My friend, the Rev. Jacob Breeze, has a phrase that describes the absence of a critical element that defines an institution. Jacob says, “it’s the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing.” An example would be decaffeinated coffee: It’s the thing without the thing (caffeine) that that makes the thing the thing. So you may ask me, “What is the role of the social justice in the church?” The answer is that it is one of the things that makes the thing the thing.
Just before the canon of scripture moves to the New Testament, Micah 6:8 reads: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Justice, the writer of scripture notes, is part of being human; or, at least, human in the way that God calls us to express our humanity.
Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading his mission statement from the book of Isaiah. In Luke 4:18 and following, Jesus talks about what he has been anointed to do; he says that he is the fulfillment of this passage. Jesus will:
- preach good news to the poor
- proclaim release to the captives
- recovery of sight to the blind
- liberate the oppressed
In other words, Jesus will proclaim and be about the work of justice in this world. The role of the Church in social justice is to imitate Jesus.
Imitating Jesus is harder than preaching about Jesus or what Jesus said. The imitation of Jesus would be fine if we could live the life that Jesus lived during the good times. A healing here and there. Feeding large groups of people. Providing for guests at weddings. Focused time spent in prayer. Teaching and preaching. But living like Jesus lived also opens up the possibility of suffering as Jesus suffered and dying as Jesus died, for the sake of the good news and for justice.
Institutions often resist change, and justice brings change. The church, in every age, has had preachers and prophets of justice who did not quite fit within the conventional mould. Often times, these preachers and prophets were catalytic in helping the church to do what is right and to return to faithfulness. The journey has never been smooth for such preachers and prophets and their work is sometimes hard to sustain because it breaks things free; but to do so means that the work often breaks things, which is hard. So it seems to me that the role of the church in social justice is to 1) remain malleable, 2) to move with the Holy Spirit, 3) to encourage her preachers and prophets of justice, and 4) to imitate Jesus with them.
Remember: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Justin Coleman is the Chief Ministry Officer of the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tenn. A native of Houston and a member of the Texas Annual Conference, he is a graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. His responsibilities at the Publishing House include culture, innovation, ideation, training, and alignment. He and his wife, Chaka, have three wonderful sons and live in Nashville.