“People connect around a cause and they get tired. We need community while we work on cause.” That’s what my friend, Kermit Moss, pastor of Manhattan Bible Church in New York and interim director of black church studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, shared with a group of Presbyterian pastors gathered around tables in a hotel conference room. While Kermit’s presentation contained many worthy insights, this one stuck with me. Perhaps because I am in a season overflowing with causes – important, good causes – and find myself sometimes tired, bordering on bereft.
Just last night, as I write this, Richard Spencer and his white supremacist, torch-wielding, golf-shirt-and-khaki-pants-wearing supporters, returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, to pay homage to Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause his statue represents. Spencer noted in a tweet that “Charlottesville 3.0 was a success.” He says they will come back.
I have been reading articles about the civil rights work of Oliver White Hill and Spottswood William Robinson III from decades ago, and I am also reading about the current resurgence of segregated schools in the South. I am about a third of the way into the National Book Award winner, “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi, wrestling with his premise that racist thoughts and theories were constructed to uphold and justify oppressive policies and actions. A few weeks ago, I heard Valerie Cooper of Duke Divinity School lecture on the hyper-segregation of 11 a.m. Sunday morning, our churches more homogeneous than the neighborhoods they inhabit.
In reflecting on what has changed, I cannot help but recognize how much remains the same. Clearly, I am late to this revelation, a revelation that is no revelation to those for whom such racism is a constant reality.
I keep attending meetings. I keep reading. I keep listening. I am trying to learn. I am seeking to advocate for justice, for equity. But I don’t want to champion a cause. I want to participate in genuine community. To reduce justice to a cause not only makes people tired, it lumps individuals into categories, transforms abundant life into a zero-sum game and threatens to place winning, not faithfulness, as the goal.
I don’t want to dedicate my life to a cause, any cause, no matter how pressing and valid and righteous. I yearn to give my life to Jesus Christ, knowing that following Jesus means working against the empire on behalf of the oppressed, knowing that calling Jesus “Lord” means belonging to a family not of my own choosing, knowing that the Sermon on the Mount is both aspirational and commanded.
That is why I must have community. A community of accountability. A community of care. A community that emboldens courage. A community that questions my assumptions, calls me on my self-righteousness and refuses to tolerate my complacency. In short, I need the church. I need the Body of Christ. I constantly need to be reminded, in the words of Jacques Ellul, “The Christian life does not spring from a ‘cause,’ but it moves toward an ‘end’; it is this which completely changes the outlook for humanity and renders the Christian life different from every other life.”
Only when the community of faith points to Jesus Christ, the one in whom we are united, and proclaims the promise of his present and future Lordship, will we be able to participate tirelessly in his reconciling work. No cause will ever command such loyalty, commitment or love. No cause can truly knit us together. Cause without community threatens to turn us into Pharisees, separate and pure. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit inextricably binds together those once estranged and hostile to each other, the good and the bad, gathered together around God’s abundant banquet table. Relentless work for a cause makes for burnout and bitterness. Disciples of Jesus Christ, sent out together to be salt and light, manifest defiant joy even in the face of temporal defeat.
As we meet and read, listen and learn, advocate, protest, preach, teach and march, we cannot forget that we do so not for the sake of a cause, but in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us into community, the beloved community, the sent community, that bears witness to the promises of God, the community that neither fears nor accepts present realities because we know the End.
Grace and peace,