A post from the Jesus Collective Theology Circle

Contribution by David Fitch (Illinois, United States)

The following blog is part 1 in a series focused on a Jesus-centered understanding of justice (find part 2 here). In this series, we look at theological and biblical understandings of justice and then apply our developing understandings to important historic and cultural realities that require a thoughtful, Jesus-centered approach. These blogs are not intended to be exhaustive, but we pray you find them a helpful resource as you discern and join Jesus’ work in your communities. 

Social justice is on our minds these days. There’s a heightened awareness of racial, economic, sexuality, and gender based injustice in our culture(s). Whether you’re a Christian or not, we’re being called to work for a better, more just world. For Christians, we must ask what difference does following Jesus make for our work for justice? Is Jesus our motivator for justice? The example of justice we follow? The one who teaches us what justice is? How is Jesus the center of the justice we work for as Christians? 

Tempted to De-Center Jesus From Justice

There are many reasons for Christians to de-center Jesus Christ from our work for justice in the world. For example:

  • The complicity of Christianity with grotesque injustice in the past, including colonialist violence and racism, makes the church suspect when it comes to justice. If the church is the representative of Jesus, why should we trust the church (and by guilt of association, Jesus) with the work of social justice? We need to find alternatives to working for justice than the church. (See this especially among ex-evangelicals).
  • There’s a lot of good done in the world for justice by people who are not Christians. We need to affirm that work. When we tie justice too closely to Jesus, we risk de-legitimating the good work of these people who are outside the church. (Seen especially among people who affirm the Common Grace/​Redemptive Grace distinction).
  • There’s an impulse in all of us to believe that justice is a universal reality applying to all peoples over the whole world, not just Christians. To tie justice too closely to Jesus limits our ability to work for justice for all peoples irrespective of whether they follow Jesus or not. (See this especially among mainline Protestantism of the 20th century).
  • Finally, Jesus can seem irrelevant in regard to justice. The faith we’ve inherited often focuses on spiritual” expressions and has little room for an embodied, social, communal transformation. In this way of thinking, Jesus can feel irrelevant to the work of justice around us.

What Happens When we De-Center Jesus

But when we de-center Jesus from our justice, a few things can happen:

  • Justice becomes defined from another place, and we then enlist Jesus to get behind” that justice. We use Jesus’ teachings or his example to motivate Christians to join a justice effort in the world. But often Jesus doesn’t define justice — he gets absorbed into somebody else’s justice. When a local church joins a justice cause in the local homeless shelter, two things can happen. We could go there and serve, blindly believing all that happens there is justice. Or we work hard for equal opportunity and the flourishing of each individual (two common definitions of justice in democracies). But we may miss a deeper, thicker justice of God at work.
  • We do justice in our own strength, or worse out of our own ego. If Jesus is relegated to providing the content of justice (offering us teachings about justice), which we then apply and do, we become the doers of justice. Instead of seeing Jesus as the agent of justice in the world, justice becomes something left entirely up to us to do, in our own energy, in our own tactics. When things don’t go as we plan, we get discouraged. Perhaps as we become consumed with being God’s agents, we become manipulative in our tactics to get the work of justice done. In the end, we get exhausted and our ego gets spent.
  • The means of justice are defined apart from love. How is justice accomplished in our world? What tools do we use? What tactics do we take? Do the ends justify the means? Just as the definition of justice can be defined apart from Jesus, we can also define the means of justice apart from Jesus. In our world, it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing violence is the best way to defeat” injustice, but the way of Jesus invites us into both a deep and beautiful definition of justice and a way of justice imaged in the sacrificial love of the cross.

Centering Jesus in Justice

What can justice look like when our understanding and practice is centered in Jesus? When Jesus is at the center, our justice becomes defined by the sacrificial love, lordship, and active presence of Jesus. Justice becomes cross-shaped and imaged most perfectly in the God of the universe dying for his enemies. Justice becomes the work of king Jesus and rests on his authority and the inbreaking of his kingdom. 

We’re invited to participate in and through the active presence of his Spirit, but we don’t have to manufacture or coerce justice by our own power. Instead we humbly submit to the presence and power of Jesus. This kind of understanding radically changes how we think about and approach justice. 

Let’s return to our example of a local church serving in a center for the unsheltered. Jesus-centered justice sends Christians in this place as a presence under Jesus’ lordship. We will of course serve the various ministrations of the homeless shelter with joy and resources. We’ll join in with our friends and discern Jesus’ justice in the relieving of immediate suffering. But we’ll also discern sufferings that will be incomplete apart from the justice of Jesus working (perhaps broken relationships with family, previous employers, neighbors where Jesus can be invited for forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration). There will be things we see as unjust, forces that work against the image of God in all persons, that others may not see through the presence that Jesus gives in the Spirit (such as when homeless people get treated as numbers for the sake of a governmental number count). 

When Jesus is the center of our seeing and doing together, we don’t get absorbed into a pre-described justice of the world. We become agents under Jesus making space for him to work wherever he may be received. 

But if Jesus is at the center, and he’s at work in the world through his presence, we are cooperative partners in his work of justice. We submit to what he’s doing, pray and discern what he’s doing, and be more patient and enduring as we seek to open space for his work of justice in the world. We seek his reconciliation, his restoration, his forgiveness, and his healing to not only transform the individual lives of people but to challenge the systems and birth an imagination for a better world to come.

Imagine again your church sending people to a homeless shelter. Faced with enormous physical, emotional and social needs of homeless persons, we set about acquiring resources, mentoring, making things right, and managing conflicts. We do the best we can to work tirelessly. But it seems small compared to the needs. We see few breakthroughs. We grow tired and weary. 

But if again we see this homeless shelter as an arena for the reign of Jesus, even if he’s not recognized, we enter this place under different terms. We become cooperative partners in his work of justice. We pray and tend to his presence amidst the mayhem, chaos, and struggles of marginalized people. And as we make space for his Spirit to work, to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and a receiving of food and necessities as a gift, a sense of conviction, faith, and confidence is birthed in people’s lives. 

In all of this, we become partners in and responders to God who is working. We give up control for faithfulness and tending to his presence. We slowly and patiently become instruments of renewal and transformation. 

And So We Go

And so when we enter the injustices of the world wherever they are, we don’t go alone. We enter as followers of Jesus, making space for the inbreaking justice of God in Jesus to take shape between peoples and systems. We enter actual places, neighborhoods, social dynamics. 

Where there is racism, we are present, listening, asking questions, speaking truth sincerely, allowing space for the living presence of Jesus to work his Kingdom. Where there is poverty, misogyny, and brokenness we do the same. We make space for Jesus and his Kingdom to be manifested. Lament, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and healing take shape among networks of people. From here legislation or government aid might happen. 

But it all starts with the simple regular presence of God’s people making space for the transformation of the world’s injustice under Jesus’ rule.

Through the presence of his people, Jesus meets real needs in the moment. Through the presence of his people, the Spirit’s work to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and renewal to our neighborhoods is recognized and lived out. We practice Kingdom work wherever we go.

Justice for Jesus followers is more than Jesus’ teachings, more than his example. Jesus is the one who sits on the right hand of the Father reconciling the whole world to Himself … making us his ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Jesus is the one who extends the Spirit into all places, convicting the world of sin.” (John 16:8). He’s the one who is reigning until all enemies have been made subject” (1 Corinthians 15:25). In the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, maybe Jesus is the justice of God.” 

Jesus is Justice Author

David Fitch is BR Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago, and a member of the Jesus Collective Theology Circle. He’s pastored and participated in many church plants and writes on issues facing the local church. His theology combines Neo-Anabaptist streams of thought, his commitments to evangelicalism, and his love for political theory.

The Theology Circle is a group of Jesus Collective leaders joining together to provide theological direction and resources for our network, mentor theological leaders, and provide a peaceful voice for this growing Jesus-centred movement around the world. You can learn more and meet the Circle here.