Just Church? Why social justice matters for followers of Jesus Christ and the church.
On Thursday, 31 March, Bishop Adrian Newman (Bishop in Residence, Church Urban Fund) chaired a webinar including Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, author of Embracing Justice, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2022. In this special webinar, speakers unravelled the why, what and how of Christian social justice, and discussed the challenges and opportunities for churches to embrace justice – and encourage their communities to do the same.
What follows is a summary of the webinar. If you want to read more about the theology of social justice, visit CUF’s Living Theology Forum and watch a recording of the webinar.
Live Lent: Embracing Justice is the Church of England’s Lent theme for 2022. At the same time, the Church Urban Fund is promoting material from a practical new toolkit called Growing Good, which explores the dynamic relationship between church growth, Christian discipleship and social action [add link].
As the church continues to decline in numbers, we are witnessing an understandable emphasis and focus on church growth. But the question is, where does that leave social justice and effective Christian social action?
This webinar aims to reaffirm us in our commitment to Christian social justice, as an essential part of the church's mission.
Why is justice important to us as followers of Jesus?
Dr Isabelle Hamley says that when we talk about injustice, we usually talk about real people, real places and real situations. Conversely, conversations about justice can often be theoretical, but it too has a human face.
“Scripture is a series of stories of injustice and how God works with people to remedy that injustice. We don't have one story of ‘this is what you do in response to injustice’. We have multiple stories. And not all the stories are going in the same direction or work out in the same way.
“God and God's human partners don't work for justice in the same way, at the same time and in the same places. So, I believe that justice can only be done when we work together, and we work in ways that are appropriate to context and to the places where we are. The ‘how’ we do justice is as important as the ‘what’ we do.”
Revd Canon Dr Anderson Jeremiah, lecturer in theology and politics at Lancaster University, and a CUF Trustee, reflects on the multi-dimensional nature of social justice portrayed in scripture.
“Jeremiah Chapter 9 Verse 24 says, ‘I am the Lord, I act with steadfast love justice and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight says the Lord.’
“So, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that the absence of justice, mercy and love amounts to the absence of God. Justice is economic, political, cultural, ideological and theological.
“Jesus was concerned about the sick, poor, hungry, thirsty and naked, and the prisoner. If I were to translate to our times: Jesus was concerned about those who do not have access to food, water, and shelter. Those who do not have access to healthcare, or can't afford it. Those who are persecuted for who they are. When communities struggle to have basic needs, such as food, shelter and freedom, questions around social justice ought to be at the forefront.”
Chris Forster, strategic lead for Transforming Plymouth Together, brings a perspective on justice grounded in lived experience.
“Our own Bishop of Plymouth describes Transforming Plymouth Together (TPT) as the gift from the Church to the city, and through TPT and the Church’s work in the city we have been able to enable churches and individuals in and outside of the Church to respond to the many issues that people see that are unfair in the city.
“We've been able to set up a Feast of Fun program. That is all about bringing churches together, opening up their premises, providing resources, providing food not for just for children but for families to come together and to share.
“And this is all about building relationships with people. And that's what our Christian faith is all about. The key people are the people in the congregations. We need to find a way through the gatekeepers, find the individuals in the church that have a passion for something, and then enable and resource those people to drive that passion to make a difference. We’re putting our faith into action.”
Jesus seems to have been most interested in helping individuals, so how much should we be engaged with changing systems?
Rev Canon Dr Anderson Jeremiah: “Jesus spent a lot of time with individuals, but He was very much concerned about the system. If the system is not conducive to facilitating God's love and justice and mercy, Jesus wanted to change that. So that's why his actions were inherently political and inherently transformative.”
Dr Isabelle Hamley adds that Jesus often crosses boundaries in the Gospels: “Ultimately, I think Jesus being called King is a direct challenge to all human systems for a completely different system takes place, and I think that's one of the reasons why Jesus is so offensive to many, many people. And that's why, King of the Jews was written there because it was actually that ‘all your human systems are wrong, they need to be replaced by something very different, something shaped by God’. And I think that's deeply challenging.”
Chris Forster added that: “In Plymouth, the system, the local authority, the different organisations, are calling out to us in the church to come and influence what they are doing. We have had the opportunity to work with all levels in the local authority, with the police and crime commissioner, with other people and with other denominations to work ecumenically together to change the way things are done. So yes, Jesus was interested in the person, but the person is part of a community and we are all part of that community.”
Pope Francis talks about how the church should be of the poor not for the poor. How can the church become of the poor, not for the poor?
Rev Canon Dr Anderson Jeremiah reflects on his youth growing up in South India: “I grew up in church of South India, where churches, literally have nothing, you know, but church is growing and people are excited about being part of church.
“But when I moved to the Church of England, I think, all the time we were talking about money. So, the preoccupation of a church with a lot of resources and money is about money, but a church with nothing in it, it’s preoccupation was about being a church.
“As Jesus said, where our treasures are, our heart is. So, we need to see what the treasure of the church is, and where is our heart?”
Dr Isabelle Hamley reflects more deeply on this advice, encouraging us to sit and contemplate before taking action:
“I've been asked, ‘But there's so much to do how can we do anything?’
Maybe stay with that feeling for a little bit because, actually, if you jump from feeling overwhelmed to acting on something, you're jumping away from the discomfort.
“There is something about sitting with a discomfort and letting it transform you so that when you do act, you know that your impulse to act is rooted in something deeper than just wanting to be a saviour.
“It's hard work, it's difficult and it's complex. The church and the world already have a Saviour you don't need to take that spot - it's already taken.
“So how do we join in with what the Saviour is doing, rather than trying to do it ourselves?”
Other questions answered during the webinar examined the relationship between justice and mercy, and the Church of England’s role as an institution in tackling injustice. Watch the full webinar here
The panellists were asked to give their advice to churches wanting to start putting justice into action and serve the community they are based in:
- Read through Scripture and pay attention to the word ‘see’. God sees and God responds. So often, we don't do because we don't see. The first place to start practically is to learn to see.
- Join in with activities that are happening around you. You don’t always need to start something brand new.
- Encourage members within your churches and congregations to live out their faith, within their community, and then bring that back and let people know, and share what they're interested in. The Growing Good Toolkit is a six session course for churches that will help you facilitate this.
CUF’s Living Theology Forum is a place for the mutual exchange of theological ideas about Christian social action and social justice. The latest article by Dr Anna Rowlands, Revisiting the Common Good, touches on a number of the themes covered in the webinar.
"So, in the first instance [a Christian approach to the common good] means we are called to recognise ourselves already placed and graced within a dynamic reality of a pre-existing good. As such, we are co-creators, participants within an active process of the good in history, called to respond to and witness to all that is good, and to lament, rage and struggle for that life."
Read the full article here