An Apologetic

The central premise behind Justice Mandate is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ contains not only the opportunity for personal salvation and the power to heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons (all of which are authorised per Matthew chapter 10), but equally to take the authority of Christ and the power of his Spirit and use it to establish justice in the defence of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed.  Lest we be misunderstood, we do  not mean by violent or militaristic means.  Nor do we seek any diminution of other Christian endeavours.  Our weapons – as our enemies – are spiritual not natural (Ephesians 6).  Nevertheless, they are real, and if our lives do not have a result in the visible world around us so that people (especially unsaved people) are better off for our being here, then we have failed in our assignment.

The scriptures are replete with admonitions to the people of God to stand up for others in this world.  Not in a spiritual sense only, but in practical ways to provide them relief from exploitation and oppression.  Many have argued that the business of the church is not to impact society, but only to be a beacon to which individuals in search of truth may gravitate and be transformed.  Thus society may be changed one soul at a time; or in times of revival, rather more rapidly.  While an exception is often made (and more often in principle than practice) for compassion-based ministries that help the poor, relatively little is done with any serious intent of impacting the causes of oppression that cause people to be in the situation of requiring our compassion.  Thus most Christians will support efforts to feed and clothe the poor, but relatively few will comprehend that they have been called to be more than a salve on the wound.  There is little awareness that the Spirit is given not merely to deal with the fall-out, but to win the war.  Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."

Those who are uncomfortable with having a more direct influence on society and the conflict that is associated may wish to reflect upon the writings of the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah  chapter 1, God has a go at his own people, stating that he finds their worship detestable and meaningless because they tolerated injustice.

11The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

21 See how the faithful city
has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!
22 Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.
23 Your rulers are rebels,
partners with thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.

Many Christians would be familiar with verses 18-19 of the above passage, which promise forgiveness to the repentant.  It is striking how little attention is usually paid to the context of that forgiveness, namely the failure by the faithful to be attentive to the needs of the fatherless and the widow.  We are often quick to apply absolution without ever grasping what it is that the Lord wishes to address (and forgive).

Note that it was not that the worship these believers were offering was not of the kind prescribed or that it was not genuinely meant.  Nor was it the case that the people God was opposing had a direct involvement in exploiting the weak.  Rather, they simply declined to stand up to those who were.  Their failure to defend the cause of the fatherless and of the widow was enough to earn them a scathing rebuke and invalidate all of their religious actitivity.

It would be easy to confine such things to the Old Testament Law on the basis that the new covenant established by Jesus blood is one of grace rather than rules.  To do so ignores the principle that Jesus established in Matthew chapter 5, wherein that which was required as an external obligation under the previous covenant (do not murder, do not commit adultery etc) actually goes to a deeper level of obedience under the new (do not be angry, do not lust).  Evangelical Christians grasp that the gospel has provided freedom from the law, but not in order to live contrary to the commandments.  How then have we distanced ourselves from the obligations of God’s nature in respect of defending the fatherless and pleading the widow’s cause?

The great commission in Matthew chapter 28 contains the mandate to “make disciples of all nations teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.   Through most of Christian history, this has been understood to mean making disciples of individuals from all nations, rather than to make disciples of all nations per se.  The wonderful gospel of individual salvation notwithstanding, the good news is larger than individual decisions.

The quest for justice – for the poor, the oppressed and those vulnerable to oppression – has long been recognised as a definitively Christian quest.  Although many of Jesus teachings have been watered down in our times, he chose to commence his earthly mission with the words “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  (Luke 4:18-19).  These days Christians often tend to spiritualise these remarks; restricting their application to the preaching of the gospel of salvation to individuals and (perhaps) instances of healing.  In many cases the important connection is made between the spiritual work and assistance to the poor; and in exceptional cases that assistance is rendered out of a desire to show God’s heart, rather than to win converts.  While the latter may seem a pure motive to the Christian, in the world it must be seen as impure.

As stated by James (1:27), "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."