Did you ever see Slumdog Millionaire?
It’s the Academy Award winning film about a teenager from the Dhavari slum of Mumbai, India that [SPOILER ALERT] miraculously wins the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.
Well, this weekend the National Geographic Channel ran a special called The Real Slumdogs. (Yes, I watch a lot of the National Geographic Channel.) The documentary is an indepth look at the real residents of the Dhavari slum featured in the movie.
In a lot of ways, Dhavari was much like what you would expect. People live in utter poverty. Homes are barely standing shacks pieced together with whatever debris happens to be laying around. There is virtually no running water, electricity is almost non-existent, and sewage runs openly in the streets. In Dhavari, people make a living by any means necessary, including rummaging through the dump, separating out recycable plastic so that they can make a whopping $5 a day.
But there are a lot of other things present in Dhavari that I was not expecting.
Despite what most of us on the outside might assume, Dhavari is a place full of hope, determination, compassion, grace, and an incredible will to survive. Just beneath the surface is a community of people who look after and take care of one another. It is a community which despite its circumstances is full of hope for the future.
In particular, the show highlighted a young mother who works incredibly hard to put her daughter through school. Even though her days are spent endlessly sorting out plastic from the trash, this mother still takes time to volunteer for a group called the Acorn Foundation which seeks to improve the lives of the residents of Dhavari. Ignoring the criticism of her mother who constantly chastises her for wasting time on something that doesn’t earn her any money, this woman choses a life of self-sacrifice, devoting herself both to her daughter’s future as well as helping those around her meet their most basic needs for survival.
As I was watching this woman extend hope and grace to her neighbors, and as I witnessed some of those same neighbors also going out of their way to ensure that new members of the community had food to eat, water to drink, and clothes to wear, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This looks really familiar.”
It looks a lot like Jesus.
When we in the Church talk about incarnating or being Jesus to the world, these are the very sorts of things we talk about. These are the sorts of things Jesus commanded us to do over and over again. You just don’t get much more “Christlike” than loving, serving, and caring for your neighbors. Put simply, selfless devotion to others is at the heart of the gospel.
Which made me think, “What do we do when the embodient of Jesus is present, but the people through whom he is incarnated neither speak the name of Jesus nor claim him as Lord?”
In other words, how should the Church respond when people are talking and acting and loving just like Jesus would, but don’t claim him as Lord or even speak his name?
It seems to me that this is one of the great questions facing the Church in an ever increasingly interconnected 21st century global society. What are we to do when we encounter the kingdom of God being lived out among people who have either never heard of or who have chosen to reject the Church’s gospel?
Some of us may be quick to dismiss this as an aberration and simply ignore it. However, with evangelicalism’s emphasis on being the sole source of truth and goodness in the world, I think the evangelical church, in particular, must address this issue in an open and honest manner.
Now, we could simply label these sorts of actions as “mere” good deeds and ignore them. That is exactly what many of us do. When we put all the emphasis of the gospel on “faith alone”, then perhaps this is possible since in that scenario good deeds are functionally irrelevant.
However, our brothers and sister in the neo-Reformed or Calvinist camp are always quick to emphasize our complete and total depravity. If that is true, and these people haven’t “come to Jesus” and received the redemption necessary to embody the gospel, then where does this ability to do good come from? In light of total depravity it can’t come from within. It must come from an outside source. Since Jesus isn’t present in this paradigm because these people have not “confessed him with their lips,” then the only other outside source would be the guy with horns and a pitch fork.
But clearly the devil doesn’t do good things. To suggest otherwise, that the devil is empowering people to embody the gospel as part of some bizarre scheme to lead people astray by doing the very things Jesus wanted them to do is a form of theological gymnastics I’m just not capable of.
So, that leaves us with only one option. The power to do these good things, the power to embody the gospel even in a partial way can only come from God.
If that is the case and these sorts of good things can only come from God, then I think we should be asking ourselves “What does it mean for the church that God is at work in these people apart from their “knowing Jesus” in the formal sense.” At the very least, we should pause to ask “Is God trying to tell us something?”
I think God is.
Now, there are many of us in the church who have reacted to this very sort of situation and gone the complete opposite direction of traditional evangelicalism, seeking to replace orthodoxy with orthopraxy. In others, this group would want to define “Christian” more by what we do or the community we help to create than what we confess with our lips.
I think that there is certainly some validity here. However, despite my undying love for passages like Matthew 25, I’m not sure that in the end this is a healthy move. Confession is formative. It shapes both we are and who we are not. It is our rule of faith that guides our lives. It is incredibly important and should not be altogether abandoned.
Yet, while confession certainly shapes the community, as we become more interconnected and witness Jesus in places where no one talks or thinks about Jesus we need to remember that the first disciples followed Jesus before they knew who he really was. They were disciples before they ever confessed him as Lord.
Confession eventually came, and it was a much needed source of direction for the early church, but the first disciples are testament to the fact that sometimes we learn to live the “right” life before we learn to say and think the “right” things.
More often than not, however, evangelicalism is more concerned with verbal confession and intellectual ascent than establishing the kingdom of God. We are more concerned with being “right” than doing the work of redemption and reconciliation. In short, the church has become so obsessed with being “right” that we’ve forgotten what we need to be “right” about. Doctrine and confession are important, but ultimately the gospel is primarily concerned with a “right” way of living in the world. This is why the book of Revelation is dedicated to describing a new heaven and a new earth, not a new systematic theology.
That being said, I don’t think this should be a battle between a confessional and a communal faith. That’s not a choice we have to make. Instead, we need to learn make more space in our theology and practice for people who “come to the faith” by embodying the faith before they ever verbally confess their allegiance to our community. If we are going to talk about incarnating Jesus to the world, if we are going to speak about “kingdom life” as something that involves things like grace, hope, love, self-sacrifice, and caring for one another, then we must be honest when we see it outside the church and name it for what it is: the kingdom of God breaking in to the world around us.
I want to be clear, I am not arguing that “all religions are really the same thing.” I believe that there are some major, irreconcilable ontological (and in many cases teleological) differences in the world’s great religions. To simply brush aside these differences is ignorant, arrogant, and disrespectful of each tradition.
I simply want to raise the question: What do we do when we see the presence of Jesus, but no one is claiming his name? I’m not sure I have the answer to that question. But if I could suggest anything, it would be that we as the 21st century church should learn to do a better job of recognizing and embracing what John Wesley called “prevenient grace.” For Wesley, God is at work in the world, reconciling creation long before we ever recognize God’s activity (if we ever do). In other words, neither the Church nor a formal confession of faith in Jesus need be present for God to be at work in someone’s life. For us as Christians, this should be a humbling reminder that though we may often be the vehicle of God’s grace and activity in the world, we are not its source.
If we can learn to embrace the idea of prevenient grace, then we may be able to find a way to affirm the work of God as something which can be authentically carried out through people who do not claim the name of Jesus. In doing so, we will be able to maintain both our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Let me close with a story from one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. In The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis describes a scene where the faithful followers of Aslan (aka God) are walking around the new Narnia (aka. new earth) when they encounter one of the last people they ever expected to see, a Calormene soldier named Emeth. This young man was a devote follower of the false god Tash, so the loyal followers of Aslan were shocked to see someone like him in paradise. Emeth was just as shocked. When he eventually has his encounter with Aslan, he reminds the great lion, “I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash.” It is then that we read one of the most theologically dense passages in all of children’s literature,
“[Aslan] answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he had truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
While this is merely C.S. Lewis’ personal theological speculation and not the gospel, we do see this sort of prophetic hope echoed in the book of Isaiah. In the 19th chapter, God tells of God’s plan to redeem and restore two of Israel’s arch enemies, Egypt and Assyria. One day God will look at these “pagan” nations and say “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”
It’s important to point out that this comes about after their redemption and restoration, not before it. But it is equally important to pay attention to the fact that God does not abandon people as quickly and definitively as we do. Neither does God seem to be as interested in only doing the work of redemption through God’s chosen people. What we see in this passage is repeated throughout the Bible in stories about a priestly king named Melchizedek, a pagan prostitute named Rahab, a Moabite woman named Ruth, a Roman centurion who simply had faith, a Samaritan woman sitting by a well, and a whole host of Gentiles who brought the kingdom of God to the very ends of the earth.
Again, I don’t subscribe to the notion that “all religions are different paths to the same God.” I simply want to give God the credit for working in the world and being faithful to God’s promise to redeem all of creation. How God chooses to do that is not something we are in a place to criticize. So, when we do encounter Jesus in places where we think Jesus isn’t present, let us embrace it, celebrate it, and find ways to participate in it that are faithful to our calling to be the church in and for the world.
God is at work in the world whether we are there or not and that is a very good thing.
Grace and peace,
FROM THE VAULT: As I’m always welcoming new people to the blog I sometimes like to revisit an old post or two that sparked a good conversation, but may have been missed by those who weren’t around when it was originally posted. This post originally appeared early last year.