Injustice often goes unchallenged where access to legal advice is limited.
Knowledge really is power in countries such as Mozambique and Uganda, but telling people they have rights is only half the battle. Making affordable legal services available is another challenge altogether.
The Association of Mozambican Christian Lawyers (AMAC) and Ugandan Christian Lawyers Fraternity (UCLF) are remarkable because everything they do for their clients is either free or at an affordable price.
The highly educated lawyers working there could make a lot more money at other firms, but the desire to reconcile their professional lives with their faith steered them down a less financially profitable, but more spiritually fulfilling, path.
Legal systems are complex mazes for the average person. In Uganda and Mozambique, the poor struggle to find lawyers willing to help them at an affordable rate.
This leads to regular people, with little to no understanding of the law and complicated court proceedings, trying to represent themselves. An imbalance of power is created.
“If you’re living in a system where the law is dealt with arbitrarily and nobody understands or has access to the law, then those with greater power are more likely to abuse it,” said Mark Barrell, executive director of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and former BMS lawyer. “The poor are left to the side and those with money, power and resources utilize that advantage.”
When such advantages are only reachable by the privileged few, justice cannot be served.
“Isaiah 1:17 describes the kind of justice that God is expecting from us,” said Annet Ttendo, a BMS lawyer with AMAC. “It says to speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor, defend the rights of the widows, the orphans and the oppressed.”
This verse is the definition of biblical justice, the theology AMAC uses alongside the law as a guiding principle for all of its lawyers.
But that vision is hard to make a reality. AMAC and UCLF have worked hard to change the negative perceptions of lawyers and restore the balance of power in their societies.
“Where you have imbalances of power, you also have exploitation,” said Steve Sanderson, BMS manager for mission projects. “And you also have, at a fundamental level, something which is not just abhorrent to God’s desire for his people and his creation, but a context which just doesn’t work.”
This is where biblical justice and mission can have the greatest impact. Combining legal work with mission provides an opportunity to see a more transcendent form of law take hold. But one is not complete without the other.
From Mozambique to the United Kingdom, a holistic approach where all areas of the human experience are cared for equally is believed to be the way forward.
Evangelism, education and health ministries are important and have been the main focus of mission in the past, but God’s ideal for his children is arguably unreachable without justice mission.
“To me, it would be offensive to say that a certain person or a community have become Christians and therefore our mission work is done while leaving them in a situation where their physical experience of living is blighted because of the injustices that the world has created,” said BMS general director David Kerrigan.
Mission is more than telling people about Jesus. By answering the call to serve others both overseas and at home, we can help more people live in dignity.
BMS has joined the action/2015 campaign, which seeks to promote the aspect of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals that aim to make sure that everyone has access to justice and that there are effective, accountable and inclusive legal institutions at all levels.
Building a well for the thirsty is important, but if they are ignorant of the laws protecting their right to the land or have no one to fight in their corner if someone tries to take it away, they remain thirsty and progress is reversed.
“This, for me, is simply a reflection of Jesus, who addressed the spiritual, physical and the societal influences that hampered people from experiencing life in all its wholeness,” Kerrigan said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, simply emulate the mission of Christ.”
Legal work is clearly making a huge missional impact in some countries. But will it turn out as important to the future of mission as health and education work has been in the past?
The jury, for the moment at least, is still out.
Vickey Casey is a writer for BMS World Mission. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of Engage magazine – a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.