Monday, January 28, 2013

Why the Christians?

Lately I have been confronted multiple times by a simple truth: in some of the darkest places of the world, it is the Christians who are refusing to give up on their fellow man.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, It is the bishop’s kindness and forgiveness that brings Valjean to repentance—and  sets the stage for the remainder of the story. But it is a bishop, a man of God, and not the innkeeper, or the policeman, or the mayor, or any other secular figure that, by that one act of kindness, changes this man’s life. That, I think, is significant.

Being fiction, that story is easy enough to dismiss. What I have kept finding, though, is similar examples that are not fiction. And those examples shed even additional light on Hugo's story.

For my Immigration Law Clinic this semester I was assigned the book Enrique’s Journey, which tells of a sixteen year old boy’s harrowing journey from Honduras to the United States. Along the way he rode on top of cargo trains, avoiding both Mexican authorities and the gangs. He was beaten, robbed, and deported out of Mexico numerous times. Many like him are murdered.

Virtually the only help he received along his journey was in towns where the local priest had impressed into the church the importance of helping the train people. And the priests themselves take a lead role. In one town:

Perhaps the greatest gift has come from the church’s priest. Over his lifetime, he has saved $37,500 to live on during his retirement. He told the church members, “These people will keep on coming, more and more. We must build.” Then, when he was sixty-three years old, he quietly donated the entire amount to buy the land to build the migrant shelter.
There was also a recent article in The Atlantic about Christian surgeons in Africa, going to help those in areas where there is little to no medical infrastructure. The entire article is excellent, but this part about the program's expansion stood out:
"About three or four years ago we were tying to get a program in Ethiopia, and one of the government ministers was very much against this," Steffes told me, explaining that the minister's objection centered on the organization's unwillingness to accept non-Christian trainees. "He said, 'tell me what you're doing here.' And I said, 'the truth is that we've put out a number of graduates and they're all serving in rural Africa or in the cities where no one wants to work, and I'm willing to share everything I've got, from academics to teaching to testing. You can have them.' And I paused, and said, 'But it won't do any good.' I said, 'the only reason I can get these people going out in these rural areas and serve in places where they have trouble getting a decent education for their kids, not have all the amenities of a city, not get paid well, is because they're doing what they think Jesus wants them to do. Without that, it doesn't work. You can't convince other people to do this.'" The minister, Steffes said, removed the roadblocks impeding the program. "He just looked at me for a few seconds, and said, 'You're right,' and he finished the conversation."
Only the Christians stay to help. “You can't convince other people to do this.”

This is no coincidence. Tim Chester, in his excellent book A Meal With Jesus, explains:
Involvement with people, especially the marginalized, must begin with a sense of God’s grace. But not just God’s grace to them, but his grace to me. I need to be melted and broken by grace. When I speak with someone who’s an alcoholic or a single mother, or someone who’s depressed or unemployed or unemployable, I must do so as a fellow sinner. We’re all broken people in a broken world. If I do not understand this, then my good intentions will be patronizing. Anything I say will be heard as “become like me.” Only as I’m daily struck by God’s amazing grace to me, Tim Chester, will my life and words point to Jesus as the Savior.
Christians have that sense of grace, which is why they are so often the ones stepping up to help the ex-convicts, the travelers, and the otherwise unreached.

I’ll close, as I opened, with Victor Hugo. Javert did not grasp this grace, and when it chased him down, “An entire new world appeared to his soul . . . the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, a mysterious justice according to God going counter to justice according to men.” Grace undid his worldview, and by extension, undid him.

The humble bishop, in contrast (and in a description that continues to haunt me), “had no systems; but many deeds. … Certainly these tremendous reveries have their moral use; and by those arduous routes there is an approach to ideal perfection. But for his part, he took the straight road, which is short—the Gospel. … His humble soul loved; that was all.”
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