A Threefold Reality

by Ken Abell 

My brother could use a little mercy now He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now . . .”(Mary Gauthier)

As someone who went through long cycles of unemployment in the early to mid-80s, I have firsthand experience standing on the outside looking in, which is as good a way as any to define being marginalized. It was in no way enjoyable—I felt useless and frustrated, and had more than one knock-down drag-out with God. 

However, 30-some years removed from that difficult season, I understand that everything truly happens for a reason; with 20-20 hindsight I often marvel at the changes in perspective God wrought in me while I was immersed in economic woes. It heightened a desire and ability to make connections with those on the fringes. 

Have you ever stood in a grocery store beside a friend who happened to have different skin color or came from a distinctive ethnic group? Have you seen the sideways or down- the-nose glances of barely concealed prejudice from clerks or other customers? Have you taken note of the resigned acceptance of it by your friend?

We live on the edge of Navajo Nation, and work with men who experience being marginalized on a regular basis because of a threefold reality: 1) their identity as Native Americans; 2) a past that includes jail and/or prison time; 3) lack of education.    

What follows are eyewitness vignettes illustrating these truths. 

Allen, a natural born storyteller and a lover of fun, was Pawnee and Navajo. He had a hole in his pocket, which meant that if there were a few dollars in it, he wanted to go to town. He graduated from the BIC Overcomers in November 2012. Then later, true to the charitable and gregarious nature of his character, he came to serve as an assistant to my wife Anita, the kitchen manager.  

In that capacity, he helped make shopping lists and go along for the excursion to stock up on groceries. As they made their rounds each week, Anita became increasingly aware of the sideward looks or outright gawks received from white folks. He routinely ignored it, but once reacted to a clerk at the cash register who kept eyeballing them.

“What?” Allen quipped, grinning. “She’s my mother.”

“Allen, I’m not old enough to be your mother.”

He smiled at the cashier. “She’s my sister.”

On the ride home Anita and Allen had a laugh about it, but afterwards, she told me that the clerk’s staring made her uncomfortable and indeed, disgusted her. In a private moment, I engaged Allen in a conversation about bigotry and such. It was his turn to gawk—he ogled me as though I had a green complexion and pointy ears.     

“It’s just the way it is,” he said, shrugging dismissively. It’s just the way it is. That stoic acknowledgment is how the majority of Native American men I have walked alongside deal with inherent racism. Our friend Allen developed pneumonia, was hospitalized, and entered eternity in October 2014.

Before addiction sank its hooks into him, a Navajo man named Russell graduated from college and had a job in the accounting department of a large company. Casual drinking in his teen years eventually became weekend benders, which in due course led to nightly binges. A DWI here, a drunken disorderly there, and soon the jail had a revolving door for Russell. 

He attended the same program as Allen, and on the surface did well. However, in one-on-one chats, it became clear that he could not or would not peel back the layers to get to the root causes of his abuse of alcohol. After graduation he stayed connected to us and remained sober for eight months or so. During this period, he faithfully submitted his resume and applied for jobs; he was desperate and willing to do anything.  

With a felony on his record, no prospective employer would even talk to him. He disengaged from our network of accountability and returned to his old ways. The last time I saw him was August 2018. He was in a drunken stupor staggering past the post office. I picked him up. His shame and self-loathing were palpable. 

I don’t know if there are local or national statistics, but among the felons I know, the unemployment rate is in the 70 to 80 percent range. I’ve seen more than one man jump through hoops to get the most menial of jobs only to be denied. The accumulation of rejection can frequently be the trigger that puts a bottle in an alcoholic’s hand.

Anthony, a Zuni and proud of it, was introduced to marijuana when he was eight years old by a 12-year-old cousin-brother. That initiation established a pattern that became entirely normal to him. He floated through his grammar school years with little to no adult supervision, dropping out before high school. Recruited into crime by relatives, he got sentenced to prison because he followed orders given by an uncle. 

He was paroled to the program in August 2011. In his mid-20s, we made an immediate connection on the common ground of humor and laughter. We have journeyed together since then. His emotional makeup is stunted at a pre-teen level, so it’s often a challenge for him to comprehend the whys and wherefores of his circumstances.

Anthony wants a steady job, and definitely has a work ethic, but his lack of education is a barrier that keeps him on the outside looking in. He is not alone in that arena; there are plenty other graduates who bounce from one pickup job to another with long lapses between viable employment.

How does BIC Overcomers tackle these realities? The men arrive as strangers, become friends, and depart as family. We begin by extending unconditional love and grace while affirming each client’s identity and heritage. The truths of Scripture—Psalm 139 for example—are frequently expounded in various courses of the curriculum.  

As for the challenge of education: We partner with Denise Conway, who shepherds willing men through the process of attaining a GED certificate, which for some, has been a stepping stone leading to community college.

One more point to take into consideration as we reflect on the marginalization of Native Americans: Flicking a switch for lights or turning a faucet to get water is taken for granted by those reading this, but large pockets of Navajo Nation, a.k.a the rez, has no electricity and no water—a fact that ought to cause us to appreciate the conveniences we have while reevaluating any and all reasons for grumbling and complaints. 

Ken R. Abell is a counselor and home living coordinator with BIC Overcomers, Bloomfield, NM. This article is reprinted from the Winter 2019 edition of Shalom!

When Hope Fades

by Bonner Davis

The email was an unusual prayer request from the beginning, lacking the typical details seen on the prayer chain; not unlike those vague posts one sees on Facebook from friends, #prayforme. This one was different though. It had enough info to raise questions. 

The email read, “Pray for the Burnham’s[1]who just lost their son, Josh.” We all knew Josh, a 50-something electrician who liked to restore antique lamps. His house was full of them and he spent countless weekends perusing garage sales and flea markets looking for buried treasures. He was a typical white, middle-aged American male. After a few days of mystery surrounding the incident someone finally whispered it, “Drug overdose.”

A study posted this past summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that suicide rates in the United State are increasing across geographic areas and with both genders. However,within those numbers, a startling 83.6 percentare white and 76.8 percentare male.[2]The data was brought to light in a series of three papers authored by economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton (two in 2015 and a third in 2017).[3]The cumulative numbers that have crept up over the decades are grim (500,000 by some estimates[4]), showing a steep increase recently in deaths for white males, ages 45-64. 

You may ask, “How did we miss this epidemic?” In short, the problem had to do with how the government labeled the causes of death. For example, a drug overdose may not be categorized as a suicide by the CDC, but as a “poisoning.” Just as someone who drinks themselves to death may have “liver disease” as a final category. Once researchers understood what was happening with the labeling, the overarching cause came into sharp focus: suicide. 

The data from the CDC have led many to ask the obvious question, “Why are middle-aged, white males killing themselves in such large numbers?” For answers, researchers have turned to a variety of theories. Some blame the economy, the lack of wage growth or under-employment. Others point to drugs, alcohol or the opioid crisis. Still others blame the access to guns due to the high percentage (51 percent) who take their life with a weapon. Yet, when these theories are tested the findings are inconclusive and show a weak connection at best. 

Nevertheless, Anne Case herself has put forward a theory called, “cumulative disadvantage,” and could be the most credible of any. Cumulative disadvantage is not a single event or condition in one’s life. Rather, it’s the aggregate of a lifetime of small slights and failures. It’s the snowball effect of disappointments and disqualifications. 

For Josh, his suicide was a death by 1,000 cuts. After high school, he went on to college because that was the ticket to the middle-class life, or so he was told. However, he found after he graduated that the degree in human services got him nowhere but in debt without any job prospects. He fell in love, got married, and struggled to eke out a living working low-pay handyman jobs and apprenticing under a master electrician. He took a big risk going back to trade school for training and getting his journeyman’s license to open his own business. Things seemed to go well for a time, but his wife miscarried their first child and the marriage soon ended with a custody battle over their second born. The economy tanked and Josh lost his business, his home and most importantly his faith in God. Josh was bitter and angry; indifferent to the God of his childhood. Sunday school stories seemed like a faded memory now, and his hope for this life seemed to fade with them.

Hiding in Plain Sight

What’s extraordinary about Josh is how ordinary he was. He checked no special boxes on a job application. He didn’t qualify for preference points on government forms. He was simply plain- ‘o-Josh with no distinguishing attributes. In a world of identity politics, he had no banner or flag to wave, no distinctive ancestry to explore. He was but one common data point, which made him easy to overlook. Like Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19), Josh had been sitting in plain sight. However, just as Jesus did, we need to minister to those who are simple and ordinary. 

Think about the encounter Christ has with Zacchaeus and how he responded. First, Jesus notices him. By all accounts, there weren’t any distinguishing features about Zacchaeus. The only exception was his short height and the ease with which others overlooked him. Zacchaeus tried to stand out by climbing a tree, but even that didn’t help. It wasn’t until he was noticed by the Master that suddenly he took on significance.  The Apostle Luke records,“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5).

So, the second extraordinary step for an ordinary Zacchaeus was a personal, one-on-one, invitation. Jesus didn’t just notice him, but wanted to go beyond the superficial pleasantries of daily living. He wanted to “show up” in Zacchaeus’ life and be in true fellowship with him. He went so far as to say, I want to stay with you. 

Deaths of Despair

This epidemic that’s sweeping the country has been appropriately labeled “deaths of despair,” which include suicide, alcohol and drug abuse. They are happening in plain sight, with ordinary white, middle-aged, males. These men have lost hope, from a life that has snowballed into a crisis. 

We need to take notice, to move beyond the assumptions that all-is-well with our brothers. As a church, we can share the Hope that we have within. Just as Jesus did, we need to reach out to those who are overlooked and invite them into our lives.  

Bonner is community impact pastor at Speedwell Heights Brethren in Christ Church.


[1]Names, details and any specifics have been changed to protect confidentiality. 

[2]“Vital Signs: Trends in State Suicide Rates — United States, 1999–2016 and Circumstances Contributing to Suicide — 27 States, 2015.” Weekly / June 8, 2018 / 67(22);617–624

[3]For all three studies, see: https://www.nber.org/papers/w21279,https://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15078.full,https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/

[4]Anne Case on mortality and morbidity in the 21st Century, https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2017/04/21/2187739/podcast-anne-case-on-mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/

The Church, Race, and Reconciliation

by Julie Weatherford

In January 2019, a dozen or so of us from two Brethren in Christ churches (Crest Community and Madison Street Church, both of Riverside, California) participated in a gathering of about 150 people of a beautiful variety of races and ethnicities, called “Workshop 1.0: Church, Race and Reconciliation.” The workshop is offered quarterly by a Southern California church, Fellowship Monrovia, via their Center for Racial Reconciliation.* Below are excerpts from the speakers, the group sharing, and the materials for that day.

The focus of the workshop was to help to form Jesus-followers for life in heaven where there will gather “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9), joined in exuberant worship of God. I love that, in the workshop, racial reconciliation was presented in a way consistent with scripture—as a necessary component of Christian discipleship, and not some fringe ministry for people in the church who are bleeding hearts or politically liberal. The workshop’s purpose was “to provide an opportunity for participants to explore an analysis of systemic racism from a biblical perspective and to begin to discern strategies for dismantling racism within our institutions and churches and a strategy for creating and experiencing reconciliation.”

By way of gracious, knowledgeable, experienced upfront leadership along with voiced commitments to grace, mutual respect, caring and trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the time, the workshop provided a safe space to explore issues related to racism. Encouraged that “the only way out is to go back through,” we began with a brief look at history:

1492-1790: European colonization, genocide of Indigenous peoples, enslavement of Africans and establishment of the U.S. as a white Protestant nation

1790-1954: The building of the U.S. as an apartheid country: colonialism and neocolonialism, enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow segregation, de facto enslavement of African Americans, ongoing genocide of Native Americans, colonialism and neo-colonialism of Latinos, exclusion of Asians and Arabs.

1954-1973: Civil Rights Movement, many other Peoples’ Movements

1973-present: Post-Movement time

In this historical review, it became clear that, throughout U.S. history, the Church has stood both shamelesslyforracism and courageously againstit. While scripture has been misused to oppress and/or to keep others in place, God has encouraged resistance via Old and New Testament passages and stories that clearly show God’s special concern and actions on behalf of the oppressed, via the example and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and via the teachings of the early church as we read in New Testament letters. 

In relation to the issue of race, we considered why people are poor. We have all internalized “flawed person” explanations (s/he’s lazy, dependent, using the system, or ghetto). But there are millions of hard-working poor people who labor in two and more jobs that fail to provide a livable wage. We need to consider “flawed system” reasons for poverty, such as: capitalism, unlivable wages, unfair conditions, unemployment, redlining, and lack of resource, opportunities, education, citizenship or role models.

All people are racially prejudiced (regardless of racial/ethnic identity), but not everyone is racist. Racism is more than individual attitudes and actions. Even so, white Christians tend to look at racism as individualized. They think that the way to overcome it is to change individually. But if we don’t address systemic racism, not much will change. As we learned in the workshop, “racial prejudice becomes racism when one group’s racial prejudices are enforced by the systems and institutions of society, giving power and privilege based on skin color to the group in power, and limiting the power and privilege of the racial groups that are not in power.” It’s true that we have all experienced racial prejudice to lesser or greater degrees. The difference is, and the real damage occurs, when racial prejudice is combined with power. It’s this combination that, applied systemically, limits freedom, access, and resources, hindering capacity and advantaging one group of people over another.

We considered the issue of white privilege and how white people routinely experience power and privilege without even being aware of it. For example, whites can easily find positive role models depicted in the media and celebrated as heroes in most of our national holidays. Whites can attend college and find that most professors look and talk like us, and most curricula reflect our culture, history and background. Whites can shop in stores without being followed by a security guard or suspected of shoplifting. Whites can easily find artists’ depictions of God, Jesus and other biblical figures that match our skin color and facial characteristics.

We learned a couple terms that were new to many of us: “Internalized Racist Oppression” (IRO) and “Internalized Racist Superiority” (IRS), and their definitions (from the “The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond”):

IRO: “A complex multi-generational socialization process that teaches people of color to believe, accept, and live out negative, societal definitions of self and fit into and live out inferior societal roles. These behaviors [for example, self-doubt, distancing, self-hate, anger, rage, assimilation, and victimhood) support and help maintain the race construct.”  

IRS: “A complex multi-generational socialization process that teaches white people to believe, accept and live out superior societal definitions of self and to fit into and live out superior societal roles. These behaviors define and normalize the race construct and its outcome – white privilege.” Examples of IRS include white silence (about difficult topics like racism), white denial (colorblindness), identity threat (“I’m a good person”), white fragility (seeking absolution, avoiding, rationalizing, blaming the victim), self-proclaimed ally, and “white savior” complex.

Being white myself, I particularly took in the call to lament (the twin sister of praise, both being necessary for healthy spirituality) and to un-learnthree things: 

1) Desire for speed – Lament views speed with pessimism, as reconciliation is not speedy.

2) Desire for distance – Lament forces us to see and to be disturbed. We have to be near those suffering from racism; we have to sit, mourn and cry with them.

3) Desire to be innocent – All whites have benefited from racism, and the church has often joined in the oppression. The question for our churches must be: “How do we create a reconciled body?”

Finally, suggestions were given for next steps.  

Next steps for whites included:

  • Begin to understand the realities of people of color through authentic relationships.
  • Get educated and act.
  • Tolerate discomfort.
  • Challenge your own racial reality; acknowledge your self as racially identified.

Next steps for people of color included:

  • Be willing to walk alongside white brothers and sisters.
  • Challenge your belief that whites should know more about white superiority and privilege.
  • Challenge your own racial oppression against other ethnic groups.
  • Educate yourself about the history and story of other people of color and whites.

The dozen of us from Madison Street and Crest Community who attended the workshop have since met to talk about our experiences of the workshop and to begin to discern and plan for ways to encourage racial reconciliation in our churches and beyond. We have plans to encourage folks from our churches and from other Brethren in Christ churches to attend Fellowship Monrovia workshops. And, working together, starting in February, we plan to host some “documentary dinners” and “race conversations” for folks in our churches, hoping to learn more ourselves about race and racial reconciliation and to encourage others to as well. We know we have much to learn, we know that there are no “quick fixes” to this problem, we want to be guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we desire to follow in the loving and boundary-crossing ways of Jesus, and we are glad to be working together as His followers.

* For more information, see https://madeforfellowship.com/centerforracialreconciliation/

** For just a few of the many scriptural evidences of God’s love for all peoples and God’s desire for reconciliation between peoples, see Ps 133, Lk 2:10, Jn 17:20-23, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 15:1-21, Acts 16:1-5, Acts 17:24-28, Rom 2:17-29, 1 Cor 12:12-27, 2 Cor 5:16-20, Gal 2:11-4:6, Gal 3:26-29, Eph 2:13-22, Phil 2:1-5, Rev 5:9-11, Rev 7:9.

Just Jesus

by Joshua Nolt

I think the best way for me to describe my understanding of a third way church is through a story.

I had been preaching on two-kingdom theology throughout the 2016 election season, trying to help our congregation understand what it means to follow Jesus and live in and for his kingdom in the midst of the present kingdom of this world. The day after the election. I began thinking about how to shepherd our congregation that Sunday, as the results of the election caused people to feel a variety of emotions.

How could I help us to focus on Jesus? Perhaps this question is a cornerstone of a third way church.

Throughout the week, I talked with other pastors, prayed, and jotted down various ideas. In the end I decided that preaching a typical sermon wasn’t the best option. More words in the midst of the war of words flying around in every venue containing words would only add more noise. We needed to experience the reality of Christ with us, and we needed to experience one another.

I began that Sunday morning by describing a small wooden box sitting on top of the pulpit. Figuratively speaking, inside the box were the results of the election. It was not descriptive of the winner; rather within the box was a compilation of the reactions and responses of different people groups. It represented the breadth of the political, cultural, and economic spectrum. The purpose of reading this aloud was to help us acknowledge the feelings of those who might be different from us (and by us I don’t mean our particular church, but an individual’s particular perspective).

After reading this aloud, I passed out small pieces of paper with two words on them: “I feel.” For the next several minutes, I gave the congregation time to write down their feelings with regard to the election. I told them up front that I was going to read each one of them aloud. The only reason I would not read them is if they were disparaging or if I simply couldn’t read the handwriting. I also continued my practice of never mentioning a candidate by name from the pulpit. After giving them a few minutes to write down their feelings, the papers were collected and brought back up front.

I began to read. For the next ten minutes we heard one another’s feelings. “I’m hopeful, because my trust is in Jesus.” “I came here to be encouraged. We shouldn’t talk about this in church.” “I believe God chose the ‘candidate’.” “I am afraid for my bi-racial grandchildren.” “I have hope that the candidate will move the country in the right direction.” One person walked out.

Judging from the comments, we weren’t quite 50-50 in terms of political affiliation, but we were close.

After I read the feelings of the congregation aloud I had our ushers redistribute the papers. I wanted them to hold someone else’s feeling that was sitting in the room. I remember saying something to the effect, “I pray you get someone’s feelings that you vehemently disagree with.” As they held the papers, I began to read from Philippians 2—words about considering others better than yourselves and having the same attitude of Christ Jesus. This was in preparation for communion.

Our church receives communion each week, and this was the focal point of the morning. Everything we had done in the service, from hearing the general feelings of different groups in the nation, to writing and reading our feelings aloud culminated in this act of receiving the body and blood of Christ. But before we received what Jesus offered us in the elements, I encouraged the congregation to think about their processional to the table.

The paper in their hands, not their own, represented their brother or sister in Christ—a brother or sister who was present in the room at that moment. As they came forward, carrying the small sheet of paper, they were symbolically carrying their brother or sister to Jesus. On the communion table were two wooden plates where I asked them to “place” their brother or sister and pause to pray that God would bless them. After doing this, then they could go and receive communion.

People wept. People came to the front holding hands. I believe that morning we tasted the Kingdom of God.

So what is a third way church? I’m not sure I know. What I do know is that I believe the church is all about Jesus. It’s about the revelation of the love and nature of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and it’s about sharing that love with others who agree that there is no higher calling then to follow Jesus.

Not our agendas. Not politics. Not even theology.

Just Jesus.

Joshua Nolt is senior pastor of the Lancaster (PA) Brethren in Christ Church. This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Shalom!

Crying Into the Darkness

by Dee Martin
“I know exactly where you are from! I used to travel down there all the time to pick up business,” exclaimed Karen (not her real name). “It’s a real hub for prostitution.” A church board member and I had met Karen while on break during an all-day seminar focused on domestic sex trafficking. Karen had just recently exited the sex industry.  The keynote speaker that day, Mary Frances Bowly, stated, “Where there is a strip joint, within a 2-3-mile radius you will find children being trafficked. They are close to these locations because demand is present.” This seminar was three hours away from our home, and God had pointed us to our own back yard.
Six months earlier, Hollowell’s pastoral team leader, Blaine Lougheed, challenged the staff where I was serving to ask the Lord to reveal areas where our church should engage. A week later, two out of three staff members shared that the Holy Spirit had been pressing human trafficking on our hearts.
With the prompting of the Holy Spirit and clear confirmation at the conference, we took steps towards engagement. As we learned about human trafficking and sought practical ways to engage, repeated themes came to the surface to direct our steps, with the first step being education. The second step was to join forces with those already at work, and then lastly find the gaps and fill them.
We began educating our congregation. Kim Checkeye, the director of Truth for Women, spoke about human trafficking during a Sunday morning service. A fellowship meal and an informal Q & A with Kim gave those interested an opportunity to dig a little deeper. The congregation was also given The White Umbrella by Mary Frances Bowley, to increase their awareness of the issue. We also offered a Sunday school elective that used the book Undaunted by Christine Caine and a video series called Trauma and Trafficking: A Christian Response.
While the congregation was learning, we also canvassed the area to find other churches, nonprofits, and government agencies that were involved in the fight against human trafficking who we could join. We collaborated with another church to host a screening of the documentary Nefarious, produced by Exodus Cry. The Lord also called us to prayer, and we started a nondenominational prayer meeting every first Friday that continues to meet at our local truck stop. We discovered small organizations— like Compassionate Humans Against Trafficking (CHAT), She’s Somebody’s Daughter, Truth for Women, Stop Trafficking Our People (STOP), and Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST)—that were already making inroads into the issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We became their financial supporters, prayer warriors and volunteers. The Lord also opened the door for us to engage with government agencies like Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans (PAATH) and the South Central Human Trafficking Response Team.
As we learned and engaged, we began to see a gap. We realized our small rural community believed this issue was more of an international issue, or at worst a big city problem and not a rural one. As our Sunday school elective ended, the burden to fill this gap compelled us into action. We wanted to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children, so we targeted educators and those who worked with youth and children. We created Hollowell Forums, and within eight weeks pulled together our first forum, “Targeted for Profit: An Educators’ Forum on Human Trafficking.”
A few months later came “Tricked: An Educators’ Forum on Human Trafficking.” We then decided to broaden the scope. A Nazarene church in Lima, Ohio had developed conferences for women called “Break Every Chain,“ which focused on equipping women with knowledge and resources to engage in the fight against human trafficking. The church gave us their materials and we started planning. Hollowell provided the initial launch point, but it went far beyond our walls. The core planning team represented 10 different congregations. The business community and other community members rallied with donations. The local high school allowed us to use their facility, and volunteers came out of the woodwork to help organize three events to help educate our community about the growing epidemic of human trafficking.
Over the last five years, we have seen a shift in our community. In 2014, the first comprehensive human trafficking law went into place and equipped Pennsylvania law enforcement with the tools to pursue and prosecute traffickers. Our district attorney hired a detective focused on the issue of human trafficking. A local human trafficking ring was shut down and prosecuted. Local reporting agencies have learned about human trafficking and opened the eyes of the community to this hometown reality.  Local nonprofit organizations have thrived and helped to provide consistent awareness and educational opportunities to the community. A hotel minutes from our church known for being a hotbed for this activity changed hands with the new owner intent on changing its reputation. As community members have been informed, they have started to call in suspicions to the human trafficking hotline. Many churches have started to engage through prayer, financial support, and encouraging members to volunteer.
Wonderful things have been happening and God is at work, but the darkness persists. The call to engage is still strong.  Engaging in this fight takes tenacity, flexibility, and a willingness to lay down what has worked in the past to meet the ever-changing needs of the moment. We don’t have a clear-cut plan for the future; however, we are willing to answer the call and follow wherever the Lord leads. We trust that is enough.
The following passage of scripture was read right before a day-long human trafficking training and has rung in our ears ever since: “But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made booty with no one to say, send them back. Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come?” (Isaiah 42:22-23). Father, please give us ears to hear the cries of the oppressed, eyes to see those who are hidden and hurting, the ability to pay close attention, and a voice to cry into the darkness.
Dee Martin attends the Hollowell Brethren in Christ Church, Waynesboro, PA. where she served on staff for 15 years. She is currently a stay-at-home mom.

From Anger to Hope

by Tim Diehl
I woke up one morning not long ago to a Washington Post article about sexual abuse and misuse of power in a large Christian denomination (the denomination I grew up in). According to the article, a woman reported that while pursuing a degree at one of the denominational seminaries, she was raped by a fellow student. When she reported the alleged rape, she was told by the head of the seminary to simply forgive the assailant and keep quiet about it all. Then she was disciplined and placed on academic probation for two years.
Sadly, news like this isn’t rare. A church leader using his power and position for self-protection and maintenance of the status quo rather than caring for the most vulnerable is not exactly novel. In fact, it’s practically cliche.
I got angry just writing that last paragraph. And, while anger might be an appropriate response, we need more than anger in the face of evil. We need something that moves us forward in hope.
I’m moved by the power of Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good” (12:21).
The brilliance in this statement is its simplicity and movement. Paul points us to the key in defeating evil: doing good. It’s not some grandiose vision that feels unattainable, but it also doesn’t allow shoulder shrugging and ambivalence. When you are faced by evil, do good.
One of the ways our church is trying to do good is by partnering with Safe Berks, an organization that provides housing, counseling, training, food, and even legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In the face of rampant abuse of power, serving with an organization that empowers the most vulnerable seems like a profound act of aligning ourselves with the Spirit of Jesus.
Over the past 13 years, we’ve developed a simple, yet effective way to involve a significant number of our congregation in practical service with Safe Berks, all the while raising awareness among our neighbors about an organization that is doing a good work in our community. We call it our “Campaign for Safe Berks” and it takes place over the course of a week in June.
Throughout the week, people sign up for shifts during which they canvass neighborhoods and pass out flyers listing items Safe Berks needs (shampoo, deodorant, suitcases, toilet paper, etc.). We regularly pass out over 8,000 flyers and, in return, receive thousands of donations from hundreds of homes. We also involve over 100 people from our congregation, enabling all of them to do something significant and, while they’re at it, build relationships with those they serve alongside.
But it’s not just the value of the donations, it also gets the word out to over 8,000 homes (an estimated 20,000 people) that if you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, there is help. There’s a place to go, people who care, hope. . . and hope is a big deal. In fact, it’s the thing that doesn’t disappoint us (which is another thing Paul tells us in Rom. 5:5). So offering hope is a powerful good.
Of course, hope alone isn’t enough. There is more to do than simply offer hope, and we can’t become complacent, imagining that we’ve “done our part.” But at the same time, we need to be careful. In the end, the work of saving the world is what Jesus does, not what we do. And our small acts of good are in reality acts of hope on our part as well;  just as Jesus turned water to wine and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for thousands, he can take our small acts of love and turn them into something significant.
I think of this when I hear what Mary Kay Bermondsey, CEO of Safe Berks, says about our annual campaign:
“The Koinos community . . . has been a true friend to us for many years. The items they collect each year are those most needed by those who come to us to forge a new life, free from violence. The time, effort and love that goes into this drive fulfills both the material needs of our clients but also the emotional and spiritual connection they need. We could not do the work we do without the Koinos community and all those that support us.”
What we do is significant, but particularly in concert with the good done by others (note the “and all those that support us” part). It’s not about any one person, or church, but all of us, together, learning to
love our neighbors.
That is where the magic really happens. Small acts of good done on our own can feel futile—like using a water dropper to combat a forest fire. But when we come together to follow Jesus’ call to love our neighbors in whatever way we can, we find that each of our little acts of love is actually joining into the larger, restorative work Jesus is doing in the world. This is what God’s Kingdom looks like: our little drops of water caught up in the work of the Living Water.
As a good friend recently reminded me, this is why we do these good work: not in the hope that others will join us, not even because we believe we can change the world, but because we believe that Jesus is changing the world and we want to be with him where he is.
Tim Diehl is pastor of Koinos Community Church, Reading, PA. Contact Tim at tim@koinoschurch.org if you’d like to know more about this project.

Tug of War

by Ryan Skove

What does it look when churches in a city that are all at different points on the theological, social, and political spectrums come together at city hall in support of affordable housing for our homeless neighbors? It can be described by one word: powerful. This is what occurred on March 13, 2018 in Riverside, California. It was an honor to be a small voice in this critical mass of Jesus followers.

Here’s what led to this moment: city leaders in Riverside, including Mayor Rusty Bailey (who attends Madison Street Church, a BiC church in Riverside), began calling on churches to contribute to the homeless crisis in 2014. This eventually led to interest in a housing first model.[1]The city proposed a plan and began to hold neighborhood workshops to communicate the plan to the public. Having attended multiple workshops, I can attest that there seemed to be much skepticism and opposition. The understanding of reality for most of us Americans is that homeless people deserve their lot. Or there is fear that our community’s will be damaged by an influx of vagrants. This opposition is built from an understanding that homelessness is an urban problem, not something a middle class, mostly suburban city like Riverside must deal with. But the truth is that homelessness is increasing everywhere. Homelessness in Riverside has increased fifty percent since 2016.[2]In fact, women aged 40-61 are the fastest growing homeless population in Riverside.[3]This perspective unequips cities that are primarily suburban to deal with homelessness. That’s what made this night so interesting. Churches, like Madison Street Church along with another BiC church, Crest Community, were encouraged to attend because there was a ton of expected opposition. Turns out there wasn’t any. Twenty-five individuals spoke during public comment, all in support of the housing first plan and this influenced the city council’s decision. Housing first passed unanimously. It truly felt like God was on our side. We had scored a victory. The community of Riverside had said yes to making a change for the better in helping our neighbors without homes.

But this experience caused a small crisis in me. I was taught implicitly that politics and religion don’t mix at the dinner table or if they do, Jesus was clearly partisan. This mindset would have caused the past me to recoil at this story of government and religion intersecting. I think this is primarily because we in the church don’t know how to deal with power. Most of the Christians I know are uncomfortable with power. Perhaps when we speak of power, especially political power, our minds go to our collective religious history, like the Inquisition or the Crusades, or maybe even more recent displays of Christians using their power to influence public policy. I absolutely agree and find myself pushing back vomit when I think of these atrocities done by, and others that are still being done by, the church. This viewpoint of steering clear from power can be seen when we look at Scripture. When we look at the death of Jesus, we see a forsaking of power. Jesus willingly dies at the hands of his enemies. Jesus is shown as choosing powerlessness. One thinks of John the Baptist in John 3:30: “He must become greater; I must become less.” But does Jesus advocate for forsaking all power? Is submission to God an embrace of complete powerlessness? I do not think so. Because power is a constant reality.

There’s a great TED-Ed lesson about being a good civilian and using civic power.[4]This lesson teaches us that power doesn’t have a moral value attached to it. It’s not inherently bad or good, it simply is. Power is also constantly at war. We are always being overpowered or are overpowering. I truly doubt one can forsake power. One can only choose a different route to power. When Jesus dies on the cross he doesn’t forsake power totally. He refuses to accept that the route to power is through violence and coercion, but that God gives power to overcome death through sacrificial love.

In Jesus’ ministry, he functioned in other realms of power involving ideas and numbers. Ideas have the power to change people’s understandings of reality. Numbers have the power to gather likeminded people to legitimize power and are often used when the other forms of power, like violence or wealth, are overpowered. Jesus also empowered. He walked with the power of God at his fingertips but didn’t horde it for himself. He gave the authority to heal the sick and cast out demons to his disciples. The Holy Spirit was poured out onto the church in Acts 2 and empowers every believer to this day. Why would God empower us with His Spirit? Because we are called to conflict with the way the world is today. The conflict is not with power in and of itself. The conflict is how we use the power we are given, and which forms of power Jesus calls us to. We might run for the hills at this understanding of power; I understand that impulse. We need to have deep reflections about the Church’s misuse of power. But power will not go away. It remains the same.

I hope I am not being misinterpreted. I am not advocating a theocracy or that the church’s calling is to amass more political power. What I mean to propose is that the church needs to pick up its lost vocation of being a prophetic voice to the powers that be. We are meant to participate in the realm of ideas and numbers; we are to showcase a new kingdom reality and we are to invite as many people in as possible. Sometimes this means influencing public policy. We are to argue for the needs of the poor and oppressed, even at city hall.  I do not believe that this is participating in coercive power. If it is, Jesus did as well. Here’s a final thought: When we choose to not participate in politics it mostly reveals a failing of the church, that we no longer identify with the oppressed. It becomes very easy to ignore injustice if it doesn’t affect you. And that is a sober thought indeed.

 

Ryan Skove is a pastoral intern at Madison Street Church, in Riverside, CA. He helps to lead Sunday mornings with worship and preaching. He is also taking theology courses online through Spurgeon’s College. Ryan has a passion for following Jesus, songwriting and helping our neighbors without homes. 

 

Notes

[1]Housing First is a model that begins first with attempting to house homeless individuals in permanent, supportive housing. You can find more information here: https://endhomelessness.org/resource/housing-first/

[2]You can find this information on Riverside’s Housing First Strategy: file:///C:/Users/rksko/Downloads/Housing%20First%20Strategy%20Plan.pdf

[3]Riverside’s homeless demographics can be found here: https://www.riversideca.gov/homelesssolutions/homeless-in-riverside/demographics.asp

[4]You can find this video lesson, along with the transcript here: https://www.ted.com/talks/eric_liu_how_to_understand_power#t-412998

What Do We Do With Sutherland Springs?

by Gary Mitchell and Brent Bever

Love your enemies, yes. However, when churches are physically attacked, what should our response be? What if the violence of Sutherland Springs, Texas comes to our door?

Sometimes it feels like this country is determined to find yet another difficult issue that divides us. Can we agree on anything? Do more guns in the hands of good citizens solve the problem?  How exactly should we “love our enemies” in a violent situation?  Should we use force to protect?

Several years ago, as part of a membership class, we were sitting around the living room with about 12 people who’d been part of a weekly Life Group. We had decided that these people would be wonderful additions to our church. And what better setting to conduct a membership class than in the same living room we’d been in for the past year, devoting ourselves to the Word of God. But then, in week three of the membership teaching, the subject of “peace” came up. Within a month we learned that not only would two couples not become members of our church, but three people would choose to leave the church altogether. One was a military man, with a 30-year career. The other was a firm believer in second amendment rights, and a holder of a “concealed carry” permit. They were gone, and they didn’t really want to talk about it. Sadly, this wasn’t some isolated incident in one membership class.

I (Gary) remember having real difficulty with this issue myself. I too had been in the military. I would ask, “Who is going to stop the ‘Hitlers’ of the world? And what in the world is wrong with forcefully protecting my wife and family from an intruder?”

And then November 5, 2017 brought us the shootings at Sutherland Springs. Twenty-six dead. Surely there could have been a better result if only. . .

We have at our core a value of “peace.” We say we “value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.” What then should be our response? And by the way, please give your answer to the families in Sutherland Springs.

I wasn’t there when Jesus told Peter to put his sword away. And I don’t know why Jesus didn’t have a concealed weapon. He did, after all, know they were coming to take him to the cross. Wouldn’t it have been better for a few soldiers to die for their country that day? What was Jesus thinking?

Well, he responded to the situation by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).

In Matthew we get more information, when Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matt.5:38-47)

In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“

And in Luke 6:27, he says, “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Paul writes:

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:17-21).

Yes, yes, we say. But who is then going to punish these evil people? And how do we solve the problem of evil regimes, like Hitler’s? What should believers do about that?

The answer to that, I believe, is also in Romans. Right after it says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” just a hundred words later, Paul tells us that there are to be governing authorities, established by God, to bring punishment to the wrongdoer:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:1-4).

Does that seem acceptable to you?  Peace and reconciliation for us, loving our neighbors and our enemies, and trusting the governing authorities to bring punishment to the wrongdoer? Can I trust in that when my family or my church family are being threatened? Can I confront an armed intruder with just that?  The Word of God?

We believe that yes, we can. And we must. People need to be reminded that there is another, better reality at work—God.

When the tragedy happened in Sutherland Springs, we set out to write a new church policy, recognizing that it may seem weak and foolish to some.

What do we do? We know we want to be intelligent about it. We want to be smart. And we want to follow Jesus’ teachings, no matter where that leads us. Even if obedience leads us to death.

So, at our church we will employ nonviolent strategies.

  • We will be vigilant, knowing that about 85 percent of the time, the perpetrator tells one person. Sixty-six percent of the time the perpetrator tells two people.
  • We will report suspicious behaviors.
  • We will use security cameras.
  • We will lock doors, close blinds, turn out lights.
  • We will call 911.
  • We will make ourselves difficult targets.
  • We will run.
  • We will use any objects as distraction devices—chairs, books, objects thrown from the balcony.
  • We will spread out.
  • We will cause confusion for the intruder.
  • We will evacuate.

We recognize that our state allows its citizens to have, and conceal, weapons. Although we are allowed to post signs on the church property prohibiting the use of firearms, we do not post such signs. We will allow everyone to follow their own consciences with regard to carrying and using weapons. And we will be there to help them deal with the aftermath of those decisions. As followers of Jesus Christ, we will stick to our values. We are a church that pursues peace. We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict, for the offender and victim alike.

We will follow Jesus. We value whole- hearted obedience to Christ Jesus through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

We belong to the community of faith. We value integrity in relationships and mutual accountability in an atmosphere of grace, love, and acceptance. No matter what. We will let the chips fall where they may.

We will not be defined otherwise by a violent event. And we will embrace the victims and perpetrators alike, recognizing that in the Cross, Jesus did the same thing for us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Gary Mitchell is board chair and director of administration and Brett Bever is the pastor at New Vision Brethren in Christ Church, Pewaukee, WI. This article is reprinted from the Winter 2018 edition of Shalom!

 

A Brethren in Christ Theology of Risk

A Brethren in Christ missionary in Southeast Asia is very frugal and looks for the cheapest flights whenever she has to travel. During a time of political unrest in Bangkok, the cheapest flights she could find would have required her to leave one airport and take public transportation to another. She was prepared to risk venturing into a city embroiled in turmoil to get from one airport to the other for the sake of a cheaper flight. Brethren in Christ World Missions (BICWM) here in the U.S. discovered that for less than $50 more, she could get a flight that did not require a change in airports. The conclusion: when you can significantly minimize risk by spending a little more, it’s probably wise to do so.

While serving in Malawi with BICWM, Jonathan Lloyd and his family experienced a violent home invasion in the middle of the night. They were robbed at knifepoint and threatened with death. Erica was able to call for help, and the police came with guns. In the aftermath of the incident, a police officer told Jonathan he should have a gun, to which Jonathan responded, “I didn’t come to Africa to kill people.” They did hire a guard company and kept pepper spray on hand as deterrents.

After a period of time back in the U.S., the Lloyd family returned to Malawi for another term. They didn’t blame anyone for what had happened, and accepted that they were called to take risks. They were also well aware that they lived much more lavishly than many others nearby—their “stuff” put them at increased risk.

These two stories, ranging from the almost humorous desire to save a mere $50 to a family experiencing the trauma of a violent home invasion illustrate why BICWM has developed a “Theology of Risk.” In addition to addressing situations like these, the policy recognizes that with BICWM’s priority for least-reached people groups, there are more security risks than in the past. Some missionaries operate in countries where it is not legal to proselytize and the risk of discovery is always there. Now settled again in the U.S. and leading BICWM, Jonathan’s personal encounter with violence and potential death gives him a particularly relevant vantage point from which to help to develop and then implement the new policy.

Previously, BICWM response to risky situations has been on a case-by-case basis. There were usually no substantial conversations about potential risks (beyond the normal health risks) before an individual, couple, or family went to their assignment. For example, Jonathan doesn’t recall any real conversation when he and his wife were preparing to go to Malawi the first time. There is a form that missionaries must sign detailing their and their families’ wishes “in the eventuality of death,” but that doesn’t on its own address other potential risky circumstances.

The new policy begins by noting that the “New Testament has much to say about danger, courage and risk in the lives of those who follow Jesus Christ and declare the gospel” and lists a number of beliefs based on biblical teaching. It recognizes that “this world can be a most unsettling place, with dangers of many kinds,” and names several principles, including (but not limited to):

  • We will provide assessments of countries and areas where we have ministry to allow prospective missionaries to consider their area of service wisely and prayerfully.
  • We will take action in a crisis incident to support the safety and welfare of our personnel.
  • We will not expect our personnel to remain in their location of service during a crisis. We allow them the freedom to leave at any time. The place of relocation will normally be decided in conversation with the team leader and the home office.
  • In the event that an evacuation is ordered, we expect our personnel to comply.
  • We expect our personnel to consider carefully how their actions may immediately or subsequently put their hosts in danger.

The policy also addresses the specific situation of hostage-taking and what BICWM will and will not do:

  • We will make a concerted effort to secure the safe release of hostages. However, we do not pay ransom.
  • We value the families of the hostages and recognize their interest in seeing their loved ones released.
  • We respect the governments of passport countries and host countries, and we recognize that these governments have an interest in the safe release of the hostages.
  • We value the expertise and experience of others who have been involved in hostage situations and will seek their advice and expertise in working through a hostage situation.

BICWM has also contracted with a faith-based security company to provide training to missions personnel. There are three levels of training: 1) all new workers take an A-level course online; 2) the BICWM crisis management team participated in a multi-day training; and 3) four staff members from BICWM have taken an intensive week-long training that involves role playing real-life situations of violence and hostage-taking. While not all groups that contract with this company would subscribe to the theology, core values, or principles of the Brethren in Christ (e.g., we won’t pay ransom and we believe in nonviolence), the company understands where we stand and prepared a customized manual for BICWM use.

The risk policy was written specifically for BICWM, but it also notes that some of the principles apply to the denomination as a whole and was endorsed by the Leadership Council. As Brethren in Christ individuals and congregations seek to respond to the ongoing risk of violence in our communities and churches, this policy can be a resource. How should we prepare ourselves to respond to a situation of violence, whether it happens in our home, our children’s school, or our church, so that “in all things we seek to honor God, boldly declare the gospel, and act with God-given wisdom in regard to danger and risk”?

This article was based on a conversation between Harriet Bicksler, Shalom! editor, and Jonathan Lloyd, director of Brethren in Christ World Missions. Reprinted from the Winter 2018 edition of Shalom!, a Brethren in Christ U.S. publication.

Love, Peace, Hope and Justice

by Julie Weatherford

Four words are prominently displayed on walls of my church’s main meeting hall: LOVE, PEACE, HOPE and JUSTICE. On a recent Sunday, a relatively new sister in our church family said to me, “I know why LOVE, PEACE AND HOPE are there. But why JUSTICE?”

I stumbled through a brief explanation of how the theme of justice is threaded through Old and New Testaments, a central focus of Jesus’ teachings, and a necessary, concrete component to authentic love, hope and peace. My friend expressed appreciation for my explanation, and the conversation shifted. But I came away wishing I had done better. When asked again, I wanted to offer a clearer, brief yet adequate articulation of why justice is integral to God’s loving intent for humankind on earth.

In the evangelical conservative church of my youth, justice was never spoken of as anything but judgment on people who hadn’t accepted Christ, their “just de-serts” for evil nature and bad behavior (hardly something that we’d partner with LOVE, PEACE and HOPE on our Brethren in Christ church walls!). So, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why my friend had asked, “Why JUSTICE?” But, having been part of a BIC church for decades now, having been influenced by years on Mennonite Central Committee boards, and having recently completed seminary training, I had come to understand justice more fully. I hoped that my life and actions spoke, however inadequately, of its importance to me. And, I wanted to strengthen my understanding in order to tighten my skill at offering a brief, cogent, and compelling reply to the question, “Why JUSTICE?”

I knew that I needed some reminders myself of why justice was as integral to God’s ways as love, peace, and hope. I went back to writings of some of the authors and teachers from whom I had learned through the years, who had studied scripture deeply and whose lives exhibited a commitment to the kind of justice that I had come to embrace, yet struggled to express to my friend. Here’s what they reminded me of about justice:

Jim Wallis, author and founder of  the Sojourners intentional Christian community in Washington, D.C., writes:

The clear meaning of ‘justice’ is ‘what is right’ or ‘what is normal’ — the way things are supposed to be. The fairness of laws coupled with fair and equal treatment under the law are common biblical concerns. Throughout scripture, God is the defender and protector of the poor, the alien, the debtor, the widow, and the orphan….

One of the clearest and most holistic words for justice is the Hebrew shalom, which means both “justice” and “peace.” Shalom includes “wholeness,” or everything that makes for people’s well being, security, and, in particular, the restoration of relationships that have been broken. Justice, therefore, is about repairing broken relationships both with other people and to structures — of courts and punishments, money and economics, land and resources, and kings and rulers.

The biblical words for justice all relate to the fairness, judgment, love, and healing of God…. Justice, most simply, means putting things right again — fixing, repairing, and restoring broken relationships. And doing justice restores our relationship with God and makes our worship of God authentic. And it is clear that justice is also part of our worship of God. Listen to the prophet Amos:

‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:21–24, NIV)

This is some of the strongest language in the Bible about worship and justice, and it clearly makes a connection between the two. God ‘takes no delight’ (as some other translations say) in the ‘noisy’ worship of his people if their worship is disconnected from justice — from making things right for those who are poor and oppressed. Exuberant worship can even distance us from the realities of an unjust world, creating a distance from the God of justice, who is passionate about the world he has made and about all of his children.

Even worse, we have seen how worship can serve as a cover-up for injustice, how we can act in our religious gatherings as if everything is all right… And that is likely what the prophet means when he says that such false worship is a ‘stench’ to God….

That should be our justice lens for viewing any society — looking at what’s wrong and figuring out how to make it right. Justice is as basic as that. And acting for justice shows that we love and worship the God of the Bible, who is a God of justice (www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2014/06/06/how-the-bible-understands-justice/32339 adapted from The (Un)Common Good by Jim Wallis, accessed 2018-01-15).

Thomas Keating, Catholic contemplative and author, suggests that Jesus’ “beatitude that hungers and thirsts for justice urges us to take personal responsibility for our attitude to God, other people, the ecology of the earth, and the vast and worsening social problems of our time…” Keating suggests that contemplative prayer provides an avenue for the development of the gift of fortitude that in turn leads to the hunger and thirst for justice ( http://wawalker.com/thomas-keating-on-contemplative-spirituality-and-social-ethics/, accessed 2018-01-15).

Stuart Murray, Anabaptist author, theologian and church planter, hones in on economic justice in this passage:

In both the Old and the New Testaments, spirituality and economics are interwoven. The obligations of the covenant between God and Israel, spelled out in the Law, contain many detailed economic principles and practices.  The prophets constantly remind the people of Israel (and especially their political leaders) that their prayers would not be heeded if they did not pursue justice.  Their worship services would be offensive to God unless they cared for the poor and needy.  [Murray notes that classic texts are Isaiah 1:11-17 and 58:1-14.]

Jesus insists that ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21), and the Gospels are full of parables and instructions about wealth and poverty, the use and abuse of possessions, and the demands of community.  Not only are economic issues prevalent in the rest of the New Testament, but the book of Acts introduces us to the first church in Jerusalem, in which the sharing of resources was inextricably linked with faith and discipleship” (Naked Anabaptist. p. 118).

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

(Quotes accessed 2018-01-15)

Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and theologian, writes in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context:

…the four words for justice (two in Hebrew, and two in Greek) appear 1,060 times in the Bible. Hardly any concept appears so often.  By contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear about 90 times. Yet we skip over the huge biblical emphasis on justice as central in God’s will…

…Jesus’ identification with the prophets, his attack on the temple system and his proclamation and practice of the reign of God all linked him inextricably to a content-rich proclamation and practice of justice. Justice is one of the central virtues in Jesus’ teaching as well as in traditional virtue theory. It is one of the basic convictions in holistic character. It is thickly embedded in the biblical narratives. It is at the heart of God’s will. It is crucial for relating love and Christlikeness to a public ethic that can reflect the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Christ over all of life. It is pivotal in present-day struggles of our society…

Jesus often cited the prophet Isaiah, which speaks several times of the kingdom or reign of God…  Sixteen of the seventeen kingdom-deliverance passages in Isaiah announced that justice was a key characteristic of God’s kingdom… If we look carefully,* we discover that justice has four dimensions: (1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience; (2) lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence and establishing peace; and (4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and the refugees to community” (pp. 345-349, italics mine).

“We count forty times in the Synoptic Gospels, not including the parallel passages, when Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his day. In addition, Jesus performed practices and gave other teachings which, even if not explicitly identified as confrontations of authorities, surely challenged the theological ideology of those in power. In our study of Jesus confronting authorities, we asked, ‘What are the themes of Jesus’ confrontations? What wrongs does Jesus focus on when he confronts the powers and authorities?’ We have found that the answers to these questions embody four themes and that these themes are remarkably consistent with the four themes of justice that we saw in Isaiah’s deliverance passages…

Paying close attention to Isaiah’s deliverance passages helps us compensate for the reductionistic biases of our individualist culture and helps us notice the four themes of justice in Jesus’ confrontations of the powers and authorities of his day; it gives us a new appreciation for Jesus’ depth and compassion (p. 357, italics mine).

Seeing how directly Jesus taught, embodied and fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s four themes of justice gives us a dramatic new appreciation for the concreteness of Jesus’ passion for delivering justice.  Jesus died for our sins, including our injustice. His confronting the injustice of the powerful was a major reason why they wanted him crucified. When we see his concern for justice – for an end to unjust economic structures, unjust domination, unjust violence and unjust exclusion from community – we cannot help but rethink our entire picture of what Jesus was about in his preaching and teaching. We cannot help but think that if he was that committed to justice in his context, we are required to be just as concerned about justice in our own.” (p.365, italics mine).

Newly reminded, perhaps I’ll do better the next time I’m asked, “Why JUSTICE?”

*If you, too, want to look carefully, Stassen suggests these Isaiah passages, for starters:

Isaiah 11:1-4; 26:2-10; 32:1, 6-7, 16-18; 33:5, 15; Isaiah 42; 51:1, 4-7; 53:7-9; 54:14; 56:1; 60:17-21; 61:1, 3, 8, 10-11.

 

Julie Weatherford serves on the leadership team of the Peace and Justice Project, and attends Madison Street Church in Riverside, CA.