The Perkins Perspective | Features | Spring 2013
Why Hope? Why Art? Why Now?
By Richard Dahlstrom
"These are the three primary colors of hope: mercy, love, justice," writes Dahlstrom.
I was in Bangkok on a layover flight en-route to India years ago when something happened that changed my life and priorities forever. My overnight there was unexpected, due to flight problems, and when I asked the ticketing agent about lodging she told me to pick a motel tag off a kiosk by the airport entry, hand it to a cab driver, and the driver would take me there.
Knowing nothing about Bangkok, I chose reasonably priced lodging, handed the ticket to the cab driver and was instantly in the streets of this city that never closes. The driver told me he knew of a place that was just as good as my choice, but half the price.
Always ripe for savings, I bit, and soon we were careening out past the edge of town to a run down looking place across the street from a bar complete with flashing neon signs, Thai karaoke blaring to the point of distortion, and myriads of rabid looking dogs running in and out of said bar. The cab driver sped off and I quickly made my way into the motel.
After I put down the equivalent of about $20 dollars, the bell hop shows me to my room where he proudly says, “Look. Clean sheets for you!” and “Air conditioning works!” After a few more revelations regarding the amenities he says casually, “When do you want to girl?” I thought I’d misunderstood, thought he’d said grill and that perhaps there was a middle of the night Thai BBQ available. Nope. “The girl” he said, louder, to clarify.
I pull a picture of my wife and children out of my wallet and show him. “Nice” he says, “When do you want the girl.” When I tell him that I don’t want the girl he says, “The room still costs the same,” angrily, like I’ve offended him.
“I don’t want the girl to come to my room at all,” I say, and he storms out shaking his head. Once he’s gone, I begin to get sick to my stomach, because this is the first time in my life I’ve really even thought about human trafficking, and I’m not watching a PBS documentary, I’m in the thick of it. I sit on the bed momentarily as the weight of what’s happening all around me sinks in. No, I can’t stay here. As I’m walking back to the lobby where I’ll wait for a cab to take me back to the airport, I pass a girl who looks to be 14, dressed for work. I nearly throw up and later will learn that most of these girls are sold into such work by their families, sleeping with up to twenty men a night as sex slaves.
The ride back to the airport and the flight to India the next two (where I’ll spend an hour with a friend driving through a slum on the outskirts of New Delhi) shatters the evangelical world in which I was raised. Mine was a world where we didn’t speak of racism, slavery, human trafficking, oppression, the poverty that comes to so many in the world because of unjust structures. No, my church argued about the age of the earth (it was young, of course – all scientists who taught otherwise were evil), the timing of the rapture (“1974? 1977? 1978? 1988? Do I have another bid?), and whether people who spoke in tongues were misguided or downright evil.
Those 24 hours in Bangkok and New Delhi changed me forever. Women were sleeping with 20 men a night, trapped in sexual slavery. Families were living on piles of garbage, heating the food they harvested from said garbage by burning dung. And I’m arguing about the age of the earth? “No more,” I said to myself, and thus begin a theological journey that took me to Micah 6:8 as a cornerstone text for what all Christ followers must be about: mercy, justice, love.
These are the three primary colors of hope, and we need them in our lives and our life together as a church and a nation, now more than ever.
Trust in institutions and authority figures is at an all time low in America because of the increasing polarization and fragmentation that’s happening as people retreat into opposing camps, which have the effect of reducing lives and callings to nothing more than "gaining ground for your party." As a result, gender wars, class wars, sexual orientation wars, political party wars, and generational wars, are in the news every day, leaving us with a subjective feeling that nobody has a vision for anything grander than protecting their turf.
In reality though, all these people, in all these camps, share one thing in common: They all want to believe in a better future, where everyone has enough, and has a chance, where injustice is overtaken by righteousness and oppression by opportunity. They may disagree on tactics, or priorities, but everyone wants hope.
Hope, to be real, requires the real presence of justice and mercy in a culture, and the church is the group best suited to offer such presence to our world because this is, in fact, our mission statement. This is, to quote Micah 6:8, “What the Lord requires of you.”
It’s as if God has taken all the laws and their complex interpretations, and boiled them down so that the essence remains, and the essence is simply justice, mercy, and love. Make these three visible, and you inject the kind of hope into our world that has the possibilities of bringing people out of their camps and working together again.
In my Colors of Hope book, I used an art metaphor because the truth is that justice, mercy, and love, and strikingly beautiful. That’s why Mother Teresa, John Perkins, MLK, Dorothy Day, and a long train of other saints are so compelling. They chose to live into the Micah 6:8 calling in unique and intentional ways, blessing millions directly, and inspiring multiple millions more by their example.
They’re not intended to be exceptional. Rather than retreating into camps to fight more doctrinal or culture wars, or retreating even further into self indulgent cynicism, what if each of us moved with intentionality into our world, purposing to be a unique and creative presence of justice, mercy, and love? What would happen then?
Hope! That’s what would happen. What are you waiting for.
Richard Dahlstrom, MDiv, is senior pastor of Bethany Community Church. He has a bachelor's degree from Seattle Pacific University and an MDiv from Talbot Theological Seminary. His most recent book, The Colors of Hope, is reviewed in this Perkins Perspective. More of his writings are available at richarddahlstrom.com.
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