Haiti and the Reorientation of Discipleship

In the photo array offered by the Washington Post, which covers the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, I see a toddler wearing only a diaper, being carried dirty and bloody out of the rubble in Port-au-Prince.  The picture grabs hold of me.  Having a toddler myself, the whole scene of the child being returned to his mother contains points of identification for me that I dare not explore too deeply, for fear of the raw anguish I might find there. Looking at the pictures of the devastation coming out of Haiti as I sit in my overstuffed chair brings into stark relief the vast chasm that separates me from most of the rest of the world.  Reading back over the previous sentence, I can hear my mind consolidating its defenses against the guilt that the fact of that vast chasm raises.  The recognition that I have an overstuffed chair in which to indulge guilty feelings leaves me ambivalent, because in reality what’s going on in Haiti right now has nothing to do with me or my fat chair.  All of this has me thinking about how I continue to be amazed at the extent to which I am able to bend the arc of history inward—as though what happens in the world must ultimately have some relationship to me.  I am struck by the thought that pushing past self-absorption is, if not the point of Christian discipleship in the reign of God, then at least one of its most desirable outcomes.

In thinking about Haiti (indeed, in thinking about thinking about Haiti) the whole issue of discipleship keeps popping up: Where is Jesus in all of this, and what does being one of his follower’s require in the face of it?  Luke tells us in chapter six that just prior to calling the twelve apostles, he “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (6:12).  All night is a fairly long time to spend in prayer, which suggests that he had something weighing heavily on him.  After enduring this all-night prayer-a-thon, the first thing Jesus did was call all his disciples together and choose twelve from among them to be apostles, that is, those who were to be sent out on his behalf.  The twelve Jesus chose would eventually serve as the foundation upon which the church would be built—which makes it understandable why Jesus would have struggled all night over whom to call.

Consequently, when in Luke’s version of the story Jesus finally addresses the twelve who’ve been chosen, we have high expectations about the significance of what he will say.  This is what, in our culture driven as it is by organizational business models, we would call the vision speech, the one where Jesus sets down what’s at the heart of the ministry he has in mind (the ministry to which the twelve have just been called).  Luke tells us that while all of his followers are still gathered around him, Jesus begins to clarify the principles of this new endeavor, which is obviously highlighted by this latest major personnel move.  So, what will it be?  What does Jesus indicate will animate the new ministry upon which he and his friends are about to embark?   The first words Luke has Jesus say after calling the twelve?

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20b-21, 24-25).

Now, I want to say right off that I’m not particularly happy about Jesus’  newly identified Platinum Club members.  By just about any accounting done on a macro level, I’m sure to be lumped in with the latter rather than the former.  When the truth is told, though I sometimes struggle to make ends meet, the ends I have to make meet are quite a bit nicer than most of the rest of the world; and the means I have at my disposal to meet those ends would surely evoke envy among all but those in the highest percentiles when it comes to the world’s wealth.  So, my ox is being gored too as Jesus trots out the core values for the new business model.  Unlike most successful ventures, though, Jesus has the powerful in his sights as the problem, rather than the solution.  This makes things difficult for me, because as an individual, I’d much rather be part of Jesus’ target audience than the targeted audience; and it is as an individual that I am most likely to experience Jesus’ call to discipleship.

The locus of popular American piety, it seems difficult to dispute, resides in the individual.  Most strains of American Christianity set up shop in the heart, falling back on what Charles Taylor has called radical reflexivity.  According to Taylor, radical reflexivity is not only an awareness of the self, but is an awareness of awareness; it is the illumination of “that space where I am present to myself (Sources of the Self, 131).”  It is in this space where I think not only about myself, but about myself thinking about myself that much Christian discipleship gets done—or fails to get done.  I say, “fails to get done,” because, unfortunately, much of the emphasis in popular Christianity rests on getting one’s individual soul “right with God,” on having a “personal relationship with Jesus,” that is, on intensifying radical reflexivity.  Not much gets done when my preoccupied gaze extends only so far as my own navel.  I want to be clear that I’m not rejecting intimacy with God, but rather a view of intimacy that is so self-absorbed that the life of the rest of the world is the camel that must first pass through the eye of my personal needle; which, it seems, is precisely backward from the discipleship Jesus offers.

Unlike the way much of Christianity is presently practiced, following Jesus, if Luke has it anything like right, appears to consist in a radical outward orientation—an orientation, not coincidentally, that is much more difficult for the rich and the powerful, who have more than sufficient resources to maintain insularity.  Of course, even if Luke is right, it’s not immediately obvious just how being poor, hungry, and aggrieved constitute a state of blessedness.  Leaving aside for a moment how Jesus thinks that blessedness will be achieved, I want to suggest that those who follow Jesus ought to be orienting their commitments to him in ways that first involve an outward identification with the poor and the powerless.

All of which brings me back to that toddler in Haiti.  If our discipleship is shaped by Luke, the question of the reign of God has less to do with first renovating our interior lives than with figuring out how to embody the gospel to that little boy.  Maybe the blessing indicated by Jesus that the poor, the hungry, and the grieving experience is to come through us—whose primary concern is not for ourselves and the state of our own souls, but for the powerless and the state of a world in which the powerless must rely on the good will of the powerful.

If picking up our crosses and dying to ourselves means anything, surely it means figuring out some way to be Jesus for that little boy, for the thousands of Haitians struggling just to hang on, for all the poor, hungry, and grieving—halfway round the world, or halfway down the block.  It is giving our lives first for them and not for our own spiritual enrichment that Jesus identifies as the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

The Rev. Dr. Derek Penwell is the Senior pastor of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, KY.  He holds a DMin. from Lexington Theological Seminary and is a PhD. Candidate at the University of Louisville where he teaches Religious Studies courses.  Derek is also a Contributing Editor for [D]mergent.