During Lent, ESN will be publishing a series of posts on navigating issues of justice as Christians in academic life. This pursuit takes a variety of shapes, and we’ll be sharing the words of academics from a wide range of disciplinary commitments and personal experiences. Scholar Mary Poplin starts off the series.
God does not call everyone to work with the poor, like He called us. And God does not call everyone to live among the poor or to live like the poor, like He has called us. But God does call everyone to a Calcutta. – Mother Theresa
When I volunteered with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in 1996 for two months, she basically told me that I did not yet know my call; she was right. I was 44 and a struggling new Christian, only three years old in Christ. Toward the end of my time there, she walked up to me and said, “God does not call everyone to work with the poor, like He called us. And God does not call everyone to live among the poor or to live like the poor, like He has called us. But God does call everyone to a Calcutta.” Then shaking her finger, she emphasized, “You have to find yours!”
It was an odd encounter. Though I did not understand what she meant at the time, nevertheless it seemed a God encounter so I tucked it away in my spirit. Here I was a tenured professor and had not found my calling. I was preparing teachers to serve in the poorest communities; this had drawn me to go to Calcutta to understand why she said her work wasn’t social work but religious work. When I came back from Calcutta slowly “my true Calcutta” emerged. I soon fell into a full-blown intellectual crisis when I realized I could not explain the real Mother Teresa in any terms the university understood or would be willing to consider. The language of all my favorite theories failed me–social constructivism and critical, cultural and feminist theories.
The Missionaries commitment to justice and our definitions of social justice (a term not in the Bible) partially overlap but profoundly diverge, as well. I saw something deeper, richer and in some ways simpler in the Missionaries call. The Missionaries first work is actually not tending people it is living with, in and through Christ. Prayer is their first work; service is their second. They know without Him, they would not have the strength or resolution to sustain the work, nor would they have the provision to tend the poor. Pope Francis in his first homily to the Cardinals echoed the same theme, “If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.” They are both making the audacious claim that more is possible to help others with Christ than without Him. This is either true or not and there is plenty of evidence it is.
The Missionaries paired their commitment to the poor with a life lived to the greatest extent possible righteously. They constantly work on seeing insults as opportunities to build humility, chastity as a call that frees them, and forgiving and seeking forgiveness as a daily practice. Being free of the elite culture and media, they can more easily keep their eyes on what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report and on the people they serve–one by one.
Being a late convert, I was blessed to have people from every part of Christ’s body come to my aid. Between this gift and the gift of hungering for His Word, I came to see more of his whole body and the various gifts he has given to each church and each person. One thing I first noticed about my older friends in Christ is that they had a very strong commitment to living God’s righteousness and my younger friends and college students had an equally strong commitment to justice. I had always been on the justice side and neglected, even disdained the idea that I needed to be righteous. Many younger Christians who were committed to justice criticized and distanced themselves from their parents’ Christian faith because it so emphasized righteousness (and vice versa). But God does not separate justice and righteousness; He insists that together they are the foundation of His throne. It seems that to God one cannot be truly just without being righteous or truly righteous without being just.
Admittedly, it is very difficult to live amidst our strongly secular culture in elite places like universities and disagree with social/cultural trends that value even encourage actions that orthodox/mere Christianity (and orthodox forms of all other major religions) resist. Abortion and various sexual freedoms are to be avoided because they limit human flourishing. Those of us who fail in these and other areas still can be both forgiven and cleansed with Christ. The word sin, which strikes terror in so many hearts, simply means–missing the mark of human flourishing. There are truths about the best ways for human beings to live and we all fail in some areas and yet by grace we can all come closer to living a righteous and just life every day. Poverty is also the tragic result of sin on both the part of the rich and sometimes even the poor. Some of us are called to labor among the poor but none can adequately tend the hungry, thirsty, sick, homeless naked, lonely or prisoners unless someone makes money and sends it their way. Many of those who are criticized for sitting in churches are tithing and mailing checks that make this work possible.
Whether we are called to work in universities, churches, the military, business, government, science, medicine, media, on Wall Street or the slums, and/or to raise Godly families, God calls us to a Calcutta. Why did Mother call her work–her Calcutta? I believe it is because Calcutta is a very difficult city in which to live and work (so is Beverly Hills in a different way) and yet elsewhere she could not have fulfilled her call, the desire of her heart, because her Calcutta was there in its midst. And in that calling, she and the sisters have to be both just and righteous because they are the foundations of His throne and they need the whole of God’s counsel and power to do what they do, and so do we!
Where are you in the process of understanding your call right now? What would help you to understand it more fully?
What does it mean for you to do your work with justice? With righteousness? What does it mean to put both together in your life and vocation?
What are the places where it is very difficult for you to pursue your calling with justice and with righteousness? How can you imagine God providing grace for them?
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life
shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your
people where they work; make those who carry on the industries
and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give
to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
– From The Book of Common Prayer
Image courtesy of Hans at Pixabay
About the author:
Professor Mary Poplin earned her Ph.D. from the University of Texas and is a professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She began her career as a public school teacher. Her current work spans K–12 through higher education. Her empirical work is on highly effective teachers in low-performing urban schools. Her current work in higher education explores and critiques contemporary intellectual/worldview trends dominant in the university as they influence the various academic disciplines—the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. She is the author of a new book on worldviews—Is Reality Secular?—published by InterVarsity Press.
Ken Litwak says
There is an interesting item in Mary’s piece that touches on something I have pondered for a long time:
” Many of those who are criticized for sitting in churches are tithing and mailing checks that make this work possible.”
I have wrestled with this issue for many years, ever since I heard the Keiyth Green say at a concert,and record on an album), “It’s os easy to write a check. It’s so easy, but God can’t cash out-of-state checks in heaven. He needs you.” At some moments, I feel guilty because I haven’t gone to some physical “Calcutta,” and think that I might well be far too compromised. At other moments, I reflect on the reality that I can’t do much about the 20,000+ children who die of starvation each day, but because I can write checks, I can directly save a few. It’s also true that I am not the typical “emerging scholar.” I’m no longer in grad school, and I paid of the loan for my doctoral work long ago.
Some years ago, I got an infection in both eyes while my wife and I took a vacation near palm Springs (nothing like Calcutta). Either the infection or the ophthalmologist who “treated” it left me with an ongoing problem, and it would be really unwise to travel to some Third World country to promote justice and righteousness. So I have a medical “excuse.” On the other hand, as someone who does not go, I have thought about what it ought to mean for me as a Christian to stay here. I don’t go to Starbucks much, but I contemplate from time to time–to use Starbucks as but one example among many things one could choose–what it would be like to have to stand before Jesus one day and account for spending more each month on overpriced coffee than on doing something to help “the least of these.” This isn’t meant as aq seromon for anyone else. It is what I wrestle with for myself.
Mary, i just wish i could see you, hear your voice, hold your hands, and give you a BIG hug! I love mother Teresa, i read her story, watched it even recently, and teach it to children. Reading from someone who actually knew her brings tears down my cheeks and touches my heart. Its often difficult for missionaries to accept that other proffessions other than seeving in the rural areas is equally mission. The church is also guilty of this erronous belief. Since we left Sudan to pursue futher studies we lost every support because pursuing further studies is considered off track. Thanks for this insight.