Save the World Without Losing Your Soul
By maggie canty-shafer
January 12, 2011
Four field leaders discuss the Christian response to a broken world
Dressed in the only clothes they owned, the runaways would arrive at the night’s destination with empty hands. Welcomed nonetheless, they would be fed, clothed and bathed by a family taking great risk to do so. A family that believed in something greater—something that compelled them to put their lives second to a slave’s, and their hopes in a Kingdom coming.And for a moment, they would see a world restored.
The underground railroad was a social justice movement that led thousands to freedom long before slavery was abolished. Organized primarily by Quakers, white evangelicals and black churches, many risked everything to host and care for the runaway slaves, working together to answer a truly biblical call. The same call heard now.
Social justice is a complex subject for Christians. No one can disagree that Scripture commands to love the poor and oppressed, but what that looks like practically today is largely debated and at times ignored. As the world becomes increasingly more globalized and information more accessible, awareness along with responsibility has grown. This responsibility comes multiple fold. Why, how and even if we combine social justice with evangelism is an ever-evolving discussion that must be considered from a local and global level. Both the individual and the church must play a role for the Body to have the impact Scripture intended—an impact we’re capable of but nowhere near. In this exploration of social justice, four believers who have dedicated their lives to social justice offer insight on this responsibility, sharing their own response to the universal call. What they’ve found isn’t a political campaign or new Facebook cause, but Jesus.
Start with the Structures
Dr. Ron Sider, a professor of theology and author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, doesn’t believe structural change is complete without sharing the Gospel. He also doesn’t believe the answer to injustice is to give a man a fish, nor to teach him to fish. He says the question that must be asked is, why is he hungry?
“So often we’re only concerned about immediate charity, but we also need to care about long-term development,” he says. “It’s not enough to teach them to fish. We need to give them a share in the fish pond and create structures that will provide equal opportunity.”
Sider says economics is a crucial part of the solution, but without the tools to make the right personal choices, the problem won’t be solved. Change happens from the inside out.
Referring to the active combination of word and deed as “holistic ministry,” Sider says that without social works, evangelism appears to be all talk. But without sharing the hope and good news of the Gospel, ministry lacks the Holy Spirit’s transformative power. Neither side of social justice ministry is complete without the other.
“People are both spiritual and material beings,” Sider says. “Addressing only half the problem only gives you half of the solution.”
This doesn’t mean the Gospel should be forced, Sider says. Offering to pray for those being ministered to or sharing evangelism through friendship can reveal Christ—without giving the impression that the material items given to them come from a place of self-righteousness or have strings attached.
“Each of us has contributed to the pain and suffering and decay in the world,” Sider writes in an essay on holistic ministry. “We thus serve with a posture of gratitude and humility, acknowledging our own brokenness before the cross. We recognize that ministering Christ’s wholeness to others is part of what makes us whole.”
But ministering the wholeness of Christ comes with a cost. With the average churchgoing Christian giving less than 3 percent of their income, the Church is lacking the necessary resources to make the changes the Gospel demands. Most Christians, Sider says, could afford to give 10 to 20 percent. And that disparity could mean a world of difference.
“We’re doing significant things, but the amount is pitiable. If Christians were giving what they are called to, we could vastly increase change,” he says. “We know how to reduce poverty—it’s just a matter of resources.”
The problem could possibly be starting from the pulpit. Fewer than one in 50 preachers stress responsibility to the poor as much as the Bible does, Sider says. “God has a special concern for the poor, there’s no question about it,” he says. “If you don’t care for the poor and oppressed folk, then you’re not a biblical Christian.”
The Collaboration of Callings
One person whose life’s work is to care for the poor is Shane Claiborne. The Kingdom isn’t something Claiborne hopes for when he dies—it’s something he’s building now. As a hands-on social justice activist, the author and Simple Way founder believes solutions must begin with relationship. Person-to-person contact is what will eventually lead toward reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed.
“It’s tempting to have virtual movements without roots on the ground,” he says of today’s society. “It’s often easier to care about the invisible children more than those right next to us. But without the relationship, it’s like eating virtual food: You end up starving."
Acknowledging the call on each Christian’s life to be active in social justice, Claiborne believes much of the beauty of God’s plan is in the combined roles each individual can take, based on their own unique calling.
Claiborne references something the famous writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said about calling: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Where do my greatest gifts intersect with the world’s greatest need?’”When each Christian is engaged and participating, the Church can better achieve its corporate responsibility and its members can collectively live out the Kingdom on earth. Claiborne points back to God forming a people throughout Scripture, and the inclusion of corporate patterns like acknowledging the sabbath.
“The good news is that we’re not alone,” Claiborne says. “We can do more together.”
But doing more will cost more. More time, more money, more trust—both in the Lord and His Church.
“Churches are realizing their responsibility to their congregation with their money,” Claiborne says. “Those that don’t will become irrelevant.”
Selling Yourself Short-Term
Another responsibility churches are facing is their commitment to service around the world on mission trips. While participants go on these trips for varying reasons—wanting to see the world, gain numbers for Jesus or maybe add exotic photos to Facebook—Chris Heuertz didn’t join the nonprofit Word Made Flesh for any of these reasons. He joined because he wants to serve the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. And he wants to be their friend.
“Christians today pick issues and causes and forget there are people,” he says. “Everything is nurtured in relationships.”
Heuertz points to the short-term mission mindset that permeates Christian activism as causal in many of the Church’s shortcomings.
“We have an addiction to short-term tourist missions,” he says. “You can’t really do good in two weeks or three months. We as a whole don’t want to commit to anything long-term, but the short-term mission industry is completely void of relationship.”
But building a relationship abroad isn’t the answer if character and conscience haven’t first been examined on the home front. Heuertz has too often seen Christians presume that relocating to a poverty-stricken country will be the answer to a lacking prayer life or deeper sense of nearness to God. Although occasionally this can be true, it’s the exception, not the rule. If not addressed at home, lack of discipline will follow a believer to the field.
“We’re over-saturated with information, and this information has awakened a responsibility,” he says. “But who we are follows us. Going to Kenya isn’t the solution if you can’t live justly at home. You don’t change just because your context does.”
All hope is not lost, however, for those who don’t yet feel like they’re living the way they’re called. The first step, according to Heuertz, is learning to love locally. “The best practice of learning to love the so-called ‘other’ is learning to love the person nearest you,” he says. “The consistency will follow us.”
Putting Aside Parties, Picking up the Cross
Living in a community that cares for those nearest them, prays together, eats together and shares a love for God’s people has given new monastics like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—an author, speaker and minister—a glimpse of what it looks like when people stop building walls and start building bridges.
He believes when justice is reduced to “issues,” political parties start to draw lines, activism is relegated to the voting booth and faith becomes the fuel for a political cause. “Jesus doesn’t just fire us up for someone else’s agenda. Jesus has an agenda,” Wilson-Hartgrove says. “Social justice isn’t about figuring out the right position on a list of issues. It’s not primarily about casting a vote for the right people or party. It’s about engaging a broken world with Jesus’ tactical imagination—learning to see that a whole new way of life is possible, then rolling our sleeves up and doing it.”
The Rutba House—where his community calls home—regularly practices hospitality toward neighbors and the homeless, striving to live out the Sermon on the Mount together as a church rather than solely on a personal basis.
The emphasis on community is key. Although it’s necessary at times, individual activism, Wilson-Hartgrove says, can sell Jesus’ original intentions for the Church short. “The Church is Jesus’ plan for saving the world—which includes redeeming its broken social structures,” he says. “A conscientious objector to war is one thing, but a community of people who live peaceably together and do not return evil for evil is a more powerful witness, I think.”
In agreement with Sider, Wilson-Hartgrove believes social justice and structural justice cannot be separated when introducing God’s just order.
“Jesus doesn’t start a popular movement to take Jerusalem or Rome and institute God’s new order,” he says. “We’re practicing social justice when we invite friends into relationships of economic sharing. We’re practicing it when we live as communities of hospitality to those who are homeless. Jesus says the Kingdom is here—right here, right now—and you can begin living it.”
Changing How We Make a Change
If the Kingdom is indeed here and now, then so must be the effort to increase the effectiveness of the Christian response to social justice crimes in the world today.
The theologians, field workers and church leaders agree that our Kingdom vision must not only address those physically closest to us, but also those who have become close in this age of information. For significant and lasting change, the solution must address the structures, it must have a long-term goal and it must always be a face, not a number.
Whether giving shelter to people who need it, like those along the Underground Railroad years ago, or befriending the homeless in our city, that face must be His who called us in the first place.