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We’ve all seen the stories and the videos on social media. The police officer who pulls someone over in a sketchy neighborhood, and then to the stressed and confused driver, the police officer hands a turkey or a check just in time for the holidays. The billionaire commencement speaker who cancels the student debt of that lucky graduating class. The fortunate couple for whom Ellen decides to give a new home, their shock, and elation a form of public entertainment.

Random acts of kindness.

As random as the lottery

As random as a school shooting.

Always guessing. Wondering.

No rhyme or reason.

I’m told that such acts of kindness are a reminder that there are good people out there. There is good in humanity, still. And to a limited degree, I can subscribe to this. I certainly don’t want to discourage bold acts to help others. But randomness — it has an effect on the psyche. Always wondering, nothing to count on.

Randomness. Hoping in a place of desperation for some relief and wanting to be that lucky one.

A loose synonym for inequality, for haphazardness, luck, fortune, or misfortune.

It was this past Advent that I listened to an audio copy of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. I was drawn into the world and the experiences it presented, as any skillfully told story can do, causing me to see the world through its perspective.

I saw randomness. The cumulative effect of being vulnerable to whims, caprices, and power, always wondering what response will come. What will happen? Extra food ration? The butt of a rifle to the head? A bullet? Random. Haphazard, without logic or reason and most often lacking any sense of humanity. Every day, every interaction, every moment of catching somebody’s eye, wondering what response it would bring. How lucky must one be to navigate such a world of random cruelty and intermittent kindness for three years with people dying all around you? The gunshots going off in one’s ears regularly, the ash of the crematorium raining down on one’s head, even as one survives by one lucky moment after another.

The stories conveyed in the Tattooist were intense and stark. It is a starkness we tend to turn away from, an austerity we want to call exceptional and non-ordinary, something singular and unlike other things. I’m not convinced this is true.

*****

Our congregation supports an organization that seeks to lift individuals out of poverty through personal development, group support, mentors, and job training. Many come out of extreme poverty or incarceration. They enter into the program and come out with a job that pays $15 an hour or more.

Kevin shared one Sunday at our lectern, “I am one unlucky morning away from disaster. One morning missing the bus. One moment of my phone dying and not able to return that call. One time of getting sick on the morning of the interview.”

An article from The Atlantic suggests that it takes about twenty years of nearly nothing going wrong in order to get out of poverty. How lucky does one have to be to go through twenty years of random cruelty and kindness to come out on the other side?

“When pain is all that they offer / Like a kiss from the lips of a monster,” reads the lyrics of a Sarah Bareilles song written with asylum-seeking families who come to our southern border in mind. “You know the famine so well, / but never met the feast / when home is the belly of the beast.”

I read recently that we have turned away sixty thousand asylum-seekers at our southern border. Whether that number is exactly true or not, I do not know. But I know it would take a lot of luck to find relief if you came so far seeking it.

*****

This post began as a seed back in Advent, that season when we anticipate the fullness of God’s kingdom. In my congregation, we read Isaiah and the other prophets — visions of what such a kingdom fulfilled might look like and value.

What struck me is the vision of a restored social structure, where the poor were not trampled upon, and the wealthy and connected did not rule the roost by doing deals for their friends. A society upholding the twin ideals of mišpāṭ and Ṣĕdāqāh — justice and righteousness. These are relational terms about upholding one’s responsibility and fidelity to one’s community members. What struck me was a vision where Jerusalem would once again be a center of God’s presence, God’s instructions and values flowing out to the world from the holy mountain. A vision, not unlike Amos’ where justice would flow down like waters, and righteousness an ever-flowing stream.

Not random.

Not to wonder who would get the help or the relief, and who would be left to the harshness of society.

A reordered vision.

A flowing stream, consistent waters.

I make no claims to be a scholar of Martin Luther King, Jr. But the more I learn of King, the more I sense that this was his vision. Not just the ending of random violence, hatred, or segregation. But the reordering of society, the leveling of opportunity and wealth and capital.

We are drawn, instead, to the random. Random kindness is enough, haphazardly applied, reifying the inequity of society, rather than confronting it. We make the random Christian the hero. We make the millionaire or the billionaire, who has long hoarded his wealth and disdained Jesus’ call to sell it all, a hero and an emblem of goodness still left in society.

Random acts of kindness, leaving most alone to face the harshness. Haphazard.

The same Bareilles song articulates the hope for kindness to meet these desperate ones who flee the belly of the beast. She writes, “So say the Lord’s prayer twice, hold your babies tight / surely someone will reach out a hand / and show you a safe place to land.”

The beauty of her lyric captures my compassion and the impulses Christ demonstrated among the needy. Still, I doubt I shall be satisfied until Amos’ vision comes true, in this life or the next. Because randomly applied kindness to masses of needy is its own type of terrorism. This was clear in the Tattooist.

I’m tired of settling for unjust systems and structures. I am tired of applauding little acts, while we sabotage real reform. I am with King. I want kindness. But I also want a reordered and restructured society. I want institutions and systems to produce kindness as predictably as a gumball machine produces its fare.

Consequently, I am unimpressed with Ellen and her ilk. While she is an expert at the feel-good moment and while it is good for ratings, she and her random generosity do not change society. They only perpetuate it. A society of randomness, inequality, and haphazardness that praises millionaires for their random beneficence only increases my advent longings. These only increase my stubborn attachment to Amos’ vision of a remade society. God at the center, and justice and righteousness flowing down as predictably as a spring-fed mountain stream.

Come! Lord Jesus, come!

David Pettit

David Pettit pastors Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado and is writing a Ph.D. dissertation in Hebrew Poetry through the University of Denver. He lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs, and when the occasion arises, can be found fly fishing on the South Platte.

13 Comments

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    Oh I have been longing for words from you, Dave, and here they are! Thank you my friend, for yet another peek at the wisdom in your head.

  • Helen P says:

    This is at once brilliant, beautiful and convicting. It is reminiscent of things my sister Barb would have spoken of in her ministry to the homeless in Grand Rapids.

    I ponder many times, during the season of Advent particularly, the usefulness of the various adopt-a-family programs in which we participate during those four weeks; feeling good about ensuring the poor and destitute have Christmas gifts for themselves and their children.
    I wonder about what impact we could have if, instead of that, we worked at supporting, teaching, mentoring just one or two families all the year long?
    What would it say of us if we could raise just one or two families a year out of poverty or hopelessness?
    What would it mean if each church did that…what wonderful things might we accomplish?
    …and how Christ would smile.

    • RLG says:

      You are unimpressed with the random acts of kindness done by Ellen. Then you should be equally unimpressed with the random acts that were done by Jesus. You mentioned your longing for the fullness of God’s kingdom. In the already of his kingdom do you see any hope? I don’t either. Is Jesus really on his heavenly throne? Maybe your hope is just wishful thinking.

    • Kathy Van Rees says:

      Thankyou Helen. Thankyou for reminding me of Barb. She and I were classmates at WTS and I loved and admired her so.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    A keeper! You’ve articulated my vague feelings of unease with those “give-away” shows. Perceptive truths here for me to ponder…

  • This is fabulous to read as I begin a meeting with the Christian Action Commission. Thank you.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    David, Thank you for your insights. Perhaps the opposite of Random, as you use it, is Intentional, followed by persistence and faithfulness toward justice and righteousness. Lou

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    David, these are challenging and convicting words! Thank you so much for them. I think we all are called to meed the needs of those that we encounter along our path, much like the Good Samaritan. I hesitate to call these “random” encounters, because I believe in the providence of God. But I think we are also called as the church and as individuals to be intentional in dealing with the injustice and inequality in our society. This requires planning, persistence, and commitment, which is much more difficult than that random act of kindness.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    Your frustration is shared by many Millenials which is why socialism is no longer a dirty word. In most of Europe, you don’t have to wait for random acts of kindness because there is an organized system of care. Good free education (including college and university), good free medicine, and a guaranteed basic income should you fall on hard times. It’s not that hard, it can be done. Not considering it or demonizing it is an American problem.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you, David for this post! My soul resonates with the message and the hope that Amos’ vision would be so. Also, thanks for sharing the Bareilles song. I was not familiar with it and it brought tears to my eyes. Finally, I hear you regarding for Ellen and her ilk and their charity. I get it. (But I still really do love Ellen!)

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