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Responsible Radicals

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March 31, 2011

Greetings Canaan EMers!

Now that March madness is coming to an end, I’d like to encourage those who want to know more about baptism and membership at Canaan to join our membership inquiry class this Sunday at 9:45 AM in Room 102. Join us even if you don’t feel ready to be baptized or to become a member. This class will introduce you and answer any questions you might have about Canaan.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I said that I’d like to see the Canaan community display “thoughtful passion” in our worship and prayer life. Christians who join Asian American churches are usually forced to choose between mindless passion or judgmental dogmatism. But I believe that a mark of our uniqueness at Canaan can be to embrace passionate thinking and thoughtful passion. Many Christians and non-Christians are hungry for a vibrant church community that offers substance AND spirituality – and we have all the right elements to provide both.

Today, I suggest that another unique Canaan trait can be the “responsible radical.” At Canaan, we want to follow Jesus as responsible radicals who are radically responsive. That’s what discipleship can mean for us. Many Asian American Christian leaders today demand a radical commitment to Jesus Christ. They point to Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Luke 18:22

A radical Christian will obey this command literally and turn away from a suburban middle-class or affluent lifestyle. Possessions will be renounced and given to the poor in order to follow Jesus. Throughout the centuries, Christians have idolized radicals (martyrs, monks, and missionaries) for making the ultimate sacrifices for Christ. Radicals are considered spiritually closer to God’s will than the rest of us. Catholics canonize saints and Asian Christians adore missionaries.

As a church historian, I consider the worship of radicals to be misguided and misinformed. Hagiography can encourage the faithful to a higher calling, but it can also become an irresponsible idolatry. The truth is that Christians cannot live like radicals without responsible Christians to support them – i.e., Christians who work in the marketplace, who contribute their time and resources to build organizations and financial support, who raise up and encourage their children to follow a radical calling.

Furthermore, Jesus’ first disciples were asked to leave their parents and vocation behind, but this doesn’t mean that Christians are to supposed to abandon family, career, and the world. Rather, we are called to temporarily retreat from entanglement in “worldly” affairs and then be sent back to bear witness to the transformation the world into the New Creation. Isn’t that what the Great Commission is all about?

So why have Christians turned radicals into idols? In part, it is because we have imported an incorrect understanding of “purity” into our faith. Unlike Jesus, who ate and lived among “sinners,” many Christians believe that a radical disciple separates himself or herself from the taint of sin. The radical Christian is therefore more “holy” than ordinary Christians. It is easy to misread James 1:27:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

In an effort to keep oneself from being “polluted by the world,” an irresponsible radical will try to escape taking responsible for the world’s great needs. The irresponsible radical may renounce sin, but may not follow Jesus into his mission to reach out to the downcast and oppressed. This way of being radical is no different than suburban living, for a middle-class lifestyle can also lead to the abandonment of social responsibility.

Indeed, when James talks about keeping oneself from being polluted by the world, his understanding the “world” is not as obvious. In his day, the “world” cared very little for orphans and widows. Because they did not fit into Greco-Roman social norms, orphans and widows were frequently abandoned and left to die. So James is actually urging his readers to avoid this type of social irresponsibility (and cultural elitism) and care for those who are marginalized. This is consistent in the entire letter of James and with the teaching of Jesus.

In sum, a responsible radical doesn’t separate herself from the world in order to be more holy. Rather, she engages the world as Jesus would because she is on a holy mission.

At Canaan, we don’t have elevate missionaries to a higher spiritual plane. Rather, we can all be responsible radicals by caring for the needs around us. Our responsible radicals can

  1. Care for our growing children’s ministry.
  2. Care for our building and facilities. Even though the church is not its buildings, but its people, by taking care of our facilities, we can use it for kingdom purposes.
  3. Care for the needs in our neighborhood and the needs in the Bay Area.
  4. Care for, discuss, and engage the public issues of our day (e.g., immigration, poverty, racism, and sex trafficking).
  5. Provide financial and prayer support for those who are serving in the front lines.

Can we demonstrate to our neighbors, friends, and relatives that we are responsible radicals? That we can be counted on to lead the way in caring for a hurting world? That we will not only proclaim the gospel, but demonstrate it? May all see Jesus Christ in us!

Tim Tseng

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About Tim Tseng

I'm Pastor of English Ministry at Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church (San Jose, CA), independent scholar and theological educator.

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