The Risk of Following Jesus into the World: Mission and Marginality

As we’ve stepped into our calling, following Jesus into the world, we have, on occasion, found ourselves in close relationship with people who are not “nice,” “proper,” or “easy.” The sorts of people that certain other sorts of people see as problematical and would just as soon not deal with.crystal-ball-ss-1920

This is actually just another way of describing marginalization… If I am the “sort” of person who can actually succeed in “doing without” certain other forms of people, then the ability to make that choice indicates that I obviously have a certain degree of power. And the place where I “locate” the persons that I would rather not encounter would, rightly, be called the margins. Something is “marginal” precisely when its presence or absence makes no significant different to the “bottom line.”

Iraqi_refugee_children,_Damascus,_Syria - James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA
Refugee children, Damascus, Syria. Photo by James Gordon, Los Angeles, CA

The thing about being in relationship, even community, with marginal people is that they are seen as risky. We’ve received “words of caution” on numerous occasions to be “careful,” because opening up to “certain persons” could be “dangerous.” In some cases, it’s a risk to reputation, in others, the fear that a person might bring in pernicious spiritual influences, powers, or presences.

Luke 7:39 “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity and heart of those who share such expressions of concern… but that doesn’t mean they’re right. The Pharisee in the above reference is almost certainly sincere, but wrong, and his misapprehension leads him to marginalize Jesus himself, to conclude he is not, in fact who he says he is. The reality is that expressions of caution that someone’s presence in your fellowship could be “bringing in evil” or about the “risk” that a person poses, typically come from a “centralizing” perspective. But, if Jesus is present at the margins, what then?

Are we not willing to be the Body of Christ, the one who touches lepers who should contaminate him, who allows prostituted women to touch him, knowing how scandalized people are? That’s why, no matter the source, when I get advice about prioritizing such “risk assessments,” I listen, but seldom take them to heart.

2014-10 DSC01512photo 4 gypsy caravan romania roma trip
Roma caravan. October 2014. Romania

Here’s why… here’s my “concern.” If we pull back every time a marginal person’s presence might cause a “risk” to a person or group “at the center,” we get drawn in one of two directions. Either we are pulled away from the confidence we have in God’s calling to service (“Was it really God” who called you to this? Which does sound eerily similar to a different expression: “Did God really say…?” [Gen. 3:1]). Or it pulls us away from trust in God’s equipping us to handle our calling (“How could he have called you to this and not equipped you to handle it?”). This seems to impugn either God’s wisdom, or trustworthiness, or both.

My observation is that communities that value safety over risk (language about “transformation” notwithstanding) often place their focus on “making decent people better.” The thing is, the “world” can do that just fine. The Gospel demands more. The bringing of the Gospel is more than condescendingly allowing a few scraps to fall from our table onto poor unfortunate souls in the shadows underneath. We need more than short-term forays into danger zones (or icky places with sketchy people), while we ourselves remain ourselves well-resourced and well-protected.

Addams-Family-Tv-Show-Opening-CreditsIt’s even more than inviting those at the margins to leave their marginal status (do we want them to repent of sin, as God sees it, or their marginality?) and come to us. Or come toward us…, we probably wouldn’t want them to get all the way to us without their having made some significant behavioral adaptations.

I hear a lot about how important it is for the church to be a “like-minded community” of faith. But I’m concerned that something is missing. Think of the story of Nabal and Abigail. Nabal is evidence that a foolish man finding tough words to justify folly is nothing new. David’s men ask him for assistance in their mission. His response? “Who is this fellow David?” Nabal sneered. “Who does this son of Jesse think he is? There are lots of servants these days who run away from their masters. Should I take my bread and water and the meat I’ve slaughtered for my shearers and give it to a band of outlaws who come from who knows where?”

Roma stealing electricity
Roma man stealing electricity.

David hears this and pretty much goes ballistic. And almost does a very bad thing. The issue wasn’t that David “needed people to speak into his life,” needed “community.” What almost did him in was the lack of a diversity of opinion. For heaven’s sake, he had 400 “like-minded people in community”… who were ready to a man to slaughter everyone… which David later acknowledged would have been a horrible crime leading to horrible results.

A group of like-minded people in community, in some cases, could be words used to describe a mob.

Once again, we see that – whoever “they” are – “we” need THEM, possibly more than they “need” us.

Our adversary has a plan to lie, steal, and destroy. Not in the abstract sense – he lies to people, steals from people, and destroys real people. When he is succeeding at this with a person or a group of people, we are called to bring a message of salvation precisely to and for them.

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Roma man in church, meeting in a shipping container. Dicanesti, Romania. October 2014

There are times when such “risks” are taken, and these “plans for evil” are disrupted. That’s called salvation. That must cause a degree of aggravation at whatever planning meetings these spiritual entities conduct. That is the actual source of “risk,” not the people to whom we are called to reach out. And that (turning Satan’s “successes” into failures), freeing bunnies from his sack, is precisely what we in mission are called to pursue. Boldly and with confidence.

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