If you are looking for inspiration for a faith that gets up on its feet and lives out in the world, a good source is the latest book by Dr Aidan Donaldson, Come Follow Me: Recalling the Dangerous Memory of Jesus and the Church Today (Columba, 2012).
Donaldson is chaplain at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Belfast and co-ordinator of Project Zambia, a radical justice organisation inspired by the Christian Brothers’ vision. (Donaldson’s experiences in Zambia featured in an earlier book, Encountering God in the Margins: Reflections of a Justice Volunteer).
Come Follow Me is an engaging mix of reflection on gospel passages, and stories from his experiences in Ireland and Africa. Donaldson uses both scripture and experience to make a case that our church institutions have made Jesus too ‘safe,’ and urges us to seize opportunities to follow Christ outside the walls of the church. As he writes (pp. 22-23):
‘Jesus himself never intended to start an institutional ‘church’. He set his sights much higher than that. … although Jesus did not leave the disciples with a road-map or definite instructions on how to establish a new church, he did – through his example and teachings – give them (and us) much to ponder and build upon. Jesus did not conform nor compromise to the existent religious, political and social structures, doctrines and practices. He ignored the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. He deliberately sought out and included those who had been deliberately excluded and marginalised by ‘respectable’ society. He was deeply suspicious and hostile to the religio-political structures (as present in its highest form in the Temple in Jerusalem). And he commanded his disciples (us) to do the same.’
Donaldson does not advocate an ‘anti-institutional’ religion, as some of those involved in the emerging church movement do. In fact, he sees value in institutions and structures (pp. 20-22). But he acknowledges that the Irish church, in particular, has suffered from ‘clericalism’ and become fixated on the declines in religious vocations and mass attendance.
For Donaldson, we should not seek to rebuild a powerful, clerical church. What’s required is a ‘revolutionary’ approach to church, an image of which he builds throughout the book by reflecting on the gospels and his experiences in Africa.
Donaldson has a knack for relating the stories in the gospels to contemporary situations. After sharing Luke’s account of the woman who gate-crashed the dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house to wash Jesus feet with her tears and pour perfume on his head, he asks us to think about how we would react (pp. 49):
‘… lest we feel too smug, let us consider what might happen if we are in a restaurant, hotel or theatre with our friends and a traveller or homeless person comes in and enters our social space. I’m sure that we would look for the management to ensure that the person would be removed immediately so that we could continue with our own gathering.’
In his descriptions of his experiences in Zambia, Donaldson almost always focuses on how those he visited ministered to him – not the other way around. As in Encountering God in the Margins, he is critical of paternalistic approaches to service in Africa which cast wealthy Westerners in a heroic light.
Examples include his description of ‘walking alongside disciples on a Home Based Care visit’, where people visit those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The visitors provide the sick with companionship, and attempt to meet some of the material needs of their families (pp. 61ff).
In ‘hard lessons in giving in Africa’, he cautions Westerners against giving money and making promises to individuals, as doing so can undo the hard work of those who have been supporting those communities for years. Donaldson and Brendan Teer, an 18-year-old student from St Mary’s, were asked by Peter Tembo, coordinator of the St Lawrence Centre in Lusaka, to sit with a woman called Mary as she reviewed the cases of needy people seeking assistance for education or income generating projects. In telling a story about how Mary provided a solution to a seemingly intractable problem, he demonstrates just how much Western volunteers have to learn (p. 93).
There are other heartening stories, like that of Enoch and Esther Banda, who Donaldson’s daughter Caoimhe met while working in Mapepe village (p. 103ff). The Bandas were in their 70s and caring for seven orphaned grandchildren and another orphaned village girl that no one else could look after. They were eating just one meal of maize meal (i.e. like a bowl of porridge) per day so that some of the brightest of the grandchildren could attend school. As he writes: ‘Some of us read the gospel, Enoch and Esther Banda live it’ (p. 104). Inspired by the Bandas, Caoimhe set up a monthly contribution system where friends and family in Ireland could contribute £5-10 a month to start a food aid programme in Mapape – which now benefits the Bandas and 60 other grandparent carers and 450 orphaned grandchildren.
One of the more powerful stories Donaldson tells highlights another lesson he learned from Peter Tembo – one that became even more poignant for me when I learned that Tembo was killed last month in an automobile accident.
It was the last day of a Project Zambia visit, and Donaldson and the students were observing a scene of poverty and flooding. Donaldson writes (p. 123):
‘The lives of those ground down by abject and unrelenting poverty had been made even more miserable and hopeless. A sense of almost despair and powerlessness was sinking into our hearts as we searched for some sense of the presence of God among such suffering and need. Then Peter Tembo looked around at all of us and smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you can indeed see God all around us. You young men from Ireland have heard the cry of the poor and the Spirit has led you to this place to be with them. Your very coming means that they are no longer abandoned and forgotten. You are proclaiming the good news to the poor and setting them free. You are God.’
But Donaldson makes it clear that giving money, or even time, to those on the margins is not radical enough to follow in the steps of Jesus. These actions will not alleviate poverty and injustice. Only a change in the exploitative behaviour of Western nations, companies and individual consumers can do that.
In his conclusion, Donaldson writes of going and proclaiming the ‘good news’ – and for him this means linking mission and evangelisation. This is how he sees the task of the church (pp. 137-138):
‘We, as church, must actively and selflessly renounce power, privilege and comfort and place ourselves at the service of others, and especially at the service of those in greatest need. We must have the courage of Jesus, his early disciples and the prophets, both ancient and modern, and be prepared to move from the comfort and safety of the centre and go to the margins. In embracing the margins we too most certainly risk becoming marginalised ourselves. … The inhuman, irrational and uncaring world which we encounter every day in which opulence, greed, obscene wealth, individualism and every other value and aspect of consumer capitalism is celebrated while countless millions of the world’s population are condemned to suffer from obscene poverty, hunger, hopelessness, rejection, degradation, homelessness, discrimination, requires a revolution of heart and mind that only the people of God can bring about by recalling the dangerous message of Jesus, proclaiming that good news to all of humankind and living that most dramatic form of relationship, as befitting of all as children of God, in every aspect of our lives.’
Of course, moving from the comfort of the centre to the margins is not easy. There is no 12-step process to get from the centre to the margins that will fit everyone. And I must admit I still feel paralysed when I realise how difficult it is, as an individual, to dismantle the damaging structures of unchecked capitalism or even to live outside them. But there’s hope in realising that there are others who are on a similar journey.