The sin of partiality is mainly personal. Legislating equality and holding out for equity may change the dominators, but it probably won’t solved the problem. Degrading people with our partiality is a spiritual problem, a relationship-with-God problem.
Empire-thinkers, like most Americans, especially the so-called white ones, especially those of some means, who go to college and feel excited by the challenges of greater Center City Philadelphia, often think a fight over who gets to run the law and control the world is a worthy use of their time. “Personal” things like the church, or a cell, are for the rest of us. Most of us certainly don’t mean to be an “empire thinker,” we sincerely expect impartiality. That’s good. But effecting self-giving love is not as easy as “sending thoughts and prayers;” we need to do things and create cultures together that do things right.
Who are you leaving out?
One of our “illegal” friends sat next to me at the Cell Leader Intensive last Monday and provided a very eye-opening moment for me. I can’t remember if the person even mentioned this to the whole group. But the gist of what struck me was this: the reason it was hard to imagine becoming a cell leader was feeling unworthy! In their original country they were part of an impoverished, despised minority; in coming to the United States they surrendered their dignity at the border, became an “illegal,” and felt the need to invisibilize themselves. Being called into cell leading seemed so unlikely that it was hard to even consider it.
Meanwhile people in the group with a lot of choices were lamenting how hard it is to fit cell leading into their busy schedule. I’d say our system is generally sympathetic to their plight. During our meeting there was an undercurrent about how to make a cell work with the bored, dismissive people they know (and maybe are).
James came to mind
If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? – James 2:2-4
Don’t get me wrong, NOBODY in the meeting did anything WRONG! I am not writing this so you can get another scolding from another self-righteous prophet ready to tell you how awful you are. But we do need to think wider than the majority of us normally would. In the meeting I tentatively mentioned how easy it would be to lock people out of our cells who would love to share the opportunity and dignity of being loved, affirmed and deployed to express their gifts. There are many people who get saved by Jesus, not just criticized or corralled! Like James points out, it is perilously easy to make a cell about the classist and elitist arguments of the upper classes and the upwardly mobile people who inhabit Center City. Conversely, it is easy to make it about despising those people and finding an identity in NOT choosing what “those other people” choose. The LAST thing an authentic cell should be is partial to the rich, partial to people who fit in, or partial to people with whom we would like to fit in because they are visibly attractive according to some personal or economic norm, or partial to people who despise the attractive or economically sound.
Give Jesus a seat in the cell
I was moved by James
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? – James 2:5-7
I am not criticizing our cells, far from it. The person I am talking about is in one of our cells and feels called to lead one. So we must get what James is saying, at least here and there. What I am is convicted. The Holy Spirit was shining light on some assumptions I felt in the room during our meeting and in me!
We are not bad because we have not finished transforming the world or are not proportionately multicultural according to our standards. There is no salvation in trying to meet up to the demands of some new “law” again. But we have to be careful lest we conform our ways to what “works” in the world, instead of perfecting our upside down approach to success. We could do the former by reacting typically, like showing an attractive, upscale person where to sit, rather than having them wait their turn while some “illegal” gets a chair. Or we might pointedly alienate some rich-looking person because they look likely to exploit us!
To an invisiblized person, who works night and day to support the family back home, who has the threat of discovery and deportation hanging over them, the cell is an island of respect and reality, not an obligation they must fulfill among their other privileges. It is no wonder that all over the world, cells multiply best among the poorest of people, and churches die by catering to the rich, who move into them and dominate them for their own good, just like they dominate the world.
We don’t need to go find the poor and despise the rich. We are all poor in the sight of God, who became poor so we would be rich in faith. God shows no partiality. Everyone is welcome to the family. But we do need to consider how full of partiality we might be and ask God to give us strength to resist the flow of destruction around us. The country and city are strikingly divided; we compare and contrast all day; the privileged, especially, are notorious for ignoring anyone who is not like them. We love those who love us. What we need to do is open our eyes to what can happen and do what God does, see everyone like God sees them, even enemies, and treat them accordingly.
It would be great if we lived in a classless world and everyone was equal. I think we should work for that. On the way there, I think Jesus has been loving every person in every class from India to Indiana ever since shepherds and wise men met him as a baby. I want the Holy Spirit to convict me every time I see a smidgen of the partiality that robs someone of their true dignity in Christ. I can start with giving Jesus a seat right next to me.