In a conversation recently a fellow pastor seemed to be interested in some of the things I was saying about racial, disability and gender justice. He asked to take my details so we could arrange to meet in order for him to learn more about the ‘justice agenda’.
Of course I am more than happy to discuss issues of justice but what intrigued me was the idea of justice being an ‘agenda’ or having an agenda. I may have understood the tone or intonation if I had been in discussion about politics but for a pastor to refer to justice as an ‘agenda’ and sound somewhat surprised by my passion for justice and the church took me aback.
Throughout scripture the laws, prophets, and wisdom literature all reference justice. The God of the Bible is a God of justice. I have written before about how the prophets call to the People of God is to turn away from their selfish desires and greed and back to the ways of God – supporting the widows and orphans, speaking up for the oppressed and creating a just society. One overriding theme throughout the Bible is the call to worship God – to love God and to give ourselves fully to God. The theme that runs together with this is to love one another – “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).
Sometimes we make the mistake of rigidly holding to rules claiming right and wrong with no spectrum or gradient that takes into consideration the context of a situation. Having worked with young offenders for a number of years (spending time in courts, visiting prisons, hearing the background and reasons for different offences) there were always many factors to consider when determining judgement and sentencing for both discipline as well as support to address causes of offending behaviour. More often than not the young people had suffered a variety of forms of grief, loss and rejection and the offending behaviour was a consequence of their misguided attempts at survival or silly decisions. Of course offences require consequences but the greatest offence is a society that creates environments of suffering and contexts prone to offending behaviour. Perhaps the most widely publicised societal injustice is that of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) men and women experiencing disproportionate attention from police; In 2017/18 black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people and black men are 26% more likely to be remanded in custody than white men.
Too often the church is known for inflexible and unforgiving rules and yet God’s call is for God’s people to stand up for justice and righteousness. The church should be challenging the systems that discriminate against particular people groups. The call of scripture is for a society, for the church, for the people of God to seek a different way. In the words of Martin Luther King Jnr,
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.Martin Luther King, Jnr.
A contemporary example of this in the UK relates to Foodbanks. It is wonderful that many churches have set up and run Foodbanks to support those who are struggling. Alongside such initiatives are frequently support, advice and guidance about how to move forward, to get free of debt and to reach a point in life where a Foodbank is no longer needed by an individual of family. If you like, this is the church playing the role of the Good Samaritan, and it is a good role to play. However, there comes a point where the whole system needs altering to create a society that does not need Foodbanks in the first place.
The church must be on the side of justice; not standing by those who look like us, sound like us and behave like us but standing with and for those who are oppressed and discriminated against. Justice is not an agenda but a way of life. Justice is not an agenda it is the way of love. Justice is not an agenda it is the way of Christ.