Are we too busy pursuing social action that we’re not effecting social justice?
In the context of a Church ever-more busy meeting an ever-increasing demand, might we lose track of the bigger picture? To use the metaphor often employed by Desmond Tutu, will we be so busy pulling the bodies out of the river that we forget to go upstream to see who is throwing them in?
We live in the reality of a global economic system where the gap between the rich and poor is widening.Even those acting as heralds for neo-liberal economics are confessing that our current system simply cannot help those who are already falling off the bottom of the ladder.
The Church could spend the next 50 years being the nation’s paramedic, rushing to the aid of those who are the victims of a sick system, or it could choose to raise its prophetic voice to challenge and improve the structures and systems of our nation.
Don’t get me wrong, we need paramedics. First aid is important. When someone is hungry you do need to feed them. But it is possible to get so busy feeding them, that you don’t stop to ask why they have ended up hungry? Our compassionate response is to be celebrated, but held in tension with the need to also critique and question. Jesus didn’t simply meet every need that came his way, though he met many. He had a broader agenda that he was working to. He knew there was a bigger picture and mission that he could not be swayed from. The Old and New Testament are littered with calls to challenge unjust practices that oppress the poor and needy.
What does that look like in practice? Surely it means the Church (and by that I mean the people, not just the institution) both speaking to and intentionally being present within the systems and structures that influence culture and society. I know that in my life there have been many times when I have been so busy with the micro, that I have ignored the macro. The big picture seems too difficult to change, so I will stick to the small things that I can change.
We enjoy dishing out charity as it actually makes us feel good. We enjoy seeing someone change in front of our faces. We enjoy helping the struggling family. We feel better because we have given a pound to the beggar. Martin Luther King said that as the Church we enjoy playing the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but we rarely take the time to do the sometimes harder work. Who is going back to the Jericho road to work out how to stop more people getting mugged? Could we improve the lighting, or increase the policing? Perhaps some more CCTV cameras are needed? Those are political decisions. And often they aren’t exciting. You know that those small changes will mean hours of committee meetings which can be incredibly mundane. But surely that is where we need to be: bringing salt and light.
There is an important difference between charity and justice. Charity is the sticking plaster that is required because injustice remains, but it does not disturb the status quo. Just displaying compassion deals with the symptoms of a sick global system, while seeking justice pursues a cure for the disease with which it is riddled. We often prefer charity to justice because challenging systems involves inevitable conflict with powerful vested interests for whom the system works very well. These are the prophetic battles that we often back away from as they will involve disagreements with corporations, politicians, or councils.
From my role at Christians on the Left, I often observe people making a journey along a spectrum of engagement. It runs from apathy to charity to justice-seeking. People are lifted from their apathy by some sort of engagement with their local communities. This happened to many Christians during 2008 through the HOPE08 campaign, where more than 1,500 villages, towns and cities took part in unified mission across their communities. Through these projects, people were exposed to some of the huge needs in their communities and saw the challenges for those on limited or no incomes. They saw the difficulties of those with disabilities and those whose own family backgrounds militate against self-belief or learning. Their interactions left people asking ’why?’. Why is the playing field so skewed? What can we do that means that we aren’t coming back here every year to do the gardening, or restore the playground? What background issues do we need to challenge that leave people in poverty? Once you start asking these questions, you are inevitably coming up with answers that need political expression. Interestingly, they may also lead you in different political directions, from the same motivational starting point. This is another reason why as Christians we shy away from this part of the process, because we want to avoid conflict with one another. One Christian will see a situation and feel inspired to campaign for a living wage to be paid, while another may see the same situation and campaign for measures to strengthen family life, or free up entrepreneurs to start small businesses.
So this isn’t about everybody doing everything until we fall down in some workaholic, stressed-out haze. It’s about having a healthy discussion to make sure that in terms of the distribution of kingdom resources in the UK, we have as many people working to bring systemic change as we do tending to the victims of that system. Could we have ears inclined to hear (as Jesus did) what the Father is calling us to do, rather than just meeting every need? Then perhaps his glory will be revealed in both the structures and the individuals that make up our nation.
We’ll be discussing all this at the community launch of Christians on the Left next Tuesday (18 February) .