Justice and the Christian Witness (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1983)
Brief Summary Statement by Edgar Metzler
- The Character of Justice in the Bible
- God's Way to Shalom
- The Church Discerns and Witnesses for Justice
- Standards for Christian Witness
- Guidelines for Participation in Secular Structures
- Guidelines for Witness to Secular Structures
- Guidelines for Life Within the Covenant Community
- The Scope of Biblical Justice
- The Cause of Injustice Is Sin
- The Foundation for Justice Is God's Saving Act
- The Context for Justice Is Covenant
- The Outcome of God's New Order Is Justice
III. God's Way to Shalom
- Justice Flows from the Love of God
- Justice and Peace Combine in Shalom
- Justice Is Acting for the Oppressed
- Practice Mutual Aid
- Distribute Power Broadly
- Provide Adequately for Employees
- Resolve Conflicts Constructively
Justice and Christian Witness: a Summary Statement adopted by General Conference Mennonite Church Triennial Session Mennonite Church General Assembly Bethlehem, Pennsylvania August 1-7, 1983
In 1980 a joint study committee of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church began collaboration on a statement on justice to be presented to the historic first joint session of the two denominations in August 1983 at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
This effort was preceded by a growing interest in both bodies for a fuller understanding of the biblical teaching on justice. At the 1977 General Assembly of the Mennonite Church at Estes Park, Colorado, a study was authorized to expand the statements of 1951 and 1961 on "Peace and the Christian Witness" to include more fully the dimension of justice. A committee began work and submitted a progress report to the 1979 General Assembly at Waterloo, Ontario.
Soon after the Waterloo Assembly, the General Conference Mennonite Church began to cooperate in the study. At the triennial General Conference in 1980 (also at Estes Park) approval was given to working jointly.
Both bodies promoted congregational consideration of the proposed statement before the joint sessions in 1983. The study report and study guide, along with a leader's guide, were published in 1982 for congregational use.
At Bethlehem, August 1983, the proposed statement was considered by both denominations in joint and separate sessions.
The Mennonite Church General Assembly affirmed "Justice and the Christian Witness" as "a summary statement of understandings on the nature of biblical justice and of guidelines for responding to issues of justice in our world," and encouraged wide study and use of the understandings of the statement throughout the church as a means of "communicating God's concern for justice/righteousness as a way of life for those who follow our Lord."
The General Conference Mennonite Church adopted the report of the study on "Justice and the Christian Witness." The conference noted "our need for further growth in understanding and implementing God's call for justice particularly as it may come from women and minorities in our communities and from the Third World."
The brief summary statement was prepared since Bethlehem 83 by Edgar Metzler, [then] secretary for Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church, in consultation with other members of the study committee, to provide a quick overview of the major contents of the official statement.
May this statement be used by the Holy Spirit as a guide and a prod to the church as it seeks to do justice and make peace in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Vern Preheim, General Secretary General Conference Mennonite Church 722 Main Street, Box 347 Newton, KS 67114
Ivan Kauffmann, General Secretary Mennonite Church 528 Madison Street Lombard, IL 60148
Copyright © 1985 by Faith and Life Press, Newton, KS and Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, PA
God wills justice. Throughout the Bible, justice is a primary characteristic of God, a major component of the mission of Jesus, and an indispensable criterion for faithfulness of the people of God.
The biblical call for justice has been heard with increasing clarity by Mennonites in recent decades. Missions and service experiences in many different ethnic, economic, political, and social situations have moved us to a deeper realization of the extent of injustice and greater compassion for its victims. Scriptural studies on justice have taken on new meaning with our increased involvement in the fabric of global society and growing awareness of how injustice infects even our own institutions, communities, and families. These reflections on the Bible and our life in the world have expanded the implications of our long commitment to nonresistant love.
Biblical justice is about the relationships God intends for all creation. God is just and God acts to create justice/righteousness. God's people are reconciled by God's justice-making through Christ. God's people are faithful when they pursue justice. The biblical word "justice" is generally interchangeable with "righteousness" in English translations of the Bible. (Some languages such as Spanish, have only one word, "justice," for the two English equivalents.)
The goal of God's action is the restoration of wholeness and harmony, the condition the Bible calls "shalom." Justice and peace are the components of "shalom." Love is the motivation for commitment to the realization of "shalom."
Justice in the Bible is more than equal rights or giving appropriate due to each. Concern for reconciliation with God, the wholeness of the shalom community, and loving service to the victims of injustice are all integral elements of biblical justice.
The cause of injustice is sin, the failure to live out the divine image in which we are created. All human activity is perverted by selfishness and pride. Therefore, institutions and systems with the potential for good regularly become agents of injustice.
The answer to injustice is the grace of God--what God has already done and is doing. God's gracious acts of deliverance and salvation serve both as model and motivation for our response to God's initiative. Gratefully, we ask God to transform our lives, letting "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Thus, the context for justice/righteousness is covenant with God--a right relationship in which both God and the people of God accept mutual obligations and privileges. Since the first break in relationship in the Garden of Eden, God has been inviting all creation into covenant. Jesus introduced a new way to enter into a right relationship with God. All who accept this righteousness in faith become partners with God in the new order where justice and peace can be experienced and demonstrated.
God's atoning work in Christ breaks down worldly distinctions and separation. In the new social reality of the kingdom of God, Christians witness to God's justice by our worship, life together, and sacrificial service.
Justice flows from the love of God. God's love always seeks reconciliation with humankind, even in our rebellion. God's people display that same kind of love, even for enemies.
God's love reaches out. The purpose of choosing a people was to bless all nations. The justice advocated by the prophets was to be "a light to the nations." Jesus reached out to all manner of persons and on the cross forgave even his enemies.
God's love is not passive, but confronts injustice. The prophets called God's people to "seek justice, correct oppression." The assertive love of Jesus confronted injustice with a call to repentance. Justice/righteousness is the main biblical measurement of judgment for all people.
God's love empowers the people of God for justice and sustains them in the divine calling to join God in the long-range task of creating a shalom community.
Shalom is the biblical vision which combines justice and peace. Nonviolent love was the method of Jesus, the suffering servant, in challenging the powers and principalities.
Biblical justice has a very specific content and application. justice is God's will for all, but there is special concern for orphans, widows, and foreigners throughout both testaments of the Bible. Love for the neighbor, especially the poor and marginalized, was practiced and preached by Jesus. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to participate in God's nonviolent work of justice and reconciliation. In so doing we can also expect to suffer with our Lord.
The church is the visible expression of the kingdom of God, brought together in Christ to demonstrate the new community of right relationships. Prophetic discernment is necessary for the church to test its own life and to discover with the aid of the Holy Spirit how to relate to the urgent needs for justice and peace in our world.
That discernment takes place around the Bible, in a context of prayer and covenant community. In this community it is vital that we listen to the varied experiences and counsel of brothers and sisters from different cultures.
Love, justice, and peace provide standards for practicing justice/ righteousness in our Christian witness. Vital questions to test possible actions are:
1. Is it loving? This question searches out our motives and also asks if our actions actually benefit those we wish to help.
2. Is it just? This question focuses on the impact of what we do for those with little power in our world. We need to examine critically our personal uses of power and resources, work to strengthen the rights of the poor and the powerless, and test our political and economic views by God's concern for all alike, especially the poor, the weak, and the oppressed.
3. Does it make peace? This question screens our action against all violence and opens us to sharing in the suffering of Jesus. It also calls for more practice and training in nonviolent conflict resolution and witness.
Since most church members are employed in secular settings, it is vital to think clearly how our commitment to God's justice can best be expressed in those situations. Important guidelines are:
1. Test the goals and functions of our work-related organizations by their commitment to justice. Some are clearly out of bounds, such as weapons manufacture. Any activity which exploits human or natural resources must be carefully scrutinized. There are many variations in the vocational opportunities we seek and each should be tested with fellow-Christians as to its contribution to God's intention for justice and the furtherance of the kingdom.
2. Be accountable to the covenant community, but celebrate the variety of ways committed persons can work in the world. Just as some need to be confronted with the implications of their occupation for kingdom values, others need to be affirmed in their search to find creative new forms of witness. Applying the standards of love, justice, and peace will not result in uniformity.
3. Exercise a sensitive conscience, ready to differ and/or withdraw as necessary and to contribute positively to decisions which are made. The support of other believers is vital for such conscientious witness.
Sharing God's concern for justice requires Christian witness to organizations in our society in which we may riot be personally involved, but whose policies and programs have a direct impact on the quality of human life. Governmental structures are a notable example. Important guidelines include:
1. Learn to communicate in ways that will be understood.
2. Acknowledge that the function of the state in God's providential grace is different than the function of the church.
3. Use appropriate methods and forms of witness to various structures. Primary considerations include respect for individuals in authority, an appeal to their conscience and the highest ideals of the organizations, and an invitation to Christian discipleship. When Christian witness to the ruling powers goes unheeded, Christians may need to consider God's calling to a conscientious refusal to participate.
Our witness for justice/righteousness in the world will be authentic when our life together in the church is characterized by justice. In order for our proclamation of the good news of Jesus to be credible, the life of the church must model our aspirations for peace, love, and justice in the larger world.
Particular challenges for the church include practicing mutual aid, distributing power broadly within the church structures, dealing fairly with employees, and resolving conflicts constructively.
Our calling as a church is to practice justice with peace in the spirit of Christ as we work with God for the justice God intends for the world.
According to Micah 6:8, the expected response to God's saving acts is "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." In the same spirit, Jesus denounced the Pharisees because they "neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23).
Concern for justice and righteousness has always been a characteristic of faithfulness among the people of God. We reaffirm previous statements made by our church bodies which began to enlarge our understanding of peace with the dimension of biblical justice.
"The way of peace is the way of justice. The prophets and Jesus spoke much about the need for justice. They called for the kind of social change that would permit righteousness to flourish ....
"Where there is an absence of justice, there is an absence of peace. Strife and wars are born of the selfishness and greed of individuals, groups, and nations. According to the biblical prophetic witness, the Christian is urged to free himself from the selfishness of materialism. He seeks to confront those who because of their greed cause injustice and oppression for others. And he seeks to identify with the oppressed and participate in ministries of love and service in their behalf." (General Conference Mennonite Church Statement, "A Christian Declaration on the Way of Peace," 1971).
"Social attitudes, conditions, and practices out of harmony with the righteousness of God, and which contribute to injustice, to suffering, to weakening of mind, of body, and of character, or to the growth of crime, need ever to be witnessed against" (Mennonite Church statement, "Peace and the Christian Witness," Part II, 1961).
"We understand this commitment (to a consistent demonstration of sacrificial Christian love in all relationships) to mean:
"That we are bound in loving outreach to all to bear witness to Christ and to serve in his name, bringing the gospel and all its benefits to everyone, and summoning men everywhere to the life of full discipleship and to the pursuit of peace and love without limit. For this ministry we mean to use every feasible way and facility; the spoken and written word; the demonstration of holiness and love in family, church, and community; relief work and Christian social service; and all other ways ....
"That we have the responsibility to bring in the total social order in which we live, and from which we receive so much, the utmost of which we are capable in Christian love and service. Seeking for all men first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we should hold together in one united ministry the evangelism which brings men to Christ and the creative application of the gospel to cultural, social, and material needs. This ministry will go to all alike regardless of race, class, or condition" (Mennonite Church statement, "Peace and the Christian Witness," Part I, 1951).
The form of being "in the world," but not "of the world," varies by time and place. For some Mennonites in the 1930s, labor unions were the issue. During the 1940s, we were challenged with being part of a war-making society. Church-state relationships and capital punishment were among the issues of the 1950s. Civil rights came to the fore during the 1960s. Conscription and the Vietnam war demanded attention by the early 1970s. In the 1980s we are faced with many questions of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in a world where we cannot avoid social, political, and economic involvement.
These involvements challenge us to new reflection about the needs of the world and our response. A major dimension of those needs is in justice. Our experience as a church brings the issues of justice before us in a new way.
1. Missions and service work. A central source of concern about justice is our experience in mission and service. As we have carried the gospel by word and deed to our cities and other parts of the world, we have come to learn that evangelism, relief, and service cannot be divorced from concern for justice. Meeting people in these situations with the love of Christ requires attention to justice issues as part of the good news. Our attempt to be faithful to the Great Commission and "unto one of the least of these" (Matthew 25:40) has brought the justice issue to our attention.
2. Moving beyond ethnic boundaries. Our evangelism has been used by God to create new brothers and sisters who live in circumstances far different from those of European-descended Mennonites in North America. Many know firsthand the reality of poverty, racial or cultural discrimination, and political repression. For such, a "gospel" disconnected from justice is not good news.
3. Increased knowledge of poverty and injustice. In our "global village," we are exposed to world happenings in a way that was impossible for our grandparents. As our local communities have become more diverse, many of our own members know hunger, unemployment, and the uneven application of the law.
4. Professional involvements in structures of the world. Our vocations now take many of us into situations where standards expected by our professional peers are different than those we learned in church. Involvements in impersonal organizations may affect the well-being of many whom we never see.
5. Establishment of church institutions. Justice issues also arise because Mennonite churches have become employers and managers of large institutions. A deep understanding of justice is needed to guide the development of appropriate models of management and personnel administration.
6. Questions about peace. We have a long and deep commitment to the biblical way of nonresistance, peace, and love. But we have often been blind to our own contributions to injustice. We have too readily refrained from significant witness against injustice suffered by others. Our silence in some settings has helped preserve a kind of peace by suppressing resentments that would erupt later.
To seek peace with justice will frequently include suffering either from personal submission to injustice or from active confrontation against injustice being done against others. When should we submit? When, and how, should we confront? These are among the urgent questions arising out of recent Mennonite mission and service work. This is particularly true in places where, because of hardness of heart, injustice may lead to overt acts of violence.
7. Awareness of our own responsibility. Our growing involvement in the world is generally to be affirmed. It has enabled us to reach out in evangelism, to open doors to reconciliation, to serve the needy, and to speak for justice. This happens not only through church programs but also through participation in the secular structures of our jobs and communities. All are important expressions of our role as "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14).
Jesus, however, warned that light can be hidden and salt can lose its taste. We confess that our involvements in the world too often contribute to injustice and conflict rather than to justice and peace. We are too readily molded by the norms of the institutions and structures around us, rather than by conscious discernment of God's message and will. Our life together also falls short, sometimes marred by power struggles, self-centeredness, and injustices typical of the world. One particular evidence is the widespread acceptance of the spirit of individualism. Rather than being mutually accountable to each other in the church, we tend to do what is right in our own eyes.
8. Other justice concerns. A growing awareness of other justice issues has developed as the church brings the Bible to bear on contemporary experience, including racism, economic justice, the rights of the unborn, offender justice, equality for women, political repression, opportunity for refugees, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, government lotteries, pollution, needs of the elderly, redevelopment of the inner cities, and others.
This statement does not attempt to deal with these specific issues, although some are mentioned by way of illustration. The intention of this statement is to set forth biblical perspectives and guidelines on justice which will be applied to the specific areas of concern.
The biblical word "justice" is generally interchangeable with "righteousness." Either English word may be an accurate translation of the Hebrew or Greek original. (In some languages, such as Spanish, Bible translations have only one word, "justice," for the two English equivalents.) Both terms refer to what God requires as right relationships of people with God, with other people, and with God's creation. In the material which follows we may speak at times of "justice" and at times of "righteousness." Other times we may use a dual form, "justice/righteousness." These forms are intended to express essentially the same concept. (See Additional Notes)
This harmony of meaning is evident in the rhyming thought of Amos, pleading to "let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). It is also is key to Paul's argument that the justice/righteousness of God is now made known through faith in Jesus, whom God offered as the means of restoring broken relationships, demonstrating that God both is just/righteous and does justice/righteousness (Romans 3:20-26).
In biblical thought, peace, love, and justice are companion terms. Each helps to express the richness of relationships envisioned by God for his creation. Each concept found greater expression envisioned by God for his creation. Each concept found greater expression through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Love is the motivation; peace and justice are both goal and means to the goal.
"Peace" in both Testaments is shaped by the Hebrew concept of "shalom." Shalom refers to a state of wholeness, health, harmonious relationships, fullness of life in God's covenant, economic and social justice, and service. Biblical "love" describes God's active involvement with people in creating and continuing shalom. Both are gifts of God who was "in Christ . . . reconciling the world to himself' (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Concern for justice/righteousness permeates the Bible from the murder of Abel (Genesis 4) to the giving of the Law (Exodus 20), to prophetic confrontation with kings (1 Kings 21), to the vision of the servant who would establish justice (Isaiah 42), to the priority of kingdom righteousness requited by Jesus (Matthew 5:20; 6:33), to the indictment of the rich (James 5:1-6), to the affirmation of those who do right (1 John 3:7), to the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15).
The biblical meaning of justice/righteousness must be understood in the larger context of right relationships between God and his people. Biblical justice is not as much concerned with determining legal guilt, punishment, and reward, as with securing the wholeness and harmony of the shalom community.
The familiar legal definitions of justice, such as "giving to each his/ her due" or "equal rights under law" are not adequate to encompass the biblical meaning. Justice in the Bible includes both a concern for reconciliation in personal relationships and a call to challenge all forms of social injustice in light of the standards of God's kingdom. This is a broader and deeper understanding of justice than the conventional limited idea of a verdict in the courtroom.
To move toward a comprehensive understanding of justice, we must survey the unfolding pattern of the biblical revelation. Only then can we begin to grasp and define the meaning of justice for Christian commitment.
The biblical concern for justice grows from our failure to live up to the divine image in which we were created. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Instead of creating culture and structures for the glory of God and for mutual benefit, human sin has subverted potentially good structures for the service of human pride and selfishness.
Economic, social, and political institutions are potentially expressions of God's intention for human cooperation and sharing. Yet these structures have often become corrupted to serve personal and group desires rather than the larger society, and narrow self-interest rather than the good of all God's creation.
The Bible speaks of this process when it refers to "principalities" and "powers," created by God (Colossians 1:16), but now fallen; ruling over the disobedient (Ephesians 2:2), and seeking to separate believers from the love of God (Romans 8:38).
Even in their rebellion, however, the powers and structures operate under the providential sovereignty of God. In spite of their fallenness, God can use them to exercise an ordering function, as in Romans where the sword of the state serves to protect good and punish evil (13:1-4), or in Isaiah where God uses pagan Assyria as the rod of his anger against Israel (10:5).
Whenever we seek to follow Christ in a life of discipleship or call others to do the same, we can anticipate resistance from the fallen powers and structures. We can expect our convictions and actions to be challenged by people who elevate some value or relationship other than our commitment to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice (Matthew 6:33). Values often placed above justice/righteousness include family and ethnic group customs, national patriotism, or devotion to an economic system, whether capitalism, socialism, or communism.
The resistance of the powers personified in the devil was evident in our Lord's temptation (Luke 4:1-13). Challenges to his doing of God's will continued from some Jewish religious leaders and Roman authorities. The apostles knew the same experience as they carried the gospel message to new peoples.
Even in the early church, deliberate effort was needed to absorb Hellenist widows (Acts 6), slaves (Philemon), and Gentile converts (Acts 15), and to rebuke racial segregation (Galatians 2:11-21), sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5), public grievances against fellow members (1 Corinthians 6), and inequities in worship (1 Corinthians 11:14).
The foundation for biblical justice is what God has already done for his people. The first word of the Ten Commandments is salvation from slavery: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). The deeds of God cited in Micah 6:4-5 include liberation from oppression in Egypt, protection in the wilderness, and occupation of the promised land. These acts are called God's "righteousness" (King James Version), God's "saving acts" (Revised Standard Version), "righteous acts" of the Lord (New International Version). The original Hebrew term used here (sedaqah) is one of the two words which are often translated "justice" in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament the just acts of God climax in Christ's salvation work. Thus, Paul proclaims the gospel as "the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith." The justice/righteousness of God is revealed in those who live by faith in God's saving work (Romans 1:16-17).
God's grace forms the foundation for law and justice in both Testaments. The saving acts prove that God is interested in our freedom and that his laws, therefore, are designed to keep us free. God's salvation moves us to respond in gratitude and obedience.
In light of God's gift of freedom what kind of response is appropriate? Not religious feasts and assemblies, generous offerings and beautiful music. Rather "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). In a similar way Paul appeals to these mercies of God as the reason "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God." The meaning of "living sacrifice" is to be evident in transformed living, mutual care for the body of Christ, and returning good for evil (Romans 12). To the Philippians Paul commends as the model for discipleship the mind of Christ whose obedience to death led to his exaltation by God (Philippians 2:5-13). There is authority in the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus, demonstrates how to live (Matthew 7:28-29).
Biblical justice must be understood in terms of God and people covenant relationships. Biblical justice is not blind, but cares enough to seek shalom. This covenant immediacy is evident in the Ten Commandments which begin "I am the Lord your God" then continue with "Thou shalt" (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). A similar covenant context is found in the three great Old Testament law collections (Exodus 20; Leviticus 17-26; Deuteronomy 12-28).
Even during the time of kingship the covenant legal structure was the standard for kings to uphold. Rather than forcing others to accept this authority through his use of military power or economic strength, the king was to regard his authority as based upon the Torah, the law of God (Jeremiah 22:13-17).
Thus in Israel the prophet rather than the king was the chief guardian of the law and God's representative to preserve justice. The great bulk of prophetic oracles is one indictment heaped upon another against Israel, the people of Yahweh, for violation of covenant expectations. Although the king was responsible to observe and uphold covenant law and justice (Psalms 72), the law collection of the Old Testament never became "state law" but remained within the covenant structures of God and people.
From the first rebellion in Eden, God has been at work to establish a new relationship. Unlike the covenant which was broken, the new covenant is to be written on the hearts of those who know God as "their God" and themselves as "my people" (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
The covenant pattern became evident in the New Testament when God's Son walked on earth as the living word, demonstrating personally "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Far from coercion or threat, our Lord's power is an invitation to relationship: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (Matthew 11:29). The "law" of his kingdom is directed to the redeemed people and elicits obedience in the covenant community. Our Lord interpreted his death as "my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24). The first-century church proclaimed the risen Lord as the fulfillment of God's promises to King David (Acts 2:25-36; 13:26-41). The ultimate covenant vision foresees the Holy City when God will be with "his people" and will be their Lord (Revelation 21:3).
The biblical drama shows God at work, establishing a new order of justice/righteousness. Since the rebellion of the powers in Eden, God has been asking, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9) and "Where is . . . your brother?" (Genesis 4:9). Separated by their sin from the presence of God, men and women were caught ever more deeply in the spiraling web of evil (Genesis 3-5). Although the flood left human attitudes unchanged (cf. Genesis 6:5 with 8:21), God established his providential grace in the covenant with Noah. The old order is sustained through the perpetual changing of seasons and alternating of day and night (Genesis 8:20-22).
Along with this "order that is," there is an "order that is becoming." With Abraham and Sarah and their faith descendants, God established his special grace, launching a strategy to create a new society. That new relationship was to issue in blessing for all families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3) with particular concern that justice prevail.
Throughout the Bible, establishment of the new order is intertwined with the history of Israel, but they are not the same. Jesus warned Jewish leaders that claiming Abraham as father was of no account unless they followed God as Abraham did (John 8:39-40). In a similar way Paul asserted that it is only people of faith who are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7).
Entrance into the new order is achieved by accepting God's invitation to right relationship through Christ. Anyone thus reconciled becomes a new creation in which "the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, New International Version). Those in this "new birth" relationship find capacity to practice God's justice/righteousness and thus demonstrate the reality of God's new order.
Repentance opens the way into the messianic kingdom (Mark 1:15) where citizens of the kingdom live out the justice/righteousness of the new order in their personal, social, economic, and political settings. In his community of followers Jesus welcomed natural enemies--Matthew the Roman collaborator, Simon the anti-Roman nationalist, Peter the strong-willed fisherman (Matthew 10:2-4). Women were likewise prominent in the circle of disciples (Luke 8:2-3) and even despised Samaritans could become examples of the peace of the kingdom (Luke 10:33).
The early Christian community confessed that Christ makes peace by breaking down "the dividing wall of hostility" between alienated people. They also knew that he reaches out to preach peace both to those who are far off and to those who are near (Ephesians 2:12-18). There is a direct relationship between the atoning work of Jesus and the new social reality evident in the church.
The new order transcends political boundaries. As citizens of God's kingdom we view ourselves as strangers and exiles, reflecting our identity with the heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16). Through Jesus Christ we who were previously separated by nationalism or race are brought together into a new community of peace, canceling out previous hostility (Ephesians 2:16). While our material existence may vary according to the political system under which we live, our wholeness is not dependent on earthly governments.
Some may view us as parasites when commitment to Christ makes us refuse demands imposed by government or community expectations. Always such refusal is to be communicated in a spirit of respect and caring. As disciples of Grist, we seek first God's kingdom and God's justice. While secular authorities may disagree with our priorities, we live in the confidence that faithful discipleship enriches any society in which we may live. Jesus affirms that as we live justly with our neighbors we are no less than the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
1. God's love is the energy by which he establishes the new order. God's choice of Israel had nothing to do with merit or numbers but was simply "because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers" (Deuteronomy 7:8). In the same way New Testament Christians may identify themselves by the ancient titles "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" simply because in their new relationship they have experienced the unmerited love of God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Always it is God's love which seeks reconciliation with humankind. Hosea and other prophets portray God as one whose love will not abandon even an unfaithful spouse (Hosea 1-3) or a rebellious child (Hosea 11:8-9).
The book of Jonah dramatizes the ancient creed of Israel: "You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:2, New International Version; cf. Exodus 34:6). Here God's love is not only for alienated Israel but also for Nineveh, the historical enemy of God's people. Covenant people display in their own behavior the steadfast love of God, even for enemies.
2. God's love reaches out. The emerging witness of the prophets came into full view in Jesus Grist, the only Son of God, in which is revealed the extent of the love of God (John 3:16; 1 (John 4:9). In Jesus we see God's strategy of action in a love which is far from passive but is active and aggressive (Romans 5:68).
Jesus touched all kinds of people, especially the broken of body, paralyzed of spirit, and the dispossessed (Mark 2:15; Luke 4:31-41). He also reached out to the shapers of religious, political, and social influence who perceived themselves as already whole (Mark 2:16-17; John 8:33).
The depth of God's love is displayed in the cross. Jesus was crucified because he held the mirror of God's righteousness and forgiveness in such a way that the principalities and powers were unmasked and exposed for what they are (Acts 7:52; 13:28; Colossians 2:15). He accepted the consequences of his actions, responding not with hate or violence but with the prayer, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34). In this confrontation he guaranteed the hope of a new kingdom of love and justice.
Because of God's action, we who were previously strangers and without hope have been united through the blood of Christ "who has made us both one." Although we were divided by hate, his love has reconciled us to God "in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end" (Ephesians 2:12-16). In this way God has made us participants in the hope which "does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Romans 5:5).
3. God's love confronts injustice. In Isaiah God's indictment of vain offerings, solemn assemblies, and shedding innocent blood sets the stage to plead that God's people "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression." The ever-present invitation to restoration is there too: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:12-20).
In the same spirit, Jesus drove the vendors from the temple, pleading that it be restored as a place of prayer for all nations and that it cease to be used for robbing pilgrims who came to worship (Mark 11:15-19). In his assertive love Jesus caused persons to face their condition, confronting them in such a fundamental way that a neutral response was impossible (Mark 10:17-31). Some responded in repentance, and some became angry, rejecting his invitation to the justice/righteousness of the new way (John 10:31-42).
God's aggressive concern for justice is not limited to his own people. In Micah, God hails Israel into court. But in Psalm 82 the defendants are none other than the gods of the nations, indicted for their perversion of justice. Because of their crimes, the gods are sentenced to die like the princes who dispensed injustice on the human scene. Eventually the God of Israel judges the whole earth because all nations belong to him (Psalm 82).
4. God's love empowers his people for justice/righteousness. The process through which God establishes justice throughout the world began with the establishment of divine justice in Israel. God's people continue as the divine bridgehead through which God works out his long-range objectives.
Filled with God's love, believers are enabled to lovingly serve fellow believers (1 John 4:11-12), neighbors (James 2:8), and enemies (Romans 12:20-21). Impelled by the love of Christ, they call others to become reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:14, 20), they share sacrificially in meeting human need (2 Corinthians 8:3-4), and. they boldly confront manifestations of evil (Acts 16:18; 16:37;17:22-31; 21:13; 24:25).
Ultimately the Christian lives in the confidence that "love never fails" and that the power of love is the greatest of all the powers (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).
1. The vision of shalom. Matthew presents an early expression of the new and just order in the Sabbath Day healing of the man with a withered hand. In defying their. traditional regulations, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to put relational priorities ahead of ritual, quoting the prophetic word: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matthew 12:7; Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees reacted by plotting to destroy him, prompting Jesus to withdraw to another place.
In this incident Matthew recognized fulfillment of the vision in Isaiah 42:1-4 which thrice prophesied that God's servant will bring forth justice to the nations. But his justice is to be achieved without violence: "He will not wrangle or cry aloud" or "break a bruised reed . . . till he brings justice to victory" (Matthew 12:18-21).
Eventually the servant in Isaiah becomes known as the suffering servant. He is despised, rejected, and led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:3-7) because he proposes to replace the unjust systems of the nations with the covenant justice of a righteous God. The suffering is intensified because the servant challenges the principalities and powers through nonviolent means.
God's peaceful approach was also perceived by Mary when she recognized in the birth of a helpless infant that God was already at work, putting down the mighty and raising up the lowly, satisfying the hungry and shutting out the overfull (Luke 1:51-55). Other prophets foresaw a day when the nations of the world will adopt the new foundation of peace. Then many peoples will say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord . . . that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths." When this eschatological vision is fulfilled, the bomb and gun will become obsolete as instruments of international policy. Weapons will be refashioned into tools for food production, nations will cease from learning war, and all will experience shalom, sitting under their own vine and tree (Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-5).
2. Christ's mission of peace. Like his predecessor, John (Matthew 3:1-12), Jesus preached the kingdom of heaven and called for the change of heart envisioned by the prophets. He persuaded John to baptize him because he asserted: "Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). Then he called together a band of people to share his cause and proclaim the kingdom of peace and justice.
It was an unexpected turn of events, and the leaders of the people were perplexed (John 11:47-48). They saw Jesus forgiving and healing instead of fighting and hurting. Like the servant whose mouth was his sword (Isaiah 49:2), Jesus' preaching attracted many hearers and discredited the leaders' pretentions of wealth and power. Eventually they crucified Jesus and it appeared that God's kingdom had failed.
But the cross was followed by the resurrection which was God's way of bringing his king to glory (Luke 24:25-26). In submitting to death Jesus displayed God's justice/righteousness and made it possible for all who identify with him to move into right relationship with God and neighbor (Romans 5:18-21). Persons who repent and accept the peace of God are born anew by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables them to live the life both demonstrated and proclaimed by the prince of peace.
Through the Son and those who follow after, our loving God is ever reaching out to make peace. At one and the same time God confronts the world with the justice/righteousness of the Savior and offers peace through the cross (Ephesians 2). Confronted thus, people respond either by persisting in their hostility against God and his people (Matthew 11:20-24; Acts 26:20-21) or through faith being justified/made righteous before God. Being thus justified, says Paul, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).
The expected response to God's saving acts is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). In Isaiah the call is to "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). In these passages the other Hebrew word for "justice" (mishpat) is used, reflecting especially the human response. Inspired by the divine acts of justice/righteousness, we walk along with God by our deeds of justice.
Our Lord's harshest words in Matthew 23 were directed against the lawyers and Pharisees who perverted justice through their elaborate yet evasive compliance with the legal code: "Woe to you . . . hypocrites! . . . You have neglected the more important matters of the law justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23).
By contrast, at the core of Jesus' preaching was the call for heart righteousness, the sort of justice/righteousness which surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Matthew 5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus held up the vision of disciples whose relationship with their Lord would shine out in their hunger for justice/righteousness, in their quality of mercy, in their peacemaking--even to the point of suffering persecution (Matthew 5:1-16).
When asked to name the most important commandment, Jesus quoted from the law books as first, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5), and as closely related, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). These are greatest, he commented, because "on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:35-40).
Paul, as both Old Testament student and disciple of Jesus, several times cited the second sentence as fulfilling the whole intent of biblical law and justice: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14).
With the lawyer in Luke 10, we frequently try to evade the intent of biblical justice by asking, "Who is my neighbor?" In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that the neighbor is anyone in need. More importantly he shows that neighborliness is not so much an obligation to be legally defined as it is an opportunity to show mercy wherever some one needs a neighbor--even those from a hostile nation, creed, or clan (Luke 10:25-37).
While Israel's definition of "neighbor" was not yet this broad, significant principles for practicing justice are readily apparent in the Old Testament law. Israel's law collections, contrary to those of surrounding nations, recognized no class distinctions. There was one law for all. Brothers and sisters in Israel were those who freed their fellow Israelites from slavery on the year of release (Deuteronomy 15:1ff.), rescued them from poverty (15:7-11), dealt honestly with them (19:18-19), helped them maintain their property (22:1-4), and loaned money without interest (23:19).
Israel was to be especially concerned for the poor--orphan, widow, and foreigner who lived among them--who did not have an economic footing in society. Although God's blessing was so generous that no one needed to be poor (Deuteronomy 15:4-5), the inevitable perversion of justice within the structures of society made it necessary to acknowledge that the poor would always be present (Deuteronomy 15:4-11). Therefore justice demanded "You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
The same priority is reflected by James when he defined pure and undefiled religion as being: "To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27).
As disciples of our Lord we are called to participate with him in his work of justice and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). The Spirit of the Lord calls us with him to preach good news, to proclaim release, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).
At times the message will be to representatives of nonjust powers as when Daniel urged Nebuchadnezzar to "break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquility" (Daniel 4:27).
Although it is always nonviolent, the presence of the kingdom of God upsets the old order by demonstrating a new possibility (1 Peter 4:1-6) and pointing to the day when the disciple prayer will be fully realized: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Even though they are pursuing peace those who identify with Jesus can expect to suffer with him, because the rebellious powers seek always to preserve their advantage (1 Peter 3:8-22).
The basic Christian witness is the good news of Jesus Christ as seen in the people of God. The church is a city set on a hill which cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14), the divine bridgehead for establishing God's justice/righteous in the whole earth. The church is the visible expression of the people of God, aliens and strangers brought together by the blood of Christ, demonstrating the new community of right relationships (Ephesians 2:11-22).
The church is made up of repentant people who are being converted from their sinful nature by the transforming power of God. Recognizing their tendency toward injustice, they submit themselves continually to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit and the mutual discipling of fellow believers (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
An ever present danger for the people of God is the possibility of being drawn away from their first love (Revelation 2:4) by the "elemental spirits of the universe" (Colossians 2:20). These seductive powers have turned from their proper ordering function into their demonic self-assertive activities. Christians, like the Pharisees before them, seem particularly vulnerable to living by rituals and regulations (Galatians 4:9-10; Colossians 2:20-23), rather than in the loving freedom of the resurrected Christ (Galatians 5:1ff.; Colossians 3:1ff.).
This danger calls disciples to prophetic discernment, mutual counsel, and coming to consensus regarding the will of God. The Holy Spirit endows the new community with spiritual gifts for the good of the whole body (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
The gift of prophecy is of particular value because it builds up the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-12). Thus the early church found direction on issues such as confronting authorities (Acts 4-5), extending the gospel to peoples previously excluded (Acts 15), and functioning in relation to various human institutions (Ephesians 5:17-21). The Holy Spirit continues to give discernment and unity as believers bear each other's burdens and gently restore those who are drawn away by the powers of this age (Galatians 6:1-2).
1. An essential requirement for faithful discernment is that it be done in the context of the church community. Only when we covenant to hold each other accountable will we help each other unmask and defeat the powers which would draw us from God. Then it is possible to "be transformed by the renewal of your mind" and to "prove what is the will of God" (Romans 12:2). Mutual accountability rightly embraces the full scope of our living. This includes choices of where we become involved in work, play, witness, or confrontation and how we handle hard issues which rise from those choices.
The church has long found the "rule of Christ" in Matthew 18:15-22 to be a practical, though demanding, process for establishing consensus and restoring fellowship among believers. Mutual discipline is so significant in the life of the church that the Holy Spirit participates in it (John 20:22-23), guiding the decision on earth in harmony with that which is recognized in heaven (Matthew 18:18). Through reconciliation and forgiveness extended seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22) the church proclaims its answer to the spirits who would exact vengeance seventy times seven (Genesis 4:24).
2. We also need to test our involvement and priorities with believers whose views of the world are shaped by experiences different from ours. If we consult only those from our own culture, gender, vocational group, or economic system, we will miss important clues for understanding justice (James 2:17, 15-16). There is particular danger of insensitivity if our sampling of reality is limited to segments of the world's population which hold technological, economic, or military dominance. While we cannot personally test our viewpoints with every other group, special effort is needed to learn the varying perceptions of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
3. Christian decision making needs to take place around the Bible. Since our world views are affected by our experiences and life situations, the Bible is the only fully reliable guide communicating the spirit and goal of justice for which our Lord died. It is to the loving and just God of the Bible that we hold each other accountable. As we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, we attune ourselves to the better righteousness which it reveals. Through mutual study of the Bible, we discover that the Word of God is indeed "living and active . . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
4. Through every stage, faithful discernment is permeated with prayer and earnest seeking of the mind of the Spirit. As we share our concerns, study the Bible together, and pray expectantly, we can trust that God's priorities will become known. Earnest thought, informed analysis, and open hearts are vital in the discerning process. In it all we are called by our Lord to "ask" to "seek" and "knock" in the assurance that the longings of our quest will be satisfied (Matthew 7:7).
How may the preceding biblical perspectives be applied to present-day issues? In the sections which remain, we outline a number of principles and guidelines for practicing justice/righteousness as members of God's new order in Jesus Christ. Three standards are of particular importance: the standard of love, the standard of justice, and the standard of peace. Vital questions for testing issues with fellow disciples include the following.
The question calls first for a searching of our motivations. Are we acting on the basis of Christlike love and concern or are we acting for personal or corporate gain? Because we so easily deceive ourselves, the need for help of fellow Christians in clarifying our motives is critical.
The question also explores actual results because love finally is something we do. While genuine care for others is vital, sentiment and good intentions are not enough. What we do or say needs to have a reasonable expectation of bringing benefit to the other. Moreover, results need to be seen as beneficial and desirable by those who receive of our loving care, not just what feels good to us.
Without doubt, love is complex. Is it more loving to overlook others' greed or to confront them with the injustice of their actions? What sort of honesty is needed? Sensitive judgment is required, including understanding of particular circumstances, in order to decide on the right course. Even with the best information and the clearest commitment to love, actions may not be loving in their effect on others--a fact which is particularly troublesome in institutional and large-group relations. Sometimes conflicting claims arise when practicing love toward one person or group makes it seem impossible to love another.
Dilemmas do exist and cannot be wished away. Yet they are relatively rare when we pay attention to biblical teachings which are given as guides for helping others such as honesty, kindness, nonjudgmental attitudes, and forgiveness. Many seeming dilemmas can be resolved by asking each other sincerely: "Is it loving?" In so doing we help ourselves to be honest about our motives and to practice the ethical guides learned in Sunday school and other settings of our life together.
The question calls attention to the impact of what we do on the powerless, on those without status or rights, and on the poor. As noted earlier, the biblical understanding of justice concerns itself specifically with such groups. As Christians, therefore, we need to examine the effect of our actions on persons who have little power or wealth. Often this will require special effort to bring overlooked consequences into view. Actions involved in asking "Is it just?" include:
1. Looking carefully at our lifestyles. We may not know precisely how much our current advantages resulted from others' disadvantage. But visible disparity between rich persons and poor persons, between wealthy nations and impoverished nations; is sufficient to know that God's intention for justice has not had full expression. Not all the wealth which many enjoy in North America is evidence of the blessing of God. Much stems from a long series of unjust dealings--with native North Americans, women, immigrants, blacks, underdeveloped nations, the poorly educated or unskilled.
While it is impossible to turn back the clock, it is possible to share what has come into our control. Adjusting our lifestyle to share with the poor is not an act of virtue going beyond the call of duty. It is acknowledging the truth that the earth is the Lord's and that we are managers rather than owners of what belongs to God. This puts our use of the earth's once-bountiful resources in a different light. Sharing is simply answering God's call to live justly with our neighbors.
2. Working to strengthen the rights of the poor and powerless in areas such as legal protection and basic economic, educational, or medical needs. This means working to empower the disadvantaged, something more difficult and more threatening than traditional programs of relief, service, or development. These latter activities are important in sharing our resources and relieving suffering but often do not touch the root causes of injustice and suffering.
Structural injustices at times may cancel out our charitable efforts or even contribute to further imbalance of material wealth and power. Concern for the neighbor in some circumstances, therefore, may call for public protest, petitioning officials, supporting or challenging labor unions, encouraging rent strikes, or other controversial actions. The discernment and mutual support of God's people are crucial in finding God's way.
3. Testing our political and economic views by the standards of God's care for the poor, weak, and oppressed. Since the problems are complex, sincere Christians may disagree about which positions are most faithful. We should agree, however, that such discussion is essential for mutual discernment and bringing our total being under Christ's lordship.
Some of the current issues involve questions such as: What does concern for justice mean in terms of hiring and firing policies? Are differences in wages between workers at the top and bottom of pay scales just? Can profit-sharing plans point to a fairer way of distributing the rewards of business? How can credit policies be designed so that those with lesser assets and greater risks get the financing they need at reasonable interest?
Additional questions include: How much protection of the rights of minorities should be enforced by the central government and at what expense to the rights of local communities? Does passionate concern for others send us to government capitols in the same way as the personal threat of military conscription? What shall we say to policies that protect our economic interests but result in reduced income for people in Third World countries?
With our Lord we are called to be peacemakers. This deals both with the end result and with the means to attain it. As followers of Christ we are called to suffer abuse rather than inflict it and to do our best to live peaceably with others. This principle sets important limits on the range of activities which might be chosen in pursuit of justice.
As illustrated in the life of Christ and his disciples, however, making peace is not always peaceful. Indeed, involvement in justice issues may force us to rethink the meaning of peace. Although committed to peace ourselves, the quest for peace with justice can often be expected to make people angry and upset. Those who benefit from injustice are seldom ready to give up their advantage without a struggle.
Sometimes the correct strategy is to withdraw as Jesus did. At other times the necessary response is to confront evil as Jesus also did.
Like the guidelines of love, the standard of peace is complex. In general peacemaking is to be understood as working for the kingdom in which shalom prevails. This means that it is more than avoiding conflict or tolerating injustice. At times concern for holding peace and justice together may seem to pull in opposite directions. As we join the struggle for justice some, especially in repressive societies, will ask how a just order can be restored without violence. Sometimes we also may not see a ready answer.
But with our Lord we renounce violence, seeking to work for a new order through the power of God's word and in the pattern of God's Son. The peace which is attained through violence, coercion, or imposed power is neither loving nor lasting. Nor is it enduring and real peace if based only on pious words and covering over of differences.
Confrontation with evil is necessary, but followers of the prince of peace recognize limits on the kind of confrontation which may be used. Those being confronted, after all, are those for whom Christ died and those with whom we are ultimately committed to live in peace. Every effort, therefore, should be made to shape the confrontation in ways which are most likely to produce reconciliation. It is ours to be faithful regardless of success or threat, confident that God will take care of the results.
Most of us devote a large portion of time working in secular structures which require no obvious Christian commitment--jobs, school, recreation, etc. The danger that the principalities and powers may draw our loyalty to their destructive purposes is always present. As we seek to be disciples in all aspects of our lives, the following guidelines will be important.
In considering whether involvement in a given organization is appropriate, attention should be given to its goals, functions, and roles.
1. Goals and activities of many institutions such as social welfare organizations, counseling or mediation groups, and service or development agencies are generally compatible with Christian concerns. To be sure, it is important to evaluate the administration and effectiveness of such organizations, asking, for example, whether their programs actually advance justice or whether they undermine personal dignity. Generally, however, occupational expressions devoted to justice and peace deserve high priority.
2. Serious questions arise if the organization, profession, or business in which we work has goals which differ from our Christian values. The decision about involvement may be determined by the particular policies of the organization, the possibilities open for shaping policies, and the role which we have opportunity to fill. If one is required to engage in dishonesty, for example, the issue is clearly drawn for the Christian. Specific protest would be necessary followed by resignation if the protest is unheeded. If one is able with integrity, however, to influence policy in ways beneficial to the poor, there may be good reasons to continue with the organization.
3. Because they perpetuate war or other in justice, some institutions will be viewed as incompatible with Christian standards for secular involvement. The military is the institution which Mennonites have seen most clearly in this category. Others, however, should be added such as industries producing harmful products, military goods alcohol and tobacco products, media which devalue individual worth, and companies whose success depends on exploitation of the powerless.
Occupational involvement for the Christian disciple in such contexts is questionable at best. Justification might rest on the possibilities of transforming the institution from the inside or of reducing its harmful effects. Should participation of this sort be attempted, special care will be necessary to test with one's Christian community the ongoing reasons for such involvement.
4. Even when a particular occupation is legitimate, there may be reason to ask whether one's Christian calling might be more fully lived out in another context. Although teaching is a generally constructive vocation, for example, a particular teacher might well be called to enter a different field or to a teaching area focusing on greater need. We are called to make the fullest use of the gifts God has given as we seek the kingdom of right relationships.
The covenant community is essential for testing our involvement in secular structures. Holding one another accountable, however, does not demand uniformity in the patterns of our encounters with the world. Just as different members perform various functions and exercise a variety of gifts, so we can expect that members and organizations of the church will exercise their Christian witness in many ways. To limit rigidly the shape of Christian encounter may foreclose significant forms of ministry in the world.
The decision to work in evangelistic and relief programs of the church, business and industrial enterprise, professions such as teaching, law, medicine, government, or the arts, will depend on the persons concerned and the particular opportunities and constraints of the position being considered.
Some may give their time to voluntary associations devoted to bring about needed change. Some may confront forces causing war and injustice as part of organizations witnessing through nonviolent direct action. Some may create alternative institutions and models of social change which suggest better ways of fostering shalom.
These and many other forms of engagement with the world can be legitimate expressions of discipleship. As committed groups of believers grapple together in applying standards of love, justice, and peace, accountability for a rich variety of witness is possible.
In considering the activities in which we can conscientiously participate, we need also to identify the settings where conscientious opposition is the best response. Depending on the situation, total withdrawal may be in order. At times it may be best to remain involved and protest from the inside. At other times one may need to resign or remain outside and protest as an outsider. Several questions may be helpful in deciding the best course of action.
1. How do the goals, functions, role, and results of the organization compare with the standards of love, justice, and peace?
2. Even if the present context is acceptable, are there other organizational contexts where gifts might be more effectively used?
3. Does the question of conscientious opposition arise mainly because of the goals and character of the structure or because of a particular policy? In the former case, withdrawal and effort from the outside may be most appropriate. In the latter case, protest and work from within may be preferable.
4. How serious is the wrong which inspires the objection? Although every wrong is significant, setting priorities is necessary. Time and energy devoted to one witness cannot be given to another or to pursuing more positive alternatives.
5. How likely is it that objection will result in greater peace and justice? If conscientious protest is likely to result in actual improvement, there is stronger reason to devote time and energy to it than if no positive outcome is likely.
The preceding section assumed that as Christians we participate in many structures of the world. It also assumed that we will often be called to witness to secular structures in which we are not fully involved. In spite of rebellious powers and principalities, we are assured that no person or structure is outside the love of God and, likewise, none may be excluded as recipients of Christian witness (Colossians 1:16-20; Romans 8:38-39). In those settings where we take the stance of an outsider, we suggest the following guidelines to strengthen our witness.
Witness to the structures of the world requires a readiness to speak their language. This is especially true when appeal is made to the professed values of the structure. A witness has not really been communicated nor can a response be expected if stated in ways which the hearer cannot understand.
There may be situations in which the frames of reference of hearer and speaker are so different that communication is impossible. Nevertheless, the burden is on the witness to understand the hearer's language and concepts sufficiently to communicate clearly. While we have been learning this through our mission work in other cultures, we have only begun to apply it in our witness to the structures of society.
In witnessing to structures it is central to understand the place of a particular structure in God's ordering. Although all structures are ultimately under the lordship of Christ not all acknowledge that lordship. Those that do have embraced the new order and submit to the discipline of God's Word and his covenant community. Other structures perform different functions within God's providential grace and acknowledge different standards and sanctions.
The state is a good example of a structure which has a role in God's providential order, but whose function is quite different from that of the church. An important function of the state according to Romans 13 is acting as "the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer."
Appropriate witness to (and sometimes within) governmental structures will recognize their distinctive role and call the state not to be the church, but to be a good state. The state is for the good of its citizens, neither idolizing itself nor exceeding its ordering functions, for example, by tyrannizing its citizens or dominating the world through military coercion.
Christian witness to non-Christian structures can take several forms. The appropriate form depends on the issue at hand, the professed commitments of the institution, and the proper function of the particular structure in God's order.
1. Significant witness may be directed to individuals within the structure rather than to the structure itself. In such cases witness takes the form of a call to Christian discipleship. This may well include an invitation to join a Christian fellowship and accept accountability for involvement in the structure. Faithfulness to counsel of the Christian community could lead to resigning from the structure or radical modification of how one functions in it.
2. On other occasions Christian witness may take the form of appeal to a structure to live up to its own professed goals and ideals. Rather than criticizing its values, Christians can offer to help achieve the best of what the structure already wants to do. The extent to which such witness is possible and appropriate will depend on the issue and on the professed commitments of the structure. It will be most effective with structures having publicly stated humanitarian concerns, service goals, or allegiance to values such as peace and justice.
A current example may be that of payment of taxes. Raising taxes for the good of its citizens is a legitimate function of governing authorities. But when authorities go beyond their appropriate role to devote major spending for mutual destruction, Christians may need to challenge the values which demand more than is their due.
Another example is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s constant appeal to the ideals of the American political community during the civil rights movement. While basic commitment and motivation came from his Christian faith, he saw that the wider political community professed values to which he could appeal, thereby making a more effective witness possible.
3. If a structure does not profess values which can be engaged for urging it toward greater justice, a more radical witness including nonviolent protest may be in order. The call is not so much to live up to its current standards but for conversion to higher standards. The structure may be challenged to reexamine its fundamental objectives and relationships to society. The call might appeal to people's natural knowledge of what is right and wrong (e.g., Romans 1:19-21) or be based on a biblical understanding of the function an institution is to perform.
Biblical examples of such witness include Amos's indictment of atrocities by pagan neighbors (Amos 12), Jonah's call for Nineveh to repent, John the Baptist's denunciation of King Herod's adultery (Mark 6:13), and Paul's message to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31). In some parts of the world any witness perceived as critical of the ruling powers can be extremely hazardous. Great courage is required of such witnesses. They also need the understanding support of brothers and sisters both here and around the world. Frequently it is important for Christians in other parts of the world to call for changes in situations where it is dangerous for those personally involved to do so.
4. Another type of witness is simply stating the grounds for conscientious refusal. An institution may exercise a function which is appropriate to its role in a fallen society but which is inappropriate for Christian participation.
Police or military functions may he examples. Christian witness to such structures certainly should urge performance in harmony with the best ideals of the institution and with minimum violence to body and human dignity as described in parts 2 and 3 above. It may be, however, that the greater witness is not so much to urge the institution to change. Rather, the Christian witnesses by refusing participation because of prior commitment to another vision.
Like prophetic protest the witness of conscientious refusal is also hazardous in many situations. The history of the church is full of martyrs who refused to worship the emperor, participate in military service, or baptize their children in the state church. In many parts of the world today, conscientious objection to a variety of demands continues to be rewarded by imprisonment, torture, and death. The sustaining resources of Jesus Christ and the church are needed today as much as ever.
Our witness for justice/righteousness in the world will be authentic when our life together in the church is characterized by justice. The church which sends the messenger of the gospel must never be allied with oppressive powers or fail to practice justice in its own fellowship. Otherwise its missionary witness has a hollow ring.
The missionary church must live by the same good news, that Jesus has triumphed over the principalities and powers, which it commissions its apostles to proclaim throughout the world. We need to practice the relationships and concerns described below in order to live out peace, love, and justice as a witness to the larger world.
If we understand justice to mean special concern for the poor, we need to examine disparities of wealth within the church. We need to find resourceful ways to share our abundance with our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who because of misfortune or lack of gifts have limited ability to help themselves. Can congregations from contrasting geographic and economic areas share resources for common mission?
We need a renewed concern for mutual aid within the church in sharing material resources, natural talents, spiritual gifts, and mutual concern. We also need a broader understanding of sharing scarce resources with future generations.
If we understand justice to mean special concern for the powerless, we need to examine power arrangements in the church. Do our decision-making processes encourage meaningful participation by everyone or do they exclude those who have not attained high position or status? Do groups such as racial minorities, women, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, have as much opportunity to develop leadership gifts as middle-class, white males?
How are our leaders selected, and how is our life together structured to keep leaders both accountable and empowered? Can we find ways of operating church institutions which are more in keeping with our theological commitments than the hierarchical models of the corporation? Can they be implemented in the institutional life of the church?
If concern for justice with peace and love is to guide our life together, we need to examine the ways in which churches and church institutions deal with employees. Are patterns of promotion, tenure, working conditions, equal opportunity, and plans for retirement in keeping with kingdom values? Are criteria such as educational level, gender, seniority, and level of responsibility the best qualifications for determining salaries? Should such considerations be supplemented by concern for a reasonable standard of living?
Answers need to be found in light of biblical mandates, limitations imposed by available resources, the need for efficiency, and legal or ethical restrictions. There should be better answers than those practiced by the world or experienced in our own past.
If we understand justice to include confrontation of evil with a goal for reconciliation, we need to examine the ways in which we deal with conflict in the church. Paul told the Corinthian church that they were not to settle their conflicts in unjust Greek and Roman law courts. Do we have wise persons who can decide cases on the basis of just principles and in the light of the gospel?
Are we concerned to develop conflict resolution skills? Can we assure pastors and other leaders of sensitive and due process in reviewing continuation of leadership responsibilities? Can we find processes for coming to agreement in face of various understandings of biblical interpretation, doctrine, and Christian witness?
We fail to exercise constructive confrontation if we do not personally address brothers and sisters with whom we differ or whose discipleship needs encouragement. To remain silent or, worse, to speak only to others rather than to the brother or sister is a failure of Christian care. On the other hand, to confront in a condemning spirit prevents reconciliation.
The integrity of our life within the church is finally our most important witness to the world. Like the city set on a hill, the church's life cannot be hid. Unless what is seen there models justice with peace in the spirit of love, other action and witness will be in vain. Our call is to embody a more excellent way within the church, even as we witness to it and work for it in the world.
Additional note on biblical words for justice (see Section II A.)
In Hebrew Scriptures, mishpat and sedaqah are frequently used together. Mishpat by itself has the general meaning of statute (Exodus 21:1), judgment (1 Kings 3:28), or custom (2 Kings 17:33). Sedaqah has the sense of setting right or being in the right, that is, acting or being in accord with the norm, or divine standards. This is illustrated by the concept of "just/righteous weights" (Deuteronomy 25:15) or "judging justly/righteously" (Deuteronomy 16:18).
When the two terms are used together, they characteristically sum up the proper role of government, the equitable implementation (mishpat) of the proper norms (sedek/sedaqah) (see Psalms 72; Amos 5:24; 2 Samuel 8:15). Such uses underscore the interdependence of justice and righteousness. There can be no justice without the proper norms to judge what is just or right. On the other hand, abstract norms without implementation are useless.
In the New Testament, the various words built on the Greek stem dikio cover the same ground as the Hebrew words just discussed. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus insists that a higher righteousness will be demanded from those entering the kingdom. This is summed up at the end of the chapter where Jesus returns to the theme of doing more than the Pharisees or Gentiles (5:47) and calls for acting in love like God acts if one is to be a child of God (5:48). Since love is the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 7:12; 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10), the higher righteousness is based on love which fulfills the law, accomplishing that which Jesus says is necessary (Matthew 5:17-20). So righteousness expresses itself as justice-fulfilling the law.
Paul uses the term to indicate a transfer of people from the realm of sin to the realm of Christ. In this context, justice has the sense of being set right, that is, in a proper relationship with God and consequently also with others (1 Corinthians 5:1-11; Ephesians 2:14-18). In the phrase, "the righteousness of God," Paul points to the power of God's grace which transforms persons from those who once lived for themselves to people who now live under the sovereignty of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). Here righteousness is not only the norm, but also the power to produce lives which live out the norm.
In addition to the information provided in the Introduction, the following information may be helpful to readers. A study document containing a draft of the statement circulated to congregations in the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church in March 1982. Over forty congregations submitted written responses to the draft. On the basis of the comments, the Joint Committee responsible for drafting the document made a number of revisions in format, sequence and language. Some additional material was added for clarity and completeness.
The Joint Committee included fourteen persons, ten from the Mennonite Church and four from the General Conference Mennonite Church. Edward Stoltzfus of Harrisonburg, VA chaired the committee. Two Canadians served on the committee -- Dan Zehr (Altona, Man.) and Donald Friesen (Ottawa, Ont.).
Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.
Similarly, statements by the General Conference Mennonite Church are not binding on individual congregations or area conferences, but state the understanding of the Conference at the time of the action.
Justice and the Christian witness: a summary statement adopted by General Conference Mennonite Church Triennial Session, Mennonite Church General Assembly, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, August 1-7, 1983. Newton, KS : Faith and Life Press ; Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1985.
Christ the cornerstone: Bethlehem '83 workbook, Mennonite Church General Assembly, General Conference Mennonite Church forty-third triennial sessions. Newton, KS : General Conference Mennonite Church ; Lombard, Ill. : Mennonite Church, 1983: IM-B-1 - IM-B-28.
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MLA style: General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. "Justice and the Christian Witness (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1983)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1983. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/J8722.html.
APA style: General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. (1983). Justice and the Christian Witness (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1983). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/J8722.html.