I am fresh off of an exhilarating weekend at The Justice Conference in Philadelphia, excited by the growing evangelical movement for justice. From throughout the country and the world, people gathered under the conviction that if we are to faithfully follow Jesus, we must seek justice.
The Justice Conference is the sort of event where I can give my standard talk on immigration and instead of being peppered with skeptical questions about the economics of immigration or the effects of immigration on national security—as I’ve come to expect in some church contexts—the basic question most people asked in one way or another was: what do I do? How do we help seek more just treatment of immigrants and more just immigration policies?
It was a refreshing response, and one I’m hearing more and more frequently. Next month I’m excited to share at the similarly titled “Life and Justice” conference in Colorado Springs, which seeks to destroy the false divide between issues of life and issues of justice. After all, as I heard Nicholas Wolterstorff say last Saturday, the basic foundation of biblical justice is that all human life is precious and endowed with certain rights because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). (Incidentally, the Life and Justice Conference is now entirely free for those who preregister).
We’ve also been overwhelmed by the interest in addressing immigration issue from a biblical perspective in recent weeks, as churches throughout the country are participating the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge. The level of evangelical commitment to justice and compassion in U.S. immigration policy is unprecedented. There is a new movement in our country, one which I am convinced is fueled by the Holy Spirit.
And yet, for the significant momentum, it’s still not the whole of the American church. For every pastor who enthusiastically has embraced the idea—not so controversial, in my mind—of asking his or her congregation to read what the Bible says about immigration, another says no. A friend in the South forwarded me a response from a pastor he’d encouraged to participate who said that, even though he was personally sympathetic, his church could not be distracted from the proclamation of the gospel to discuss immigration. A leader of another group explained that his is “just not an advocacy organization.”
Of course, he’s right. His is not an advocacy organization; that’s not what they were founded to be. And the Church is made of different parts, with different gifts, which operate together in mutuality and interdependence. We’re not supposed to all be the same or have the same functions (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). I disagree with the notion, though, that just a few of us are called to seek justice, that some of us are exempt. As my friend and Justice Conference speaker Alexia Salvatierra observed recently, there are some who are uniquely called and gifted as evangelists (Ephesians 4:11), but we’re all called to share the hope of the gospel; the Great Commission is for all of us. Likewise, we may not all be called to be activists—not every church needs to be an “advocacy” church and not every organization and “advocacy organization”—but we are all called to seek justice (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 21:12, Zechariah 7:9, Matthew 23:23). As World Relief’s CEO Stephan Bauman said at the Justice Conference, justice is “not a menu” of causes that we can choose as we like, “it’s a must,” a biblical mandate for all who follow Jesus, our Lord, who said that he came “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Pursuing justice—for the immigrant, for the poor, the unborn, the elderly, and the orphan, for the victims of war, racism, human trafficking, environmental degradation, and every other injustice—is not just an option for the Christian: it is an essential element of discipleship. The Great Commission is to “make disciples… teaching them to obey everything [Christ has] commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20), and it is a failure of discipleship if we proclaim an incomplete gospel, one that does not include the mandate to seek justice, one that allows us to stay complicit in injustice.
What impacted me most at the Justice Conference was actually not a new, profound thought from one of the many contemporary academics or practitioners of justice, but some words written a half century ago, which Mission Year president Leroy Barber read on Friday evening. I think that the white evangelical church of which I’m a part has made progress since that point; I see and rejoice in the progress I see on the issue of immigration, in particular, just in the past few years, with the prayerful expectation that more change is coming. But we still have a ways to go, and these words—written in another time, in reference to different circumstances, but to white church leaders like many of those with whom I interact—are as relevant today as they were the day they were written, from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. They are worth quoting at length:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist… But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists…
Despite [some] notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular…
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are…
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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