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17.12.2021

Pandemic, Discipleship, and Justice

In this article, Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana – Director of the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission and Founding Director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World – helps us listen to the suffering of a pandemic-ridden world.

As this catastrophe lays bare both inequality and ill-conceived notions of calling, he helps us imagine a more biblical paradigm in which mission and justice work together as one, informed by his new book, Discipleship, Suffering and Racial Justice: Mission in a Pandemic World. In turn, we’re invited to create change in our churches and on our frontlines, better embodying the just way of Christ and communicating truly good news of resurrection life to our neighbours.

The pandemic has deeply altered how we live. It may even pave the way for a paradigm shift, redefining and reconfiguring the way we understand our reality. The deadly virus has created a context of global suffering, impacting everyone, everywhere. Across 221 countries we’ve seen 5 million deaths, loss of community, loss of jobs, increased mental health problems, and heightened anxiety and fear.

Covid has brought intense suffering to countless people around the world, suffering which begs the question: how can the church in the UK respond to this catastrophe? Perhaps more succinctly, how can Christians in the West do discipleship and mission in a context of suffering and loss?

One of the shifts the pandemic has ushered in is a more conscious focus on justice issues such as climate justice and racial justice. As we continue to wrestle with the impact of the pandemic and how it is forcing us to gaze afresh on justice issues, one thing that is emerging is that the Western church will need a new discipleship model, one that is rooted in weakness and powerlessness, in order to be able to engage this new context.

Discipleship rooted in weakness

An example of a discipleship model rooted in powerlessness and weakness is that of missionaries coming from poorer countries or so-called developing countries into the UK. Today in Britain, we now have missionaries who are asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants. The suffering experiences of these missionaries give us examples we can learn from – because our new post-pandemic context demands humility and vulnerability.

The Western church, however, is still operating for the most part from a colonial paradigm of discipleship and mission. One way this colonial paradigm operates in our churches is the emphasis we still see on overseas mission, without realising that Britain is the new mission field, with reverse missionaries ministering to and sitting in our congregations. That being the case, how can the Western church truly engage with humility and vulnerability?

When we understand mission as first and foremost what God does in each and every place, then we are each invited to be missionaries starting right where we already are. We need Jesus’s discipleship model of suffering and sacrifice, which says ‘if anyone will follow me, they must deny themselves and carry their cross’ (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

Denying ourselves in a consumeristic, materialistic, and individualistic society involves a lot of suffering. Carrying the cross means we are ready to sacrifice to the point of death for the sake of God’s kingdom.  An example we can learn from is what some nurses did during the lockdown by staying in hotels or isolating for extended periods, or carers living in care homes for months as their vocation demands a sacrificial lifestyle. There is something the UK church can learn here about the high level of sacrifice people’s jobs have placed on them, and the need to similarly count the cost in our models of discipleship. Jesus himself demonstrated this as a suffering-servant who paid the ultimate price on the cross.

We also need a discipleship model that integrates justice issues, moving away from a model that dichotomises and separates mission from justice.[1] This post-pandemic context demands that we see justice as mission.

A biblical framework that helps connect discipleship with justice issues is summed up in the ‘Jubilee’ concept in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25; cf. Luke 4:16–22), speaking into covenant community, freedom for slaves, economic equality, and care for the earth. In Israel, the Jubilee year – occurring every 50 years – was an economic, cultural, environmental, and communal reset, when the land and people rested, and all those who were enslaved were freed and returned to their communities.

The Jubilee is best understood against the backdrop of the children of Israel coming out of Egyptian enslavement, and the new community of Israel understanding its new identity in a covenant relationship with God. In this covenant relationship, God promises freedom for all humanity and creation (with Israel as an example) in the 50th year: the year of Jubilee. It offers a holistic theological framework that can address the issues of individualism, privatised faith, and lack of racial justice engagement in prevailing Western discipleship models.

Multi-ethnic Christianity and racial justice

So how can we apply this Jubilee theological framework in our churches, mission organisations, and theological colleges? And how might this overflow onto our everyday frontlines? In this, we have much to learn from world Christianity, applying lessons of intercultural mission through multi-ethnic Christianity that addresses racial justice.

Firstly, in order for our Christian communities to become places where God’s multi-ethnic kingdom is expressed, we have to be intentional in our thinking, strategies, and action.

People often desire and want a multicultural or multi-ethnic church, college, or organisation, but are not prepared to do the hard work that it requires. Have your board of directors or trustees intentionally sought to have on the team people of Asian, African, or Latin American background? Does your five-year strategy plan intentionally include engaging Majority World Christians and learning from diaspora churches and previously ‘muted voices’? Does your national leadership team only have PLUs (People Like Us)? The early church was intentional in nominating and appointing Grecian Jews when they felt marginalised by the Hebraic Jews. A study of the names of the seven leaders (deacons) selected demonstrates this intentionality (see Acts 6:1–7).

Secondly, we need to create safe spaces in our Christian communities to have conversations about race and racism. Churches too many times shy away from squarely facing these issues because it makes people feel uncomfortable. If we are going to move forward, we need to have these conversations, and the murder of George Floyd has certainly given us the urgency to dialogue.[2]

Can our church meetings or corporate board meetings be dedicated to talking about the issue of race and racism? Do our theological colleges have compulsory modules on Black theology, African theology, and post-colonial theologies? Can our national conferences begin to address some of these issues as the main theme rather than relegating it to a seminar or track focusing on the subject? And do we have the courage, in our everyday lives, to raise what may be taboo, but Christ would have us discuss, so that every person and group is truly valued in our contexts?

As we continue in this pandemic context, which requires vulnerability and suffering in order to address justice issues, let us engage Scripture afresh. Let us develop new models of discipleship that enable us to be rooted in weakness and integrate justice concerns.

Perhaps the examples I’ve highlighted, of the Jubilee paradigm in action, might spark some fresh practices that transform our churches, organisations, and theological colleges on this journey. What might mission from a place of weakness look like on your frontline, starting right where you already are?

 

Rev Dr Israel Oluwole Olofinjana
Director of the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission and Founding Director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World

 


 

[1] Editor’s note: LICC has opposed this separation of mission and justice since our foundation by John Stott. As Stott wrote in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, we must express ‘penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. […] We affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty.’ Read and watch more from LICC on this topic with our Just Listening article series and event video.

[2] Editor’s note: see, for instance, Lusa Nsenga Ngoy’s article, ‘On Celebrating Ethnic Diversity’, connected to the online event here. Also see LICC’s efforts towards this end through our ‘Reimagining Race?’ event.

Comments

  1. A lot of what is contained within this article is straight out of [a-n-other Big Corporation]’s handbook on Critical Race Theory, Social Justice and DEI; dividing people into oppressed and oppressor groups along immutable axis and personal identity. We typically see this through the language some parts of the church have started to use, “[justice][diversity]”.

    For this article, it is evident in the references to colonialism and the inversion of the oppressor group to comments like:

    “Can our church meetings or corporate board meetings be dedicated to talking about the issue of race and racism?”, “Do our theological colleges have compulsory modules on Black theology, African theology, and post-colonial theologies?”.

    Similarly, the reference to power groups:

    “Western church will need a new discipleship model, one that is rooted in weakness and powerlessness.”

    I think we see secular worldview co-opted here vs. the Christian worldview. Rather than restoration through the gospel and Jesus Christ, its an adversarial worldview with restoration through “justice” and “diversity”.

    By Axel Stone  -  21 Jan 2022
    • Thanks Axel for engaging. The author, Israel, may well reply in due time. Just to note that you raise some important questions of what we mean by ‘justice’ and ‘diversity’.

      To be sure, there are ways of talking about both terms that simply co-opt secular accounts, or baptise various forms of postmodern ideology. (While a non-Christian account, Douglas Murray skewers this well in his book, ‘The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity’.) However, I don’t believe use of ‘justice’ and ‘diversity’, even ‘post-colonial theology’ means that there is dangerous syncretism going on. Nor do I believe Dr. Olofinjana’s article has fallen foul of problematic usage.

      As I outlined in my piece at https://licc.org.uk/resources/just-listening-1/ (and in the many footnotes), also explored at events in the two editorial footnotes to the article above, ‘justice’ is a biblical term, but is centred on God’s own righteousness/justice and thus the call for right relationship to him, neighbour, nature, and self. That is shalom. And whatever works against this harmony is sin (‘culpable shalom breaking’ as Reformed theologian, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. puts it in his book, ‘Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin’).

      As LICC’s founder, John Stott, put it, ‘Our God is a loving God who forgives those who turn to him in repentance, but he is also a God who desires justice and asks us, as his people, not only to live justly but to champion the cause of the poor and the powerless.’ This is because ‘the living God is the God of justice as well as of justification’. (From Stott’s 4th edition of ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, pages 24 & 51.)

      Injustice is not simply an individual experience, but is often embedded in systemic inequality playing on various human features for easy labelling of the ‘other’ (though I agree that ‘race’ and other identities aren’t immutable, as you said) such as skin colour, power differentials, sex, and the like. The Psalmist and prophets regularly expose this (e.g., Psalm 146:7–9, Isaiah 58, 61:1-2), the powerful lording it over the powerless. But, as you say, there’s nothing particularly righteous about being poor, and nothing essentially evil about being powerful. It’s how you hold and use whatever power you have, within a broken system. (Amy Sherman writes well of this in her book, ‘Kingdom Calling’, stewarding our vocational power for God’s glory and to be a sign of the just kingdom of God come near, a la Luke 4:18-19.)

      Same with ‘diversity’. Without subscribing to a form of reverse discrimination that some affirmative action policies play on, ignoring the actual quality of candidates and being more interested in getting the ratios right for politically correct optics, we are calling for two things: 1) a recognition of the unity-in-diversity that is God and the created world he made, such that most every system works better when the various parts (like the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12) are brought together in harmony, complementing each other; and 2) a recognition that in our sin, we all have blindspots, and these are often only exposed when our group think and homogeneity is unsettled by inclusion and giving voice to people with different lived realities to us (especially when ‘us’ is the status quo). This may be demographic diversity (race, ethnicity, gender), but it can equally be experiential diversity (our affinities, hobbies, and abilities), and cognitive diversity (how we approach problems and think about things). When understood and leveraged well (rather than imposed from above), this can be a gift to any community (see, for instance, Matthew Syed’s book, ‘Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’.), and a foretaste of the mixed multitude giving glory to God at our story’s end (e.g., Isaiah 60; Revelation 7:9-10; 21:24).

      As for ‘critical race theory’, check out https://www.johnstackhouse.com/tag/critical-race-theory/ as one of the most balanced blog-length treatments of presuppositions that comport with a biblical worldview, but equally raising a challenge against aspects that buy into unhealthy ideologies which put human-centred restoration over and above restoration through the gospel and Jesus Christ – even as the gospel has social implications for being one in Christ, a unity-in-diversity, that is good news to a divided world.

      As I said, Israel may well reply to the specifics, but hopefully this offers more nuance than can be achieved in a fairly short post, and gives some resources to explore further. Your critique is a helpful spur for us all to discern what it means to follow the Prince of Peace in a world that often enshrines power over others, and is afraid of weakness and vulnerability like we’ve all faced in the pandemic.

      In Christ,
      Dave

      By Dr Dave Benson, LICC Director of Culture and Discipleship  -  21 Jan 2022
  2. Thanks for taking the time to reply Dave. Agreed on anchoring on the definition of Justice being God’s own righteousness/justice according to His moral law as you suggest.

    “thus the call for right relationship to him, neighbour, nature, and self. That is shalom. And whatever works against this harmony is sin.”

    An example: when relating the above to the article, it concerns me that a component makes mention of “black theology”. Theology is theology and the church is the church. I think it highlights how we are sowing divisiveness because of this world-led perspective – we end up influenced more by what we learnt in academic DEI courses than anything else? It’s honestly a little scary how so many of the terms used are copy and pasted from the mandatory courses I’ve been sent on at work 😉

    I also recognise the scriptural components you link (references to Isaiah and Psalms) and a little about the history of Israel during the period of Isaiah but don’t see the leap to “systemic inequality” in todays sense of any sort of manufactured social grievance, which tends to come with this worldview, versus the context in Isaiah with God’s people, the nation of Israel and the promise of the Messiah. It seems we can easily apply a “systemic inequality” label to any construct but link it back to this out of context. In this sense I’m pretty sure that John Stott, if he were around today, may have quite carefully adjusted his wording or inserted further clarity given the cultural trends we are experiencing. He mentions “the powerless”, for example, but once you are surrounded by a culture of activism which sees everything through a lense of power and privilege, justice can become anything that works against that perceived bogeyman, whether its of God or not.

    Thanks for the John Stackhouse column(s); I also found this particularly useful as an in-depth look at compatibility of CRT and Christianity: https://shenviapologetics.com/social-justice-critical-theory-and-christianity-are-they-compatible-part-1-2/

    Probably easier to chat about over a pint or something I guess!

    By Axel Stone  -  26 Jan 2022

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