About half way into my ethical and theological reflections on Urbana 15, I realized that I needed to preface my response to the challenging messages by Michelle Higgins and Christena Cleveland and InterVarsity’s courageous choice to address #blacklivesmatters at a mission conference attended by 16,000+ college students, pastoral leaders, missionaries, and staff, myself included. With all the discussion that is going on (see, for example, these editorials by Ed Stetzer and Sean Watkins, or click the #blacklivesmatter hashtag), I wanted to begin my reflections with a primer on the relationship between justice and missions.
|King’s “I have a dream speech” given in front of the Lincoln Memorial (1963)
Photo credit by Wikimedia Commons
On this day commemorating the ministry and movement begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am posting part 1 of A Primer on Justice and Missions, then part 2 which gives the technical exegetical basis for what I say here, and then go back to my final post on Urbana 15. I do this because if I don’t explain first where I think justice work fits in the mission of the church, especially within an American evangelical context (with which I do identify myself and to whom I am writing), I will just talk passed people rather than with them. At the very least, I hope that this post will help my seminary students to think theologically about the Evangelical Covenant Church‘s mission to do justice and evangelism hand-in-hand.
Framing Justice Theologically (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 1) *
No doubt, from the birth of Christianity in the first century A.D. and throughout the centuries until today, the church has been engaged in acts of mercy and compassion to the disenfranchised. Because Jesus himself identifies with those who are suffering in this world (Matt. 25:34-40), those who follow Christ are called into conformity with his compassion. Karl Barth explains that “in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison… Jesus himself is waiting.” (Church DogmaticsIII/2, 507-508 rev.).1 Jesus is waiting for his disciples to act and invites the church to join Him in his redemptive work for the lost and needy. The church is concerned for the powerless, because it is the powerless who especially represent the world for whom Christ died (Rom. 5:6-8).
The early Christian church took up this mandate with such courage and conviction, that their acts of mercy began to shake the very fiber of the Roman Empire. When Roman officials in the second century complained that Christians “do not go to our shows,” nor “take part in our processions,” nor “are present at our public banquets,” and “shrink in horror from our sacred games” (Minucius Felix, Octavius 12),2 Tertullian gave the best rebuttal to this charge when he said that the church was too busy caring for people to waste time and money on the festivals. He states: “For they [the funds or resources of the church] are not taken and then spent on feasts, drinking binges, taverns or restaurants, but to support and bury the poor, to supply the needs of children destitute of means and parents and of the elderly confined to their homes… and [to do all such] deeds of love…” (Apology 39).3 From the community of faith in the first century (Acts 2:44–47; 6:1; 2 Cor. 8:3–9) and the second, to such inspiring figures as Brother Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whenever there was suffering in the world, the church was there to bear witness to Christ’s love for ‘the least of these’ (Matt. 25:40).
But does the church participate in acts of compassion which bring equity and fairness for their own sake? Or are acts of mercy and justice part of a larger work which God is doing in human history? What, then, makes justice thoroughly Christian and keeps it from turning into something that can take a life and meaning of its own apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ? The question is important because non-believers can “do justice,” serve the poor, and labor diligently to restore human dignity for the disenfranchised as much as believers do. Without ever having read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,4 many people in the United States hold to some basic definition of justice as fairness. They may not subscribe fully to Rawls’ vision of a society composed of free citizens who cooperate with each other to distribute power and resources equitably; however, like Rawls, they champion certain inalienable human rights and see justice as an exercise of power which ensures that these natural rights are upheld. The Bible has so much more to say about what justice is and how it is to be practiced than the fair distribution of benefits and penalties. God’s justice is larger than simply fairness or equity. God’s justice is inseparable from his saving activity for a fallen world. In an exegetical study of Romans 3 and 2 Corinthians 5(which I will post in part 2 of A Primer on Justice and Missions), I argue that while justice–fairness is important to God and to God’s people, it is also incomplete. In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation. Justice serves to make reconciliation complete. The former is the means to the latter as an end.
Let me give this illustration taken from a sermon of a colleague and emeritus professor at North Park Theological Seminary, Dr. John Weborg. Imagine a person who is in so much pain and hurt, that the suffering drowns out the voice of Jesus. The person cannot hear God speaking to him or her, because the voices of hurt, lament, despair, fear, anger at the violence and frustration over powerlessness are so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out by the deafening bombastic cacophony of human suffering, and the rage at that suffering. The role of justice and works of mercy is to meet the needs of the sufferer, to subdue the cacophony by providing for, and enabling, the poor, bringing help to the sick, and dismantling the structures of violence that oppress so that the person can begin to hear God speak to them since our justice work has started to mute the volume of suffering. Justice is important because to turns down the volume of suffering so that the voice of Jesus can be heard more clearly and loudly through the mission of the church. As the voice of Jesus is heard, the church knows that the Holy Spirit is doing its work to lead people to experience the grace of God, repent, and turn to Christ. Evangelism and justice work are not competing. Justice, like evangelism and missions, are means by which human beings can encounter the risen Lord. The Christian activist who fights for justice and the evangelist who preaches the gospel work together, hand in hand, to share the message of reconciliation to a dying world.
Wherever there is suffering and despair, Jesus is waiting for the church to interfere. Though the world might ignore hurting people on the margins, such places become for us the center of the universe. The love of Christ compels us to enter the fray as ambassadors of the just and reconciling God (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). He is on mission to save fallen humanity. What an undeserved honor to participate in this glorious ministry of reconciliation, and what a tragedy if we do not.
* A few years ago, I was asked to co-write an essay on this topic. When I was almost done, to my chagrin, the editors of the book project to which this essay belonged later apologized that they decided to publish the co-authored piece without my contribution to the essay. Subsequently, my work was left on the proverbial editing floor. I’m glad however, I could revise and publish some of this essay here on the blog in the form of a two-part series.
1) Quoted from George Hunsinger, “Justification and Justice: Toward an Evangelical Social Ethic,” in What Is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (ed. by M. Weinwich and J.P. Burgess; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 222–23.
4) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Rev. ed.; Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999).