Churches need to raise their game to tackle the injustices that afflict our society and truly follow a Gospel agenda, writes a Baptist minister
Back in the mid ‘80s I was at a denominational conference. The key speaker was a black pastor from Apartheid South Africa. He had been expelled for his subversive work. At the conference he told us that the British people he met constantly complained that he and his colleague were always going on about politics – the politics of apartheid, of course. With passion he said ‘How could we not? In our congregations there are the widows and mothers of the men and children who have been killed, imprisoned and mown down in the streets.’
‘How can we not mention it?’ The question has haunted me ever since. Now, more than 30 years later in our own land 100,000 children are homeless, 300,000 adults are rough sleepers, 6 million families live below the bread line. We have foodbanks which nurses must visit for enough food for their families. When are these things mentioned in church? It seems we are more than capable of not mentioning it. Why is that?
Of course it has long been too polite to mention politics. We would not wish to upset people. Only Saviours are allowed to turn over the tables of the wealthy traders and even then only in the Temple.
Turn the clock back 150 years and evangelicals were in the fore front of social action. Alongside the great names of Shaftesbury and Barnardo, many local churches and Christian folk were working to alleviate the effects of poverty and to champion social justice. It was not achieved overnight but they eventually changed laws, some of which still apply.
Today churches are active in foodbanks, homeless shelters and much more. But that is not what is really needed. I would compare it to the actions of those who back in the dark days of slavery would bind the wounds of the beaten slaves, soothe the women raped by their owners but would do nothing about the basic injustice of slavery.
Social justice needs to be moved back to the centre of what it means to be Christian, at the heart of what we mean by Gospel. Jesus is often portrayed as the inheritor of the prophetic tradition of the pre-exilic prophets, though he rarely railed against the injustices of the day. He preferred to identify with the outcast. He had a much greater battle to fight.
As I chunter on to current and former church leaders about this, they suffer my words in silence. I can almost hear their thoughts. ‘We dare not upset people. They may stop coming, they may even stop giving’. It seems as if the comfortable middle class that occupy our pews do not want to hear what the Bible says to them about justice for the poor. If they actually listened, they may have to change their priorities; it might affect their bank balances. Modern Christianity, it seems, is no longer in the business of heralding change.
It is almost as if the Remnant theology of the 80s has re-emerged and we are content to sing ‘the songs of Zion on the banks of the river’, bemoaning the fact we are not yet in Jerusalem instead of seeking to build ‘Jerusalem in our green and pleasant land’.
There are, of course, many Christians working on both the practical and political level and I would not want to ignore their efforts. Nationally there are Christian organisations along with national church leaders who work amongst the political leaders and in the media to highlight social justice issues. Sadly these are only successful as a pressure group. Those in power do not need to take notice because it is votes that matter. If an election were called today, the outcome is uncertain. Votes are in balance and could go either way. The powerful are clearly worried.
We need the churches to raise their game, to engage with the issues in order to change minds. This should start with our own constituency, Christians. From my discussions it appears that the country and specifically the middle class have bought the clever suggestion that until we have a magic money tree we are doing all we can. What the Bible has to say about justice is disregarded. As if we will ever have enough money while we decide to spend it in other ways.
So what shall we do? How do we move the Christian focus on social justice back to the centre of what Church is about? When do we move from praying for God’s kingdom to come, towards making it happen?
Image | Pixabay | Geralt
Tony Cross is a retired Regional Minister. He now spends most of his time in activities beyond the local church