I got a lot of responses to my recent Christianity Today article on vaccines, but one of the more arresting ones was from a mother who asked me what I would say to the parents of a child who had clearly been injured or killed by a vaccine. Would I just slap that mother or father on the back and say, “thanks for taking one for the team!” with a solemn nod?
In preparing to go to South Sudan as a medical missionary, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if something happened to myself or my children while we’re on the field. My future team leader nearly lost his daughter to a mysterious tropical illness and lost his sight in one eye in the same week. There are real risks that our families face when we travel to a remote place for the sake of the Gospel, though many of these risks are unavoidable to any parent and they’re simply magnified in a malarial war zone. We all want to keep our children safe from physical dangers and most parents (even non-Christians) recognize that there are equal or greater spiritual and moral dangers present in every cultural milieu. Stepping out in faith often requires more direct confrontation with such dangers. How do we think about preparing for such dangers as a community of faith?
The Goodness of Sacrifice
Few books have shaped me like Jim Elliot’s biography, Shadow of the Almighty, which I read when I was 17. Few quotes have driven me like his: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The former is generally taken to mean one’s possessions, time, ambitions, or even one’s life (as it did for Elliot), while the latter refers to the inheritance we have in Christ. It was an easy trade-off when I was 17 and already felt a tug towards some dangerous place where the Gospel had never been preached. Paul sets up a similar comparison in 2 Corinthians 4:17, contrasting his “light momentary affliction” (which for Paul included shipwreck, imprisonment, and stoning) with “an eternal weight of glory” that transcends our current sufferings. This is real and true.
This understanding of God’s goodness in the midst of our sacrifice gets trickier when thinking about our children, though. The kingdom economy that promises a hundredfold return in the next life for things sacrificed in this one can be easily comprehended when we are talking about money or possessions: A dollar a day to feed a starving child is a worthy investment; following God’s call to move overseas and proclaim the Gospel to an unreached people pays eternal dividends that far outweigh any material discomforts we might suffer in doing so. Even in the most extreme of cases (martyrdom or severe persecution, for example), we can see that the joy of Heaven is the only succor suitable for the pain that Earth inflicts. Yet even though Jesus Himself stated that anyone who left behind family members would receive a hundredfold blessing in the life to come, we cannot give up our children for the sake of sponsoring a child elsewhere like we might give up our daily coffee, nor can we risk them like we would risk our money investing in a capital project like a mission hospital. As we envision the church as a global body, it is clear that some members have suffered and will suffer more than others. Intentionally exposing our children to risk– even for the sake of global mission– sounds like we are setting ourselves up to say “Thanks for taking one for the team!”
Our challenge, particularly in a world where more Christians than ever before in human history have the power to insulate ourselves from a great deal of suffering, is teaching a theology of suffering that incorporates the truths from passages like 2 Corinthians 4 without valorizing suffering for its own sake or neglecting the emotional needs that must be met in order to expect any person to continue exposing himself and his family to risk. The balance is necessary because (as Paul teaches in Colossians) there are sufferings that must be experienced by God’s people in order that the Gospel would be proclaimed throughout the world. However, disconnecting this impulse to sacrifice from the institutional accountability that sustains worshiping communities will only create more problems. We are already seeing books discussing the backlash in books like Runaway Radical and As Soon As I Fell. While stoking one’s “passion for God” over and over is an essential part of every Christian’s life, it is never enough to keep us in places where we will continue to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
Sacrifice, Mission, and the Benedict Option
Recent discussions of the Benedict Option are sharpening what its promulgators mean. I particularly like Alan Jacobs’ and Jamie Smith’s formulation that we are “securing our own oxygen masks before assisting others.” What seems particularly concerning to many is that young people, our children in the church, are frequently leaving the faith, often after being spiritually vaccinated against true discipleship with a combination of anemic spirituality and half-baked prejudice. This phenomenon writ large has contributed to a decline in Christendom’s cultural power. I’ve seen it in my friends and fear it happening in my own children.
Westerners abroad are not insulated from the nauseating moral and philosophical pressures on our kids that our culture influences, but we do find it amusing when people who are deeply concerned about the risks of tropical diseases or war don’t apply the same fear to what might come to their children via smartphone. A missionary friend once remarked to me that, following their family’s security training that included a carjacking simulation, his kids had been much more diligent at responding when he called. It is also worth noting (though I don’t stake my argument on numbers alone) that four out of five missionary kids report that they are still believing Christians engaged with their faith. The antidote to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is just as much mission and sacrifice as it is protection and formation: when the stakes are raised, people respond to formation differently.
Of course, most Benedict Option cheerleaders recognize that the smartphone can be as spiritually dangerous as the carjacking, just as they know that transmitting faith to the next generation requires a certain amount of risk and sacrifice. What is less apparent, however, is the degree to which we who love the faith and want to see it passed on to the next generation have allowed our desire for safety and security to undermine both our intra-ecclesiastical discipleship and our extra-ecclesiastical evangelism. The greatest recent example of this is the American Civil Rights movement, wherein many evangelical churches sought to defend the cultural and economic status quo for the sake of safety and security and allowed the rhetoric of cultural separation to enforce a different kind of segregation through housing and education. It is altogether natural to take any steps necessary to defend one’s family from harm; it is devastating to the body politic or the body of Christ when that defense becomes a trump card that forces all other values to submit to it.
Fear of harm coming to our families animates a great number of decisions. It undoubtedly contributed to America’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq; it drove many families out of cities like Baltimore when black families were introduced onto white blocks or the threat of racial violence appeared. Both of these examples had enormous downstream effects on more vulnerable people; one was a united effort to eliminate a specific threat while the other was an aggregate decision reflecting a broader cultural consensus about race. I mention them because the desire for safety and security is never bad, but it is the cost at which we remain safe and secure must always be weighed; it is rarely clear except in the aggregate. As The Locust Effect pointed out, there are a great number of justice systems around the world that are very effective at keeping richer people and organizations safe while leaving the poor behind or even making the poor worse off by creating police forces that only respond to money and status.
I now live in an “unsafe” neighborhood in West Baltimore where the historical fear of black people and the decisions made in response to that fear still have repercussions in the lives of many African-American Christians. People from outside the neighborhood often express their fears for us and our children living in proximity to the violence in the community, but living here has helped us to see that our neighbors who don’t have the choice to live elsewhere have their own set of similar fears in addition to the fears that accompany being black in America. When we share the cultural and physical dangers, the Benedict Option becomes very clear to our ragtag multicultural church: if we want to preserve the well-being of our children, we who moved in must work together with those who never left to aggressively evangelize and disciple the neighbors already drowning in the cultural morass.
I have seen no mention so far in the Benedict Option discussions of the fact that the late modern West is not the only culture to be post-Christian with steadily rising persecution, nor has there been any appreciation for or understanding of missiology as part of our ecclesiology. For example, the African-American church might know a thing or two about how to survive a hostile majority culture. Going further back, there is an intriguing parallel between the Egyptian Christians who welcomed Muslim invaders after years of harassment by the Byzantines and our modern-day celebrations of sexual and economic “freedom” that have done great harm to traditional family structures. What will doom the Benedict Option is the degree to which it is myopically focused on self-preservation in our current cultural context and disconnected from the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Conversely, a movement with the mission to see others outside of it glorifying God is far more likely to be self-sustaining and reproducing.
Knowing our history, our eschatology, and our missiology is crucial in creating communities that aren’t myopic. In a world that demands evidence-based everything, the sacrificial service of the Church bears witness to Christ’s love working in us for the sake of others while putting our beliefs to the test like Daniel and his fellow Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s court; the world will take note when they see who is healthier after a period of time. This is not to say that Christians will be liked any more for our good deeds or persecuted any less for the moral convictions that we take, but that a witness which challenges the most closely held values of the culture is going to be the most compelling. The current culture-war spasms over sexuality strike at the heart of Western romanticism and are thus clearly illuminating the difference between a formed or unformed moral character. What if the Church struck at the idolatry of safety and security (military, economic, or cultural) with the same vigor?
Children, Risk, and Evangelization
What brings this all together is the concept that our children are the very first people we are called to evangelize and disciple. Thus, our decisions to love others that put our children at greater risk, moving to unsafe neighborhoods or malaria-ridden countries, are not weighing our children’s safety against the need to evangelize and leaning as hard as we can on the outreach arm of the scale until it reaches the tipping point. Rather, we are bringing our children into places where they can be a part of evangelizing, discipling, and serving others as we work with fellow believers to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I would tell the parents of the vaccine-injured child that the primary purpose of vaccination is to protect the child at hand, but that act carries more significance because it takes place in a context where it also serves the vulnerable by promoting herd immunity. Similarly, I will tell my children that we moved, first to Sandtown, then to South Sudan as a family because I believe God called me to work at the hospital there and called them to be a part of the church community and its outreach there. Our service together as a family, and my responsibility as a father to shepherd my kids, shapes my own personal mandate from God that I’ve felt since I was a teenager and brings me into a fuller understanding of His will for my life.
The costs of following Jesus, proclaiming the Gospel, and walking in obedience are high, and they tend to be concentrated in particular places. As part of our call to suffer together, it is only reasonable that we seek to diffuse these concentrations. I do not say this to encourage us all to chase after some median level of suffering halfway between a happy American family in a suburban megachurch and a starving Eritrean believer locked inside a shipping container–neither joy nor suffering in the body of Christ is a zero-sum game. However, unreached peoples and persecuted believers are unlikely to see a change in their lives without privileged believers making sacrifices. There are opportunities for service and giving throughout the world (and in our own locales) such that every Christian can sacrifice until it hurts a little. When believers intentionally choose to put themselves at risk for the sake of the Gospel in a measured and thoughtful way, the risk is distributed more evenly.
By contrast, concentrating our formational energy in places of physical safety and economic security allows more opportunities for otherwise good American values to become idols. Late modern capitalism and the technology it has brought about has incredible potential to be corrosive to faith and family; by consciously placing ourselves and our families into situations where our trust in God for our safety and security is evident (and our love for others is costly) we rebuke the powers of this age in a way that frugality, simplicity, and isolation cannot. One can also argue that by an overzealous focus on the (nuclear) family and trying to protect its sanctity, we’ve heaped up stumbling blocks for our brothers and sisters who for one reason or another are not married and made it harder for ourselves to sustain the institution of marriage. I have seen far more mixed and communal living arrangements in mission settings than elsewhere, most often because people in these settings recognize the necessity of life together.
While the needs abroad are great, there are some particularly acute opportunities here in America within our marginalized communities. Urban, suburban, or rural, you can find examples of each in need of neighbors and neighborliness. As Rod Dreher points out about once a month, there are too many places where discipleship isn’t happening, with ugly cultural consequences. These places usually have a few faithful saints who have chosen to love their community despite the cultural urge to “get out”, but need the sort of people who would seriously consider the Benedict Option to join them. Does intentionally moving to these communities in concert with other believers to love fragmented families carry some real risks to ourselves and our children? Yes. Is there any other way to bring the Gospel power of cultural renewal to these towns and neighborhoods besides moving in and sharing in the joys and struggles of life together in our churches? I don’t think so.
Taking one’s family into sacrificial mission and involving our children in giving to others is by no means a guarantee that they won’t stray. (I can practically guarantee that idolizing the mission over its Master or loving the sacrifice over your kids will do very bad things to your relationship with both.) However, if we want to disciple our children we must involve them in loving outreach and model what it means to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. This is hard, perhaps even more so because we have imbibed our culture’s idolatrous approach to safety, security, and status. Even more, we’ve allowed this cultural value system to characterize a great many of our practical decisions about where and how we live for the past several decades. Yet the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed throughout the world and by joyfully pouring ourselves out in sacrifice we have the opportunity to witness to God’s love. After all, we worship a risen Savior who really did take one for the team, more than you or I ever could. By walking in His footsteps, our sufferings themselves are transformed and outweighed.