Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Work for Justice"

             Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the four principles of Christian discipleship, which will guide my church, Christ United Methodist, as we move into the future. Jesus calls each of us to love and follow him as his disciples.  Following Christ involves an ongoing process of learning, experiencing, and growing.  When we first become Christians we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, God intends for us to grow deeper in our faith and in our relationship with Christ.   I believe that Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “learning” and “doing.” 

In this series, we have already examined the core discipleship principles of (1) seeking God; (2) acting inclusively; and (3) serving others—both human and nonhuman.  This Sunday, September 16th, we will conclude by looking at the fourth and final discipleship principle:  working for justice. 

What is justice?  The meaning of justice may vary, depending upon the context in which it is used.  For instance, retributive justice concerns consequences and punishments when someone has injured another person or caused them harm.  Frequently, we think of retributive justice in terms of the court system.  However, our focus this Sunday is on a different form of justice:  distributive justice.  That is, the just distribution of the goods and services of society.  So, with these refinements, the question becomes, “As Christians, how do we define “distributive justice?”

For Christians, the starting point for defining justice must begin with the human relationship with God.  As we saw several weeks ago in our examination of the principle of “acting inclusively,” each person is created in the image of God.  In Genesis 1:27 it is written, So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Every single person bears the divine image of God in their very essence. This divine spark, or image, indicates how deeply God loves each one of us.  In response to God’s personal love for us, God requires that we love one another.  As the writer of 1 John observed:

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  1 John 4:19-21

When we truly love someone, then we want the very best for that person.  We want that beloved person to be happy and to flourish in life.  Thus, from the Christian perspective of love, distributive justice occurs when every person in society has the opportunities to flourish in their own particular way.  A flourishing human person needs the freedom to choose and develop their own vision of the good and happy life.  In order to flourish, a person needs the resources, such as education, to develop to the best of their abilities and to strive towards realizing their life plan.  Persons also require freedom, sufficient leisure, and the opportunities to participate in the civic and political life of the community to the degree that they choose.  Finally, in order to flourish, persons need the opportunity to become self-sufficient and provide for themselves, rather than being dependent upon a paternalistic handout.  This enables a person to live with dignity, which is essential for human flourishing. 

            Unfortunately, these minimal conditions are not met, either around the world or even in the United States—the most affluent society in human history.  Consider these facts:

  • In the United States, 1 in 8 Americans lives with food insecurity
  • Approximately 13 million children live with food insecurity. 
  • At Christ UMC in Lincoln, we have witnessed the extent of food insecurity firsthand with our food pantry.  Over the past two years, the number of hungry whom we help each month has increased from 50 people a month to over 1,000 persons a month.
  • Globally, there are approximately 815 million people suffering from hunger.

Christian disciples are challenged by this huge injustice in our world.  Many persons do not have the resources to live happy and flourishing lives of self-sufficiency and dignity, as God intended.

            Here, an important distinction needs to be made between the discipleship principles of serving others and working for justice.  While serving others by caring for their physical needs is a critical ministry, frequently it does not address the structural causes of poverty.  Those whom we wish to help are caught in a recurring cycle of poverty and dependency.  At Christ UMC, we see this pernicious cycle of poverty all the time at our food pantry as some people come to us in need of food, again and again, each month. 

            Many Christian congregations are great at serving others and they think that is all that they are required to do as disciples of Christ.  However, Christ calls us to do more.  Our responsibility is not some easy minimum.  No.  In his Letter in the New Testament, James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16)

            If we truly love and care for those who do not have the resources to flourish, then we cannot be content with simply feeding someone for a day—or, a month.  Instead, to genuinely love and care for those in need, we must help them become fully self-sufficient and able to flourish.  This is what working for justice is all about.

            I want to propose that there are two distinct categories of working for justice:

  1.  Micro-justice, empowering and resourcing individuals.  Micro-justice focuses on helping the poor develop the skills and vision to become fully self-sufficient and to flourish.  It could mean providing training or a program which empowers the poor and marginalized to take responsibility for helping themselves and becoming self-sufficient.  An example of this type of micro-justice is the “Bridges out of Poverty” program, which Christ UMC provides through our ministry at ConnectioN Point.  “Bridges out of Poverty” helps impoverished persons and families develop skills to apply for and keep a job, develop a household budget, and other abilities needed in order to rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient.  There’s an old Chinese proverb, which says:  “Give a poor man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  We can think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish.                                                                                                                                                     
  2.  Macro-justice.  Macro-justice focuses on the social, political, and economic structures which disempower the poor and keep them in poverty.  Macro-justice involves working to change unjust laws or public policies that marginalize and disempower people.  Other examples would include organizing a boycott of certain companies because of their business practices.  If we think of micro-justice as teaching someone to fish, then macro-justice involves tearing down the fence, which restricts access to the fish in the community fishpond. 

 The discipleship principle of working for justice includes working as hard as we can for both micro-justice for individual persons and macro-justice for our society—and the world.  This is especially true for American Christians.

As American Christians, we live in a society that has historically valued our Christian convictions and perspectives.  Although our Founding Fathers rightly separated “Church and State,” the reason for this separation was to insure that no particular religion or denomination was privileged and promoted in a dominant role over other faiths; that is, there would be no “state religion.”  The Founding Fathers’ intent was not to prevent citizens from speaking about public policies from their religious convictions.  On the contrary, they also recognized the importance of religious perspectives in the public discourse, which grounds our democracy.  Therefore, as American Christians, we have a special opportunity and responsibility to be good stewards of our American citizenship, by speaking up and participating in the public discourse.  We have a responsibility to work for justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 16th, as we conclude our examination of the four essential principles of Christian discipleship with a focus on “working for justice.”  Before and after the Worship Services, there will be an opportunity to participate in Bread for the World’s “offering of letters” by writing your federal legislators and asking them to protect highly effective anti-hunger programs from spending cuts in the 2019 Federal Budget.

   Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 each Sunday morning in our Sanctuary.  This Sunday, we will offer a third, alternative and contemporary worship service at 9:45 am in our Family Life Center.  This additional service will be a “preview worship service” as we prepare to launch a regular, third service in the near future.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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