Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Participating in Social Justice by Josiah Espinoza

“Jesus spent his whole life helping the incarcerated, the poor, the hungry and the needy. He said, ‘This is the kingdom of God, when you help these.’”[1] Pastor Randy Howard.
As we entered the New Year of 2016, Pastor Randy Howard has been emphasizing the need for community outreach and integration. He has stated several times the need to transform our mentality toward the poor, oppressed and marginalized. He has preached on the need to reach the incarcerated, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the children that are hungry and in need of godly centered homes. Participating in social justice is indeed the work of the church. Jesus has expected it of his followers. So as we experience transformation through the power of the Gospel in the inner man, there should be a compelling drive by the Spirit to transform the community around us.
The church has always emphasized the need of transformation. Transformation is the process that every believer is experiencing through the new birth of the Spirit of God. All those that have put their faith in the salvific work of Christ are experiencing the new birth, as it is written “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[2] But what does it mean to experience the new and what is it about the new that we are to be beholding? Throughout church history the emphasis of the new has always been focused on the newness of the inner man, which is absolutely true and essential for understanding the born again experience. The Scriptures are full of statements of inner transformation and newness of life. In the newness of life there is death to the old man and an awakening of life by the sovereign grace of God through the Holy Spirit by faith and repentance. Yet, the newness of life of the inner man cannot be beheld with the eyes because the inner man is invisible. So what was the Apostle saying when he said “behold?” Not just the transformation of the inner man, but the visible outward expressions of the transformed inner man. The newness of the inner man causes a transformation of outward action so that the world may behold the life of Christ in us, as it says in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” This is what it means to participate in social justice. Dr. Jessica W. Wong[3] understands social justice in the following way:
If we are going to use the language of social justice as Christians, we must understand it to be the realization of the Kingdom of God in our midst as we learn both to embody Jesus and, at the same time, to recognize and honor Jesus in the people around us. This is not an individual project, but a communal one that requires us to see the world through the lens of Jesus Christ.[4]
Once the church community becomes one in their understanding of social justice, then true transformation can take place and the church can begin to change the surrounding social injustices for the sake of the Kingdom.  As a church community we must tackle socially unjust systems together and shine the light of Christ on those who are a part of those systems, such as: the incarcerated, the poor and homeless, and the children in the foster care system.
As one considers their view of incarcerated people one must remember three very important things: (1) they are humans made in the imago dei (image of God); (2) their mistakes do not negate their need for help, for themselves or their families; (3) God is willing to forgive them and reconcile them to himself and to the body of Christ.
The people in our prison systems have been made into statistics, numbers that only give the public an idea of what percentage the population is in the prison system. They are only viewed as leeches that “take from our hard working tax paying” citizens. Society has labeled them as threats and corrupted people that deserve their just punishment. However, one must always remember that everyone deserves the just wrath of God but that through his grace alone, his church is reconciled to the Father by the sacrifice of the Son. In the same way, the church is supposed to graciously extend its hand toward those who have been objectified by the legal system. It is the duty of the church, not only to visit the incarcerated, as it says, “I was in prison and you came to me,”[5] but to reintegrate them back into society by lovingly inviting them to become one with the church under the banner of the Holy Spirit.
Another great call that the church has been commanded to accomplish is to reach the poor. However, one must first come to a proper definition of what is meant by “poor.” Poverty is not just defined by the lack of material possession. Nor is it understood as an interior spiritual state (“poor in spirit”).  I think that Gustavo Gutierrez gives a proper definition of what poverty is in the biblical sense. He states that, “In the Bible poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God.”[6] In other words, the state of the poor is a total objectification of the person. The poor are dehumanized and made into objects in our society. They are seen in a similar light as the incarcerated; people that are using tax payers’ dollars to get “free stuff.”
The homeless are seen as drug addicts, alcoholics, people with vices and lazy people that need to get their life together and work hard. Although I do agree with the verse that states that “the laborer deserves his wages,”[7] yet the context of those verses is in regards to ministers receiving wages for their work. The other scripture that is commonly used amongst evangelicals to not give to the poor is 2 Thess. 3:10b that states, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” but this verse is in reference to those within the church that were taking advantage of the support of the other people within the church, not about the poor. It is also commonly stated that “the poor from our day, are not the same poor from Jesus’ day.” Meaning, the reasons that there were poor people in Jesus’ day are not the same reasons we have poor people amongst us today. This may be true to a certain extent, but that does not make the poor of our day any less in need. The church must transform its thinking about the homeless if we are ever going to affect our community for the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus says, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”[8] Understanding the context of this scripture is absolutely essential to understanding social justice. Jesus commands us to give to the one who begs and to not refuse the one who would borrow. This verse is written in the context of loving your enemy and letting people take advantage of you. One thing that is true for most people is that when a homeless or poor person is begging from you, the automatic assumption is to think that the person begging is trying to take advantage of you. Yet Jesus expects us to give to those people with a joyful heart even if they may be trying to take advantage of you. It is not expected of the people of the church to fix world hunger because the poor will always be amongst us, but it is expected of the church to become the type of people that do not dehumanize others or presuppose that the homeless and poor are “not really” homeless or poor. It is expected of the body of Christ to affect the community among us for the kingdom of Jesus and to do it in such a way that reflects the nature of God’s grace. The church needs to change its mentality toward the poor. The church is to give without prejudice, without bias and without presupposing the intention of the beggar.
The church ought to give in secret so that the Father who sees in secret might reward them. Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”[9] Being generous,  as I have stated before, is more than tending to their material needs. Being generous is recognition of their being made in the imago dei, entering into their pain and suffering, and tending to their needs holistically. Where there is need for food, feed them. Where there is need for spiritual life, give them the life giving message of the gospel. Where there is physical or emotional pain or suffering, suffer and weep with them, that their sorrow may turn to joy. The church must become a place of healing and provision. As it is written:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.[10]
The body of Christ must not become proud in its own riches, but must give. Give not only materially but in good works. As Pastor Howard has said, “We need people. We need money but we need people more.”
The final thing that the church must seriously engage is the children in the foster care system. My wife and I, since we have been married, have deeply desired to adopt children and by God’s grace we will adopt a child into our family. Adoption and foster care are one of the greatest embodiments of the message of God’s grace because it is by gracious adoption that the church has been brought into the family of God. God in his sovereign grace has chosen his children to become his sons and daughters and to become conformed to the image of the Elder Brother, Jesus. God, without any merit or righteousness of our own, chose us to become part of his family. As it is written, “In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,”[11] and again, “ For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons (and daughters), by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”[12]
If the church wants to reflect the same glorious, gracious gift of adoption, it must become a church that tends to parentless children, just as the father has loved and chosen us tenderly while we were fatherless children. America is one of the few places where the church is not the primary means by which orphans are cared for and because of it we have neglected the call to “love the least of these.” Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”[13] If God has graciously adopted us, how much more should we adopt the orphans of our society?
All of these people, the incarcerated, the poor and homeless and the children in foster care are all people made in the imago dei. Therefore, conviction should flood our hearts about the nature of our church. Gate Church, let me encourage you to change your way of thinking toward these people. Allow me to call us to action as we are being filled with the power of God’s Spirit. Visit the incarcerated and tend to the families of those in jail. When they get out, let us open our arms to them and integrate them back into society by making them one with us. Give to the poor and the homeless. Do not give out of compulsion, but give out of the joy from knowing that God has given you everything and more. Let us become a people that will care for the parentless and that will graciously open our homes and commit all the good that we have to them. Remember that we are to love thy neighbor as ourselves, meaning, in the same way that you already love yourself, love thy neighbor. May God move us to action to impact the world for his glory. Amen.

[1] Quotation  is taken from a Sermon that Dr. Howard Randy gave on 1/10/2016.
[2] 2 Cor. 5:17 English Standard Version.
[3] Dr. Jessica Wong was a professor that I had for a course in Contemporary Christian Thought at Azusa Pacific University. She has a Ph.D. with an emphasis in theological anthropology, cultural studies, and theologies of liberation with a focus on race and gender and she very graciously gave me a definition for social justice according to her understanding of the subject matter. I felt like her insight on the matter was beneficial for establishing a proper definition. Her expertise in this subject is invaluable.
[4] Wong, Jessica. This quote was given to me by Dr. Wong through email correspondence.
[5] Mt. 25:36c
[6] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll:Orbis Books. P. 165
 Gustavo Gutierrez is a Catholic Theologian and a Dominican Priest that has stood for Latin American social justice. He is known as the “father of Liberation Theology.” Liberation Theology interprets the Christian faith out of the experience of the poor. Although I do not agree with all of the components of Liberation Theology (i.e. its willingness to advocate violence to win social justice), I believe that Gutierrez’s interpretation of poverty is a proper definition.
[7] Luke 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18
[8] Mt. 5:42
[9] Pr. 19:17
[10] 1 Tm. 6:17-19
[11] Eph. 1:4c-5
[12] Rm. 8:14-15
[13] Mt. 19:14

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