Yesterday I spent most of the beautiful sunny day hidden away inside SOAS’ library trying to pull together some thoughts about my first essay: ‘Does modernisation necessarily imply dependency?’ And I can tell you that it’s no small task moving, in just two months, from a place of knowing very little about development to trying to write a masters-level essay that shows not only a basic understanding of the issues but which demonstrates an ability to critique them and have an original opinion.
But yesterday that seemed a pretty far-off goal. The more I read, the more confused I felt. Intoxicated by my smelly highlighter pen, a bit dehydrated, and pretty miffed that Saturdays are no longer proper Saturdays, I ploughed through my tomes and found the water muddying along the way. I comprehended the basic concept that there is injustice in the world, that one country’s prosperity often comes to the detriment of another’s, but I was getting a bit bogged down in the proposed solutions ranging from socialist revolution, to complete delinking from the capitalist system, to a general acceptance that that’s just how life will always be. My mind wandered to the protesters at St Paul’s with their big banner asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ What, indeed?
Finally 6pm arrived, the library closed, I took the evening off and enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with friends. Yay! By that stage a glass of wine was definitely called for. An international group but with no authentic Americans, we kind of made up our own rules. The meal was therefore preceded by a ‘traditional’ thanksgiving dance which saw us tripping all over each other on the living room floor, and then as we ate we took it in turns to say what we were thankful for, with varying degrees of cheesiness and sincerity. But it’s always good to remember and to be thankful, right? I realised that I was really thankful for one of my coursemates: a fun-to-be-with Christian who is trying to grapple with development, injustice and poverty stuff from a similar perspective.
And frankly I really need people like that around me. I went to a church last week where I got a bit irritated by a motivational talk about stopping people trafficking that was all about ‘rescuing the princesses’. I don’t want to become too cynical but I found that the ‘kingdom language’ jarred somewhat. At one moment I’m in SOAS bombarded by academic discussions which generally bring a Marxist critique to a neoliberal perspective; concepts that two months ago I’d never really heard of but which now seem to form the framework to which other ideas are pegged. In a nutshell it’s all about the big bad markets and exploitative capitalist systems which don’t do much for ‘the poor’. Viva la revolucion! Then the next moment I’m in a church trying to grasp what ‘freedom for the oppressed and good news to the poor’ looks like from a ‘missional’, ‘gospel’ perspective. Then I’m meeting with my teenage Afghan mentee facing the biggest challenge of the lot: trying to explain in basic English what ‘migration and development studies’ actually is.
I’m trying to find an integrated language that can pull all these different threads together in a way that is real, fits with life and actually means something. The local and the global. The people and the politics. The theory, the practice, the real lives, the institutions, the powers that be and the back-to-front kingdom of now and not yet.
It was with all this in mind that I met up with another coursemate who wanted to come along to church with me and who, as it turns out, is also trying to get her head around this stuff. We arrived to a typical St Francis morning with its random local quirkiness of wide-ranging personalities, children running awol, and its diverse social and ethnic community of people just working out what it looks like to follow Jesus in a grounded, faith-filled kind of way.
With it being Micah’s baptism, and with Joel Edwards speaking, it was little surprise that we looked at these verses:
He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Why does God have to ram this point home, he asked, as it’s not like he hadn’t said it before? But we just forget. We forget justice, mercy (which he helpfully described as ‘non-naive generosity’) and humility. We need to be reminded of these things. In a same way, I suppose, that our Thanksgiving meal the night before had encouraged us to stop, take stock, and be thankful.
The deep simplicity of it was a well-timed reminder. I found myself reflecting on the stress of my essay-writing: I realised that I probably understand more than I think I do but that for self-glorifying reasons I expect I am striving a bit too hard to write the best essay possible. I am trying to prove myself. But the sermon was a reminder of what God is like and what he calls us to – not to prove ourselves to him but in response to the mercy that he has shown us. It was a reminder of why I’m doing this masters in the first place, and an encouragement that it is compatible with my faith and that integration of all the strands is possible. (Some helpful resources here on the Micah Challenge website that will be worth revisiting.)
Tucking into rice and peas afterwards as I chatted with my coursemate and enjoyed getting to know her a bit better, I looked around the buzzing building and must confess to a bit of a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being surrounded by people whose genuine concern for each other makes the messiness of it all just a little bit more beautiful.