Monday, April 25, 2016

Subversive Jesus, by Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield wants to shake you up.  In Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World, Greenfield challenges the typical American middle-class version of following Jesus.  It's tempting to sit in a comfortable Sunday school class and "embrace a respectable Jesus, an agreeable teacher with pleasant stories to tell about how to be good."  We would "invite this Jesus over for a cup of tea and a chat about the weather."  But Jesus was a subversive, who came to "bring down rules from their thrones" and "fill the hungry with good things."  Maybe the way many of us are following Jesus isn't really the way Jesus would have us follow him.

"Radical hospitality" is a major theme of Subversive Jesus.  Greenfield wants us to reconsider the way we practice hospitality, community, and charity.  Greenfield and his wife lived for several years in a slum community in Cambodia.  Most of the book is about their years spent in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood, where Greenfield's family lived communally with some other Christians and fostered a sense of community with their poor, addicted, and homeless neighbors.

Practicing "radical hospitality," the Greenfields opened their home on a daily basis.  Dozens would show up for dinner and fellowship, some even staying with them for extended weeks of "pre-hab," detoxing in preparation for rehab programs.  Greenfield calls on us not to distance ourselves from the poor.  He quotes Gustavo Guitierrez, who said "You say you care about the poor.  Then tell me, what are their names?"  Greenfield got to know the poor in his neighborhood, unlike many Christians who have "outsourced hospitality to charities."  He writes, "Instead of welcoming the poor ourselves, we rely on soup kitchens and institutions.  Instead of opening our churches and homes to the hungry, we are taught to 'leave it to the professionals.'"

This type of attitude not only causes us to "miss out on the subversive sharing that Jesus invited his followers to taste as they ate a meal with strangers," but it also harms the poor.  "Traditional charity can foster a 'taking mentality' that creates dependency and strips recipients of their dignity.  Even worse, charity often violates the Golden Rule of community development: Never do for someone what they can do for themselves."

Greenfield and his family demonstrate incarnational ministry.  He points out that "too many churches see mission as something done to strangers during an annual trip to a 'foreign' place, rather than something to be lived every day as part of a lifelong, place-based vocation."  When a church group wanted to visit the neighborhood and pass out scarves, Greenfield helped them out, but quickly regretted it.  He observed that "relationships of mutuality empower the poor, whereas one-way acts of benevolence may disempower them."  Jesus, of course, is the ultimate model of incarnational ministry.  He was "known as a friend of the broken--not just a visitor."

At times Greenfield wanders into leftist economics, as you might expect, but I can forgive him that.  Economics aside--even as I type that, I hear him saying you can't put economics aside.  Put a different way--on a personal level, Greenfield challenges me to examine my own life of Christian community and my own relationships with poor people in my community.  I would love to live a life of radical hospitality much more like Greenfield's family, but my current lifestyle of working too many hours, not making enough money, spending too much time on school activities, and homework, seems to leave little room for much hospitality of any sort.  He clearly states that not everyone will be called to move to the poorest neighborhoods.  But we are all called to love our neighbors. 

If you're comfortable in your middle-class or wealthy Christian life, you might want to avoid Subversive Jesus.  It's impossible to read without conviction.  It may be that God has you just where he wants you.  God may not be calling you or me to pick up and move, but I can almost guarantee that he's calling all of us to live more like Greenfield and his family than we are today.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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