But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.- Galatians 1:8-12
The street where Christian used to live is in one of the worst neighborhoods in São Paulo. He was a recent arrival to the streets and one of our team members thought it was a good idea to visit his mother. We decide to venture out together to this infamous neighborhood.
In another time, this would have been considered a beautiful neighborhood. There were many historic buildings with intricate patterns and designs adorning their exteriors. However, now they are in various stages of deterioration. These buildings are known as “cortiços” which is just another word for urban slum. The houses are divided into tiny rooms and rented for exorbitant prices. Most of the tenants are very poor and without choices in terms of housing except for these places. As we entered the street, we were “greeted” by a group of teens who asked us what we wanted. They thought that we were there to buy drugs and they wanted to let us know of their wide range of stock. We told them that we were here looking for Christian’s mother’s home. They knew her and they pointed us to one of the buildings. We were informed not to knock on the doors but to just wait outside the door and they would eventually let us in. Only the police knock on doors in this neighborhood. We did not want to find out what would happen if we knocked. The street was filled with people sitting outside and children of all ages running around. They stopped their conversations and stared at us distrustfully. We stood in front of a building where the dealers pointed out and waited. It took a while before the door was opened. The drug dealer looked suspiciously at us at first and then he relaxed when we told him that we are from the church. He smiled and said that he would call the mother of the boy. The atmosphere was tense. We could feel everyone in the neighborhood scrutinizing our every move. It was one of our most intense experiences working in the streets.
Much later we had a discussion with a group of Christians about the challenges our children face growing up in these neighborhoods. Someone suggested that it was asking too much from our children and teens to be Christians while living in these kinds of neighborhoods. This sentiment was just not just the conviction of one person. Almost everyone in the discussion agreed. They argued that the temptation was too great for them to be involved in crime. I understood their sentiment but at the same time both Mary and I were greatly disturbed. The implications of this argument should disturb any Christian because it is saying that the gospel is only good news in a certain context and it is inadequate in another situation. If this is the case, then I am afraid that we have nothing relevant to say to our children in the streets. Then the gospel is not powerful enough to do anything for them unless they change their circumstances first. This argument implies that those who have the misfortune to find themselves born into extreme poverty are beyond the reach of the gospel; that they first need to change their social status to fully reap the benefits of the gospel. This gospel is a gospel that depends on certain social and economic circumstances to be effective. Thanks be to God that this is not the gospel of the Bible. It is the other gospel of the world that St Paul so vigorously argued against in his letters.
Our children have heard this other gospel preached to them all their lives. None of our children doubt the existence of God. They love to hear church music. They even have memorized some of the modern choruses. They even sing them with gusto if asked. However, there is something missing in their belief system. Their faith is a sentimental feeling and God of this gospel is incapable of bringing about any significant change in their lives. The children heard this gospel from adults. We discovered that we are no different from them. We have a limited idea of what God can do. We need to purge ourselves of this wrong concept of God.
When we went to the neighborhood I described above, we were only able to see the criminality and the darkness. We were impressed by the oppressive presence of violence but we failed to see God present in the neighborhood. We failed to see His Light in this place. We listened to the society’s judgement of the place and believed that it is the worst neighborhood in the city. We failed to see and acknowledge that despite its reputation, God has poured His spirit into this world. His Spirit is present in all places. God’s Spirit has only one task and this is to guide us to the knowledge of the Truth. Jesus said that the Truth will set us free. We have a choice before us. Either we believe this to be true or we don’t think that Jesus knew what he was talking about. For Christians, the latter is not an option. However, if we are not fully convinced of the former, we can never effectively share the gospel. Our message of hope will be tainted with social reforms based on ideologies that are not compatible with the gospel.
I don’t know how to live in a neighborhood that is riddled with drugs and violence: it is a world that is foreign to me. However, just because it is foreign to my reality, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible for anyone to live a full Christian life there. St Paul met the Living Christ on the road to Damascus. This experience with the Resurrected Jesus changed his life. He gave him the confidence to preach Christ to all people regardless of the circumstances they found themselves. Not just Paul, the early church went out to distant lands and preached to Christ to peoples with different cultural practices and beliefs. Some of them were grossly adverse to Christian ethics and morality. They discovered that the gospel is still the gospel in every situation. It has the power to enable people to triumph over their circumstances. Our confidence in the sufficiency of the gospel perhaps reveals more about ourselves than the message of the gospel. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves in the light of the biblical revelation if our understanding of the gospel is truly good news for all peoples in all circumstances or it is just a cultural religious sentiment. The latter has no relevance to the world. The power of the gospel has to first be experienced in our own souls. It is this confidence that will enable us to see victory when we are confronted with utter hopeless.
“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”- 1 Cor. 1:22-24