Justice with Jesus
In my city, there are more and more conversations among Christ followers these days about justice and mercy and much of it is deeply encouraging. Young people are passionately advocating for our communities to respond to injustice and fix what is broken. There is a lot to be hopeful about as the Spirit seems to be stirring the church to care about things like racial reconciliation, loving the poor, being a voice for the prisoner, the unborn, and the elderly.
But we have also seen the church mobilize against poverty and injustice for long enough to know that while there can be fruit from these efforts, they do not always lead to the kind of fruit we long for (either in ourselves or in our communities). If you have been working in the midst of injustice and pain for any length of time, you have most certainly experienced those around you burning out, growing weary, or becoming disillusioned with Christianity.
There are many reasons for this. The one I would like to explore is the ways we engage in justice apart from Christ. Of course our words don’t betray that this is what we’re actually doing, but our attitudes and motives often whisper to our tired souls that, functionally, we can work toward justice and mercy with or without Jesus. For the American Christ follower, with our particular cultural idols of independence, achievement, strength, and power, it can be easy to fall into the trap of “functional atheism.” We say we believe in Christ and yet we easily do ministry in ways that don’t necessitate deep fellowship with Jesus.
“Functional atheism” is a jarring term, no doubt. Functional atheism looks like living out of the perspective that we can fix all that is broken in this world. We rage, we toil without rest, we exhaust ourselves. And when that doesn’t work, we give up. Instead of ceaselessly toiling to stop the pain and suffering, we embrace the opposite false belief that we can do nothing and perhaps check out and turn away from the pain around us altogether. In exhaustion we numb ourselves and when possible, detach from the suffering around us. We judge, critique, grow prideful in being someone who really “gets it.”
Functional atheism looks like living out of the perspective that we can fix all that is broken in this world. We rage, we toil without rest, we exhaust ourselves.
Functional atheism causes us to run head first into battle without first stopping to consider what the Spirit is asking of us. What position does he wants us to play? Are we to be a shield, an arrow, a helmet, or a breastplate in a battle that is not against flesh and blood? We forget that this battle belongs to the Lord, not us. Our identity becomes enmeshed in the outcomes and “success” of what we want to accomplish.
Functional atheism makes us the generals and heroes of the story instead of the faithful foot soldiers. It is driven by angst, rage, and a desperate need to “fix” instead of a kind of love that feels unfamiliar to this world. It shows up as a lack of prayer, a lack of listening, and moving at a pace that God has not asked of us.
Sometimes functional atheism keeps us from engaging in justice and mercy in the first place. We appreciate the ways our privilege, security, and comfort allow us some protection from the darkness many experience. We can act like distant spectators “standing against” injustice via social media because we don’t really believe that we are called to come down out of the stands and be on the field. Perhaps we say we care about the systemic suffering and pain that plagues our communities, but we don’t really believe the gospel is the Good News that declares, through both words and actions, Christ’s deliverance, healing, forgiveness, and restoration to communities suffering under weights of oppression. We tune out and ignore our Savior’s voice that acknowledges we may only have a few fish and loaves of bread, but asks that we feed his sheep nonetheless.
We can act like distant spectators “standing against” injustice via social media because we don’t really believe that we are called to come down out of the stands and be on the field.
Intimacy with Jesus
There is another way to engage in the pain plaguing our cities, and that is with Jesus. Entering into the places of pain and suffering in our cities and neighborhoods provides us a unique opportunity to experience and know deeper union with Christ. Usually we discover this most precious way after we have tried the path laid out above only to end up defeated, exposed, and wounded. It is in places of weakness and exhaustion that Jesus often whispers, I have something much better for you.
Injustice, poverty, abuse, and death are furnaces. These are the places where Christians and non-Christians groan that this is not the way it is supposed to be. Encountering the magnitude of suffering reveals our own pride, depravity, insecurity, and misguided trust. If we are willing to stay in these furnaces with Jesus, they can transform into sanctuaries where we can encounter a beautiful, vibrant Jesus who is at work in profound ways to bring healing and salvation in the darkest of places.
We begin to see it is not our strength that has anything to offer Jesus, but our weakness. We are transformed from men and women who are trying to “fix” all that is broken to learning, listening, and surrendering to the Spirit who is powerfully at work. We begin to fall in love all over again with the Jesus who is especially near to the brokenhearted, the outcast, the despondent. It is in learning the language of this Jesus that we learn how to become poor of spirit, mourners, comforters, meek, and righteous.
Compassion for the Oppressor
Staying in the furnaces with Jesus also gives us greater compassion and eyes to see how idol worship not only hurts the oppressed, but also the oppressor. It trains our eyes to see the ways structures, belief systems, and individuals dehumanize each other and the toll it takes both on the one being marginalized and the one who casts their brother aside.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, there was a great cost for the Priest and the Levite that traveled the Jericho road and quickly passed by the beaten man. As we encounter the Jesus who is righteous, holy, loving, and merciful, we encounter a Jesus that came also to save that Priest and Levite. Their apathy, blindness, busy schedules, self-importance, and lack of love cost them dearly. They missed out on the gift of embracing a suffering brother. They could have had the privilege of cleaning his wounds.
Compassion like this is often missing from present day conversations about injustice, and yet compassion for the oppressor is part of the way of Jesus. He brings peace as he reconciles both victims and offenders to himself. Compassion for the wrongdoer is necessary if we are to keep soft and humble hearts as we engage in justice and mercy ministry.
Justice and mercy is not something we are called to do in our own strength and power. It is an invitation into something that Jesus is doing and we get a unique and beautiful picture of his heart when we draw near to him and follow in his steps. It is a gift. It is healing. It is revealing in ways that allow us to truly walk humbly with God. It leads to deeper worship and more honest prayers. It stirs longing for all things to be made new and to see Jesus’ kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Twelve years ago Dennae and her husband started a church in Phoenix.
Today, she is Executive Director of the Surge Network — a network of 60 churches working together to be a witness for Jesus and plant more churches in Phoenix metro area.