The Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) will be meeting this week here in the Twin Cities. This encourages me. As an urban pastor and educator, I am thrilled that Christians – many of them young – are interested in making their faith practical. Christian Social Justice has been a passion of mine for quite some time and I recently preached a message on the topic on September 23, 2012. I reflected on what has become a popular text: Isaiah 58.
In the mid 1980s I was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. I had expressed an interest in planting a church in New York City, but I had no idea what to do. Eventually, the Eastern District of the Evangelical Free Church of America, the denomination that I had become loosely connected to at the time, suggested that I devote the entire month of July 1988 to researching church planting prospects and also to preach in eight churches in four weeks. This was during a time when many churches had both morning and evening services. The district arranged the details, and our young family drove from Deerfield, IL to Brooklyn, NY.
I preached on Isaiah 58 in those prominent churches. I was a 27-year-old husband and father of three little children, talking about how Christians should be advocates of God’s justice in the world. It seemed that people were happy that I wanted to plant an urban church, but several seemed uncomfortable with Isaiah’s words and what they might mean for themselves.
Later in that very same year, I took a road trip with some African and African American brothers to Atlanta, GA – to a conference entitled “Atlanta 88.” It was a powerful time. In fact, John Perkins was featured at this event and led a field trip to various ministries in Atlanta that were doing Christian Community Development. They were invoking the spirit of Isaiah 58. I was encouraged by that conference and it was the next year that the CCDA was born.
But even with my enthusiasm during that time in Atlanta, there was a fringe of folks who were not comfortable with that Community Development model. I met with a group that wanted to plant churches, but stressed that we Black folks needed to plant churches in the suburbs among our growing middle class and that the idea of “relocation” that Dr. John Perkins was pushing wasn’t even in the Bible.
I had committed to urban ministry – with its concomitant call for racial and economic justice. I believed Christians should be embracing the kind of thing that Isaiah was preaching back in his day but I was not finding many Christians – at least not among so-called evangelicals, who thought this was an important thing. I felt pretty lonely in the call.
A few years later, in 1997, then President Bill Clinton, when delivering his State of the Union Address, quoted from Isaiah 58. In particular, he quoted the last part of verse 12 (Here is the entire verse in the NRSV):
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
President Clinton got skewered. Even before he delivered the speech, his aide Elana Kagan, who would later become an associate justice of the supreme court, previewed the speech and sent a White House email that said, “That quote from Isaiah is the most preposterously presumptuous line I have ever seen. The president would deserve it if the press really came down on him for this.”
Sure enough. Judge Kagan proved to be prophetic. The president got blasted – particularly by evangelicals, and largely because he came off to some as hypocritical. In fact, in March of ’97, Ted Koppel devoted an entire Nightline program to Isaiah 58:12 and the president’s use of that verse.
More recently, in my former city of Washington, DC, a young Christian activist advocated fasting for DC statehood, and related the message of Isaiah 58 to the Occupy movement that we all heard about this past summer.
As I observe the growth of Christian Social Justice, it seems that Isaiah 58 has found a new life. I thought I was on to something in 1988, but I got little traction. But nowadays I see younger Christians turning to this passage with energy and vigor and a sense of righteous indignation. I get excited when I see someone now who was the age I was in 1988 – or even younger – flipping the pages of their Bibles – or actually sliding their fingers across the screens of their Smartphones – to locate Isaiah 58 and articulate the practical implications for our time. It makes me feel that I was ahead of my time!
But there has been much talk about social justice (or “biblical justice” as some evangelicals prefer to call it). There is, of course, some connection to politics, but only some. The call we Christians have transcends any country’s political system. Christians everywhere – not just in America or Western Europe – need to apply the teachings of Isaiah 58 and other related passages.
I am hoping that some Christians will be fired up by the CCDA conference this week, but even beyond the conference, will let prophetic words continue to move them to serve the world as Jesus served. Here are few other voices articulating the spirit of Isaiah 58:
But let justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24)
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14-17).