THE LEAST OF THESE | If I’m honest, there was a brief moment, when the gate clanked behind us, that a certain submerged fear—for which I felt guilty—was rumbling in my reptilian response layer. It was my first visit to Handlon Correctional Facility, the prison where Calvin College (my home institution) now offers bachelor’s degrees in Christian leadership. After passing through several layers of security, with barred gates rumbling open and shut, we were finally admitted into the large courtyard of the facility. It struck me how much it resembled “the commons” or quads of a hundred colleges across the country, and yet it was a world away. We arrived at lunchtime, when inmates were moving between facilities, and we met them without guards or weapons. One of the prison counsellors who walked with us broke the ice and invited us into conversations with neighbours we would never bump into otherwise, sequestered behind two twelvefoot fences of razor wire.
We made our way to the educational building, and there I met forty inmates who had not only read my book Desiring the Kingdom but also devoured it. Their hunger for wisdom and knowledge and transformation was unparalleled. Honest assessors of who they were, without the veneer of a “good conscience” or the deceptive facade of middle-class comfort, these men taught me much about the formative significance of cultural liturgies, the spiritual power of habit, and why theology can be experienced as a kind of liberation. While Calvin College, a Reformed and Kuyperian institution of higher education, carries out its mission in the leafy environs of its comfortable Knollcrest campus—flush with rock-climbing walls and vegan cafeterias— the most convinced students of its vision live packed in cinder-block cells and will never see the other side of those razor-wire fences.
On our drive there and back, my colleague Todd Cioffi—co-director of the program— shared story after story of intellectual illumination, spiritual triumph, and cultural transformation there inside the prison. The living-learning community of Calvin’s Prison Initiative students was having ripple effects across their unit, across the Handlon facility, and even into the reaches of the state of Michigan’s correctional bureaucracy. Todd also told me that the most resistance he experienced was from guards who work inside the penitentiary. The very ethos of their training, he said, requires the dehumanization of the inmates. Why would we educate animals? they effectively asked. The forces of formation the prisoners are aware of are also at work on their gatekeepers. Even if someone might enter “corrections” work with the noblest of intentions, the training and ethos of the system are pretty much overwhelming: it is almost impossible to do the job and still see inmates as human.
When Todd and other faculty were first trained to enter the prison, they were told to never look prisoners in the eye, never touch them, and never call them by their first name. “Um,” Todd politely protested, “I can’t teach someone and follow those rules. So, sorry, but I’ll be learning their names, shaking their hands, and looking into their eyes. Even more than that, I’ll be asking them what they think. And I’ll be interested in what they have to say.” You can feel how the Christian injunction to make disciples might make the powers that be nervous.
But Todd also raised an important question as we neared our homes in Grand Rapids. We talk a lot about “vocation,” Todd said; we try to help students realize that God has a calling on their lives and that they can serve him in a vast of array of callings from missions to motherhood, engineering to interpretive dance. But, Todd cautioned, too often such vocationspeak turns into a Christianized version of “follow your bliss” or “do what you love.” In other words, the calling of God is reduced to a stamp of approval for what we’d like to do.
His experience at Handlon Correctional Facility had him thinking unorthodox thoughts. “Some days,” he confessed, “I think our talk of vocation should be more directive.” Rather than giving blank-cheque permission, we should be calling the body of Christ to answer the contextual calls of the moment. We should be identifying the hot spots of need and pain and opportunity and intentionally raise up a generation of Christians willing to follow Christ into the neglected byways of our broken world—places like our prisons. But that will mean not only encouraging them to consider this as a career. The church also then needs to give them the resources to remain in the system without becoming automatons of its disordered view of God’s image bearers. We need not only to help them hear God’s “Go!” but also to nourish them so they can stay, so that every day when they report for work they can continue to imagine they are visiting—and working for the sake of—”the least of these” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).
CALVINIST SAINTS | Our bibliographical memories are short. The au courant is king. So a book published in 1983 blends into the distant horizon of books published in 1883 and 883 and 283. But Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace has a perennial wisdom that repays your attention. It is, without question, a star in the constellation of Reformed social thought. If we talk about shalom a lot, it’s because Nick Wolterstorff taught us how.
I recently taught the book again as required reading in my Philosophy of Social Science course and found it as prescient and relevant as ever. But let me whet your appetite with just one delightful quote:
A friend of mine told me how annoyed he was, upon visiting the St. Bavo Kerk in Haarlem, to see how the Calvinists had put representations of good solid Dutch burghers in the the windows where the medievals would have had saints—until he realized that these were the Calvinist saints.
Not all saints wear robes and halos. Here at Comment we love to celebrate the gritty holiness of work well done.
WIDOWS, ORPHANS, AND REFUGEES | When Scripture constantly draws our attention to the plight of widows, orphans, and strangers (“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow,” Deuteronomy 27:19), God is placing before us the plight of the most vulnerable—those without the ties or networks or protections that so many of us take for granted. In the agrarian and tribal contexts of ancient Israel, to be without a father or husband or people— the mechanisms of provision and protection— was to be exposed to exploitation and hunger. And so God exhorts his people to pay particular attention to those on the margins. Justice, he tells Jeremiah, comes down to how you treat the vulnerable: “Do justice and righteousness,” he tells the king of Judah. “And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow” (Jeremiah 22:3).
The safety nets of the developed world can sometimes fool us into thinking this exhortation is antiquated. Social security and unemployment insurance and schoollunch programs care for the widows and orphans. But the plight of the stranger— the immigrant, the refugee—is as tenuous as ever. Indeed, in her 2016 Massey Lectures, The Return of History, Jennifer Welsh identifies the return of mass, forced migration as one of the realities of the twenty-first century. (Welsh notes that 1 out of 113 people in the world are displaced migrants.) Displaced by the horrors of ISIS and civil war, or pushed abroad by economic destitution, families flow across borders, gambling on the deadly voyages of laden vessels rather than staying put to face the end they’ve seen their neighbours suffer.
But Welsh also briefly notes two important realities. First, despite the rise of allegedly “Christian” nationalism and a virulent anti-immigration rhetoric, churches and the Christian community remain one of the most significant sponsors of refugees in both Canada and the United States.
While governments set immigration policy, it is Christian congregations and agencies who undertake the on-the-ground hospitality that welcomes these refugees to a strange new world.
Second, Welsh gives us a wonderful vignette of the gifts that immigrants bring. During World War II, Canada was one of only two countries willing to accept Hungarian migrants without quotas. “In less than a year,” she notes, “37,000 refugees were admitted to Canada, some traveling on ships chartered by the government.” What they couldn’t have anticipated was the long-term effects on something so dear to Canadian hearts. “The intake included most of the professors, technicians, and graduate students from the Sopron School of Forestry in Hungary, who transplanted their campus to the University of British Columbia and gradually helped build a new faculty of forestry on the west coast of Canada.”
GAMIFYING COMMON GRACE | In He Shines in All That’s Fair, Richard Mouw— patron saint of everything Comment loves and hopes for—makes the case for God’s delight when even non-Christians enjoy lives that reflect God’s hope and desires for the world. Since God desires for marriage to reflect his own covenant faithfulness, he delights in the lifelong marriage of Muslims and atheists; because God’s shalom includes work that is meaningful, just, and prosperous, he takes delight in rightly ordered labour reform even if it’s championed by godless communists.
This isn’t a claim about salvation, but rather the dynamics of common grace—testament to the Spirit’s renewing power at work beyond evangelism and the body of Christ.
So Mouw talks about what he calls “common grace ministries”—endeavours that seek to right the wrongs of the world, trying to bend the disorder of a fallen creation toward the shalom that is coming. As Mouw puts it, every mental-health facility, every adoption agency, every union are endeavours that not only conform to God’s will but also delight his heart.
I thought of this recently when I spent a week amid the Christian dreamers of Praxis, a community of entrepreneurs who want to be caught up in the redemptive edge of the Spirit’s presence in the world. While earlier Christian social entrepreneurs founded agencies and organizations that minister common grace renewal to communities and local needs, these twenty-first-century start-ups deploy the capacity of technology to extend this ministry of common grace. Take just one example: Lasting.me is a health app for marriage. One need not fall prey to the technology-will-save-us myth to see in this an ancient principle. Available for any and all, the app is rooted in the creational conviction that lifelong faithfulness isn’t just an onerous law but, in fact, the secret to relational joy. Without announcing any of this, the app nonetheless nudges couples to undertake the disciplines, reflection, and plain hard work that is needed for a marriage to flourish. But by marshalling the power of an app, Lasting gamifies the experience—perhaps leveraging our competitive spirit for other ends—while creating systems of accountability and webs of checks and balances. “It’s like Fitbit for your marriage,” the app announces, and you can almost hear God chuckle with delight.