At the installation of ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the preacher, Pastor Heidi Neumark of New York City said
“The daily ravages of injustice are less eye-catching than the events of September 11, but no less devastating in their human toll. Millions of dollars have been raised to ensure that every family facing financial hardship or displacement due to this terrorist attack can be helped, but what of the many poor, starving, sick and homeless already?”
In my capacity as the Illinois co-coordinator of Lutheran Disaster Response, I am often tempted to ask what magnitude of disaster is required before our caring ministry kicks into high gear. We wait for the train wreck, the plane crash, the flooding Mississippi or, “the big one”—the movement of the New Madrid fault in Central Illinois. Meantime, the urban neighborhoods, rural communities and whole systems of care for people in need are allowed to crumble around us, or on top of the people trapped within them. What are we to do?
“[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6: 8)”
“Jesus” and “Justice” are two words and concepts that are too rarely associated with one another. The first is often enough portrayed as a compassionate healer of human brokenness. Too often, however, the followers of Jesus are portrayed—and even portray ourselves—as caring for souls alone. Even when our ministries rise to the challenge of caring for people in need (a.k.a. social ministry) we are too often focused on addressing the immediate need, rarely on confronting the causes that lead to the neediness of those for whom we show compassion. The ministry of Jesus was about reorienting people’s whole lives. The reorientation that Jesus accomplished, however, was not primarily focused on the “clients” of his ministry—the people whom he fed, healed and even restored to life. Rather, it was focused primarily on changing the lives of those whom he called to continue the ministry in his name. The ministry of Jesus was aimed at his disciples. It was they whom Jesus called out of their routine lives and commissioned to go into the world to teach, baptize and obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28: 20). In other words, Jesus commanded us to live—not just to believe—what he taught. In that vein, I’m struck by how often, especially in Mark’s Gospel, we read something like, “And Jesus began to teach them…” but then, instead of recording any words of Jesus, the evangelist tells us of his works, his deeds.
In the contemporary church, we are tempted to focus on those programs and facets of congregational life that show the greatest promise for church growth. Typically we reckon church “growth” by relatively easy to quantify (though not necessarily easy to attain) measures: worship attendance, weekly offering, number of new members received, number of adult baptisms, etc. It’s much more difficult to account for the reorientation of people’s lives to the things that God has indicated as required of God’s people—doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
So what does or what would justice look like in the twenty-first century church, in the twenty-first century world? Today’s vision of justice must still be informed by the ancient biblical vision of God’s shalom—the whole cosmos in balance. Foster McCurley is fond of reminding his readers and audiences that the prophetic tradition holds up a vision of all people—even widows, orphans and foreigners—participating fully in a community in which all members have food, shelter, clothing, health, dignity and so on. The challenge to the people of God twenty-five hundred years ago is still the challenge to the people of God today. What are we doing, or failing to do, to ensure that everyone in our community—including children and youth at risk of failure, frail and isolated elderly women and men, or those who live on the fringes or beyond the fringes of acceptable society—have access to the things they need for the fullness of life in community?
Many of our churches do a great job of recognizing the needs of persons in their own surrounding communities. In inner cities, in decaying and prosperous suburbs, and in many rural communities, churches rally to provide generously for “the less fortunate.” Food pantries and homeless shelters thrive because of the support—time, talent and treasure—of our members. But how often do we as individual disciples of Jesus or as church communities take a step back and ask hard questions about why there are hungry or homeless or otherwise deprived people in our communities? It’s not because there isn’t enough food to go around. Even with six billion people on Earth today, this planet can easily produce enough food for everyone. And homelessness? How many of our newer homes now have three-car garages while the hidden poor even in some upscale communities have no place to call home? What can we do to challenge the root causes of poverty? How do we participate in and support structures and public policies that determine that many of us will have more than enough while some of us have less than enough?
There is a temptation in the justice advocacy community to try to “guilt trip” those of us who have more than enough for our own needs. Guilt may sometimes be a useful tool to get people to reconsider traditional choices or behaviors. But I believe it is much more fruitful to offer opportunities for people to experience how small but significant changes in their own behaviors can contribute to the common good. As with most issues, before we can hope or expect to change outcomes, we must first focus on and affirm a common vision. Does the vision of God’s shalom make sense to the people of God today? Are we as the church trained and prepared to make a connection between the ministry of Jesus and our own ministries? What would it take for those of us who are leaders in the church, whether professional or voluntary leaders, to learn to automatically think theologically about the connection between Jesus and Justice?
As in most movements in church and society, one of the first steps must be education. Even before we enter into an educational process around specific justice issues (economic justice, restorative justice, civil rights, access to health care, to name a few) we must ground our effort theologically. Recently an organization that I am a part of, Protestants for the Common Good, offered a two-day retreat for United Methodist pastors to help them learn to think theologically about justice. The movie, “Romero,” was used as something of a case study for the retreat. In the movie, a portrayal of the final years of the life of Roman Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the traditional cleric is shown as he slowly makes the connection between the pastoral concerns of his people and the political oppression in their country. At first Romero is reluctant to let the political concerns of the peasants in any way impact the ministry of the institutional church entrusted to his care. Eventually his basic compassion overcomes his basic conservatism. He feels himself called to speak out (advocate) for those who are voiceless and powerless, even though the church had traditionally blessed the oppressors, if not in fact the oppression itself. In the end, Romero is martyred as he celebrates the mass with the oppressed. In a graphic scene in the movie, as Romero is assassinated, the chalice is spilled and the blood of Jesus is, once again, spilled for the sake of the people.
I would like to suggest that we in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod undertake a process of “consciousness-raising” in our own community. I envision a retreat focused on Jesus and Justice. I have spoken briefly with Bishop Landahl about the possibility of his convening and actively participating in a retreat as a way of demonstrating the importance of the undertaking. It may be wise to have one such retreat for professional church leaders in the synod and another for layfolks. I would hope that a retreat would offer strong theological grounding for justice ministry in the church and a real opportunity for dialogue and debate about the place and the relative importance of such ministry in the church. I would also hope that such a retreat would attract more than “the usual suspects,” that the dialogue would not just be among those who have a long commitment to and experience in integrating justice ministry into congregational life. I would hope that church leaders who are skeptical or resistant to the idea of the church venturing into public policy issues would be fully engaged in the work of the retreat. I do not have a specific time or format to suggest at this time. I am aware that the synod’s Justice Team has recently begun working on a strategy for widening the commitment to justice among MCS congregations and members and perhaps a retreat such as I have suggested could be a part of that effort.
A great deal of my own ministry over the past decade has been shaped by my training and experience in community organizing. A fundamental tenant of community organizing is the idea that power is neither automatically good nor bad. Power—the ability to act—is neutral. The question that determines the character of power is the values that are reflected in the exercise of power. Surely the church can identify fundamental values that we can agree to rally behind. Can we agree that every individual, made in the image of God, has inherent value and deserves to be treated with dignity? Can we agree that the dignity of each person before God demands that we strive to ensure that no one goes hungry, that no one is discarded as having little or no productive value to society, that no one is despised or discriminated against because of the circumstances of his or her birth (race, class, gender, nationality, disability, ethnicity, IQ, sexual orientation, etc.)? If we can agree on some of those basic values (and I do not take for granted that we can easilyagree on everything I just listed) is it possible for us to make a dedicated effort as the church to work for public policies that reflect such values?
The ELCA, through the Advocacy Department in the Division for Church in Society (DCS), supports numerous state public policy advocacy offices across the U.S. The Advocacy Department also supports the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, in Washington, DC; the Lutheran Office for World Community, at the United Nations and the Office for Corporate Social Responsibility. All of these ELCA ministries are dedicated to work toward the translation of ELCA social policy positions (social statements, churchwide assembly resolutions, ELCA Church Council resolutions or DCS Board resolutions) into actual public policies on the part of state or federal governments, or in international or corporate policies. In so doing, we attempt to make a witness that the values that we hold as the people of God are not just abstract and theoretical. They are concrete suggestions for how we might live together in such a way that God’s will for all people might be more evident in real lives.
The Lutheran Advocacy Network/ Illinois (LAN) is the ELCA public policy advocacy office for the state of Illinois. LAN is a shared justice ministry of the three ELCA synods in Illinois, the ELCA’s Division for Church in Society and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. A statewide steering committee (still in formation) made up of lay and clergy representatives of the five member organizations helps to set the advocacy agenda for LAN’s work. More details about LAN, including the 2000-2002 Advocacy Agenda and an update on several priority issues is available at www.lutheranadvocacy.org. As the director of LAN, I am available to speak with (not just to) groups within ELCA congregations in Illinois. I am anxious to have the opportunity to preach, teach, discuss, debate and organize congregational involvement in social justice issues.
I was delighted when we as a synod adopted our present mission statement that calls us as the church to “Preach Christ, Make Disciples, Do Justice.” It is clear that those men and women in our synod who helped shape that statement understand that doing justice is not an afterthought or an add-on to the church’s ministry. And yet justice ministry is hardly a given in the life of many of our congregations or of our synod.