10. Mission: Fighting Injustice or Personal Spiritual Rebirth?

During our time in Pakistan the area of the Thar desert was afflicted with a four year drought.  People made destitute from the famine migrated out to more habitable regions only to be met by unscrupulous landlords who took advantage of their impoverished state to hire them for mere pennies a day.  Foreign missions organizations joined with the churches in Pakistan to raise a significant amount of money designated as aid for those affected by the famine.  However the governor of the region heard of the project and informed those responsible for the distribution that unless they gave one half as as "fee" to the governor for his private use, they would not be allowed to distribute the aid.

Is the Role of Christian Mission to bring Justice?

Surely part of being heralds of the kingdom of Christ should involve confronting such evil and promoting more just structures.  Some believe that the primary role of Christian mission is to bring justice through transforming social structures.  One missiologist promotes a sociopolitical element in Christian mission which views the affirmation "Christ is Lord" as "both a faith statement and also a political credo which leads inescapably to political choices and tasks" (Saayman 1991:11). He views missions as both proclaiming the news and setting the captives free and there is therefore "no incompatibility between mission and politics" (1991:13).  He further argues that an apolitical or politically neutral perspective is impossible because it "often turns out in practice to be supportive of the status quo" (1991:4).  It is on the basis of this argument that he states "the gospel does not empower only to change people, but [it] empowers the Christian community specifically to change oppressive structures" (1991:114, italics author). 

This view is partly in reaction to a traditional emphasis on the personal and spiritual aspect of mission which assumes that the essence of missions is the conversion of individuals to Jesus Christ.  Such an emphasis only secondarily or derivatively looks for social change as an aspect of missions.  However, concern for injustice and oppression causes some to express the Christian faith not so much in terms of a personal, spiritual reality, but as a community force that acts politically to initiate those structural changes that bring all of society closer to an ideal community of justice and mercy, that is, closer to the kingdom of God.

Missions is the Transformation of People

While a balanced view of missions must take both these concerns seriously, caution must be expressed when the personal element is displaced by an emphasis on impersonal structures.  It is true that individual, personal salvation is only authentic when there is corresponding action on the community level, confronting sin and injustice in all its forms.  However the transformation of temporal social structures is neither the goal nor the means of missions.  The kingdom of God is only advanced through the transforming of people, who are eternal, and their beliefs which are reflected in their actions towards one another.  This does not ignore structures, for structures are a tangible reflection of the legitimacy of the faith of a community, but it recognizes that change begins and ends with people’s personal beliefs.

The NT is consistent in addressing heart issues first and foremost (e.g. Mt. 22:37-40).  By removing racism from peoples’ hearts, the basis for apartheid crumbles.  By removing sexism from peoples’ hearts, the basis for gender discrimination vanishes.  Jesus did not attack structures or institutions, he did not speak against structures and institutions, and he did not try to establish structures and institutions.  What he was concerned about was the personal relationship of individuals with God and with others (e.g. Mt. 28:21ff).  Although the church in the first century was surrounded by unjust political and social structures, Jesus did not address them (to the chagrin of many of his followers).  This was not because the church was powerless, for that is never an excuse to ignore evil, but because this is not the way of Christ in removing injustice.  Structures only function as people establish and run them.  They are only destroyed when people destroy them.  The means of opposing an unjust system must involve a spiritual change of heart for there to be permanent and effective change.  A change in structure can help curtail the incidence of abuse and promote an environment within which values of justice are reinforced, but there are always ways for the avaricious to circumvent safeguards for selfish and unjust gain.  Therefore the aim of Christian mission is ultimately not to overthrow or replace unjust structures, but to change the hearts of those who desire to profit from injustice.  To try and shortcut this process is to fail.  For example, where liberation theology contributed to revolution, such as in Latin America, the "situation hardly changed.  Repression just took on new forms" (Bosch 1991:445).

"God’s Terrible Insistence on Human Freedom"

There is also the danger of overriding personal freedoms for the sake of a social utopia.  We must take G. K. Chesterton’s famous adage seriously of "God’s terrible insistence on human freedom," and be careful that we do not seek justice along any path of injustice.  We cannot fight oppressors using their weapons and forcing people to do things against their will.  Love does not force its will upon another.  We need always to look for "a way of engagement which is motivated by love, compassion and concern rather than hatred for the enemy which must inevitably lead to destruction" (Cochrane et al.1991:78).  This is not ignoring the need for opposing injustice but recognizes the "need for both personal renewal by God’s spirit and resolute commitment to challenging and transforming the structures of society" (Bosch 1991:408).  The Christian praxis of liberation must always be one of working from the inside out so that structures crumble like the Berlin wall in 1989 – because people on both sides were tearing it down.

In the incident cited above, the decision was made not to pay the "fee" to the governor.  The money was given back to the churches and mission organizations who surreptitiously distributed the funds via their own private channels.  There was no compromise with the wicked and those suffering were helped.  Nonetheless, I wonder if we could have done more to raise a prophetic voice decrying the political and cultural structures that provide the opportunity for such abuse.  "Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps.  Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry" (Amos 5:23,24)

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development