Doing Justice — Communities in Mission

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  Matthew 5:6

“The primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.”  (Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, 2d ed., p. 153.)


Biblical “righteousness,” which may also be translated as justice, is not the individual pursuit of personal piety, rather it is the corporate work of living into God’s community of shalom.  In the fullness of God’s realm, there is sharing and mutuality, plenty for everyone, and respect and care for all people as well as for God’s creation.

Christian communities have not disagreed (at least very much) about the nature of justice and righteousness, but they have taken very divergent paths in their efforts to get from here, the world’s current state of brokenness, to there, shalom.   The “light of the world” metaphor in Matthew 5:14-16 can be used to illustrate some of these differences.

  • A beacon on a hill.  Some Christian communities have practiced withdrawal and separation, emphasizing obedience to the commands of the Sermon on the Mount, with the hope that others will be attracted to join their society of hope and love.

  • A searchlight in the world.  Other communities have defined themselves by a specific mission such as ministry to local homeless, resettlement of refugees, economic development for the relief of poverty, or political action on public policy in order to bring societal justice.  They seek to shine the light of Christ on specific specific populations in need or to highlight societal problems or solutions.

  • A floodlight.  Other groups are convinced that the church, the body of Christ, as the society of love and service, is the message and the harbinger of the fullness of God’s realm, providing “light to all in the house.” (Matt 5:15).  Engagement with and residence in the world distinguishes this approach from the beacon.

These differences are not just due to different missiologies (our understanding of mission), but also arise from differences in ecclesiology (the meaning of our corporate existence and how we organize ourselves), ethics (what we do or rather should do in the world), and eschatology (our belief and expectation about God’s ultimate work of fulfillment).

Every community that is seeking to follow Jesus will be doing justice.  The readings and materials listed here give a taste of the variety of missional callings that various communities have accepted as well as their theological foundations for their work.

Two important pieces of advice are worth highlighting.

  1. Doing justice is best seen as our doxology, our praise of God for the victory that has been won and will ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  “If we saw our obedience more as praising God and less as running his world for him, we would be less prey to both despair and disobedience.” (Yoder, “The Biblical Mandate for Evangelical Social Action,” in For the Nations, p. 195)

  2. Listen to the Holy Spirit to discern the particular mission God has given your community.  In this way, you will “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

Books

John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, Essays Public and Evangelical (Wipf & Stock, 2002)

Joe & Nancy Gatlin, Joel H. Scott, Compañeros, Two Communities in a Transnational Communion, English Ed., (Wipf & Stock, 2018) (story of SMC’s 25 year relationship with and accompaniment of the Valle Nuevo community in El Salvador)

Elizabeth O’Connor, Journey Inward, Journey Outward (Harper, 1968) Classic about the balance of mission and contemplation in the Church of the Saviour context)

Dallas Lee, The Cotton Patch Evidence (Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm history), (Wipf & Stock, reprinted 2011).  Stirring and well-written (1972) account of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia (which was the quintessential mission-oriented community).

Charles, Marsh, Beloved Community.

Nouwen, Henri, Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community (Orbis, 2005).  A three-fold path for Christians to embrace Jesus' ethic of peacemaking.