By Kip Lines
What is justice for followers of Jesus? What does it mean for the church to demonstrate God’s justice in the world? These are difficult questions I’ve discovered often lead to unexpected answers.
In Kenya, together with Turkana church leaders, our missionary team sought to envision what it would look like in our communities if God really was in charge . . . if our following Jesus meant the kingdom of God was truly breaking into our human kingdoms.
You might expect the largest injustice issues in a developing nation would be items like hunger and food security, or safety from cattle raiders. But intense times of prayer and fasting with church leaders led us to other visions for Turkana.
True justice in which God reigned in Turkana included visions of good roads and restored relationships between church leaders and local government officials. Good roads would allow for fairer and more frequent transport of needed goods to surrounding communities. And with good roads, domesticated animals (one of the community’s largest assets) would be transported to the town market without being near death by the time they reached it.
But we couldn’t build roads—government officials alone can do that. It became clear God’s justice in Turkana would require restored relationships with government officials, a group of people we sometimes disdained for their corrupt actions and at other times feared for their power to make people disappear.
Work to restore relationships with government officials? They were the enemy! Couldn’t we just feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the widows and orphans? Wasn’t that justice?
But in God’s justice, in that time and context, we found ourselves praying for our “enemies” in their offices and inviting them to prayer meetings.
Soon we began to see God working on their hearts and ours. The officials were sometimes moved to tears by our prayers for them. As we sought God’s justice and started doing things we hadn’t planned, personal and community transformation began.
Our family has found that “seeking justice” meant something a little different in each place we have lived. Earlier, in our Tennessee ministry to children and youth, seeking justice meant using World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine to acquaint them with hunger-related injustices.
Later, as CMF missionaries among the Turkana, we confronted a host of injustices in our daily lives, not the least of which was the disparity between the resources we as Americans could access and the resources available to our Turkana brothers and sisters. As missionaries, our ministry was certainly one of word and deed; good news included immunizations, literacy, irrigated gardens, and hope for those living with HIV.
When our family returned to the United States and lived in Lexington, Kentucky, for four years, seeking God’s justice meant volunteering with a Christian refugee organization. We were transitioning back into American culture while helping refugees transition into a system that officially welcomed them, but among a people who were highly suspicious of them.
We also learned about urban food deserts, where healthy and nutritious food is scarce, and when available, is largely unaffordable by those with little means. We volunteered with nonprofit urban farming and gleaning organizations, worked with other church members to collect food from farmers at farmers’ markets, and transported the fresh food to places preparing meals for the hungry.
In Lexington I also began to build relationships with Muslims in my community; instead of building barriers, I sought God’s justice in Christian relationships with our Muslim neighbors.
When we moved to Orange County in Southern California four years ago, seeking God’s justice meant increasing our involvement with immigrants and those of other faiths.
We joined Anaheim First Christian Church, a church that decided to stay put as the community around it changed, and decided to engage the injustices that resulted from those changes. The church took to heart Rick Rusaw’s question from The Externally Focused Church—“If your church ceased to exist, would your community even notice?”—and started a neighborhood ministry to single mothers, many with limited English skills, in 2000.
In 2009, AFCC purchased adjacent property and started My Safe Harbor, a nonprofit now in its seventh year of operation. Its Strong Families Institute is quickly becoming a model for other congregations seeking justice in their communities.
More recently, I’ve been challenged by my wife, Katy, and AMOR Ministries’ Global Gathering to more intentionally consider the ways our patterns of consumption—what we regularly buy and eat—often contribute to cycles of injustice and poverty. We’ve found that living with this intentionality isn’t easy, but that this too is part of what seeking God’s justice means in our lives.
There is no denying that the church is clearly called to participate in God’s justice and righteousness in the world; we can’t read through the Bible and not agree with that at a basic level. But we might have different views on what it means to “seek justice.”
Sometimes we think seeking God’s justice is merely everybody getting what they deserve. This might be a good societal definition for justice, but those of us who follow Jesus, who have received grace and mercy far beyond what we deserve, are called to participate in God’s justice.
My own studies and experiences in the church lead me to this working biblical definition of justice: “Seeking justice is seeking to live rightly and also seeking to right the wrongs, or injustices, around us.”
Yet, for followers of Jesus, seeking God’s justice means our intentions and actions should be directly linked to God’s mission in the world: to reconcile all people and all creation to God through Jesus. As I seek to live rightly, am I living in a way that is salt and light to those around me?
For our churches, does right living in our communities cause others to want to join our faith community? Does it bring people into relationship with God through Jesus? As our church seeks to right the wrongs in our community, are we working merely to build a fair and just society, or are we working to expand pockets of God’s kingdom in our neighborhoods?
Sometimes I hear Christians argue that if we engage in justice issues, we are siding with a particular political perspective, or that we are taking a liberal interpretation of Scripture. But we cannot automatically equate Christians seeking God’s justice with any particular political agenda.
These arguments are coming out of a division in the American church over the last 100 years: a division between word and deed, or evangelism and seeking justice, or good news vs. good works. It was an early- and mid-20th-century reaction to churches that began to focus primarily on the social gospel and were no longer compelled by the uniqueness of Jesus as Lord and Savior. But the pendulum swing was extreme, and for many, evangelism came to be seen as a separate, and even opposite, activity from seeking justice in our communities.1
I’m glad church leaders have worked hard to remove this false dichotomy. What missiologist David Bosch wrote in 1991 is becoming more of a reality (and it is more consistent with the history of the church before the last 100 years):
Today both evangelicals and ecumenicals grasp in a more profound manner than ever before something of the depth of evil in the world, the inability of human beings to usher in God’s reign, and the need for both personal renewal by God’s Spirit and resolute commitment to challenging and transforming the structures of society.2
The good news of Jesus that introduces the kingdom of God into our lives opens the floodgates of God’s justice into our lives and our communities. As children of God, we are granted the privileged position of sharing in God’s mission in the world. Seeking God’s justice is an essential part of what it means to be followers of Jesus.
For church leaders who are still concerned that “seeking justice” is too akin to political “social justice” movements, I suggest the term “missional justice.” Missional justice clarifies that we seek justice in our communities as part of God’s mission of reconciliation and salvation through Jesus Christ.
How can you tell if your church is engaging in missional justice? I would suggest you ask some of the pointed questions that our congregation asked a number of years ago:
• Does our church matter to our community?
• Does our church know and talk about the injustices found in our community?
• Does our church engage in issues (both educational and action) surrounding injustices in our community?
• Does our church seek to give a voice to those who are not heard in our community? Do we even know who they are?
• As a church, do we examine the ways we are living or not living lives of justice in our corporate practices and in our personal and family practices?
• Who is already engaged in frequently common justice issues in our community? Is the church missing?
Injustices continue to surround us in our communities. I don’t know which issues are most pressing in your community, but we are called by God to missionally engage with these injustices in our world.
1Doug Priest did an excellent job chronicling this “great division” in “Preach the Gospel or Feed the Hungry: A Flood of Misunderstanding,” a chapter in the book he edited with Stephen Burris, River of God: An Introduction to World Mission (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 15-24.
²David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 407, 408. (A 20th anniversary edition of this book was published in 2011.)
Dr. Kip Lines serves as professor of intercultural studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California.
If you are thinking about ways your congregation can become involved in seeking God’s justice . . .
. . . here are some great ideas:
One excellent resource is the Christian Reformed Church’s website on justice issues that are most commonly discussed and acted on in their churches (justice.crcna.org).
I also highly recommend attending the International Conference on Missions in Lexington, Kentucky, November 17–20. This year ICOM is initiating The RISE Project, which stands for The Refugee & International Student Engagement Project. Ministry to refugees and international students might be the way God is calling your congregation to seek missional justice in your community (theicom.org/rise/).
I also encourage my students to join other college students from around the world at AMOR Ministries’ Global Gathering in January 2017. With its theme of “Create Justice,” AMOR is providing an event that helps Christian young people see a direct connection between their faith, the mission of God, and seeking God’s justice in the world (www.amor.org/globalgathering).