Lawrence Congregations Move Forward with Social Justice Ministry

… by Giles Bruce … posted Monday, May 5, 2014

What could happen if Lawrence were a city for justice?  That’s what Justin Jenkins, pastor at Velocity Church, asked at a recent meeting of local religious leaders who have come together to make Lawrence what they describe as a more socially just community.  The group, which had its orientation in March, includes leaders from 22 local congregations who have been gathering monthly to discuss what the tentatively titled Lawrence Justice Ministry might look like.  This month, several of the clergy members will be giving “City on a Hill” sermons in which they will outline to their congregations what the scriptures say about social justice.  The religious leaders hope the ministry can help show the difference between mercy and justice.  Mercy is what many of the congregations already do ~ feed the hungry, house the homeless.  Justice, they say, means transforming the system so those needs no longer exist.  “I can imagine a day that we don’t need LINK (the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen) anymore, that we don’t need the shelter anymore, that we don’t need Family Promise anymore,” said Matt Sturtevant, pastor at First Baptist Church.  Added Jenkins:  “There’s a difference between first aid, which is to save someone’s life, and actually treating the disease, which is a long-term solution.”  “It’s about looking at the causes instead of just the effects,” said John McDermott, pastor at Morning Star Christian Church.  The group started last year after the faith leaders began talking about whether they might be able to make a difference in solving injustices.  Congregations have been coming together in Lawrence and elsewhere across the U.S. for years ~ during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th Century, for instance ~ but this is the first time locally there has been this large of a unified effort focused on transformative justice, the group says.  The ministry plans to start a listening process in the fall to identify the major social injustices in Lawrence, with community meetings open to the public.  In early 2015, they will decide on the issue or issues most important to Lawrencians and begin working on solutions.  “We believe that having justice is a religious obligation,” said Moussa Elbayoumy, director of the Islamic Center of Lawrence.

JMM Response, for CC-RPC’s website (05/2014, based on Dec./2013 intx. with DART leader)

Dear ____ (regional leader of D.A.R.T. = Direct Action & Resource Training Center, which seeks to organize local coalitions like the one coming together here as the “Lawrence Justice Ministry”]:  Thank you for the time you invested to seek understanding of/with us [late last year, 2013].  Because getting forty men together to hear from the four of us [evangelical pastors] is highly unlikely and because of your own request for it, we provide this bare summary of our long talk, hoping it will shed light on ONE evangelical position (… not the only faithful one).   We trust that you will represent this/us well in communicating with the growing DART-Lawrence contingent.

Some evangelical pastors in Lawrence are taking a “Gamaliel Approach” to DART-Lawrence at this time, certain we cannot stand against the work of God, convinced that we would never want to do so, and actually praying that Jesus Christ will be honored through YOUR efforts toward increasing justice (Let it roll down like mighty watersAmos 5:24).  That said, we are choosing to stay out of THIS justice-related union at the present time, for these reasons, among others:

(1) As much as we love justice and are working for its spread in our community, we doubt that much positive progress can be made without very careful definitions of critical words like justice, peace, shalom, God, sin, and reconciliation.  Who is God?  How can we know Him?  Through what one name may we know Him?  What does this God say about justice … and injustice?  If injustice is a form of sin, how can sinners be forgiven-reconciled, by/with God and others they offended?  So an effective justice ministry which deserves full passion and support of Christian pastors and congregations should aim for initial foundational agreement concerning Who brings about lasting justice and how He does so through His redeemed, reconciled people.  All this demands clear allegiance to the Bible (the sixty-six books of the Old and the New Testaments) and the Triune God it reveals.  To support justice initiatives from our hearts and our wallets, we must know that we are working with brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, building on a foundation of inerrant Scriptures, pursuing compatible visions of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom.

(2) But as impressed as we are concerning the diversity of religious and spiritual leadership gathered around this need and opportunity, we wonder how two (or three, or four) who are so divided on spiritual foundations can walk together.  See, pursuit of true justice through long processes of reconciliation is a fundamental demand of the Christian gospel, but disciples of Jesus are not to be unequally yoked together with those who are not worshiping Christ as the exclusive Lord, way, truth, and life (John 14:6).  Paul equates “unbelievers” with lawlessness and darkness in his famous charge about unequal yokes (2 Cor. 6:14); who are we to say we know better today?  While it is in our nature to be just as polite, congenial, and neighborly as the rest of the gents in the room, several decades of history in Douglas County tell us that not all of the early D.A.R.T. participants have proven themselves to be friends of truth, life, and Jesus Christ.  This should be manifestly clear to everyone, as non-Christian religions are represented, along with cultic versions of Christianity and groups which long ago gave up on the idea that people are saved by grace alone through faith in the God-man alone according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone [and all of those terms must be defined Biblically/creedally as well].

(3) This leads us to sincere doubts about the nuts and bolts plan for justice pursuits through such an ecumenical endeavor:  Will this be yet another repeat of the “social gospel” agenda which forgets the gospel?  Might we expect a high priority for leftist-style wealth redistribution under the guise of love for the poor?  Will it be assumed that civil governments should play the primary role in bringing about this justice and equity (that is, members of religious communities will basically appeal to elected officials to “do justice”), instead of each person, family, and faith community acting justly within their sphere?  And will we see yet another wave of “gender-identity justice” become the dominant concern in our liberal community, just as previous pushes have enjoyed strong support from our most liberal congregations (“Christian” and otherwise)?  And will it ever occur to DART-Lawrence to consider that the deepest injustice of OUR lifetimes, in the United States has been the legalized killing of 55 million babies in the womb since 1973, leaving those dead plus millions of wounded would-be parents and siblings?  Yes, we know that a passion for eliminating legalized abortion in our community would be too controversial, not a topic to bring together Lawrence faith communities; it would be a non-starter.  But sometimes litmus tests are useful, and a number of us wonder how true justice can be pursued by those who cannot see this crime of the centuries for what it is.  God forgive us.

(4) We urge LJM members to recognize that many ministries already at work in our community, supported well by many of you, already have strong justice components (for the hungry and homeless, underemployed, “strangers in our midst” from other lands, “pregnant & scared,” etc.).  We are resolved to continue supporting these initiatives well, giving out cups of cold water and much more, always in the name of Christ, such that Jesus is front-and-center in the witness and in the gift … not a copilot, a side-thought, or a footnote in a bylaw or brochure.  Christian pastors & churches are to present to a lost world the message of Jesus with absolute clarity, in all its forms.  True words are ALWAYS necessary to explain our motivation for these acts of charity and justice.

(5) Finally, we urge great caution through mentioning the title of a culture-changing book, representatives of which will be coming to Lawrence in September, 2014:  When Helping Hurts.  The history of charity, help, & justice ministry is littered with kind deeds worked out unbiblically, such that helpers & victims are NOT seeing one another as we are (beggars before a generous God who makes known HIS paths of relational reconciliation).

It is not a little thing for us to claim the mantle or the spirit of Gamaliel, as his Acts 5 counsel was honest only if he ceased speaking ill of the followers of Jesus Christ in venues other than the Sanhedrin Council, and possibly joined hands with those Christian disciples after he could see the godliness of their lives and message.  We look forward to seeing positive developments through DART and LJM, and we will eagerly encourage our friends to join in on the public gatherings you propose which are in keeping with the priorities summarized above.  To use one of your own picturesque analogies, we understand that “the DART Bus” will be coming around the block more than once, such that there will be other opportunities for us to get on board!  Friends of justice that you want to be, we trust that those who hesitated to jump on during the first round will receive a hearty welcome and not be kept out in the cold nor pushed to the back.

And [Jesus Christ] is the Image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation.  For by Him all things were created … all things have been created by and for Him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.  He is also the Head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.  For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross. …” (Colossians 1:15-20).

Sincerely for Jesus, on behalf of a few evangelical pastors who are still learning & growing ~ JMM