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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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20.03.2024

Wisdom Lab: Working out justice | Communicate (4/4)

The views expressed in these blogs belong to the authors, not necessarily LICC. In this series, we’re hosting a conversation in blog form.

You don’t have to spend long with friends or colleagues or scroll far through social media to find people making passionate pleas for justice to be done for a cause, person, or issue that matters deeply to them.

We feel the effects of injustice incredibly strongly, particularly when it’s perpetrated directly against us or those we care about. There’s something innate within all of us that wants to see wrongs made right, victims protected, and the guilty held to account. 

But when it comes to issues like reparations, climate justice, or migration – and their everyday expressions in our spending, work policies, and pub conversations – what does justice actually look like, and how can we be part of bringing it about?

That’s the question this blog series explores. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listening’ to wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, and at the Wisdom Lab: Working Out Justice event, they’ll help you ‘to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8), wherever he’s placed you, alongside the people he’s put you with.

In part one, Matt Jolley helped us listen to our culture. Then, in part two, Adom Otoo helped us imagine how a biblical theology of justice can shape what should be going on in the way we pursue justice, before Tim Lornie from Just Love connected to creating change in part three. In this final article, Hannah Lloyd from Tearfund will think about how to communicate the good news of the gospel to a watching world instinctively bent on seeing wrong things made right.

 

A Just Witness

When you encounter the word ‘witnessing’ in a Christian context, what word, image, or feeling comes to mind? Witnessing is simply about how we communicate the good news of Christ. It encapsulates not just the words we use, but the actions we take and the answers that we provide to the issues facing the world. Often, we think about witnessing narrowly as trying to get people to accept Jesus and join a church.

However, the mission of the church and the message of the gospel is broader than spiritual salvation. The mission of the church acknowledges the reality of humans as holistic beings, as embodied spirits. The message of the gospel captures an understanding of a God who’s not separate from Earth but wants to act in our present world and, by the Spirit, is capable to do so. So if our gospel is holistic, our witness must also be holistic, engaging with how social issues affect our bodies and spirits.

In the second blog of this series, Adom shared that the root cause of today’s injustice is sin, but that our God is not content in leaving our world in that broken state. She highlighted that Jesus arrived on Earth with a mission to bring restoration to both our spiritual and physical worlds, in his life and death. Christ’s mission was part of God’s big plan to bring about a new creation which he’s still working on now – a world in which there is no pain, death, or grief (Revelation 21:4). How great does this sound? Communicating this story sounds like a pretty good idea.

Witnessing also involves ‘bearing witness’, showing evidence of who our God is. This requires us to have experienced injustice ourselves or to humbly tell stories of what we have seen, rather than speaking from high pedestals. We have to be careful that our message and theology of justice isn’t only formulated by the ‘saviours’ of our world, but led by those who have been formed through experiencing the justice of God.

It’s common knowledge that emerging generations love justice, but this doesn’t primarily represent an ‘opportunity’ to (re)incorporate people into the church in the face of plummeting numbers by jumping on the latest hot topic. Instead, perhaps our posture should be one of recognising our responsibility to equip people, young and old, to discover and build flourishing relationships with God, each other, themselves, and creation in the midst of the contemporary messes we find ourselves in. Maybe it’s also a moment of repentance in recognition that sermons and books about justice have often been hidden away, such that we need to work hard to dig it up for this generation.

 

Effective communication

For a while, I’ve wanted to do a study of street preachers. While I know that, for most people, communication of the gospel has moved past this method, it’s still difficult to walk up the high street in most UK cities without being offered a tract or hearing someone shout ‘repent’ over a microphone, with little consideration for your eardrums. I am fascinated by the approach and the narratives it uses.

When I first moved to Oxford, I stopped to speak with a man who was witnessing on the streets. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he started telling me that God was real, to which I responded, ‘well, how do you know that?’ I was already a Christian but just curious to play around a little. We stood talking for nearly 45 minutes going round in circles. Every time I asked him how he knew God was real he would give me another well-rehearsed platitude based on a quoted Scripture.

Until finally he broke. He told me his experience of being in the military. He’d had a gun held to his head, but when the trigger was pulled, no bullet was released. Tears started streaming down his face and, as I took a respectful pause to acknowledge this vulnerable moment, I told him that this is the kind of story that people want to hear when we witness. Stories of our personal experiences and the lessons we’ve learned. Instead, often our witness has become a brick wall of preaching right and wrong, rather than engaging in authentic conversations with the intention to listen and point out that God has been at work in others’ lives all along, not absent until we arrived.

We can no longer afford to communicate with a one-way approach, especially with justice.[1] We are in a world with new issues that require new approaches to theology – issues such as the climate emergency, increasing multiculturalism in the UK, declining democratic space globally, and increasing acknowledgement of Britain’s colonial past and the misrepresentation of the majority world are rising to the top of the agenda.

Now, rather than street preaching, witnessing has found new forms, but what strikes me is that they are still often crafted with the idea of sharing our faith, telling people what we think. We also need to learn to listen. A church bent on talking without listening holds a false sense of power, loses its influence, and fails to address our world’s issues.

In part one of this series, Matt shared with us the outcome of his listening exercise, showing how important it is to understand the heart of others. Let’s think about how we can incorporate this into our witnessing. How can we witness well, by listening and sharing, as individuals and as a collective church? Of course, there’s no clear distinction between the two: we are living stones, the church, temples of the Holy Spirit. But in the same way that we can think about different parts of the body coming together to make the whole body function, I want to think about how we can individually show up in the spheres that God has placed us, as well as when we come together.

 

Bearing witness in our daily lives

Matt reminded us that talking about justice must not be limited to the four walls of a church building. He started this series with examples – both his university coursemates, and friends he was sat next to at a wedding – of people who didn’t know Jesus but cared deeply about justice. Similarly, the places we learn, work, and relax are full of the same people. How would Jesus share good news with people grappling with the injustices of the day, like those in Matt’s project group?

I think he would tell stories. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God through parables. They helped to paint clear and vivid images of the kingdom: he created strong characters and made clear the motivation and impact of each of those character’s actions. His parables also posed questions that provoked people to think, and to go and tell others so that the movement grew. Importantly, he made the parables relevant to listeners’ everyday contexts, and in doing so bridged the gap between what was and what could be.

Likewise, us bearing witness to God’s justice involves telling stories of Christians around the world who, driven by the gospel, are working for a more just future. We can emphasise the restoration of broken relationships that characterises a biblical vision of justice. The lasting impact of these Christians’ actions paints a picture of a would flourishing as God intended. Bearing witness requires us to not just talk about God’s heart for justice but demonstrate practical solutions to get us there.

In a generation facing anxiety about the state of our current world, it’s important that we communicate hope in addition to calling out what is broken. This isn’t about toxic positivity or a denial of reality, but helping people see examples of life being lived differently to encourage them to believe that a different world is possible.

When we talk about justice, it’s easy to return to the timeless stories and quotes from Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or refer back to the abolition of the slave trade as our world’s last big win. Don’t get me wrong, these are monumental moments that reinvigorate our faith: the fact that campaigning and opportune moments led to legislation against the slave trade and slavery is testament that no power is too great to fall.

But it’s also important to highlight through contemporary stories that our God is not dead, but alive and working today in the world. In the same way that the Israelites set up stones to remember how God helped them to cross the Jordan river (Joshua 4:21–24), continuing to tell stories is part of our prophetic mandate to point our generation to God. They show us God’s nature, giving us faith in the present and hope for the future.

While working at Tearfund over the last two years, I’ve heard so many incredible stories of power being shifted in favour of those of us who have been disadvantaged. Christians we work with have been persistent in advocacy and have left their mark. A global fund is finally being established to provide reparations to individuals and communities who have experienced loss and damage as a result of climate change. Four multinational companies (Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever, and PepsiCo) have committed to promoting human rights in the informal waste sector. Young entrepreneurs in Nigeria have crafted recycling solutions to address the lack of waste collection in their city that have gained the attention of local government.

I’ve learned that wins don’t come easy, but they do come. The prophet Ezekiel used the image of tall cedar trees – signifying the proud rulers of his day – which are condemned to fall (Ezekiel 31), but even these trees require some hacking at the base with an axe!

In the third blog of this series, Tim helpfully reminded us to be aware of the privileges that we bring to conversations about justice. Over the last couple of years, I’ve also been grappling with the question of what it looks like for us who hold fewer privileges to contribute to justice. Many of us lack the spare time or resources to engage and transform justice systems, but I wonder whether we disempower ourselves by having no expectation of our engagement. While I’m still on a journey with this question, currently I think that we underestimate the power that is held in that ‘little’ bit of time or resource when it’s amplified in God’s hands and when we act together. Rather than lowering expectations, I believe that we cannot discuss or deliver justice well without the inclusion and stories of those of us who experience marginalisation.

 

The collective witness of the church

The witness of the church comes about through what we do and what we say. We witness by embodying the message that we preach and weaving Christian values into its structure, teaching, and practice. It’ll be tough to witness to a world shouting ‘we love justice’ when we exclude women from the highest forms of leadership, practise white and western supremacy in our worship, refuse to acknowledge or act on the struggles that the LGBTQ+ community face in being included in our society, remain silent in instances of abuse and the misuse of power, serve refreshments in plastic vessels, and refuse to engage with local, national and global politics.

By no means do each of these issues apply to every church, but we need to consider the state of our house before we invite people in. Our vision of justice applies to the whole of society but, because the church is embedded in that society, we need to imagine and openly talk about what justice looks like within the church, too. We need to become a church that embodies practices of relationship, peace, and simplicity rather than individualism, competition, and greed.

In 2023, Tearfund released a report titled ‘Restorative Revolution’, which crafts a vision of a world in which each person has enough to meet their needs rather than too much or too little, and creation is flourishing. It tells stories of local churches acting for social transformation: a church in Canada reconciling with First Nation communities, a church in Brazil campaigning for the government to clean up plastic in the Tejipió River, and other churches connecting with rural farmers to buy their produce at a premium price to encourage economic thriving. As we think about creative solutions to seek justice at a systemic level, there’s an invitation to join a movement of churches already acting to see a restorative revolution. Like the pioneer apostles we read about in the Book of Acts, our collective actions are part of our witness.

The collective witness of the church is also shaped by its theology. Theology is a powerful framework through which we make sense of what’s happening around us and within us. The purpose of sharing theologies of justice extends beyond motivating people to act. It’s also about empowering the disenfranchised to lean into an alternative story about their circumstance and belongingness in the world.

I admire the dedication of theologians who are re-examining Scripture for our present time, but the development of our theologies cannot be limited to ivory towers. As fantastic as theology books are, many aren’t very accessible to the general public: they need translating for the average Christian. Further, perhaps most importantly, there must be room for relevant theologies to be developed by those of us on the margins as God reveals himself in our day-to-day lives: how do we experience God, or understand Scripture? These experiences need to be listened to and amplified for society to learn from.

 

What’s your justice story?

We can all tell stories of justice through our day-to-day conversations. We can tell stories of justice artistically: in poetry, music, and watercolour. We can tell stories of justice in entrepreneurship: in the story of the brands we create, the choices we make regarding sourcing materials, and who we choose to serve. We can tell stories of innovative grassroots projects to the decision makers who are searching for policy solutions.

Wherever there is space for conversation, there is space for sharing and listening to stories. The beauty is that in the process we find new ways to articulate biblical justice to a watching world, and to enrich our understanding of who God is, deepening our relationship with God, with ourselves, with those around us, and with the whole of creation.

Hannah Lloyd
Tearfund

 

Discussion Questions 

  1. Where are you seeing justice done in your communities and global society, and how can you transform these experiences into stories that bear witness to the gospel? If you don’t have any examples just yet, maybe search and subscribe to e-newsletters or podcasts of Christians doing great things.
  2. Who’s someone in your daily life who’s passionate about justice but doesn’t know Jesus? Practice how you’d share the gospel with them to connect it to what they care about, given the opportunity.
  3. What’s one way that you can be a spark-starter, to gather people attending your home church and other churches in the city to take the first step towards seeking justice in your community?

 

References

[1] In past decades, when the church had more cultural clout, this one-way approach was common, and reflected our way of thinking about morality at the time: people were given a list of to-do’s and not-to-do’s, and encouraged not to ask too many questions. However, present generations expect to participate in a conversation where they can ask questions and wrestle with what they think for themselves.

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