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May31ThuThe call to justice is at the heart of the gospel. May 31, 2018 by Major Campbell Roberts
This is the first in a seven-part series exploring the nature of social justice, originally presented to the Territorial Leaders’ Conference in fall 2017.
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In the words of our fifth doctrine, we are all “sinners … justly exposed to the wrath of God.” True as that is, an increasing number of people in our world are also sinned against. They suffer social injustice that stops them from experiencing the abundance of life Christ offers. God’s redemptive plan is to free people both from personal and structural sin.
My realization of this began when I was a cadet, grew in my time as a chaplain at an industrial complex, and continued to grow when I was sent to the area of greatest social need in New Zealand, to a community with no expression of The Salvation Army. No appointment, no reports to write, no job existed—I was just there to listen to the community.
I soon realized that a whole range of decisions—some by the local authority, some by the government, some by business—were causing people to be “sinned against” and stopping the Christian vision. People were experiencing injustice and unfairness. I started to see that creating a Christian community was going to require changes in how politics and business worked. To be true to the gospel, I needed to be involved in advocacy and policy change.
One of the ways we did this was through a report on the criminal justice system called “Beyond the Holding Tank.” This report received widespread interest, prompting community meetings and media articles. The prime minister contacted us after reading the report, and ordered copies for every member of the cabinet. The report became a cabinet agenda item, leading to action from ministers in implementing and working toward some of the report’s recommendations.
Why is social justice important for the Army at this time? One of the obvious immediate answers to this question is, if the Army wants to engage and convince millennials of the truth and validity of the gospel message, we will need to pay attention to social justice. As we know, millennials are far more oriented to matters of social and ecojustice than previous generations.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to imagine a changed world when they prayed, “Your kingdom come.”But more critically, social justice is important for the Army because it is at the heart of the Christian gospel and message. It is central to the biblical redemption story.
Many leaders in the Army accept and welcome the good that can come from engaging in a social justice ministry, but they would be reticent to see such a ministry displace evangelism and loving social action. I suspect some of you may feel that way.
The argument is that the Army’s historical approach has emphasized personal salvation and loving action to those in need. This has been the Army’s central mission, the core of what we believe and practise. Social justice is not rejected; it is seen as one of the ways of achieving this evangelical and social mission, but not more than that.
My challenge to you is to rethink this basic mission. In my view, social justice can no longer be merely an adjunct to the main mission of the Army. Biblical justice must stand alongside personal salvation and social care as the primary drivers of the Christian message that The Salvation Army presents in the 21st century.
Justice is a major theme of Scripture. Remember Jesus’ challenge to the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Note that Jesus puts justice first.
Micah echoes Jesus. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Have we in the Army sufficiently attended to the requirements to act justly? Do we need to change our mission metaphor, from the two wings of a bird representing evangelism and Christian love, to the Micah triangle?
The emphasis on helping people find faith in God and then acting with godly love to others is needed as much as it was. I am not arguing for us to change or replace this emphasis. The Army of salvation, holiness and godly love continues to be central to our Christian message.
What I find myself increasingly questioning, however, is whether containing our ministry to individualized faith and mission sufficiently expresses the width and depth of the redemption and hope offered through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. In his Crucifixion, Jesus released the redemptive possibility to annihilate all sin and evil, while in his Resurrection, Jesus offered the possibility of a new world order and hope. Are we in the Army preaching such a powerful gospel, or have we individualized its power away?
In my view, a ministry that only addresses individual salvation is unlikely to redeem the structural evil and sin blighting human life and our earth.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to imagine a changed world when they prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
When God created the world, he wasn’t dreaming of prisons and kidnappings, child abuse and murders, racism and discrimination, greed and poverty, pollution and exploitation. God’s dream was for freedom and creativity, kindness and justice, generosity and peace, diversity and harmony.
My challenge is not about starting something new—social justice ministries and engagement already occur in the Army. Rather, my challenge to you is to place biblical justice in the very centre of mission theology and practice.
How you operationalize a biblical justice mission is what you will discover in your context, under the hand of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t a program, technique or a particular political action. It is a way of living and acting as Christians and as the Christian church.
At its centre, it will be a vision of a creation, a world and a community where faith, love and justice dominate everyday life. It will be an Army that lives justly, and spends time and energy articulating what social justice looks like in the lives of Canadian and Bermudian Salvationists.
I have described my own journey and ministry of social justice in New Zealand. We know that translating the approach of one place in the Army world to another does not guarantee its success. Conditions and contextual difference produce a different result. And social justice ministry by its very nature is essentially contextual. So what it will look like here, I can’t say.
I have no doubt that people in Canada and Bermuda hold in high esteem the social care of The Salvation Army. It is a risk to speak out in a way that some will not appreciate. However, the Army’s public respect and reputation is a God-given asset, and as with all assets, we must be prepared to take risks with it, on behalf of the gospel and the world’s most vulnerable.
Leaders will not be able to do this if they are detached. We need personal connection to human suffering and need. It is those personal encounters that keep the fire and vision alive. May we be advocates not only to call people to individual holiness and salvation, but to end the suffering of people who are sinned against.
Major Campbell Roberts is the chief consultant for the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory’s social policy and parliamentary unit.
Charity and Justice: What’s the Difference?
Charity Justice Charity = social services. Charity provides direct services such as food, clothing and shelter. Justice = social change. Justice promotes social change in institutions or political structures. Charity responds to immediate needs. Justice responds to long-term needs. Charity is directed at the effects or symptoms of injustice (e.g., volunteering at a soup kitchen). Justice is directed at the root causes of social problems. Justice addresses the underlying structures or causes of these problems (e.g., working to end the inequalities that make soup kitchens necessary). Charity is private, individual actions. Justice is public, collective actions. Examples of charity: soup kitchens, clothing banks and homeless shelters. Examples of justice: legislative advocacy, changing policies and practices, political action.
Source: Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis