By Bill Mefford, photo by Time.com
A number of years ago I worked in an urban ministry in Texas and one of responsibilities was to facilitate three day experiential learning exercises called Poverty Simulation weekends. Poverty Sims, which we called them, were intended to take mostly church groups and give them a very small taste of what it was to be poor so that they could return to their home communities and enter into compassionate relationships with poor people. I saw these Poverty Sims lead to far more - and I mean FAR MORE - and longer lasting transformation than short-term mission trips.
I loved Poverty Sims since they typically focused on predominantly white and entirely privileged church groups. Among my favorite parts of these weekends that I facilitated were the times that I gave cheap advice. As the weekend participants were going through a series of specific challenges and learning experiences I frequently stepped in and give them what I described as “middle class advice.” For instance, on Saturday the participants were to go out in small groups to achieve certain tasks including eating lunch. My advice to them, which I made sure everyone was quiet and attentive to hear? “Eating lunch is good to do.” Another example; when those who slept outside were facing chances of rain I gave them the phenomenal advice, “don’t get wet. Being wet AND homeless really sucks.”
Yeah, I was really good at meting out ground-breaking advice.
What made me think of such amazing morsels of wisdom was seeing this past week mostly white men on social media castigating refugee women fleeing north to the United States who then had to flee the tear gas being shot at them by US officials on the southern border. Reading such things as, “I would never bring my children to places where people would throw rocks at law enforcement officials” made me nostalgic for the condescending, arrogant, privileged “advice” that isn’t worth the air it requires to speak it.
But no matter how much we hate to hear it, the middle class in this country love to dish it out. If only those who were so liberal with their “wisdom” would be as liberal in their support for policies that prevent injustices in the first place. But, at the same time, it is not hard to blame folks for blaming the poor and those who are victims of unjust and oppressive systems and structures. Look at our national leadership, and not just trump who completely lacks any level of empathy at all. Just look at the way any legislation is made.
As one example among many, when immigration legislation is discussed immigrants are trotted out like figure heads, but the primary groups at the table are chambers of commerce, industry and defense contractor lobby groups, and a handful of DC-based immigration lobby groups vying with one another for a place at the table. Having seen these negotiation fights firsthand, the argument always boils down to political realities and NEVER about what is best for immigrants as defined by immigrants. These fights almost always come down to hoping those at the table will remember those directly impacted, but that rarely happens. Leadership matters and right now - at almost every level of institutional level - our national leadership lacks empathy.
Secondly, people give cheap advice because it is just easy. Think about your closest relationships. When those you care about are hurting or experiencing suffering of some kind the last thing you want to give them is advice. Just the opposite, you want connection, you want, more than anything: presence. You want to help shoulder the load and that means some kind of intimacy.
Handing out advice is is the exact opposite of our missiological calling as followers of Jesus to come alongside those experiencing suffering to ease if not stop that suffering altogether. Handing out advice is evidence that relationships do not exist and so our response to those who lack what is most instrumental to bring transformation in our lives - mutual, egalitarian relationships - must be to extend the invitation to enter into those relationships.
While nearly impossible to do via the one-dimensional world of social media, we in the church must be about the work of inviting those who stand on the sidelines doling out cheap advice into the game of investing their lives into the lives who are being directly impacted by the brokenness of of unjust systems and structures. While the Pharisees were the ones so quick to give advice in Jesus’ day, he spent his life - he gave his life in fact, bridging that divide and bringing about just and righteous relationships relationships that are filled with empathy. This is how we stop the doling out of cheap, worthless middle class advice.