No matter what you call it… justice, social action, outreach… it’s part of our United Church DNA. It’s been there from the beginning, with our roots in the social gospel, in the Methodist commitment to social well-being, in the belief that evangelism and social service need to be linked together. It’s one of the marks of being United Church that we always highlight whenever we talk about our core identity. And it’s what people outside the church often connect the United Church to (that is, if they think about the United Church at all.)
We have our touchstone scriptures…
Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
Isaiah 58:6-7: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house….”
Jesus’ first sermon, Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And, Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these [the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick] you did it to me.”
1 John 4:21: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Liberation theology still remains a key understanding of the gospel within the United Church – God’s preferential option for the poor, the marginalized – and this keeps challenging us to be engaged in the work for social and economic justice; for human rights (including rights for women, for the LGBTQ community); for peace and the well-being of the earth. We do this in our congregations; we do it through Mission & Service, which supports some 58 community / outreach ministries across the country, and over 100 partnerships around the globe.
I am convinced, though, that we need to do more reflection on why we are engaged in the work of justice, to be able to say, “I do this ministry because….” Moral exhortation only goes so far, and then people turn off, and turn away.
I reflect back on my conviction that church needs to be about an encounter with God, and remind myself that that is never an end point. Theology enables us to reflect on that encounter, to stitch it together with biblical encounters and with what is happening in the world, and thus, the stories and experiences of people who are different from us.
We not only want to encounter God, we want to be used by God… to be part of God’s dream, an enterprise that is greater than us, but in which we find ourselves included, as co-creators, as active participants. So often biblical descriptions of an encounter with God include a call to action, a sending, a challenge to follow, to go into the world. It’s never just about feeling “holy” – it’s also about doing the work.
Again, let me recommend the most recent edition of Touchstone, its focus is on “Theology and Social Witness.” In particular, I recommend an article by Rob Fennell, “Theological Foundations for Social Justice: Another World Is Possible.”
To be a disciple means following Jesus, and that means, of course, that we’re out there in the world, caring for the hungry, the outcast, and the sick. It’s a lifestyle of compassion, of loving your neighbour, the stranger, the outsider, the Samaritan, and your enemy – remembering that love isn’t a feeling, but a commitment to the good of the other. And in so doing, we discover that we actually encounter God in the midst of our actions of love; note this reminder from the Canadian Catholic theologian, Gregory Baum, “… the social justice concern is seen as a response to the Gospel: to be moved by the suffering of others and to feel the desire to act is a religious experience.”
Further, to follow Jesus means to be committed to his vision of an alternative possibility for the world, which he called the kingdom of God. It permeates the Gospel, from Mary’s Magnificat; through the parables; to the actions of the blind seeing, the lepers being healed; through the teachings of love, care for neighbour, humility; and finally, in the crucifixion and resurrection.
We are to work for the coming of the kingdom, not just as a future reality in the bye-and-bye, but as a possibility to be tasted and experienced in the here-and-now. To be a disciple of Jesus means to be filled with his trust and hope that God is committed to the coming of the kingdom, is involved in the tending and mending of the world, in bringing about larger possibilities of peace, and justice, and harmony. And in this conviction, this faith, lies our hope, the source of energy that enables us to keep on keeping on. Once again, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not” (St. Augustine).
So… my question for each of us, for our congregations, for our denomination: Are we clear on why we are engaged in the work of justice? How is it part of our understanding of and commitment to living out the gospel? And does it truly give us energy… or do we just feel tired and overburdened by exhortations to work hard at one good cause after another?
Photo: Laura Betancourt, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).