Ministry to the Marginalized, Part II

Ministry to the Marginalized, Part II

Part I here: https://www.theunbrokencord.com/writings/ministry-to-the-marginalized-the-gospel-and-bonhoeffers-ethics-part-1

In the first post I did on this topic I said that the marginalized are humans who have “become marginalized because it benefits structures of power and it benefits the people who stand to gain the most from protecting those structures.” I also said, “It is not really the business of the church to overthrow those structures, but it is the business of the church to enter into the places of the marginalized and serve them as if they were the ones holding the power.”[1] Ministry to the marginalized, in my brief treatment of this topic, needs two things: a recognition of the reality of the marginalized, that is their existence; and that the church is called to serve them. This may seem like it goes without saying but I think it’s helpful to know what kind of waters you are wading into. 

Along those lines it may also be helpful to parse the idea further. What I mean by that is situation helps us understand who is marginalized. The marginalization of humans can’t happen apart from situations causing humans to be marginalized. In society writ large there may be some groups of people that are marginalized, but those people are not naturally marginalized in their own communities. It may also be the case that there are groups of people who may not necessarily be marginalized in society but are in particular circles. Situation consequently determines who is marginalized and therefore who needs to be served by the particular community doing the marginalization. [2]

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). 

Peter’s words in his first epistle, firmly rooted in the Old Testament, are conducive for understanding how marginalization works. Given a particular group and the attention we perceive them receiving we might be inclined to not count them as marginalized. Borrowing from Peter we can begin to see how people we might not consider to be marginalized may actually be marginalized in our midst. Due to a variety of reasons (economic, moral, political, social, etc) we may perceive certain people to not be on the margins and this may be largely influenced by how other groups of Christians have moved and how society is moving. In other words, we see other Christian bodies and society receiving the supposed marginalized in a certain way and we may have a visceral reaction to any suggestions that they are marginalized. For the sake of exercise we can even grant that certain groups of people may not be marginalized by others and by society in general, but does that remove our responsibility to serve them if they are marginalized in our midst?

St. Peter says “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” and it is incumbent upon us to see with fresh eyes how we may be participating in the marginalization of people. The purpose of this is not to abandon biblical principles but to double down on them in service to the neighbors in need. In his explanation of the fifth commandment (You shall not kill) Luther begins by saying, “But here now we go forth from our house among our neighbors to learn how we should live with one another, every one himself toward his neighbor.” [3] In context, he is talking about how the first four commandments deal directly with spiritual and temporal authority, but with the fifth we move into the neighborhood, the space where we do life with our neighbor. As we consider our posture before this commandment we do so with an eye towards Peter. How might the judgment of God come to bear in our lives on the basis of this commandment and specifically on the basis of how we have treated those who are marginalized in our circles? To move into the neighborhood is to encounter those with whom we live, work, and play. And yet not just those, but also those who live in proximity to us that we neglect, or worse, injure with intent. 

In the first place the command You shall not kill is about ending human life, but this commandment is also violated when we cause physical harm per se, when we cause harm by way of our tongue, and even when we are disposed in our hearts against someone that may result in their harm. This especially includes those whom we perceive to be our enemies. It is often the case that people become marginalized because they are perceived to be enemies by a group that holds influence. This is simple enough but Luther, channeling Christ, ups the ante. “Secondly, under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him, and yet does not do it.”[4] Luther is saying clearly that this command is violated even when we neglect to assist our neighbor in every way “so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him.” 

As we go forth from our house among our neighbors to learn how we should live with one another we can consider how the way we have lived may contribute harmfully to the lives of our neighbors. If we have been in positions of influence, as a majority or as a powerful minority, and have used those positions to place certain peoples on the margins we may see how our situations have brought harm upon another. The purpose of this exercise is not to place a yoke around our necks that lowers us below the place of those whom we have given poor treatment (though humbling yourself does include lowering yourself in a certain way). We don’t consider how we have marginalized people just to feel bad or cause self-harm. This is not useful nor helpful. The purpose of such an exercise is to orient our mission towards those who need to be served and to promote reconciliation. At the end of every Christian exercise is reconciliation, so it would be no different when dealing with those whom we have marginalized.

Often times marginalized people feel out of reach. This happens for a variety of reasons, mostly stemming from an influential group not recognizing their other’s marginalized status. In a similar way reconciliation can feel out of reach. So much of the conversation in society surrounding marginalization is an exercise in self-flogging that doesn’t lead to reconciliation. The reason for this is that society does not have language for forgiveness outside of the language that is a possession of the church. This possession of the church is something we clutch too tightly to the detriment of ourselves and others. A possession of the church is not a possession in the way society views the term. Our possessions are gifts given by God in Christ and so they are gifts to be given by the church to others. Our consideration of marginalized peoples is for the purpose of extending the gifts of God to people who have been barred from receiving them from the church (obviously, God’s gifts can be dispensed outside of the institution and we may confess an invisible church, one not necessarily dependent on the visible church, but such confession does not eliminate the responsibility of the visible).

The church exists to reach and to serve in that reach. It can be a healthy exercise for us to examine how our reach has been limited, so that we can remove barriers to our other. Let us go forth from our house to be among our marginalized neighbors. In a subsequent post I will aim to deal with this in concrete ways.

[1] See: https://www.theunbrokencord.com/writings/ministry-to-the-marginalized-the-gospel-and-bonhoeffers-ethics-part-1
[2] A good treatment of this topic from a reformational perspective is Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins by Alberto L. Garcia and John A. Nunes (Eerdmans 2017).

[3] See: https://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php#para180
[4] See: https://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php#para189

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