Volunteering for Justice or Working for Justice?
Homelessness, immigration, poverty, access to health care, pollution, sex trafficking, educational reform, mass incarceration – the justice issues of our day are seemingly endless. The good news is that many evangelical churches are not only addressing these issues, but are encouraging their congregations to get involved. But as a whole, churches have adopted very limiting strategies for living out Amos’ (and Martin Luther King’s) cry to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” This is what I mean:
Typically churches will address a topic like poverty in a sermon series or at a conference, and afterward they will encourage participants to do one of two things: (1) donate to a local ministry, or (2) volunteer. If pastors can manage to convict hearts of the unacceptable injustices of our world, and that’s a big if, the “ask” is to give money or to go and volunteer once a month cleaning graffiti or packing food boxes.
Now, volunteering through a nonprofit to serve the poor is good. And so is giving money. However, it leaves the other 45 hours of a parishioners work week untouched. On the church level, we’ve largely overlooked the centrality of work for bringing about justice.
Let me illustrate. A classic justice text is found in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, and most of the minor prophets, issue thundering critiques of injustice. But what kind of situations were the prophets addressing? Here are a few examples from Micah:
(1) “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate together what they desire – the all conspire together” (Micah 7:3). Political rules were corrupt, accepting bribes and using power to advance their own interests. What’s the implied call to action? Volunteer through a local organization? Or is it a call for those working in government to maintain the highest ethical standards, never forgetting the weak whom the LORD cares for?
(2) “Am I to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a person with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” (Micah 6:10-11). The critique here is of a business culture that has a single bottom line: maximize profit. Dishonest scales and false weights cheat consumers out of a fair price. Again, what’s the action point? For those who work in business, turn from dishonesty, set fair prices, make quality products, and let justice before the LORD drive business practices.
(3) A final example from Micah: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they defraud them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2). Here the powerful take the fields and homes of the powerless. Again, I’d ask, how should we best address issues of predatory lending, affordable housing and even homelessness? Should we not first talk to Christians in finance, mortgage, and lending and see if we can’t build practices that get and keep the poor in affordable homes and restrain the temptation to “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them?”
The point is simply this: pastors need to shift how they tell their congregations to get involved in justice issues to include both volunteerism and work. Volunteerism is good – America’s civic culture has always been strengthened by volunteers. But at work is where Christians (1) have far more time to address justice issues and (2) are in positions of influence to actually change structural realities.
For example, after a sermon series on immigration, why not encourage small business owners to hire immigrants as a practical way to show concern for the foreigner (Ex. 22:21)? In education reform, can we encourage teachers to spend extra time with students who struggle to read because God wants all young people to be able to read and hear his word? Could we encourage city officials to adopt environmentally friendly policies to care for God’s creation? Couldn’t we even encourage employees at gas stations or fast food restaurants (those without ‘power’) to serve customers as they would serve Christ himself, or be courageous and name the idols that drive unethical practices?
On a practical level, for pastors this means different sermon illustrations. It means different tables in the foyer that, for instance, gather Christian engineers to talk about building a beautiful, environmentally friendly, and community-building neighborhoods. It means publicly praying over your “royal priesthood” and commissioning them to be salt and light in the workplace. It means seeing your congregation not as a crowd of potential volunteers, but as teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel employees, and marketers who have been called by God to bring about truth, beauty and justice through their vocation.
It means deeply believing James Davison Hunter’s words: “Fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformation in its effects.”
Discussion question: For pastors and ministry leaders, how might “working for justice” versus “volunteering for justice” change your calls to action?