Excerpt from Seed Falling on Good Soil, by Gordon W. King
Spirit of Restless Discontent
A few years ago, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote that Christians in North America should climb out of bed each morning with a deep conviction that something is terribly wrong with the world and with a yearning to strive to act as agents of change. They went on to comment that there was simply not enough yearning and striving amongst North American Christians.4 Complacency and passivity are the enemies of social change and signs of a shallow spirituality. Unfortunately, many of us, as the prophet Amos says, are at ease in Zion. In our case, Zion represents the culture of the modern world, in which we enjoy the comforts of our homes, sufficient food, entertainment, and annual vacations. The prophet Amos went on to criticize the people around him for their failure to take note of the suffering and ruin of those living on the margins of their social world (Amos 6:1–6). The depiction of eighth-century Israel seems strikingly contemporary.
As Christians, our stories will not be marked by yearning or striving if our worship services and spiritual practices are designed to make us feel comfortable with token acts of charity rather than calling us to become agents of God’s transformation in the world. The 2014 World Economic Forum report identified the most pressing global threats to human life as growing income disparity, climate change, high rates of unemployment, hunger, and the loss of biodiversity. Yet in the United States and Canada, these themes seldom penetrate the corporate worship and leadership discussions of most congregations. Apparently, the church has nothing to say about the issues that are destroying the future of our children and grandchildren. By our silence, we are complicit. And so we need the parables of Jesus to remind us that the church has a prophetic calling to be salt and light within a world order that is broken and dark for those living on the margins (Matt 5:13–16).
The parables of Jesus penetrated the public transcript of the Roman Empire and critiqued the social conditions of first-century Galilee and Judea. Certainly, God was not content with the economic inequities that left Lazarus dying outside the gate of a rich man. Nor was God content that rich men enjoyed dinner parties while the poor and physically challenged suffered from hunger as in the parable of the Great Banquet. Token efforts, such as occasional food hampers or Thanksgiving dinners at a central hall with kitchen facilities, are not enough. God seeks a deeper transformation that is both personal and structural. The parable of the dissenting slave reveals that God was not satisfied with an economic order that privileged the aspirations of a greedy and unjust ruler. And God was not content with the racialized communities and ethnic divisions that were at the center of the Samaritan parable. Nor did he look favorably on a city in which men abandoned the righteous cause of a marginalized woman. We are left to conclude that Jesus, the story teller, had a restless discontent with the structures and dominant discourse of his time. Therefore his parables can nourish our restless discontent so that we can regain our prophetic voice and become agents of God’s transformation.
This attitude of restless discontent continues to inspire prophetic voices and actions in our own time. I have been moved by the quiet but determined work of Marcia Owen in Durham, North Carolina. Marcia Owen refused to accept passively the proliferation of guns and violence as a constitutional right and a cultural heritage of America. She was troubled by the statistic that children in the United States are sixteen times more likely to be killed by a gun than the combined number of their age cohort in twenty-five other developed countries. Appalled that parents in some parts of Durham put their children to bed in bathtubs in order to protect them from drive-by shootings, she began to hold a prayer meeting at the site of each murder by gunshot in Durham. Her words, actions, and communitybased advocacy led to a broad movement for social change and the building of relationships across the borderlands of her city. I would never have imagined that people gathering for prayer at crime scenes could be such a powerful expression of radical discontent.
The message of the parables can help us to rediscover that God’s message to our communities extends beyond themes of individual morality. God wants to speak into the ways in which we have structured the economic and social patterns that shape our shared lives. The parables invite us to evaluate our communities on the basis of how people on the margins receive care and support. The stories remind us that an element of restless discontent should be part of our personal stories.