It has taken decades for me to fully recognize and come to terms with a significant failure, especially in my earlier ministry life, that needs to be confessed.
This awareness has come into clearer focus recently, when examining some of the fruit it has produced.
Apparently, I taught compassionate charity instead of biblical justice, and I accept my fair share of the blame. The two lessons are notably different.
Charity (as the word is used today, not the earlier synonym for unconditional love) has a measurable, short-term cost. It may be a specified amount of money that is given for a good purpose or even an ongoing percentage of one’s income.
Likewise, charitable actions are good expressions of much-needed volunteerism. These too are worthy of praise.
For example, spending a Saturday or even a week on a Habitat for Humanity build or distributing food to those in need is a kind and generous act of charity. But it is indeed charitable.
Biblical justice demands more, however. Specifically, it requires a willingness to give up power – not just a predetermined amount of money and time – so those who suffer continuing social inequities and the resulting, compounding harms can gain needed and deserved power.
Charity is a good deed; justice is a good deal more.
This realization and confession don’t invalidate the positive aspects of all earlier ministry experiences. Much delayed gratification has unfolded over time.
Helping to shape better leaders for churches, businesses and communities was worthwhile. Being available in times of crisis has its unquestioned value.
There is much from those years to recall fondly and consider of lasting benefit. But one of the most important aspects of being a Christian disciple-maker was not prioritized and fulfilled.
So, I confess to not conveying appropriately the more sacrificial parts of following Jesus.
Never did I anticipate, and therefore adequately challenge, the notion that a political ideology of protecting one’s national identity based on white cultural dominance would surpass – for so many Americanized Christians – Jesus’ call that leads his followers away from fear-based self-preservation.
During my campus ministry years, I’d often remind Christian students who were “too busy” with studies and part-time jobs to serve others, that even better excuses can be made later when working full time with family responsibilities.
Serving others has to be a priority, I repeatedly said to them. And they responded so well – and many continue to do so.
The number of good things done to make life better for others, both locally and during spring break trips, is countless. And such unselfish service is commendable.
While I took many students to build houses with Millard Fuller in the early years of Habitat for Humanity, I failed to adequately explore and convey the injustices toward African Americans so apparent in Southwest Georgia and elsewhere.
We spent a week in Cherokee, North Carolina, putting a roof on a church and providing entertaining musical programs in schools and worship services at night. It was a very worthwhile, impactful and charitable effort.
However, we didn’t wrestle enough with the clear and deadly injustices enacted by white Christians against Native Americans. We didn’t come to grips with how the theological justification for such atrocities remains intact in white American Christianity.
I didn’t anticipate that those same attitudes of racial injustice would regain such strong political popularity decades later and attract so many confessing Christians.
In retrospect, it seems I taught service more than sacrifice, charity rather than justice, and good deeds over willingly relinquishing power as Christ both did and called his followers to do.
Jesus didn’t soft-sell discipleship like we tend to do. There should be nothing confusing about the destiny that comes from denying oneself and taking up a cross.
Sadly, as louder nationalistic voices have arisen on the political/religious scene in recent years – portraying white Christians as victims and proclaiming their social privilege as deserved, even divinely ordained – too many otherwise bright and good people have fallen for this anti-Christ perspective. In fact, it is a dominant trait of American evangelicalism today.
Seek ye first the preservation of cultural dominance has overtaken the actual teachings of Jesus about how to live out the reordering values of the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven.
Those served in times of need, especially minorities and migrants, have too easily become the perceived threats that allow for fear-based demeaning and maligning these beloved children of God.
Justice does lead to doing good deeds, but not as occasional acts that soothe one’s sense of goodness.
Rather, justice is part of an ongoing process to right society’s wrongs and to remove human-erected obstacles to equality and equity – and it carries a price tag. Biblical justice is not an attachment to the gospel or an optional way of being Christian.
Advocating for and expressing justice (righteousness) are precisely what Jesus told his followers to be and do. It is the radical, inclusive love by which we are to be known.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.