Transforming Unjust Structures: The Fourth Mark of Mission
For the past several weeks we have been considering the Mission of God in the world by looking at the Anglican Communion’s “Five Marks of Mission.” We have been asking ourselves, “What is it that God is doing, in our lives and in the world? What is God’s mission and purpose? What does God care about most passionately?” This evening we examine the Fourth Mark of Mission, which is “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”
Transformation is at the heart of the Gospel message. God is transforming us individually, making each of us a “new creation” in Christ (II Cor. 5:17). But God is also transforming us collectively, along with the whole Creation: “Behold, I make all things new,” says the One seated upon the Throne in the book of Revelation (Rev. 21:5). God’s work of transformation, then,is personal and spiritual, and it is communal, social and political.[i] God cares about us as individuals, but God also cares about our life together.
The Bible has plenty to say about God’s passion for justice and about God’s vision for our life together:
It speaks of the goodness and order of God’s Creation (“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”-Gen. 1:31), and of the rebellion and disobedience that plunged us into the bondage of sin. It holds out to us God’s promise to restore the Creation and reconcile all things in Christ (Col. 1:20)
The pivotal story of the Exodus reveals God’s compassion for God’s people, and God’s desire to free them from oppression. We read that the Egyptians were exploiting the Israelites’ labor, restricting their freedoms, and rendering them powerless; this is what dominant political and social systems do. The liberation God wins for the people of ancient Israel is political and economic, as well as religious.
In the giving of the Law, God establishes communal norms that protect the poor from exploitation and limit the power of the rich. God’s laws are designed to create a common good, and to allow it to flourish.
When the people stray from these laws, God sends the prophets to challenge their unjust social-political structures and to re-focus the attention of the people on God’s vision for them. The prophets cry out against the human suffering created by unjust systems imposed by the wealthy and powerful.
Similarly, the Good News preached by Jesus is not only personal and spiritual, but also communal, social and political. Jesus comes announcing that “the kingdom of God has come near” and urging people to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The repentance he requires is not just a turning away from personal sin, but the transformation of social and political systems that elevate some at the expense of others. “Kingdom” is a political term, and although Jesus could have spoken of the “family of God” or the “community of God,” he chose to speak of the “kingdom of God,” a kingdom that stood in stark contrast to the kingdoms of Herod and of Caesar, with which his hearers were very familiar. He taught his followers to pray that God’s kingdom would come “on earth” as it already is in heaven – he meant right now, in this life, not just in the after-life.[ii]
In this kingdom, this transformed community, the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty (Luke 2:52,53). In this kingdom, the poor are blessed and those who weep learn to laugh (Luke 6:20,21). Jesus tells us that it is for this reason that he was sent into the world: “to bring good news to the poor,” “to proclaim release to the captives,” “to let the oppressed go free,” “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18,19).
Jesus not only teaches about this new kingdom, he embodies it by befriending “tax collectors and sinners;” by associating with the poor, the sick and the marginalized; by challenging the religious and political powers of his day. It is no wonder that his followers proclaimed Jesus as “Lord” – not Caesar or Herod or anyone else. God’s Son had come to establish a new kingdom on earth, a kingdom marked by justice, mercy and compassion rather than by violence, oppression and greed.
Why is that radical mission and message of Jesus so often overlooked, neglected or ignored by Christians? Theologian Marcus Borg suggests several reasons for this:
One reason, Borg says, is that, since the 4th century, Christianity has, in many places, been associated with the dominant culture. Beginning with Constantine, the “powers that be” – in the West, at least – were usually Christian. Politically oppressive and economically exploitative systems were legitimized by religion, which often affirmed that the social order reflected the will of God. Society’s elites saw their privileged status as sanctioned by God and as a sign of God’s blessing. “So long as the wedding of Christianity and dominant culture continued,” Borg writes, “Christians seldom engaged in radical criticism of the social order. Instead, personal salvation in the hereafter was the primary message, an emphasis that continues to this day in many parts of the church.”[iii]
Second, Borg maintains that there has been widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the term, “God’s justice.” Often,he says, the term “God’s justice” has been used to refer to deserved punishment for sin, the opposite being “God’s mercy” or the forgiveness of that sin. If this is what is meant, who wouldn’t prefer “God’s mercy” over “God’s justice”? But in the Bible, most often, the opposite of “God’s justice” is not “God’s mercy,” but rather “human injustice.” God’s justice stands opposed to human injustice. “The issue is the shape of our life together as societies,” writes Borg, “not whether the mercy of God will supersede the justice of God in the final judgment.”[iv]
A third reason Borg gives for why Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God and God’s justice is so often ignored has to do with individualism, which is a core cultural value in our country. Although there is much that is good about individualism – “the value it gives to individual lives, the importance of individual rights, individual choice and opportunity” and individual “freedom” – it also leads to “a way of seeing life that obscures the enormous effect of social systems on the lives of people.”[v]
“Individualism stresses that the primary factor responsible for our well-being is individual effort,” says Borg, a belief that minimizes the negative impact of political, economic and social systems on human lives. It has long been true, for example, that people of color and women do not have the same opportunities or advantages in our society that white men do. Political systems, economic systems, and cultural attitudes and values can be, and often are, oppressive. They favor some, while presenting obstacles for others. The Bible consistently challenges the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and empires that dominated the biblical world. It passionately advocates for an alternative social vision that does away with oppression, exploitation and exclusivity; values the dignity of every human being; and pursues the well-being of all.
Why does God care about politics and about systemic injustice? Because God cares about suffering, and the biggest cause of unnecessary human suffering has been and continues to be unjust social systems. The mission of God is a mission of transformation. It seeks to challenge these unjust systems, it stands in opposition to violence of every kind, and it strives to establish God’s reign of justice and peace on the earth.
How can we join God in this mission and help make it a reality? One thing we can do is to try to speak and live prophetically. We can draw attention to the injustices of the world’s systems and live according to a different standard. For example, one of the challenges that this country is facing is the widening gap between the rich and the poor. In his book¸ Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips reports that:
In the twenty-year period between the late 1970’s and the late 1990’s, the percentage of total wealth owned by the wealthiest 1 percent of our population nearly doubled, increasing from 21 percent to just over 40 percent.[vi]
During this same period, the economic situation of the majority of Americans worsened. In real dollars, both the annual income and the net wealth of the bottom 60 percent of our population actually declined.[vii]
The trend has continued, unfortunately, in the time that has elapsed since Phillips’ report. Are the gains experienced by the wealthy 1% the result of greater effort on their part? Not at all. The widening gap is the direct result of the way our economic system is structured. Obviously, the system has been heavily influenced by the wealthy and powerful to work to their advantage. What will we do to rectify this situation? Speaking to these injustices and choosing to live in ways that challenge these discrepancies is one way of joining God’s mission.
Participation in God’s Mission calls us to raise our awareness and the awareness of others about issues such as health care for the poor, care of the environment and the challenge of climate control, effective gun laws, issues related to economic justice, and the question of how our nation wields its power on the world’s stage. Borg writes, “A politically engaged spirituality affirms both spiritual transformation and political transformation. The message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is about both.”[viii]
God is passionate about justice. How will God’s passion become our passion, too?
[i]Borg, Marcus J.; The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2003), p.127.
[ii] For an excellent discussion of the Bible’s teaching on God’s justice and on mission as transformation, see Kenyan theologian Irene Ayallo’s article, “The Fourth Mark of Mission: To Seek to Transform Unjust Structures of Society” in Life-Widening Mission: Global Anglican Perspectives, Cathy Ross, ed.; (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2012), p.57-73.
[vi]Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich; (New York, Random House, 2002); p.123.
[vii]Ibid, pp. xviii, 111.
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