Everyday Lives of Love and Justice
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” ~Edmund Burke
If you are paying attention, it can be overwhelming. In the headlines and on your street, the brokenness of humanity cries out through division and suffering: extreme poverty and the gap between rich and poor seems to grow exponentially; human slavery reaches an all time high enslaving nearly 2 million lives; the luxury products you buy often begin at the hands of workers experiencing unfathomable violence; entire continents are in desperate need of clean water; millions of children are literally starving to death; violence takes the lives of children around the world, including US cities; racial and ethnic divisions remain rampant; men and women live and die in anonymity on crowded city streets–the list goes on and on.
An innate and inspired sense of injustice connects us and compels us to respond to God’s heart for justice and to His call for lives of love and justice from each and every one of us. Indeed, we can set things right. We can repair the fabric of society where it is being torn apart.
But where do we begin? What does that look like? Specifically, in your community, with your gifts and talents, what does the Lord require (Micah 6:8)? What does a life of love and justice look like–with our time, with our giving, with our prayers, with our purchases, with our vote, with our voices, in our minds, in our homes, in our community, in our city and globally (Mat. 5:14-16)? What can we do differently tomorrow than we did today?
Now, to start, let’s face it, there will never be a way to simply “add justice” to your already good life–no seven easy steps to a life of love and justice, no box to check on the modern Christian profile sheet, no simple measure that lets you feel good about making a difference in your “spare time.”
A biblical life of love and justice requires a deep intentionality that can be intimidating, to say the least. Nevertheless, there are daily practical responses accessible to us all. In fact, deep meaning and purpose are to be found in the reality we find ourselves waking up in day after day. No matter who you are, where you are, or what resources and skills you possess, God has prepared good works that He intends for you to do–and in fact, that He created you to do (Ep. 2:10). This simple truth empowers each of us to see ourselves as uniquely prepared, uniquely placed, and uniquely empowered as agents of change.
What’s more is that you are not in this alone. Responding to God’s call for lives of love and justice engages you in the collaborative Gospel movement of the Church that transcends cultural or theological boundaries. You are a part of that movement by divine design. Every day.
Every day we can choose to be fully engaged personally, in community, and globally.
“He who waits to do a great deal of good at once, will never do anything.” ~Samuel Johnson
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify what is meant by a life of “love and justice.” The language of justice can be confusing and often misleading. In some sense it is another way of saying “social justice,” which is seeking equity of advantages and disadvantages within social relationships. Yet, biblical social justice means something deeper and more specific that we often struggle to define. This is because “social justice” is simply not a big enough term for our God and is not an apt description of what we are called to as Christ-followers.
Contrary to common use, “justice” is not a synonym for service, or volunteerism, nor is it to be confused with charity or even compassion. Working for justice is a collaboration of engagement at multiple levels and is often a progression from awareness to structural change. Some definitions will help our search for everyday clarity:
Awareness: Bringing attention to the injustices and suffering in the world is a constant need. Our human selfishness requires us to be continuously “woken up” from our indifference. However, awareness alone does not equal advocacy because awareness is not personal involvement with the vulnerable. Awareness by itself does not rescue anyone or necessarily lead to sincere concern for the marginalized.
Charity: Acts of charity such as giving money, donating to a food or clothing drive, or volunteering to serve meals at a shelter are generous actions on behalf of the poor. As essential and vital as these actions are, they are still disconnected from the lives of those in need.
Compassion: The strict meaning of compassion is “to suffer with.” Com = With, Passion = To Suffer. Personal involvement begins here by entering into and being incarnate in the lives of others as Christ chose to be (Philippians 2: 1-11). True compassion is physical, relational, and personal.
Individual Development: Most simply defined as holistic personal growth. Often this comes when one-on-one friendships are formed with “the least of these” in equal relationship. For example: building relationships across race and class in your community, extending biblical hospitality to refugees and immigrants, or mentoring an at-risk child.
Community Development: Understood as the holistic development of people, the relationships within communities, and the restoration of places and institutions. For example, once you are in relationship with someone living in poverty you cannot ignore the home they live in, the schools they have access to, or if they are denied a voice in their own government.
Structural Change: When injustice is set right by addressing issues of power, law, and systems, as well as potentially creating alternative systems. Structural change is about addressing the root causes of why people are poor or oppressed, and traditionally engaged through legal and political advocacy at the grass roots as well as the highest levels.
Shalom: The most accurate biblical language is that of shalom, which can be succinctly translated: nothing missing, nothing broken. The ideas of justice and shalom are closely linked. Shalom is translated peace, but our translation of peace is too weak. Physical shalom is good health. Social shalom is an interwoveness among various social segments of society for the common good. The venerable Nicolas Wolterstorf lends key insight:
“We must add the ideas of justice, harmony, and enjoyment to capture the full meaning of the word. Shalom means just relationship (living justly and experiencing justice), harmonious relationships and enjoyable relationships. Shalom means belonging to an authentic and nurturing community in which one can be one’s true self and give one’s self away without becoming poor. Justice, harmony, and the enjoyment of God, self, others, and nature; this is the shalom that was intended for humanity to experience.”
Living lives of love and justice then is about restoring shalom and weaving the fabric of society back together through all of the above ways of being engaged.
Every community needs people of all types to be involved within all areas in order to be a body that works together towards biblical justice. An individual can do a compassionate act, but structural change requires a concentrated power of will from a community. Justice is only achievable through community, and as such, is the fullness of the biblical expression of justice as it was meant to be seen.
These definitions are helpful in outlining everyday opportunities. Simply thinking through creative ways you can be involved in or with each of those levels is how an everyday life of love and justice begins.
Part 2: Engage Personally
“I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.” ~William James
Often, injustice is not seen and justice is not done because of the sin and brokenness inside of us all. Prejudice, indifference, pride, and entitlement are in each of us, and they need to be searched out. A life of love and justice must start here–with dying to self so that Christ might be glorified through us. Christ redeems us, transforms us, and makes us holy so that we can love and serve others.
- Pray daily for God to break your heart for the things that break His.
- Work to become a renewed heart and mind, a new creation, a living example of how the broken structures inside us all can be transformed.
- Reflect on any feelings of guilt and lack of compassion.
- Spend time addressing personal conceptions of race, dignity and equality, as well as your responsibility to embrace others.
- Wrestle with your sincerity for social and economic transformation.
This is a matter of our core discipleship in Christ and a disciplined response to God’s heart for justice. As we grow our lives will begin to naturally manifest a living definition of biblical justice.
Our character begins to follow Christ’s lead as we interact with people through love. His lead is incarnate. This means we are to live among and rub shoulders with those who need us. We can’t love at a distance. You cannot commute to a calling. This is the essence of living a life of love and justice–entering into the daily reality of others and reflecting the love of God into their lives.
Jesus did not attempt to meet every need or delegate every responsibility but instead chose to meet specific people, in specific places, and met specific needs as He came in contact with them. So can we.
- The homeless man you pass every day…do you know his name?
- Have you learned his story?
- Have you shared your common God given dignity with him?
- Has your friendship with him caused you to wrestle with the complexities of poverty and homelessness?
- How about the same questions for an immigrant or refugee family? Or even your literal neighbor?
- Have you, as a Christ-follower, ever disadvantaged yourself in a samaritan act for the sake of another?
In the words of Philip Yancey, “You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?”
God enables us, through Christ, to enter into the injustices we are presented with, but we forget that. We fail to remember that Jesus is still at work today and is beckoning us to join him. All God asks is that we bring to Him whatever position, possession, or potential that He has already blessed us with. He compensates for everything we need, and as we wade in, He works in us and through us. Only incarnate ministry develops this kind of opportunity. Only there do we change. As we give ourselves fully to the incarnate work of Jesus we participate in, experience, and advance the presence of the Kingdom. Every day.
Part 3: Engage in Community
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead
Love and justice are fully relational concepts and as such are only revealed through community. A localized community of Christians is God’s chosen agent for change and He intends to image forth the righteousness and justice of His Kingdom through His beloved community: the reconciled and transformed Body of Christ. We are to be the realization of divine love in lived social relation (John 13:34-35) and collectively become for the world what Jesus was for the world–announcing the Kingdom, healing the wounds of the world, and challenging the power structures that perpetuate anger, pain, and oppression.
- Is your church community known by a Christ-like love for one another?
- Are there ethnic, gender, or class divisions in your Church? Do your staff meetings and outings include and empower everyone? Even the custodial crew?
- Are your people present, visible, and invested locally in the neighborhood your building resides in?
- Do your people harbor racist, sexist, classist, or any exclusive attitudes? Are they willing to embrace those who are different? Would/could your homeless friend be comfortable sitting with you during a Sunday service?
- Have you wrestled with potential structural reasons for any lack of diversity (ethnic or economic) in the community? Does your church structure exclude others or align with/perpetuate oppressive systems?
- Is your leadership representative and present among the community?
Through Christ we are called to participate in the “in-breaking” of His amazing Kingdom here and now; representing a new reality that we are constantly inviting others into. A disciple of Christ cannot sit idly by nor allow his or her community to stay removed from the brokenness of the world. As the poor and the oppressed cry out for justice, they are crying out for Christ and His kingdom. They are crying out for you and me to enter into their reality and literally be the hands and feet of Jesus.
- Begin by going beyond merely volunteering at a soup kitchen or shelter, but by sharing life with the entire community at a local shelter, committing to a tutoring/mentoring program for at-risk youth, building cross cultural friendships, or even taking in an unwanted or trafficked child.
- Grow by starting a tutoring or adult education program in your community or in a community that needs one, building/creating low income housing for the poor, putting your children in local schools and getting involved, or promoting cessation of trafficking in your communities through a ministry of presence.
- Create change by working to reform the education system, creating a school with no race/class barriers to entry, changing laws, helping enforce laws, being politically active, serving on local boards, redeeming social and/or cultural systems, and creating a better “kingdom” system within the bounds of the law.
Your community must work together collectively as well as collaboratively with other communities, law enforcement, and local government to bring light to dark places and drag darkness into the light. Every day.
Part 4: Engage Globally
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Engaging globally is about seeing yourself as a part of the global fabric of the modern world simultaneously and inseparably both locally and globally. Perhaps “glocal” is the new way to say it. In an every day context this partly means making choices with our purchases and our voices.
A consumer economy within a democratic government puts a lot of power into your hands concerning daily choices. We all need to learn how to see through the product labels to the names and faces of all those along the production chain. Indiscriminate (and gluttonous) consumption is an injustice all in its own.
- Do you make purchases without thinking about where they were made and who made them?
- Are you educating yourself to learn about equitable systems of global production, trade and distribution such as local trade, fair trade, and free trade?
- Are you willing to pay more to ensure the names and faces at all parts of the product chain are treated and compensated equitably?
- Are you willing to boycott products made using bonded labor or that cause violence/war such as some textile factories, some jewels, some agriculture such as chocolate production, and many of the minerals in our electronics?
- Are you willing to be politically active to work for polices that lead the way in ethical trade?
- Are you able to see the foreign or immigrant laborer with compassion? Are you willing to disadvantage yourself to ensure they share in the advantages of society?
Furthermore, engaging globally is not just about being a “global citizen” but reflects the profound reality of the Global Church: “…God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” 1 Cor. 12:24-26.
Whatever you think of your personal responsibility to the problems in this world, Christians are not allowed to ignore their brothers and sister’s in Christ around the world. “As one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” Parts of the body of Christ are living daily with extreme poverty and oppression so we must find ways to live with them and for them. Every day.
Part 5: Engage fully
“A man can do only what a man can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.” ~Albert Schweitzer
Remember, it is a systems thing. Revisit the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). There are more players in this admonition than just the unwitting victim, the cause of the situation in the robber, and the compassionate acts of a stranger. There is also the Priest and the Levite (consider them a pastor and a church elder these days). Jesus is saying a lot about those who pass by a situation such as this and allow it to continue.
Before this specific turn of events we would, while affirming that all men are sinners, assert that it is the individual actions of the thief that are the sinful cause of evil. In any given line-up we would count the Priest and the Levite as righteous and moral by comparison. Nevertheless Jesus chastises all as having done wrong in the eyes of God.
All of us are inescapably part of the systems that enable/prolong injustice in this world. As a part of society and the human community we are a part of “the system.” We all bear the weight of responsibility to set things right. We have no excuse for passing on the far side of the road in our daily lives.
We must come to terms with the reality that there is no hierarchy of Christian discipleship, no acceptable “levels” of commitment. From day one, being a disciple of Christ has been an all-in, all-or-nothing proposition. A call to completely give up the life we have planned so as to have the life awaiting us.
Perhaps the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegarrd’s wry challenge to Christianity’s ability to theologize itself out of true service is the most fitting:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we as Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How will I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming to close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Doing nothing is not an option. Be all in. Be an every day Christian.