Institutional church and social justice, part 3

This is the final in a three-part series.

We can see ourselves in this story. We each have a cross or crosses to bear. We can see obvious pain around us as well, and we usually do what we can to help. But do we understand how we also contribute to structures of oppression in our society? In our church?

The story is not over at the cross because of the resurrection. The dominion of sin and suffering is over, we are free forever. We all become Israel through our belief and profession of Lord Jesus Christ as the only begotten son of the father. Thus, we enter into the covenant community and become responsible for justice and worship. Believing in the resurrection gives prominence to seeing our bodies as ways in which justice is experienced — real needs of real people. We demonstrate our hope in the eternal, the coming of Jesus through our actions in the present. We are a hopeful people not ones in despair, desperately waiting for God to intervene. He already did completely and decidedly in Jesus Christ. The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, ascension and Pentecost are together the full revelation of how to live God’s justice.

How do we live this life of liberation, of freedom from every tyranny? What does it look like when we have to realistically see we still have a broken world? Specifically, what does liberation and justice look like in our church? If the church is the mission of Christ embodied on earth, how do we as a community of believers represent God’s compassionate love?

Organization and leadership can be a good thing. We can pool our resources and donate money, food, material goods, legal services, carpentry, other skills and our time to people in need.  We often create smaller groups to pay attention to particular groups — the homeless, immigrants and refugees, the poor, the sick, the dying, around birth and life, we look here in Spokane, Washington, the U.S. and around the world. We send money to Japan, to Haiti, to the Republic of the Congo, to Bosnia, to India and other nations. We are very good at using our institutional systems to act justly in these exterior ways.

How do we act justly within our church institutions? Are all welcomed? Do we make provisions for some and not others? Do we think that our worship will be less pleasing to God if some people are praying with us? What about money? Do those who donate more seem to have more leadership and authority than others? Or is the money a common good once donated?

In the last 40 years we have learned a great deal about how our economic choices play a part in social justice. We have become more mindful of how our choices of music, movies, televisions and books both represent and affect our culture and our commitment to our faith. It can be overwhelming…but we try.

But what about inside of our worship communities? Who do we listen to and why? Who gets to determine who participates and why or why not? How do we consider difficult and confrontational ideas with one another? Are we really committed to compassionate love with one another in our church or are we spending more time fighting about access to authority and resources?

Do we worry more about using the right words in prayer or arguing the finer points of doctrine than making eye contact with a homeless person, being seen with a gay person, visiting the sick, or really making a sacrificial gift to the poor? Do we concern ourselves with the Caribbean and Africa in order to feel okay about ignoring our House of Charity or Habitat for Humanity in town?

Who belongs? The least among us.How do we best serve God and show our gratitude for our redemption? Compassionate love of neighbor is not a new idea. It’s the heart of the Bible.

It is God’s revelation, over and over again — love, love, and love the neighbor…yes Jonah, go to Nineveh, the capital city of the despised enemy Assyria, and preach love to them, be love to them.  We can hang out a long time hiding in the belly of the fish, but we still have to go to Nineveh and be among the people we think are bad, undeserving, outside of God. Justice finds us among people we don’t like, who make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, dirty, yet trying to love them in word and deed.

Yes, prayer matters. Yes, worship matters. Yes, doctrine matters. But if they do not overflow through direct justice to the least among us, they count for nothing. It’s not a works argument — do I love my neighbor? How? When, where? I need to be able to see my faith alive in another person’s liberation from fear, from loneliness, from poverty, from sickness, from despair, from ignorance, from alienation. Church can help me do this. It can also hinder me, or hide me from making a personal relationship. In the end, does my worship community encourage justice or get in the way?

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