YVQ | Witnesses To An Alternate Story

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Writer Sam Hearn

I think it’s interesting that, in our modern presentations of the story of Jesus and his message, we often start with recognising the way in which it impacts upon us as individuals who are being eternally and spiritually redeemed, and from there widen outwards to recognise his impact upon society, humanity, and the world. This is in many ways the opposite trajectory to how his first disciples progressively encountered and understood Jesus and his message. They encountered him first as a real person in the midst of the tangible dynamics of their society and community, and found in him a witness of a different way for the world and their society to be, and a different way for people to live. Then, subsequent to his death and resurrection, they began to more fully understand and develop theology around the eternal and spiritually transformative significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for all peoples, times, and places. The simple fact that the New Testament progresses from the stories and teachings of the Gospels to the unpacking of beliefs and ideas in the letters of Paul and the other apostles is evidence of this.

In churches, we often speak about the way in which the one moment of the cross changed the course of history, but we cannot forget that in exactly the same manner the three years of Jesus’ lived ministry in Galilee and Judea turned the world upside down. In fact, in the 1st century AD context that he was born into, Jesus was crucified by the authorities for seeking to bring a radically different world. The society looking on at the events of Jesus’ life and death were very much aware that he was being executed for seeking to see a Kingdom not like the kingdoms of the world—a way of life not like the systems of the world. They understood that his speaking of truth and turning things upside down was a direct and undisguised attack on the unjust, oppressive, and controlling political and social hierarchies of their society. By bringing the margins and the rejected into the centre, into the very family of God, and demonstrating that God is good, merciful, gracious, healing, and forgiving—and not controlling, rejecting, oppressing, and condemning—Jesus was undermining the ways in which economic and social status were stripped from the many and controlled by the few.

It’s no surprise that in stark contrast to Jesus’ expression of abundant love, forgiveness, and grace it was the sin, the corruption, the deceit of humanity that crucified him. Those who felt their power and status threatened used lies, power, religious control and judgmentalism, wealth and privilege, and finally violence to seek
his destruction.

These things aren’t just theories; they are really happening in our own world and communities! Destructive forces are creating stories of brokenness while the Kingdom of light seeks to break forth in stories of hope and love. I was reminded of this last year on one weekend in the life of my own neighbourhood in the best and worst kind of way. On that Friday, we spent a great afternoon with a dozen or so people working on our neighbourhood garden that sits behind our local community centre. We pulled out the remains of the summer’s season’s planting and weeded the beds. We picked up a trailer load of manure and turned the beds over, mixing the manure through the soil to enrich it before we planted the autumn veggies. We also put up a colourful and beautiful mural on the back fence which reads in bright bold letters, ‘Love Thy Neighbour’. It was a great afternoon. The sun shone and a whole bunch of the teenage boys we mentor turned up to help without much prompting at all. They worked like Trojans and didn’t complain one bit. Most stuck round until the whole job was done!

At about 1 AM that night, in a street just around the corner from the garden and its new mural, there was a shooting. An altercation happened between two men in their 20s that were living right next door to each other. A fist fight broke out, and then one of the men went next door, got a gun he had in the house, and came back and shot the other man through the jaw and stomach before fleeing on a dirt bike. Police and ambulance sirens immediately filled the air, and the streets were blocked off in response. Our local newspaper’s Facebook page picked up on it immediately and very quickly people were commenting about how bad our neighbourhood is and how well known it is that everyone who lives there are ‘scum’ and ‘what else do you expect in Tanti?’

My first emotional responses were anger and outrage at the prejudice shown, and sadness and bitter disappointment that once again the story told about my neighbourhood was the one of two people acting out of hate and violence, rather than the one of the more than fifty local people that have been part of creating a beautiful space of belonging, rest, and life together in the garden. But as I reflected, I understood that this is always part of the journey for us as followers of Christ seeking to live out his kingdom in real places with real people. The story of brokenness and fallenness is real and ever present, and people live their lives marked by fear because of it. But we are called to be people who invite others to see and experience a different story, the story of Jesus that calls us to ‘love thy neighbour’ and respond with trust and an open hand rather than a closed fist. As Ivan Ilich says, “Change doesn’t come by evolution or revolution, but by telling an alternative story.”

Another alternative story is a story of bravery in the midst of brokenness that I encountered in the last few weeks unfolding in the neighbourhood of Risdon Vale in Hobart. This is an area known across the whole city for its struggles. Young people growing up there very much see systems and structures around them that reinforce a message of marginalisation and rejection. The community is built in a valley, and there is literally a prison overlooking the local school. Young people lift their eyes to the hills and see despair, not hope. Yet in this context I spent a day with a Christian guy who has spent the last 7 years living in the area as part of a missional community. He started a Risdon Vale Bike Collective as an expression of the transforming message of Jesus, where young people from the neighbourhood could gather and work on bikes and build both practical skills and a sense of belonging. They are mentored, valued, and cared for, and they always know that there is a place where they matter and are loved. And now they are changing their neighbourhood and the world. They all worked together to build a BMX track in the middle of their neighbourhood, and they filled an entire shipping container with hundreds of restored bicycles, tools, and parts that they then sent over to a community in Namibia as the start of a Bike Collective in Africa!

Barack Obama spoke for the first time since the end of his term as US president to a group of students at the University of Chicago. He reflected on the way in which our world is facing immense challenges in the form of climate change, global inequality, hate speech and conflict, the tidal wave of displaced people and refugees, and the mental health epidemic. He said that in reflecting on this and his own experiences as a young man seeking change in the neighbourhoods of Chicago, he had realised that the most meaningful thing he can do with the rest of his life’s work is to invest in the next generation and support them taking up the baton of bringing change and seeking justice for a better world. I thought it was very interesting that rather than seeing himself as individually needing to try to bring whatever power and influence he has to bear, he saw the answer and hope lying in the empowerment of grassroots transformation led by the many not the few.

Jesus’ invitation is to be part of remaking the world, society, humanity, but in his way it happens relationship by relationship, and place by place. It’s not done by celebrities and politicians but by his transforming love and power being expressed through ordinary people who are willing to live a different way.

Governments, schools, churches, hospitals don’t care for people—people care for people. Will you follow Jesus and be part of remaking your school, neighbourhood, nation and world? Will you be brave enough to love?

As we reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and begin to fully understand the meaning that they hold, we also begin to discover that something supernatural alongside the social and political was occurring. The Jewish and Roman leaders knew they were executing him because of the revolution he was bringing to the systems of their society, but Jesus himself was conscious that he was submitting to suffering and death to take the fight directly to the disease and grip of sin in human hearts across all time and all places.

He understood his death and pointed, through the first communion, to the fact that he was sacrificing himself in order to break the destructive power and hold that fear, greed, pride, and hate had over all humanity. He predicted his resurrection as the sign that this had indeed been broken and that the needed healing, the seed of truth and light and love planted in our hearts, has been made possible.

The people he walked alongside in his life, and all who were to hear his message across the centuries that followed, were now able to be free to fully live the life of peace, love, and truth that he called them to. The way has been made for us to truly be reborn, recreated in his likeness.

This is my story. I grew up in a family where, though my parents really loved me and invested in me in so many positive ways, they also carried and acted out of deep hurt and brokenness. My childhood was impacted by the uncertainty and poverty of unemployment and living off government benefits, and by the trauma of family violence, conflict, and breakdown. This led me to a place as a teenager and young adult of experiencing significant mental illness and homelessness.

It was in this place that Jesus impacted me, and I clung on to and found promise healing and a new life in his words in Luke 4. I was brokenhearted, chained by darkness and fear, lashing out and hurting others. Yet it was there that the transforming presence of Jesus impacted me, and he is still taking me on a journey of personal healing that also propels me to be part of the story of him healing and redeeming my community and world. Now I’m the local councillor for the same community and streets I was homeless in!

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and its concentration camps writes in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning that in his personal observation all human suffering is equal, because all suffering is completely overwhelming for the person who is experiencing it. My story may not be your story, but all of us have suffering, pain, and the shadow presence of sin and brokenness as part of our story in some way. True bravery lies in taking the journey of being a wounded healer; recognising that you are both on a journey of being healed yourself while understanding that you also have the capacity and call from Jesus to reach out in love and compassion to be part of the healing journey of others. This is the example of Jesus and the message of his Gospel. He invites and calls us to be brave witnesses to both!

Originally published in YVQ16: BRAVE. Written by Sam Hearn.

Sam seeks to follow the way of Jesus as a leader of a neighbourhood church community in a disadvantaged area on the Mornington Peninsula. He is the National Director of SURRENDER Australia and currently the youngest elected Councillor of the Mornington Peninsula Shire. He loves building and riding motorbikes, shooting hoops, and hitting the beach.

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