In Bangkok the only houses without perimeter walls are slum shacks. Even the houses of the wealthy, in gated communities heavily populated by security guards, have high walls isolating each from the others. As foreigners we cannot own land, but if we could I would buy a home and tear out the yard walls, just to make a statement.
In classic urban style, those gated communities are quiet oases, peaceful islands set apart from the noise and dirt of the city, often adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. Their entrances are like portals to other worlds, where guards take your i.d., write down your license number and dismiss you with a snappy heel-clicking salute.
I am wired to think idealistically, and find everything from social injustice to environmental disrepair frustratingly unnecessary. For instance, there is massive wealth in Thailand; the latest megamall was recently opened, at a cost of US$ 1.5 billion. there is no reason why our daughters should have to resort to prostitution, or why the canal behind our apartment should smell like a sewer.
There are two ways to exist in this world: to withdraw from it or to stay in order to change it. Most people with means try to do both: living mostly withdrawn but with forays outside–perhaps to church, volunteering or politics, then retreat back to our forts. And indeed anyone who does charitable work will agree that every small bit helps. But we also know that if everyone jumped completely in rather than only part time, the world would be turned upside down.
As followers of Jesus withdrawal is not an option. We are to be the ones who jump in whether or not others join us. I wrote yesterday about Kay’s insight that “Jesus didn’t need to be God,” from Philippians 2:5-11. That text simply illustrates the only way God wants us to think: trust first, reward later. Give, and you will get. It’s counterintuitive even though everyone knows it actually works in principle. Kids are mean to each other until they get old enough to figure out that being nice to others brings reward. Back when we lived in Chicago, I never met a property owner wishing to not pay the large portion of property tax that went to the city’s extensive park system. When we take care of others, our needs get met.
Getting this principle across is one of the hardest obstacles we have had in working with the poor and broken. Poverty culture turns people into survivors, who often lie and manipulate in order to meet their needs, and who are able to very unkind to others. We have worked hard all year to make The Well a safer place, with fewer hurt people hurting each other, and have seen a lot of success.
We have noted though that many of those who have been most healed are ones that have seen our own sacrifice for them over the long term. Some have lived in our home; had us visit theirs when they were struggling. They’ve seen us work hard for others and know we live on only what we need. I don’t say this to say that we are special; it’s just so clear that this is what works. These who have seen our sacrifice and become healthy now tirelessly work by our side.
Maybe one day we’ll have a clean canal.