In this political season in the United States we have observed people bend the truth, lie, change their positions, and abandon former allies--all in calculated ways to obtain or keep their positions of power. And this is not limited just to positions of national prominence. Two years ago my friend Robb Davis was elected to the city council of a city of less than 70,000. At a recent conference on Jacques Ellul Robb shared how Ellul’s writing on ends and means has influenced him. He told me, “I must re-orient regularly. I so easily get pulled off the way of Jesus.” For instance, he is a strong advocate of restorative justice. He is regularly urged explicitly, or feels an internal pull, to do more to increase people’s allegiance to him and thus increase his level of power so he can more easily enact programs using restorative justice. Two things can occur. First, he can use the positive end, restorative justice, to justify means inconsistent with the way of Jesus. Second, with increased emphasis on the means to achieve power, eventually the original end of implementing the practice of restorative justice can get lost. Achieving power becomes the true end—even if not the acknowledged one.
It is true that the political realm may be especially challenging, but I think we all could benefit from following Robb’s example of re-orientation. I have been reflecting on how and why it is needed in my life—in two different ways.
The first is the same sort of twisting of ends and means that Robb describes. Here are a few examples. Most of my life I have worked for Christian non-profit organizations that depend on donations to carry out their mission. Money, fundraising, is a means, but I have seen churches and organizations get off track in both of the ways Robb described. They have compromised their values in order to get (or not lose) donations. In some cases obtaining donations becomes the true end of the organization in the sense that it drives what they do. Generally, people in the organization are not consciously aware of this shift, and, in fact, it is not as clear as the previous sentences imply. There is a continuum, and the shift from money as an appropriate means to money as a distorted end is subtle. For that reason, the regular evaluation and re-orientation that Robb calls for is necessary.
As an author, I observe the dynamic Robb describes. There was certainly some amount of ego involved in writing my books, especially the first. But mostly it was not about me. I did not write books about the atonement as a means of making Mark Baker famous. I wrote in order to contribute to paradigm change in relation to the atonement. But an author with higher stature, more notoriety, will lead to more people buying and reading the book. So, for instance, I was glad to receive an invitation to speak at a national study conference of the Brethren in Christ Church in Canada. I assumed it would help sell more books—spread the word. Last year I improved my website. I tell myself that the reason I did that (and the reason I just included the link) is to promote my writings—contribute to paradigm change in the way of Jesus. But these things can easily become about promoting me. Regular re-orientation, taking an honest look at means, is important and necessary.
What are ways that means and ends can get confused in your life? What things pull you off track? How might you practice re-orientation?
A second way of re-orientation needed in my life differs from what Robb describes. It is not so much that means pull me away from the true end and I get off course. Rather I have been doing the same things for so long I stop thinking about the end. I am on auto-pilot. I teach classes because it is my job; I preach a sermon because I was invited to; I offer guidance to students because they are my advisees; I raise money for projects in Latin America because I have done so for decades; I work on a book manuscript because I committed myself to the project a few years ago; I write a blog like this one because we committed to doing so monthly, etc. I am not saying I do all this with no sense of mission—pure obligation no passion. Rather my point is that I have not generally started my days reflecting on the coherence between what I am doing and the way of Jesus. The things I do in a day are good things; unlike the examples in the previous section, relatively speaking, I am on course. Yet, re-orientation is beneficial. I have written a big “why?” at the top of my daily prayer/reflection guide. It reminds me to reflect on the day ahead and, with Jesus in mind, I ask “Why am I doing what I am doing?” Asking the question has not led to significant changes in my days in terms of what I do, but it has changed how I have done them. It has surprised me what happens, for instance, when I think ahead to a meeting I have with a student and ask the “why?” question. Things come to mind to talk about that would not have if I had remained on auto-pilot. It has rarely changed the content in the class I have that day, but it has changed my posture and passion toward the class—which in the end probably does impact the content even if I use the same notes I used last time.
Re-aligning with the way of Jesus is fundamentally good news—better for us as individuals and better for the world. When I re-orient I feel more alive, more engaged. I invite you to join me in more intentionally practicing a discipline of looking at our lives and re-orienting them toward Jesus our center.