For years, ever since The Great Giveaway, I have argued for a cautious stance towards National politics as the means for accomplishing justice. Such a focus distracts/seduces us away from the church’s task of embodying the justice of Christ (the Kingdom of God) in the world. For my arguments, you can read here and here for instance. I argue that local relationships, both as a church community together under His reign and in our relationships (political and otherwise) in the neighborhood community, are the means that God uses to bring justice into the world. Then, from this stance, we can engage/come alongside national efforts. All of this explains why I find this idea about “book clubs with the homeless” so compelling. It is an example of where I think the church should put its efforts.
So let me articulate my position one more time, and then illustrate it via these book clubs.
1.) GOD’S JUSTICE IS RELATIONAL: There is something intensely relational about the justice of God inaugurated in the Kingdom of God that has come into the world through Jesus Christ. James Dunn in his book The Justice of God puts it this way, “In Hebrew thought righteousness is a concept of relation. In Hebrew thought righteousness is something one has precisely in one’s relationships as a social being. That is to say, righteousness is not something which an individual has on his or her own, independent of anyone else – as could be the case with the Greco-Roman concept.” (p.33) Dunn draws on the prophets (Ezekiel 18:5-9; Isaiah 58:3-7; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 3) to describe how being in a right relationship with God vertically was inseparable from being in right relationship with one another in the Hebrew OT context (p.38-39). Such a justice then cannot easily be bureaucratized. It is deeply relational. The fact that these book clubs enable such relationships that go beyond the giving and distributing of funds/food etc. is powerful. It puts those who participate into a unique relationship with each other that is not defined by those who are giving to those who have not.
2.) RECONCILIATION IS AT THE HEART OF GOSPEL JUSTICE: Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel (2 Cor 5: 17-19). This kind of justice is the outworking of the forgiveness that we receive in Christ. In being forgiven we forgive. Reconciliation, the restoration of social wholeness, transforms everything. I have seen this in my limited ministry with the poor. In every victimized person, in every person who is now ostracized in society – there is (in my experience always) a long string of broken relationships that have unwound into a tragic mess. They need help, they need mercy, and they need physical deliverance. But the chains must be broken and this comes through blessing them with the forgiveness and love made possible in Christ Jesus (John 20:23). In order to get to this place with the poor or anyone for that matter, there must first be a relationship of love and hospitality, of knowing the other. Forgiveness, reconciliation touches every area of our lives. Reading books together of any kind can lead to relationships that share experiences of/or in need of the power of reconciliation in Christ. This is another reason why I like the book club with the homeless.
3.) THE GOVERNMENT CANNOT DO THIS JUSTICE: The government by its nature is bureaucratic. The government by definition (separation of church and state) is excluded from being the carrier of the forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ. This does not mean government is bad. It is a preservatory institution incapable of redemptive justice. But we can strategically come alongside government programs and provide the reconciliatory powers of the cross when we are allowed and when it makes sense. We should nonetheless be wary of being distracted to thinking the powers of government can bring justice. We can massively distribute physical relief but we cannot bring relational justice. This takes the church, the local church being engaged with just a few persons. This is why I again like the book clubs. They are small – 5 people according to the article. They are intensely relational.
At Life on the Vine we don’t have many opportunities in our community to minister like this – although we have had several intensely relational engagements with the poor, some of which were astounding examples of the justice of God breaking out. By and large however, we have to travel to help the homeless. It is difficult then to do this kind of relational life with the homeless we engage with. Yet we’re looking at a few “missional community” church plants where a ministry to the poor like this is more viable. I can see this kind of place – a book club with the homeless – as a wonderful missional way to engage the poor. How bout you, any more ideas like this? Let’s stoke our communities into the transformational relational social engagement made possible in the life we have in Christ.