I remember the first time I brought a suburban church youth group to the trailer park. As usually happens at the churches I’m a part of, I was connecting some incoming group of wealthy, cloistered teenagers with some of my ungrateful people that struggled to get to church once every three months. This trailer needed paint in the worst way, and, whether they got more paint on each other than the trailer, nobody was really going to care. The teens would feel like they changed the face of the earth for Jesus, the trailer-dwellers would be marginally pleased (with only a few complaints), and I would get to go home and complain to my wife about both parties. I’d set up this mutually beneficial gig a hundred times before this, and I’d set it up a hundred times again, but on this day, we hit a snag.
One of the flirtatious teenagers was up on the ladder painting one of the rotting pieces of overhang and happened to get a glimpse inside the trailer. The group saw the residents: able-bodied 20-somethings with blasting AC, sitting inside eating a bag of cheese puffs and playing Xbox. The group’s mood suddenly changed as they realized that the injustice had changed hands. One of the leaders texted me something confusing about enabling and wanting to find someone more worthy, and everyone’s utopia was ruined for the day.
If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you’ve likely danced this dance without even knowing it. No matter how wretched, sickly, or downtrodden the person you’re helping is, their situation is likely still the result of a bad choice. Or a series of choices, made by them or people around them. Yet, for some reason, we’ll put up with that when it’s a plane- or van-ride away and the person is a different color in a different state. It’s those same people’s fault if they happen to live in your zip code.
It seems like once a week these days that I talk to a young mom who is horrified by the homeless people I work with. Last week, one of them told me that they know our church is doing the wrong thing in taking care of the homeless because she has to have her kids look away when they drive past on their way to their church in the suburbs. As if, somehow, the disease of homelessness is transferred through observation. It’s a safety issue, they’ll say. The only conversations in America today where it’s still PC to use the phrase those people is in discussions about homeless, drug-addicted, HIV–positive, or mentally ill people. They’re the modern-day lepers. A lot of Christians would throw Muslims and sexual minorities in there as well. Let’s discuss the issue, we say – when really we’re talking about human beings.
Mercy, like taxi service and the classifieds, has been crowd-sourced and commodified in 2016. We are happy to proclaim it in church songs and debate how involved the government should be with it during political elections, but the reality is this: we want to be people of mercy on our own terms, when it feels safe and when we get something out of it. That’s a criminally negligent critique of how we carry out mercy as the church today. It’s the selfish, safety-first marriage with what Jesus said and the American dream.
A new term started floating around in 2015 that describes this kind of caring for others: slacktivism. Wikipedia defines it as “the act of showing support for a cause but only truly being beneficial to the egos of people participating.” It’s the perfect thing for the world today – we all want to feel like we’re good people and have everyone else think we’re good people without actually doing the work of being good people. It’s the moral equivalent of an unrealistically hot Facebook profile picture, listing your old janitorial job on your resume as a “Waste Elimination Consultant”, or wearing someone else’s purple-heart to your high school reunion.
With some regularity, rural and suburban white churches come to bring goodies to help our church help the homeless. Most of the time, they don’t bother asking what sort of things would be good to bring to us. A couple months ago, a very well-meaning rural church dropped off a bunch of men’s suits. I suppose they figured that the hobos just needed to class it up a little bit more, but I still have all the suits. Other churches like to bring care packages. I’m not sure if it’s Pinterest that’s coming up with these ideas, but these well-meaning folks drop off the care packages with about 10 things – 3 of which get used and 7 of which get left on our church lawn – the KJV Bibles, vegetables, and 95%-full tubes of toothpaste are almost always left behind.
Slacktivism is appealing because it helps us short-circuit our Kingdom learning. The sort of Kingdom learning God intended for us to have is being around people who are not like us – different parts of the body – in community for long periods of time. Slacktivism is the most efficient but least effective way of being the Body of Christ. Churches and ways of living where everyone looks the same, talks the same, and values the same things make everyone feel better about themselves but miss the point of the Gospel. When we choose to throw money at problems rather than getting our hands dirty, we buy our own stunted spiritual growth. When we choose the safety of cloistering (intentionally being around people of the same race, culture, values, etc.) and care-packaging everyone else rather than doing what it takes to risk making our space their space, we will always shortchange the Kingdom, shortchange the vulnerable, and shortchange ourselves.