When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place. I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.
And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.
But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.
When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful. Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.
I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed. “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”
This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.
And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.
You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long. “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights. The white man first raises questions of power and control. The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)
Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich? What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove? What keeps us from being poor and open? The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)
It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves. The real thing we have to let go of is our self. We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.
—Rohr Simplicity p. 168
It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others. And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.
There are no easy answers here.
But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality. As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith. Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.
Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for. Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover. Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others. And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous. Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey. I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions. It’s all private. But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another. The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you. We can’t do it alone.
–Rohr Simplicity p. 162
And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone? That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?
I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.
But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.
And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.