Justice starts in your neighborhood, with people you actually know

For today’s blog, I’m reviewing Signpost 9: Prodigal Justice as part of the blog tour for Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. (You can read reviews of the entire book by clicking here and here, or reviews of each of the previous eight signposts by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I should explain that, while I don’t usually write book reviews, I’m honored to blog about this book for a couple of reasons: First of all, it’s written by people I know and respect. I’m a DMin student at Northern Seminary, where both Fitch and Holsclaw teach, and have been privileged to study with both of them. I’ve come to realize they not only believe this stuff — they live it. Prodigal Christianity for them isn’t about theological concepts or the latest church trends; it’s their reality. And they want it to be their students’ reality, too.

Second, it’s one of the most important books I’ve read about the missional movement, but also one of the most accessible. This book is based on decades of study, reflection, and — perhaps most importantly — experience (both the successes and the failures), so it’s biblically solid, theologically deep, and grounded in reality. It’s also written in a clear, straightforward style that makes me feel comfortable giving copies to both my pastor and my peers.

Okay, so let’s move on to Signpost Nine: Prodigal Justice.

As they do in much of the book, the authors begin this chapter by sharing a story from their church, Life on the Vine, about how individuals within their community reacted to the Occupy Wall Street movement in completely different ways. Was Occupy Wall Street’s attempt to highlight economic inequality about “justice”? Or is “justice” achieved when those who work the hardest and smartest earn the most money? The folks at Life on the Vine learned first-hand that the word “justice” means different things to different people.

Fitch and Holsclaw point out that the topic of justice is so controversial that many churches and pastors prefer to avoid the issue altogether. Yet, they say, this isn’t really an option for those who follow Jesus. “God in Christ has already begun making the world right. This is the kingdom. This is the gospel. This is our story. It is therefore not possible to proclaim God’s salvation in our neighborhoods and ignore injustice as if it is unrelated.” I appreciate their willingness to engage this issue honestly and head-on, and to share their missteps along the journey.

So justice is a non-negotiable. But how do we as Christians discern what is just? And how do we lead our churches (whether we’re paid staff or lay people) to respond to injustice?

Throughout the book, the authors follow a pattern of comparing the views and practices of the Reformed and Emergent camps as two extremes of missional church, then offering a “third way” as an alternative. For this signpost, they compare NYC pastor Tim Keller with author Brian McLaren. Keller is well known for leading a church that actively seeks justice. He argues that justice begins with salvation: as individuals are justified by faith, they’re moved to show love, mercy, and generosity toward others. While Fitch and Holsclaw applaud Keller’s work in correcting those who believe justice is separate from salvation, they point out that “frontloading individual salvation like this — making one’s personal justification by faith the prior entrance point for justice — can have some unintended consequences.”

As a case in point, they share the story of a woman who became a regular at several area churches, repeatedly declaring herself a sinner in need of salvation and offering to pray and attend their church in exchange for financial assistance. By getting to know this woman better, the people at Life on the Vine learned that a deeper source of her need was an unreconciled relationship with her sister. How easy it is, the authors say, for us to separate personal justification from justice in our relationships. They express concern that Keller’s tendency to make justification the entrance point for justice is dangerous because it makes justice an optional after-effect of being saved. “It becomes something we do, not something God is doing.”

McLaren, on the other hand, sees biblical salvation as the social transformation God is working in the world — something we can participate in by joining in God’s work for justice. According to McLaren, sin is a social disease that breaks down relationships, and Jesus brings the kingdom as an alternative to the narratives of power and oppression in the world. Fitch and Holsclaw affirm McLaren for “renewing an emphasis on salvation as God’s justice in the world” and instigating a revival in social justice movements among Christians. But as they probe further, of course, they question this view and ask whether it’s enough to simply call individuals into the way of Jesus.

Another situation from Life on the Vine illustrates this concern over McLaren’s viewpoint: The authors tell the story of a well-meaning group from within their congregation who wanted to support a Christian rock band in raising a large sum of money to fight AIDS in Africa. Life on the Vine had no relational connection to this cause; however, they did have a direct, ongoing relationship with a hospital in rural Africa ministering to a thousand AIDS patients a year. But the latter effort wasn’t as grandiose, so their people weren’t as excited about it. This episode is one example of a story lived out thousands of times over throughout churches in the U.S. It’s easy for us to throw money at a cause and get pumped about it. And in doing so, Fitch says, we often perpetuate the very problem we’re trying to fight by sending money detached from relationships. “Being with — living the gospel relationally with people as part of everyday life — seems to be the common practice from which God’s justice breaks in,” Fitch and Holsclaw write. “In this way, in submission to his reign, Jesus’s presence is extended incarnationally through our lives.”

And this brings us to the authors’ proposed “third way” to live justly.

Justice, they argue, must be rooted in both relationships and context. Fitch tells about a time he interviewed famed theologian Stanley Hauerwas at a conference in Toronto in which he asked Hauerwas to explain the connection between Jesus, the church, and justice. Hauerwas’ response was, “No Eucharist, no justice.” Fitch translates this as, “No Jesus, no justice” — and, likewise, “No justice, no Jesus.” Justice for Hauerwas is seen in the Lord’s Supper — the communal eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. Something almost mystical happens in this process “that shapes us into the reconciliation, forgiveness, and renewal of all things God is working in Christ by the Spirit.”

Translation: If we’re not living justly, then Jesus isn’t present. If we’re not spending time with “the least of these” in our neighborhoods, we’re not in the kingdom. If we’re not generous and only take care of ourselves, we can’t receive eternal life. And so on. Likewise, if our good deeds aren’t inspired by and performed through the power of Jesus, then they aren’t truly just. The two — Jesus and justice — go hand-in-hand.

Finally, the authors ask, if God is calling us to live as communities of justice and partner with Him in bringing justice to the world, what does that look like? And how do we do it?

First, they say, “God’s prodigal justice happens through being with people in the midst of their lives. It is intensely and simply relational.” This is a hard lesson for many of us as Christians to learn, in my humble opinion, because we’re so used to “doing justice” through programs of the church, or donating money to causes highlighted in the Sunday bulletin. This kind of justice is easy. It makes us feel good. We can do it on our terms, when it fits our schedule and budget. (For the past few years, I was the pastor responsible for “outreach” programs at my local church. I bought into this definition of justice and, unfortunately, passed it along to others.)

Real justice, through getting to know people who aren’t like us and forming genuine friendships with them (not with a goal in mind — for example, to save them, or “fix” them), is much harder — at first. It’s not a weekend mission trip or a day of service; it’s part of our everyday lives. Eventually, it can become organic and second nature. But initially, it’s just plain awkward.

Again, how do we begin? Fitch and Holsclaw suggest that we should “simply notice the hurting around us and begin to be available to them in relationship as our schedules allow. Soon after, as we know the hurting as friends, not as clients or people who need us, and commit to each other’s growth as friends, something changes, and God works in that relationship. Kingdom breaks in.” They seem to suggest that, like participating in the Eucharist, merely being with “the least of these” allows something mysterious to happen. God is present where we as the church encounter and are present with those in the margins.

We must do this humbly, not in arrogance. We must let it develop naturally, not force it with tracts and programs. We must be vulnerable, and allow ourselves to receive as well as to give. And it’s in this “with-ness” that justice takes place.

I strongly believe in the ideas put forth in this chapter. A confession: I’m a bleeding heart, a social justice fanatic, someone who gets behind every worthwhile cause with the intent of changing the world. It’s hard for me to admit that. But I’ve learned over the years that this approach, although it often brings good to the world, lacks depth and authenticity. And many times in my life, I’ve done more harm than good. The authors are right — justice must be rooted in day-to-day relationships with people whom God puts in our paths.

My one concern about this chapter is that some may read it and use it as an excuse to not go out of their way to connect with the least of these. (That’s obviously not the authors’ intent — I just know how we church people can be.) And if we choose to go on about our busy lives and not see the poor through God’s eyes, not befriend people who are different from us, not realize how much we can learn from others who see the world differently — well, then God isn’t going to bother continuing to create those opportunities. Why would He?

BUT… if we do let ourselves learn from the incarnation, if we do slow down enough to let God use us… we will have the opportunity to participate in his kingdom in our own corners of the world, with our own neighbors. And we will be transformed in the process as his kingdom breaks in.

Don’t buy one copy of Prodigal Christianity. Buy a few, and give them to your pastors, your peers, and anyone you know who exhibits a deep desire to live missionally. This is a foundational book for all of us who want to join in the missio Dei.