In the church circles I grew up in there was an ongoing lively debate between Christians who thought they were 'spreading the gospel' by telling people about Jesus and Christians who believed 'spreading the gospel' meant engaging with issues of social justice such as feeding the hungry. In the years since I've largely ignored the arguments that have continued to rumble on as it seems to be obvious that if the gospel is to be heard and visible in our society there is a need to both speak (proclaim) and act (deeds). Or as James puts it: 'Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.' Why? 'You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder.' James 1:18-19 NIV But beyond the need to provide evidence of a faith, someone with real faith is compelled to act, they can't help themselves because they take the commandment to love your neighbour to heart and if their neighbour is treated unjustly then talking about the need for justice isn't enough for them; unless they are actively working for justice they are not content.
I was asked to lead a service on what many churches call 'Racial Justice Sunday'. It's the first time I've preached specifically about racial justice and I approached it nervously. I present as white and I definitely had a sense of not being qualified to talk about this important issue. It took longer than usual to construct my talk - just checking that my language would be deemed acceptable proved a challenge; I began to appreciate more fully why some of us prefer not to talk about this. Sometimes words do speak louder than actions. And yet... this fear of inadvertently offending others should not stop us talking about racism and racial justice because this is an issue of justice and justice is absolutely a priority in the kingdom of God. You might not be based in a multi-culturally diverse area - a lot of rural churches aren't - but there will be other issues of justice to be addressed. Are you paying attention to what's happening on your patch outside the church, your family, your social circle? Within our church communities we might not be able to agree on how to address specific justice issues but we should at least be trying. Not even attempting to right some wrongs is not an option for disciples of Jesus.
fear of inadvertently offending others should not stop us talking about racism and racial justice because this is an issue of justice and justice is absolutely a priority in the kingdom of God
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan highlight the importance of justice in their book 'The Last Week': they point out that there are no occasions in the Bible where our acts of justice are rejected on the basis that our worship isn't good enough whilst there are plenty of occasions when worship is rejected because issues of justice have been ignored. In fact, it seems that justice is always preferred over worship. The prophet Amos pulls no punches about this:
'I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' Amos 5:21-24
Isaiah is just as fierce: 'When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.' Isaiah 1:11-17
We might lament the new style of music, changed liturgy, the overall conduct of a 'worship service', the lack of an attractive building but it seems God really doesn't care like we do because what He is concerned about is how we have conducted ourselves outside the context of what we so often think of as 'worship'.
If we want to be part of vibrant, growing worshipping communities in the villages, hamlets and market towns, perhaps it's time to rethink our priorities and put working for justice at the top of the list.
'Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.' James 1:26-27
Director: Wales and South West England