Jesus consistently confronts the powers at work in politics, religion, and culture whenever they marginalize and oppress; He crosses gender and racial boundaries, He ignores social taboos and religious tradition, He confronts political leaders and the influential elite; all of this in spite of the implications for our comfort or our pocketbooks. Returning again to the parable of the Good Samaritan: given the context of the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ closing commentary, it becomes clear that Jesus’ main point is not that we are to be nice people. Rather Jesus is making it clear that it is simply not enough that we refrain from assaulting and robbing people on the Jericho road, rather godliness requires that we go out of our way to address the problems of others, regardless of who caused those problems. Jesus makes it clear that when His students are confronted with the facts of hunger and AIDS on another continent, homelessness and fatherlessness on the other side of town, or loneliness and divorce on the other side of the street, they must never dismiss these as ‘not my problem.’ Jesus makes apparent by His lifestyle, and the early Church displays through imitating Him, that we are to “wrestle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”37
Suburban culture is woefully unaware of the systemic nature of justice. The process of suburbanization is a clear example of a systemic injustice that must be confronted and yet has no individual culprit; in past decades the people with the means to leave the City did so, and with them went the jobs, the adequate housing, the leadership, and even the access to healthy food. Generally those left behind were those without the means to leave, the orphans and widows, the foreigners, the poor. The very existence of the suburbs is parasitic. Without the infrastructure of the City, suburbanites could never maintain the lifestyle they have built; these communities exist because of their proximity to an urban environment that they do not have to take responsibility for.
The Western consumer culture that is so prevalent in American suburbs takes for granted the ability to drive to a big-box-store and purchase affordable goods, rarely questioning the realities of child exploitation, environmental degradation, or corporate heavy-handedness that provides that ability. Our global economic system incentivizes corporate greed and consumer waste; third world parents must chose between bathing their children in runoff wastes, or subsisting in extreme poverty; third world husbands must chose between starving their families, or being absent from them. Western purchasing power is tearing the world apart, and we are largely ignorant of it. We believe our wealth, our upward mobility, our education, our social network, and even our work ethic, are a product of our own moral effort, when in reality they are inculcated to us by the system we live in; the system tilts in our favor, and so we never really look too closely at the details of it.
The systemic nature of justice, however, becomes readily apparent in an urban context. Generational poverty, illiteracy, addiction, and dependency are widespread. A child raised by a mother who cannot read, and a father who occasionally shows up to collect money to support his addiction; who attends a classroom with two dozen other children in similar circumstances; whose role models are dealers and thugs; and whose whole circle of relationships consist of people who have never left the City, nor worked consistently, nor gone to college; such a child will almost surely live in such a way as to perpetuate that brokenness to his own children. When confronted by such an environment, it becomes obvious that individual choice is largely overridden by forces of impotence and despair; something like a system wide failure is taking place.
When we pursue the Church Growth dream in a suburban community we blind ourselves to the plight of our neighbor. We become guilty of walking past the bloody man on the side of the Jericho road. We are unwilling to do the difficult work of teaching broken people how to work hard, be responsible, and be self-confident, because we understand that it will cost us time, effort, and ultimately a building full of smiling people once a week. We are unwilling to confront the realities of a global economy, or acknowledge that our purchasing dollars may well fund injustice. We may appease our conscience with charitable giving, but not at the cost of our place of cultural privilege.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to set ones face against the cultural, economic, and political forces at work in the world. A disciple of Jesus will go beyond mere charity and labor to see justice come; as St Augustine says, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”38 If we are His students then we will listen to His voice regardless of the cost. It is not a matter of profits and losses, but rather of obedience. Charity is the easy way out, to our shame we often give, but rarely confront the systemic injustice. This reveals a serious problem in our discipleship process; how is it possible to call someone a maturing disciple of Jesus who is unconcerned at the way wealth, comfort, safety and security have been siphoned off of the world’s poor and poured out in his lap?