One Small Change: Letting Go of the Plastic Jesus

I feel grateful to have met Preston Yancey on the Internet. He is kind, insightful, and he’s working on his first book in which he’s seeking to change the conversation about God’s silence. I can’t wait to read it…and I wish something like that had existed when I was experiencing my own difficult absence. Preston’s thoughts here are beautiful and profound. 

plastic jesusIn my days of youth rallies and midweek praise services, justice was a narrow and particular construct. Justice was food for the starving, clothes for the naked, and shelter for the homeless bundled up with a white plastic Jesus attached.

The plastic Jesus was the point.

The plastic Jesus was the plan of salvation, an itemized check-list that ensured the recipient, upon saying a prayer, would be granted access to Heaven.

See, no one ever really needed food, clothing, or shelter. They needed Jesus. They needed the white plastic version of Jesus that my hard earned money could buy them, which I dropped into a bucket that got passed around on the last day of camp.

I never had to see them, never had to really interact with them. I saw a picture of a nondescript hungry black baby on a screen and shelled out ten dollars because of a vague mention of the Spirit.

That was justice. The ten dollars dropped in the bucket and the fingers-crossed prayers that the unreached would believe in Jesus and that would make it alright.

I want to extend a kind of grace to the past self, make room for the good intentions of that heart. I want to be able to hold the tension that what was done perhaps erroneously nonetheless was still used by God, but I don’t want to flatter myself into believing that dropping that ten dollars into that bucket was justice. Maybe it was justice as I u
nderstood it then, but it’s not justice as I understand it now.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jesus, the real Jesus and not the plastic version I’ve worn around my neck for too long of my life. The real Jesus is not God in the abstracted, clinical way we sometimes speak of Him. The real Jesus is the embodiment of the God of Israel, the God of a particular people with a particular history that we have been invited into.

The Old Testament gets a bad rap sometimes for a portrayal of a jealous and petulant God, but it’s some of the richest in the argument for a holistic view of justice. Both in the Law and the Prophets, we encounter a God who is radically concerned with the well being of people regardless of whether or not they are of Israel. Indeed, God commands the people to look out for those who are not their own: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

If Jesus is the God of Israel, then His justice cannot be bastardized into a form of help to convert. The God of Israel said that even those not of Israel and therefore not of God were still to be extended the same love as an Israelite would have for themselves.

So too are we called as Christians. We are to hand over food, clothes, and shelter without a plastic Jesus attached, but with a radical belief that God is being made known in the act of giving itself.

open hand

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

These days, I’ve come to see justice a bit more complexly. I don’t drop ten dollars into a bucket anymore, but thirty-five into Food for the Hungry which sponsors children. Child sponsorship is one of the most significant ways to directly participate in justice on a global scale.

For one, child sponsorship focuses on enabling a child with education, which in turn helps their family as a whole. Second, it helps disentangle the church from the fetish of orphan care, in which we have made it glamorous to rescue “an orphan” or “build an orphanage” without a long term solution for the betterment of that child and their community. Not to mention, orphans are not the only ones who are in need of our care and giving.

Third, child sponsorship supports the health of the child in-country and in-culture, removing the white Jesus salvation superhero mentality we often bring into spaces we identify as “the mission field” and instead builds a multi-cultural relationship that honors and uplifts the community a child was born into and can be an effective leader within.

(There are problems, too, with some child sponsorship programs, which some have done a good job of pointing out.)

I’ve let go of my need for that to be explicitly Jesus-y in order to count. Justice, the justice of God, does not need a plastic Jesus attached to be realized. It needs the willingness of God’s people to work small actions of justice right where they are and believe that a big God is able to draw people to Godself in the midst of that, that God really does care about food, clothing, and shelter as much as the ultimate state of the soul.

I think this has something to do with on earth as it is in Heaven.

Some Child Sponsorship Options:

Food for the Hungry
World Vision
Help One Now

preston yanceyPreston Yancey is an author and speaker with a Masters of Letters in Theology & the Arts from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a B.A. in Great Texts of the Western Tradition from Baylor University. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again is to be published by Zondervan in October 2014. A native Texan, he is currently the Administrative Assistant to the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Western Gulf Coast, working on his second book, and engaged to be married next June. He runs on a diet of caffeine and God’s grace.

7 thoughts on “One Small Change: Letting Go of the Plastic Jesus

  1. Being a professional development worker and a Christian, my question is who decides how much money people working in these charitable enterprises make? All of the top executives make way more money that I do, which is fine, but once again, who decides how much they should be getting? I personally, being a Christian and loving Jesus, who became poor for us, would not support an organization, no matter how good they supposedly are, if their staff makes a six figure salary. I have no problem with anyone going and making a fortune. God be with you. But in my book, under no circumstance would I even think for a moment about giving someone my treasure when they by undertaking charitable activities make far more money than I do. Don’t take my word for it. Here is FH’s 990 form so you can see for yourself. Very few people that I know make six figures, but it seems all too common in these types of organizations. This one is in fact one of the better ones. Some are taking way more than this. Don’t just give without checking things out. Guidestar is free and all of these organizations have to file these forms each year.

    1. Samuel, I would push back that God never gives us the impression in Scripture that wealth is inherently bad, but if you do not steward it well, that’s when it becomes bad. Actually, you can steward poverty poorly. You can steward anything poorly. St. Francis is one half of the saints I carried with me into my confirmation, so the vow of poverty and renunciation is near to my heart, but let’s not confuse the call that God puts on *some* toward poverty to a call God puts on *all*. Peter Brown’s new book on Christian practice in the early church is a good read on this:

  2. Nice piece. I had to quote your line about the Old Testament being rich. So often I meet Christians who claim the OT is “irrelevant” to life today. By neglecting it, they’re missing so much! This is just one reason I write OT Bible studies.

  3. There’s a lot of stuff to get the wheels turning here. I definitely agree with you about the Old Testament. I have so much to learn about the Bible as a whole, and I find that the Old Testament is absolutely crucial to my understanding of a life of faith. I forget who it was that compared the Bible as a whole to acts of a play, but I think that analogy really rings true, and when we take the OT out we lose so much of what God is trying to communicate to us. As for generosity and justice, I completely see your points, but I think it’s a fine line to walk. There have been times in my adult life when I’ve very literally needed food, shelter, and clothing and have been unable to provide for myself, and I didn’t need my friends to tell me that God loved me as they stepped in to provide, because I could see in their actions and I could tell that it was true. But there was also a time before that when I didn’t know God loved me, and no amount of tangible help could save me from myself until I actually let that fact sink in. So I do believe it’s important to genuinely seek justice day in and day out whenever and however the opportunity is presented to us, but I also understand why it’s so important to many people to have an explicit message of Jesus in that help. Anywayyy, thanks for giving us something to think about.

  4. I always go back to the verse that says they will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). Plastic Jesus or no, loving others should be our focus. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. I love your thoughts here.
    However, I would call what you are describing at the end of this piece “mercy” or “relief” – not justice.
    Justice has a heaviness about it that is only achieved in overturning systems and practices of injustice and making them right.
    Sponsoring a child is a good thing, but it does not overturn the systems which perpetuate poverty. Sponsorship and other relief efforts serve as band aids – which are needed lest the world bleed out – but justice is the surgery which repairs the hemorrhaging artery deep inside.

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