It must have been Friday morning at GYC in Seattle, while doing my devotional reading, that I stumbled upon this arresting statement: “Each neglect of the needy poor, the homeless, the fatherless, the prisoner, is neglect of Jesus.” (A Call to Stand Apart, p. 93). Each and every neglect?
On my first day as a student research intern at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) office in 2008, I had sat poring through the horrifying stories of women who had survived the worst of war. All had been raped, often by multiple men, some had had knives, sticks or other sharp objects forced into them, others had their limbs or breasts cut off, still others had been abandoned to die in forests and rivers or buried alive.
Those who somehow survived would later be confronted with societal rejection, severe gynaecological complications, or left to bear children whose very existence was a harrowing reminder of the terror they had experienced.
The more I read, the more disillusioned I felt. I almost threw up. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t think, couldn’t process.
Combing through the pages and pages of testimonials, I met women who were eerily ordinary: they had lived ordinary lives in ordinary villages raising ordinary families until the unthinkable had struck. Some were my age. In many ways, they could have been me. Why not me?
Over lunch with a fellow HHI intern one day I faced a question that drove a knife through my heart: “You believe God protects you? Many of those women believe too. Why hasn’t God protected them?”
Orphans selling scraps of toilet paper to earn money for food in Ethiopia; recovering child soldiers in post-war Liberia haunted by the memory of the people they had been forced to brutalize and kill; women walking tens of kilometres in search of fluoride-free drinking water in Tanzania; older people begging for food in the cold Romanian winter; the full horror of 1994 displayed at the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda–the question my colleague posed lingers, burned into my consciousness more recently by these scenes I have witnessed on my mission travels.
No doubt about it, the world is messy, dangerous and unfair, ruthlessly so. And one does not need to travel halfway across the globe to see it. Human suffering, whether at the hands of natural or manmade catastrophes, is all around us.
We know why, at least in some measure, because we’re Seventh-day Adventist. We understand the cosmic war that provides the metanarrative of life on planet Earth; in a way no other church can, we explain the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God in the midst of such suffering and pain. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to give that Bible study to my fellow HHI intern as we sat, tearfully, deliberating how to help victims of sexual violence rebuild their lives. I couldn’t; the study alone wasn’t enough.
The answer to the problem of evil and suffering cannot be just theological, to which we open our Bibles and point. The answer is to be embodied: Seventh-day Adventism must reach out to let “the oppressed go free, break every yoke, deal its bread to the hungry, bring the poor that are cast out to its houses, clothe the naked,” (Isaiah 58:6-8), answering the why question by being a vehicle of God’s mercy to the suffering.
Sadly, rather than engage the world on such real terms, we are prone to bickering unnecessarily about truths that Scripture has already made plain. Or perhaps we scratch the bottom of the barrel digging for excuses to indulge our selfish appetites and tailor worship that should be meant for God to our own sinful inclinations. Or walk around so wrapped up in our Laodicean self-righteousness that our senses become numb to the needs of humanity.
And all the while, Jesus waits: hungry, cold, naked, poor. Unassuming, quietly, perhaps in tattered rags, He watches men and women pass Him by. Some look at Him scornfully, others simply turn away, hurrying their steps so as to avoid eye contact. Still, Jesus waits, whether it be in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo or along the dainty, cobblestoned streets of Boston, MA.
I walked out of my devotional reading that Friday morning renewing my commitment to be a channel of God’s mercy to the world. I challenge you to do the same: attend events such as GYC Studies, read, volunteer in a part of the country or the world to which you have never been, go where others are afraid to go, ask the difficult questions, raise awareness, defy the status quo.
We’re in the very thick of the great controversy, and ours will never be a totally just, fair and equitable world as long as sin exists. But to sit resignedly on the sidelines is to neglect Jesus.
Serve others not apart from your preaching of present, but recognizing it as a necessary outworking of your faith. Social justice does not dispense with theology; rather, a biblical philosophy of mission, rightly understood, necessitates service. With “one hand reach up and by faith take hold of the mighty arm which brings salvation, while with the other hand of love you reach the oppressed and relieve them.” (Welfare Ministry, p. 30). Do it because you are a Seventh-day Adventist, because the things that move the heart of God move your heart also.
Jesus waits. Inasmuch as you reach out to the least of His brethren, you reach out to Him.
GYC Studies is an initiative co-sponsored by GYC and CAMPUS (Center for Adventist Ministry to Public University Students) to inspire Adventist young people to engage with today’s relevant topics from a Bible-based perspective. This past year’s conference, which focused on the topic of social justice, was held February 1-3, 2013.