Even though in our churches, salvation in Christ is primarily described in terms of justice and mercy using the analogy of a celestial court, the focus of justice as a major issue for society is often overshadowed in Evangelical circles by other concerns. The death of thousands of infants through abortion makes the pro-choice cries of personal "justice and rights for women" seem shallow and immaterial to our ears. The desire to protect heterosexual marriage within our society as ordained by God (Gen 2) causes us to dismiss the demand for "equality and justice" by the homosexual community as irrelevant. The success of democracy in creating wealth and security for the diligent worker makes us somewhat skeptical of the dependent poor in many countries who need to "take responsibility" for themselves. Nonetheless these issues of justice need to be dealt with seriously and compassionately if relevant cross-cultural impact is to be made. Societal sensitivities to justice must be acknowledged and be taken into account along with our unwavering commitment to God’s word as a light guiding us to truth. God is just, and our approach in dealing with social issues must not undermine that basic truth.
One of the most influential theologies of mission in recent times has been liberation theology which is based on a quest for justice. The theological support for this is very strong, not only in the OT prophets’ stress on social justice, but also in Jesus’ own proclamation concerning his mission of liberation for the oppressed (Lu 4:18-21). In contrast to a social gospel which preaches a gospel of lifting ourselves up and becoming our own salvation by our own efforts, the cross of Christ "is at the very center of liberation theology" (Bosch 1991:439). With liberation theology, the "suffering servant" is the rallying cry of oneness and the focal point for seeking liberation from injustice and evil. God’s concern for the poor is well founded in both the OT and NT with an emphasis suggesting "that the poor were an all-embracing category for those who were the victims of society" (ibid.:436, my italics) rather than a simplistic socioeconomic statement concerning relative standards of living. Jesus’ approach to the "poor and needy" (i.e., us) was to enter into our suffering through the incarnation and show solidarity with the oppressed. He delivered us from oppression by taking the evil upon himself. Liberation theology calls Christians to do the same.
This perspective is to be commended in its reaction against a comfortable Christianity that can somehow be satisfied with spiritual experience while ignoring the discomfort of others. Christianity must provide the answer to injustice and evil in order to be ultimately true. If, instead, the church gives the answer that Christianity cannot deal with this need, or (worse) that Christianity perpetuates an injustice or contributes to the pain, then Christianity is viewed as insufficient to meet the needs of life.
Liberation in Christ
At the same time, deliverance from social oppression does not equal liberation in Christ. Although the poor do inherit the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom is not to be equated with social structures because it is a reality that can exist in the midst of all societies. The kingdom is a immanent reality ("the kingdom of God is among you" – Lu 17:21) of which one expression is the transformation of society. But that one expression is not to be equated with the kingdom. The kingdom of God was ushered in with evil structures present and has continued to exist and grow in the presence of unjust structures throughout history.
Our true standing in Christ and our humanity is specifically not dependent upon a standard of living and political rights. The "good news" is not that people become truly human by being delivered from social oppression, but the truth that in the midst of their suffering they are truly human in Christ.
When Jesus spoke of the "blessed" state of the poor he referred to those who have had the illusion of wealth, security, independence and status stripped away to reveal the true nakedness of humanity without God. The kingdom of God does not automatically include those who are disadvantaged socioeconomically or those living under the oppression of racism or patriarchy, but rather all those who have realized that life is only found in God and not in human structures and the illusion of independence. It is this "impoverishment" of the rich that is to be a focus of mission so that they too can share in the blessing of the poor. The suffering Christ brings us in contact with reality that transcends the difficulties of this life, whether or not the social ills are alleviated. While social ills must be addressed by the church, in God’s gracious economy they also serve to lift our focus to new heights. It is the situation of the poor which promotes humility, dependence and openness to the Spirit along with a desperate hope in God.
What the liberationists have contributed is a prophetic call that liberation in Christ must work to bring social transformation. Spiritual complacency that accepts an unjust status quo can never be God’s intention. We abuse our standing in Christ and view others as less than human (and so put ourselves "liable to the hell of fire" – Mt 5:22) when we either actively or passively contribute to others’ oppression. The fact that humanity and reality of life in Christ is possible regardless of one’s sociopolitical situation, does not absolve the church from the mission obligation of fighting injustice.
On the front wall of our baptist church in Shikarpur, Sindh is a photograph of a Catholic priest. A few years ago he shocked Christians in Pakistan and around the world when he committed suicide in the Pakistan parliament by shooting himself with a pistol. He committed this act – an unforgivable sin in the Catholic church – to protest a law that was condemning innocent Christians to imprisonment and death. His extreme act of solidarity for the Christian community and his commitment to justice as expressed through his death was greeted with awe and admiration by the Christian community. His willingness to take on himself the sin of suicide for the sake of justice for people he loved was a powerful sermon that lives on in the hearts of the Pakistani Christians. While suicide cannot be commended, his sacrifice for others positively impacted the church.
We must be careful about how injustice is to be fought. An assumption that justice is achieved through the passing of laws or by socioeconomic development of the poor is naive. While compassion and a commitment to justice drive us to stand by the oppressed, mere deliverance from social oppression or the raising of one’s standard of living is insignificant if the result is a moving away from those attributes that Christ desires in us all. The liberation the poor fundamentally require is the development of their relationship with the "suffering servant" within their own context. Only on this foundation can transformation occur in ways that meet their physical, social and spiritual needs in a holistic fashion, without diminishing those attributes that Jesus commended. "Doing justice" (Mic. 6:8) is neither Christian spirituality or a dogmatism that ignores those who are oppressed, nor is it the concept that without liberation from oppression here and now, life cannot be experienced to the full. True enjoyment of life is found in Christ, not in our circumstances, and it is this life in Christ that drives us on to seek liberation for all.
- Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.