By Adam Gustine, Director of LMDJ Ministry Initiatives
“It remains a question whether one can be perpetually indifferent to the problems of social justice and international order, and develop a wholesome personal ethics.”
Words like these have haunted me for the last decade.
Ten or so years ago, sitting in a seminary class on mercy and justice, hearing things like this began to awaken me to the reality that I had, in essence, grown up attempting to develop a ‘wholesome personal ethic’ while at the same time being completely indifferent to issues of justice. I first read these words, written in 1947, as an eager twenty something, convinced of my own worldview and ready to show others the error of their ways. But something in me shifted as I pressed deeper into the assertion that it was possible to divorce personal ethics from the social ethics of Jesus and that the result of such a divorce was not only catastrophic for myself as an individual Christ follower but for the entire church and its part in the mission of God in the world.
My evangelical reality was framed by a merely personal morality and a conservative political compatibility that governed the way I saw the world, developed convictions and determined my values and aspirations. I consider it a demonstration of sheer grace that God used the last ten years of ministry experience, significant mentoring and co-laboring relationships and educational and experiential learning opportunities to begin to help me unearth the bent inner logic of my faith and to begin (I’m certainly still in process) to fashion a way of seeing the world that aligns more closely with Jesus and the Kingdom he established. That I find myself, today, engaged in this work of mercy and justice is a testament to the fact that God uses extraordinarily undeserving people for the sake of his Kingdom and a broken world, and that he does so in surprising and unexpected ways.
It has become a consuming passion of mine to live into the reality that in a thoroughly Christian worldview, discipleship and the pursuit of God’s shalom are inextricably tied together. The pursuit of this reality has led me into significant seasons of learning and growth in areas of community development, poverty, race, power and leadership to name just a few. Along the way, I sensed God inviting me to divest myself of the incredible hubris that characterized (and most likely still characterizes) my early ministry self, which was so sure and self-assured. In the last 10+ years, God has brought significant mentors into my life, who helped me to see that, as a white man, I simply cannot fathom the extent of my privileged blindspots and who have helped me see the kinds of postures/practices I needed, and still need!, to learn to more faithfully steward my calling in the church for the sake of the world.
In this protracted period of listening and submitting myself to the voices of others, there has been significant pain. For example, I can still remember the tears as I first read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and the subsequent realizations of my own complicity in the structures of racial injustice as I come to grips with my own story and see the stories of racial violence play out in front of us in these distressing days. There is always pain in seeing your sin, and the sin of your people laid bare before you. As Isaiah noted, there is always woe. But, because God is always redeeming, that pain was never wasted. I find myself on (what is undoubtedly a lifelong) journey of repentance and belief as God continues to expose my blindness and calls me into deeper faithfulness within the body. Paraphrasing Brennan Manning, it has all been a grace, even in those moments when I failed to recognize it as such.
Because of this, the longer I am in ministry, the more passionate I have become about this reality for the church as a whole. The unfortunate realization is that, I am not alone in having developed a manner of following Jesus that severed personal morality from a public presence and pursuit of God’s shalom. Indeed, this is the assertion made by Carl Henry, now nearly 70 years ago, that the evangelical ethos has trended toward ignoring the clear call of God to engage and work to dismantle the structures of injustice in pursuit of his shalom in the world. Instead, evangelicals have tended to defer to engaging in a, supposedly, private faith. This is a major piece of my story and it is the story of many more like me. (So too, it seems for Henry, who found himself embroiled in issues of racial in-justice in his early days at CT, and even decades later, it’s unclear the extent to which he was able to live out his own words of warning.)
More than a mere outreach strategy, the pursuit of justice is an issue of discipleship for each of us and for the entire body of Christ. This is what makes me feel so at home in the ECC. In a decade of intense searching, it feels that I have found a family of churches committed to the integration of justice and discipleship, and to the development of an increasingly comprehensive understanding of the Kingdom and Mission of God. Recognizing that we have further to go, that we are still grappling with the implications for our denomination, it gives me great joy to join in with the process of learning to lean into God’s future together, today.
Henry, Carl. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1947). 10. [italics added]