The Christian Practice of Justice – A Step towards the Table

As previously previewed, I presented a paper at the 2017 Vineyard Churches UK and Ireland Theology Symposium. You can read the whole thing over at my account – or the summary below. Do check out my brief report from the event, which I blogged earlier this week. This year we distributed the papers ahead of the event, and presenters read a short summary of the paper before discussion. This worked well – and so do feel free to read the paper in full, or just the summary below. I’d love any comments!

In my paper this year I’ve ended up offering a slightly sideways account of how justice contributes to and embodies the Mission of God. My hope is that I’ve recaptured a distinctly unique understanding of Justice done in the tension of the kingdom of God, deliberately partnering with God in the Missio Dei, echoing the sacramental nature of historic Christian faith, and blended with an evangelical urgency regarding this activity today.

This paper came out of some reading I was doing on what justice is – distributive and corrective justice were the two ‘kinds’ that were identified in Nicholas Sagovsky’s very helpful book. I noted that justice will involve both corrective and distributive elements – but the act of achieving fairness by distribution ended up taking me down some ecclesiological and eschatological word-play that I found quite intriguing.

I argue that the Church’s commitment to justice at micro and macro levels – more properly seen as works of mercy and works of justice, is an outflow of its engagement in the Mission of God, particularly as we attempt to partner with God in the extension and advance of the Kingdom of God. I found Andy Crouch’s short article No Jesus, no Justice helpful here. This kind of Jesus-focused faith, including the pursuit of justice, is what I and others would call ‘beautiful orthodoxy;

The mission of God as particularly expressed through the beautiful orthodoxy of justice, is the efforts that we make as humans to restore fairness in this world, often by the giving, in some way, of things, time and skills that cost us. In this, we echo the gift of God in Christ, taking into account the framing of the Incarnation and the Easter events as well as the messiness of Jesus being fully human, learning skills, teaching, healing, gathering, weeping, and generally pointing us in himself towards the table at the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is a costly event that we echo, rightly so. And in the midst of this activity, this mysterious and beautiful and difficult liminal space, we recognise something that we would call the mission of God happening as we partner with the Holy Spirit, attempting to do what the Father is doing, in order to see God’s Kingdom come as we encounter King Jesus, and ultimately share something of that encounter with the world

Because I think theology gives us the tools and permission to engage with the most controversial questions of our time, I pondered whether the practice of Justice in a sacramental, worship-infused way, might well help us thing usefully about unity, presence, kingdom and faith in public. I found the language of food related to the kingdom of God to be a helpful lens for viewing justice – not for nothing did someone once say that Christianity is just one beggar telling another where to find bread. I think we can go further than that – the church, I believe, is called to innovate faithfully, as we participate with God in bringing glimpses of the future into the darkness and brokenness of the present. I think there are four things that our theological distinctive of the kingdom of God can offer in the pursuit of and work of Justice:

Firstly, it gives shape to what we are doing in relation to the wider mission of our church, both local and global. Second, it gives us eyes to see what is really going on – why some secular government services are so dehumanising, why our culture creates so much waste (Both human and material, not that people are ever rubbish, but that they may feel like it). Third, to give shape and heart to our frustration with the situations or individuals that aren’t saved and redeemed in the way we might have planned. Fourthly, and finally, the theology of the Kingdom of God demands that we both wholeheartedly pursue justice and also recognise the reality that, alone, even with our local church branding or inter-church partnership, we cannot truly achieve justice.
And yet that even in that impossibility, justice is starting to come, crackling like the first fall of snow on a desert.

I believe that part of our contribution to unity is to do justice with other churches, to walk humbly with other churches, and to live out the way the table is being set, eschatologically speaking, in spite of our attempts now to block or deflect or, more likely in our own tradition, ignore it.
If we have understood the Kingdom of God even remotely accurately, then we are in the process of being transformed. And if we are being transformed, then we are unwittingly but importantly setting the table for the wedding supper of the lamb. Andy Crouch, whose paper I noted earlier, writes that “you will not get justice [without Jesus] as the Bible understands it – the restoration of all things to their created fruitfulness in relationships with the one who made them”. And so, perhaps echoing some of what Krish was talking about in his opening keynote in terms of contemporary evangelistic methods, I was reminded of U2’s sublime Crumbs from your Table:

You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
I would believe if I was able
But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table

I wonder if this is a challenge for us to understand Justice more eschatologically, and yet maintain our urgency.

I’ll close my summary with my actual conclusion:

There is something inherently depressing and despondent about the practice of justice divorced from the sacramental life of the people of the Kingdom of God, often called the Church. It is only bearable, in the pain, if we are plugged into the wider celebration of the coming Kingdom of God into the real world that we inhabit.

This, then, is the task of the church. Michael Jinkins writes of the ‘gift’ of the Church in a brilliant collection of essays about ‘evangelical ecclesiology’: “the church is called to a life of communion in the very likeness of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to the mission of God in the world, a mission inseparable from the way of the cross”. This ‘gift’ is meant to be continually given, in a costly way that echoes the costly road to calvary that Jesus took. And as we receive the gift, so too are we emptied as individuals and must come back together at the table of the King, remembering the Cross, looking back/forward/around, as we continue to tell the story in word and deed, as we attempt to play our faltering part in the chorus line of worship, extending God’s Kingdom together, everywhere, in every way

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