When I heard the call of Christ at seventeen, I thought all that mattered was eternal salvation and my personal relationship with Jesus. I only needed to read my Bible, pray, and keep my life free of sin.
But my Bible reading soon got me into trouble when I realized that Jesus didn’t just want a personal relationship with me; he wanted everything. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus taught, “and his righteousness.” He called for more than spiritual fulfillment. This everything for the sake of God’s kingdom would completely derail my own plans and aspirations.
During college I read Ronald Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I shouldn’t have had to read it to learn about poverty – I’d grown up vaguely aware of the stark contrast between the upper-middle-class neighborhood where I lived and Oakland, just twenty miles west, with its squalor, crime, and ravaged neighborhoods. But the reason for such disparity had never occurred to me; I assumed that the world would continually get better until such conditions were eliminated.
Now Sider’s book destroyed that cozy mindset. It exposed how disconnected my faith was from the world that God intended – and how disconnected I was from the rest of humanity. My indifferent, success-driven outlook was in many ways responsible for others’ suffering. Sider’s plea to rich Christians like me was to submit to God’s plan for his people. This would mean a drastic change in my life, one for which I wasn’t ready.
But God was ready. Once he had pried open my eyes wide enough to see the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the Bible then smashed my remaining rationalizations to bits. Jesus’ words in Luke 4 caught hold of me – he proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, release to the oppressed, and a social revolution to inaugurate God’s jubilee. The Old Testament’s vision of justice and peace, where every person could live with dignity, safe from greedy landlords and enterprising profiteers, helped transform my Christian imagination. Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promise, brought salvation from all sin – from structures of oppression as well as from evil desires.
In the church I attended, I heard precious little of this message. Most of my Christian friends went through life like everybody else – the church simply baptized our culture’s rituals of spending and consuming. A chasm gaped between the individualistic Christianity I knew and the new world the Bible had opened up to me.
By the time I left seminary, my quest to live according to God’s justice had thrown me into spiritual turmoil. Etched inside me was the biblical vision of justice, yet around me I saw a world of unbelievable suffering and injustice. I was then reading Bonhoeffer, Yoder, Gutierrez, Tolstoy, Wolterstorff, and Moltmann, who each in their way made me feel even more keenly the sharp edge of Jesus’ teachings, such as his command to lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.
One day I couldn’t stand it anymore. I took everything I owned – barring a few clothes, books, and my 1964 VW Bug – and deposited it at a local Salvation Army store. Now I went on a campaign to “live simply so that others can simply live.” I bought only used items, ate two meals a day instead of three, and marched on behalf of social causes. I stopped paying a portion of federal income tax to protest war, sending the money to humanitarian projects in poor countries instead. Wishing to live in solidarity with the city’s homeless, I moved to inner-city Denver. Echoing in my heart and mind were the prophet Micah’s words: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
But what did this look like in practice? For several years I sought the answer in ever more radical changes to my lifestyle. Meanwhile my activist friends, well-intentioned and dedicated, were either burning out, conflating their faith with liberal politics, or turning their social concerns, as it seemed to me, into hobbies that enabled them to live much like everyone else – a “conscious” variety of consumerism with an extra dash of self-righteousness.
While working on my doctorate, I zealously taught seminary students to re-read their Bibles focusing on God’s concern for the poor. By this time I was married, and my wife Leslie and I were living with others in a shared household, reducing our expenses still further. We sponsored a child in South America, volunteered at a homeless ministry, and helped a friend start a food pantry in the warehouse district.
But I soon began to realize how little such efforts could fix. The cycle of poverty, the breakdown of the family, drug abuse, sexual exploitation, militarism, urban decay, suicide, and domestic violence were all symptoms of a deeper malaise, one rooted in a sick and sinful worldview in which I myself was still deeply invested.
It began to dawn on me that I was part of the problem. While seeking to pursue a just world, I had continued to drink from the fountain of privilege, laying plans to secure my own livelihood in a vocation agreeable to me, choosing my own lifestyle, pursuing my own dreams. How did any of this make for true justice, in which everyone’s needs are met, everyone’s dignity is respected, and all are their brother’s and sister’s keeper? How could a self-sufficient, private life based on private property possibly be in harmony with the biblical vision of sacrifice, sharing, solidarity, and service? How could I work for justice on behalf of the downtrodden when so much of my time was spent taking care of myself?
My friends kept telling me to cool it. I was too hard on myself, they said, and my radicalism was unrealistic and theologically ungrounded. Between the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s kingdom, I had to find a compromise: spiritual vitality, yes, the kingdom of God’s justice, no; personal integrity, yes, but a new social order, no. Our task as Christians was to love God, love one another, and with any surplus, help those we can.
But didn’t Christ want us to give not just our surplus, but rather everything, like the widow with her two copper coins? And what about Micah’s vision – did living between the “now” and the “not yet” mean that we couldn’t live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?
Meanwhile, our work with the poor brought disappointments. Billy, a homeless man who got by with a bit of cash from washing windows, didn’t want to leave the streets. Even after we had helped him get an apartment, he liked it better under bridges – he didn’t have to pay rent, he argued. Gale was another such case, a middle-aged woman living in subsidized housing who was repeatedly evicted because her apartment was filled with cat feces. She wanted her cats, and that was that.
At first these experiences, and many others like them, stumped me. Still, I wondered how different I really was from Billy and Gale. Was I willing to give up running my own life on my own terms?
It was at this point I had to rethink my faith from the ground up, especially my understanding of the church. In my efforts to live justly, I had almost forgotten about the church and the role she plays in God’s economy. To be sure, by now several of us were part of a fellowship where white folk in the hood and friends from the burbs could worship together with the poor on the streets. That was wonderful – except that something was terribly missing. When the service ended, we all returned to our separate worlds, as if our Sunday morning community didn’t exist. Our avant-garde fellowship still consisted of an “us” and “them.” It was a far cry from the common life of the first church in Jerusalem, where all who belonged to Christ were as one family.
After all, the earliest Christians gave witness to a new social order and a spirituality that encompassed every facet of life. Among them, conversion to Christ expressed itself in a life where everything was shared in common, nobody was in need or forgotten, and racial, gender, and social divisions were overcome. Wasn’t this the new creation in Christ that Paul spoke of: a new way of being human, beyond self-interest, based on repentance and self-sacrifice (2 Cor. 5:17)?
Now when I opened the Bible, I saw that God wanted a people, distinct from the nations, who lived an altogether different kind of life together, one made possible by his Spirit. In the church the economics of koinonia, in which love and justice are united, could become a reality – one available to all those willing to surrender their independence to become part of a practical life of unity. Among this people, the inner and the outer, the personal and the social realms of existence could join in harmony.
I came to realize that justice does not consist of heroic good works by the well-off few or a set of new policies imposed by the enlightened on the many. It grows from the bottom up and from the inside out, through forging a life with others willing to take up the cross and voluntarily let go of their own pursuits. To fight for justice, then, I needed to change. I had to live in such a way that the very systems that fostered disenfranchisement and the ideologies that kept people apart were rendered obsolete. Wasn’t this what the church is for – to be the “new humanity” in Christ? “Turn around! The kingdom of God is at hand! Behold, I make all things new!”
Eventually my wife and I were compelled to leave everything behind – career, home, family, ministry, possessions – and threw our lot in with the Bruderhof, a group of folks who sought to live together in such a way that justice is a daily, concrete reality available to all, rich and poor.
This certainly hasn’t proved to be the end of the journey. I’m still living in relative privilege in a world where millions suffer want – a world of child hunger, mass incarceration, and organized exploitation. The distance between my professed faith and actual practice hasn’t magically vanished.
Yet the community in which my wife and I share, imperfect as it inevitably remains, is a gift of God’s Spirit – the same Spirit who spoke through Micah, who gathered the first church at Pentecost, and who will one day be “poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:14–21). My prayer is that more people will join us on this journey. Surely the world needs the good news of God’s reign of justice – and it needs a people who demonstrate this justice as a tangible reality through the life of peace that they share.