Someone asked me recently why justice-seeking figured so strongly in my approach to mission. I think they meant “as distinct from evangelism.” We were talking about asylum seekers.
I said something about the integration of the word (evangelism) and deed (loving our neighbor). I quoted Matthew 25, saying that for me one of the best ways to love God is to defend the voiceless.
I left the conversation stunned that a Christian should wonder why I keep talking about justice. But then I realized that ever since the time of the prophets we’ve needed to spell out for each generation the call to justice.
So, here are my 10 top overlapping reasons for being passionate about a gospel where justice is close to the centee. I reckon I could double the list without trying.
1. The Bible’s full of it. If we were to take to a Bible with scissors and cut out the thousands of verses about justice and the poor, we’d have a mangled mess of holes. In the Bible, our relationship to God is always tied to our relationships to each other.
2. We’re all equal before God. From Genesis 1 to Galatians 3, the story is the same. Humans are made in God’s image and stand equally before God in our great variety. This biblical truth is one of the pillars of the human-rights movement. Staying with asylum seekers for the moment, to those who are “nobodies” because they are stateless and homeless, this is Good News.
3. It’s part of shalom. When Jeremiah urged the Israelites in exile to seek the welfare of the city they found themselves in, he was using the term “shalom.” The Hebrew vision of shalom in relationship with God includes peace, well-being and justice, and is the same peace that Jesus promises us (Jn 14:27). Christian mission is living for shalom.
4. God is a God of justice. In the Hebrew Bible, God is always acting in history to set relationships right, defend the poor, the weak and the oppressed. In fact, God is the very manifestation of justice and mercy.
5. It’s part of God’s Commonwealth. Jesus’ favorite topic was the Commonwealth of God (or the kingdom of God), the new, upside-down order in which human relationships are upturned by God’s radically inclusive values. The social reversals that happen in his parables are amazing. A kingdom-centered mission will always point at the socio-political implications of conversion.
6. It’s part of the Good News. Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4 suggests that the Good News is especially for the poor, the blind and the captive. His life and teaching backs this up repeatedly. It seems that what is good news to the poor seems like bad news to the rich, unless they see it is really good news for all.
7. Righteousness flows into justice. A missionary to a Spanish-speaking country discovered to his amazement that the Bible is full of talk about justicia. The English word “justice” doesn’t occur in the King James Version of the New Testament; the Greek word for justice and righteousness is always translated as “righteousness.” I guess the translators knew they were being paid by a king! Better to talk about being righteous than seeking justice. But the two can’t be separated.
8. Evangelism flows into social action. Billy Graham was asked once why he preached only personal salvation and not peace and justice. He said that as people become converted, they would be peacemakers and justice-seekers. He was pressed further. How come he’d been converted, and wasn’t more upfront about these things, then? From that day, to his credit, Graham included more of the dimensions of the Good News in his preaching. Following Jesus, we’re called to make visible the Good News, and that means both putting it into words and showing by our lives what it means in terms of justice and love.
9. Justice is structural love. Justice is fairness embedded in the structures of society. Biblical justice goes further than strict justice, and is imbued with grace, mercy and forgiveness. It is structural love.
10. No peace without justice. The Good News is all about reconciliation, the setting right of all relationships. But there is no peace without justice, as is clear in international relations. In the cloth of the gospel, God’s justice and forgiveness are seamlessly interwoven. It’s a wonder,
then, that churches are not far more prophetic.
True, we have spoken up often, but for many churches, the order of priority seems to be: inward-and-upward-looking worship, education and groups for members, some care for others, and then, just occasionally, a tentative foray into the world of policies, rights, war and government directions.
There’s so much happening in the world to arouse our passion for justice that we ought to be standing up and shouting. But it will only happen if our vision of the gospel contains justice at the heart.
Ross Langmead is professor of missiology and director of School of World Mission at Whitley College, the Baptist Theological College of Victoria, Australia.