin, or injustice.
But the picture around the world is far worse: 2.5 billion live on less than $2 a day, 40%. That is over 8x the population of the US. The poverty in the slums around the world are simply unimaginable to us.
Amos’ message to us
And this brings us to the book of Amos. Amos was a contemporary of Hosea; they both ministered around the same time and it is conceivable that they knew each other.
* They have similar messages, calling Israel to stop worshiping other gods and devote themselves wholeheartedly to God.
As I said last week, we must be careful when we apply the prophets to our situation and not assume that we are in just as bad of shape as them.
* I used that opening passage because it represents Amos’ style, not because I think you are a bunch of cows!
But as I read through the book several times, one passage leaped out at me. It is a little too close for comfort.
Amos 6:1-7 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come! 2 Go to Calneh and look at it; go from there to great Hamath, and then go down to Gath in Philistia. Are they better off than your two kingdoms? Is their land larger than yours? 3 You put off the evil day and bring near a reign of terror. 4 You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
Keep in mind, from a Biblical perspective, even poor Americans are far close to the wealthy side than the poverty side.
* Rich had nice beds, poor had no beds.
* Rich eat choice meat, poor got meat 3-5 times a year.
* Rich had time to play, poor were always working.
* Rich had plenty of booze and make up, not the poor.
Q What is this passage saying, that wealth is bad? That having luxuries is ungodly?
This passage is not saying luxuries are innately bad; that contradicts Scripture. The Proverbs 31 woman had high-end clothing; Nehemiah provided a lavish feast each day.
Money is not sinful, but it is dangerous. It is like really sharp knife – its sharpness means it does the job better, but it also means that you need to be more careful.
This passage highlights two of the dangers of wealth, two dangers we ignore at our own peril:
1. Complacent confidence
Amos 6:1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
The leaders felt secure in their ability to control their own destiny. They were literally trusting in “Mount Samaria” because their city was a natural fortress.
* And they felt secure because of their money; money provides an illusion of control.
“When Helping Hurts” shares a study that expresses the way that the poor feel about being poor. Surprisingly, they don’t talk about money nearly as much as power – feeling powerless against the system, nature, their circumstances.
* It is the strength and weakness of America that we believe ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny.
It is a strength because through it we do get more done. The book tells the story of Peruvian farms who lost most of grain to rats because their worldview made them victims of nature.
* It’s a weakness because we think we can control everything – but every now and again that illusion is pulled away.
Q Is your confidence in God or yourself?
Q How would you answer this question: If I lost my job it would be okay because:
* I have three month’s salary in the bank.
* I have a back-up job.
* It won’t be, life will be over.
* There is always welfare.
* God cares for me even more than the sparrows.
I am NOT saying don’t have a savings account, or do take wise precautions – Proverbs has a lot of say about how important those things are.
I am that those can’t be your security; they can all disappear in a flash and woe to you if God isn’t your provider.
As far back as Deuteronomy, God warned that wealth can make us feel independent from God:
Deuteronomy 8:17-18 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
Even as you enjoy the luxuries, never forget your God who gave it all to you. One of the big ideas of “Radically Normal” is that God wants us to enjoy this life, but not at the cost of enjoying him.
Jesus’ warning is no less true today:
Matthew 6:24 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
It is wonderful to serve God and be served by money, horrible to serve money and be served by God.
Q Which one is true of you?
2. Indulgent indifference
Amos 6:4-7 4 You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
Q How do you respond to the panhandler? The large Hispanic family on food stamps? Images of starving children in Africa?
* There are two basic responses: Indifference or compassion.
Indifference can come in difference forms: You can be judgmental, condemning, or simply ignore them. But in any case you are indifferent to their plight.
* Nine times out of ten, that is my response.
Again, Amos’ problem isn’t with the luxuries per se, but it their indifference:
* They were surrounded by the poor, so what? It’s their fault for being poor.
* The nation as a whole was in danger of being destroyed. So what? We are safe here on Mt. Samaria.
I fear that I am too much like them: Sure, this recession is bad, and it has certainly affected me, but I still am fine.
There is a line from an old Christian alternative song that sums up how we tend to feel too well:
They say there’s suffering here
There’s suffering over there
There’s suffering everywhere
There’s hungerin’ and despair
There’s hunger and it’s unfair
There’s hungering everywhere
But it’s not here
No it’s not here
And if it’s not here
Then is it anywhere?2
I am afraid this is how I tend to feel. I don’t want to feel this way, but is it too overwhelming to care, there is so much need out there I can’t handle it. Easier to be indifferent.
But when I am indifferent to the poor, I am no better than Amos’ audience, and God has a real issue with that:
Proverbs 21:13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
When Helping Hurts Us and Them
Q So what do we do about it?
I don’t want to say “just care.” I am pretty cynical about programs designed to “raise awareness,” as if being aware solved anything. I am now aware that slavery is still a major problem in the world. Great, what now?
* The issue isn’t indifference, but indifference and inaction.
But the problem is that I don’t yet have the tools to lead us into action and this is not something to run off into half-cocked. Caring for the poor is a very difficult thing to do.
* It is very much like practicing medicine; it is easy to do more harm than good.
This book, “When Helping Hurts” is the by far and away the best thing I have ever read on caring for the poor. It answers all of my objections to what I have seen done poorly.
In the book, the author tells of going to Uganda to teach a church located in one of the worst slums how to build their own businesses. During his time there, he sees a witch doctor become a Christian and abandon her witchcraft.
Not long later, they visit her and find her very sick from an attempted in-home tonsil removal. She has an infection and will die if she doesn’t get penicillin, but she literally does not have the $8 for it. So he gives buys it for her.
One the flight home, he kicks himself for how he handled the situation. He said that he left things worse not better. As the reader you are asking, “How?!?” but he leaves that hanging for almost the entire book.
Then at the end he explained: This woman needed more than medicine, she needed community. Because she had HIV, she was an outcast. What he should have done was to go back to the church and challenged them to find a way to buy the medicine.
Instead, he was the great white savior swooping in and fixing everything. He actions were representative of decades of relief that removes initiative and creates more dependency.
* That is how it harms the poor.
But, he says, it also harms the giver because it reinforces our god-complex, our belief that we have all the answers and need to come in and save the poor.
* In reality, we are just as broken as they are, but in very different ways; we are in equal need of grace.
The reason for saying all that is not to discourage you from acting, but to say I want to be sure that we act in a way that helps not harms, that brings lasting change, not makes us feel better, and we do not yet have the tools to do that.
* But what I do have the tools to help us to is to care, to stop being indifferent.
This is my challenge for you: Ask God to help you genuinely care about the poor, deserving or not. This begins with prayer then follows through with practice:
When you see the panhandler, pray for him or her. I don’t care if they make more money than you; something is broken in a person for them to be willing to panhandle.
If you are able, get to know that names of the poor around you. The name of the puppy-eyed older panhandler who hangs out in front of my Starbucks is Warren. Introduce yourself to the guys who bring us our bread.
* Treat them like people, not a problem to be ignored.
I remember reading of two gentleman riding on a train during the Great Depression. The train went through one of the “Hoovervilles” as they were called, shanty towns. The first gentleman closed the shades, but the second opened them back up.
“Why do that? You know that we can’t do anything for them?” said the first. “The very least we can do,” said the second, “is to see them.”
That is my challenge to you. Whether on the street, at the store, on the TV, or in the newspaper, see them. Pray for them. Then pray for us that God will show us how to help them without hurting them our ourselves.
I want to close on this – I am convinced of two things: 1) God wants us to care for the poor:
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
2) Obedience always results in joy.
As we become conduits of God’s generosity, we experience joy. So don’t be afraid of what God might call you and I to; know that he is calling us to joy.
* I say this as much to myself as to you.
* PPT: Please text Marilyn; service is almost over: 421-5543
Q & A
1 “When Helping Hurts,” p. 36, found online at http://wyld-about-books.blogspot.com/2011/12/todays-religion-chapter_04.html
2 Lost Dogs, “The New Physics” on Scenic Route.