“Moral Realism” about Christian service

In his column today, David Brooks encourages those in my generation committed to service around the world to develop a sense of “moral realism” by reading novels by folks like Hammett and Chandler:

There’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on….

A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.

Christians say something similar, only we use words like sin, grace, and forgiveness. Christians know that “corruption, venality, and disorder” begin at home, within ourselves. The point that I make in my new book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, about my years as a missionary in South Africa, dovetails neatly with what Brooks has to say: we can be committed to changing the world all we want, but unless we are also committed to changing ourselves then we will get nowhere.

When I first showed up for work in a shantytown community in South Africa, I was committed to making the world a better place, “solving” the problems of global poverty and poor health. Naturally, with an attitude like this, I fell immediately and repeatedly flat on my face. It wasn’t until I began to realize that my attitude towards and outlook on the world and my work needed to change. I had to be willing to confront my fears head-on, instead of burying them in a welter of emotions about world change. I had to be willing to build an actual relationship with someone who seemed markedly different to me and whom I wanted to treat not as a person but as an object whose problems needed to be solved.

Historically, the Christian tradition has seen baptism as the moment when we are received, forgiven, and transformed by God in Christ. We remember this moment each time we celebrate the Eucharist. In my Episcopal Church, however, baptism is now seen as a moment of “commissioning” to join in God’s work in the world. This is right, more or less, except I get the sense we’re sometimes leaving off the part about the personal transformation and focused solely on the world’s transformation. When we do that, we end up eliding a huge part of the Christian tradition and becoming more or less like the folks Brooks is writing about.

The world needs to change, true. But change begins at home.

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