Communion and Justice

World Communion of Reformed Churches Executive Committee Geneva,

May 10, 2011 by Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth

Justice is a fundamental dimension of human life – the life of women and men, of society, of humanity and all creation. It is based on the belief that every human being is created in the image of God and thus has intrinsic value. Justice is a fundamental principle of the existence and the coexistence of people, of communities, of societies, of nations and of the earth. It is also a principle of the existence of the Church as it is fundamental for life, humanity and creation.

Without justice there can be no peace. Sometime ago I was facilitating a multi-faith domestic violence workshop in Guyana. A woman who shared her story said that her spiritual leader told her that when her husband was being abusive she should stuff a wad of cloth in her mouth to prevent herself from speaking or making any sound. This would minimise his anger and the level of violence perpetrated by him. It means that she accepts the power construction, his dominance and control and keeps the peace by keeping quiet.

During the era of slavery under the various European empires in the West Indies, the Bible was introduced as a tool to “civilise” enslaved Africans and to maintain the status quo of the plantation. The hierarchical segregation of race, economic and social classes was seen as the accepted order. Christianity was preached as a “pie in the sky” religion with a separation of people’s lived realities from the spiritual. Keeping the peace meant being complacent, accepting the hierarchical structure and systemic injustice as the given order. However, the indigenous spiritualities and biblical resistance reading of the enslaved enabled them to promote the cause for their own liberation – to claim their dignity and God-given worth, resisting and revolting against the oppressors, thus finding the way to peace with justice.

Reformed theology has consistently understood justice as the chief attribute of God, with biblical justice inextricably tied to Yahweh’s mercy and compassion and grounded in the God- humankind relationship. The church is called to affirm the sovereignty of God through its witness for justice. Those who follow Yahweh are compelled to practice justice. In situations of oppression and injustice, God’s people in biblical times were charged by the prophets to “Let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 6:24). Micah summarizes the prophetic message: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Like ancient prophets, John Calvin argued that worship and justice, piety and righteousness belong together. The proper fear of God manifests itself in the practice of justice and mercy. One of Calvin’s sayings is: “Where God is known, there humanity is also cared for.” He affirmed the vocation of Christians to struggle so that the “crying difference between rich and poor” ceases and the Body of Christ (the community) remains in good shape. Christians see this vocation expressed in the biblical claim that not only is God the “helper of the helpless”,

Since the early days, justice has always been at the heart of the mission of the church. In

Luke’s Gospel, Jesus admonished the Pharisees by saying that they should tithe without

neglecting the pursuit of love with justice. He said, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give

God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and

the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

(Luke 11:41-43) By tithing mint herbs the leaders showed themselves scrupulously faithful.

But two large relational imperatives were ignored – justice and love for God. It is no accident

that these two ideas are linked, as they were also linked in Luke 10:25-28 (Jesus’ response to

the lawyer). A fundamental call of God is to love God and respond likewise to others (Mic 6:8;

Zech 7:8-10; Col 3:12-13).“parent of the orphaned”, “God of the widow” but also a God of justice who calls us to be instruments in righting the wrongs. Thus Calvin insisted that Christians should always be a disturbing element in society by resisting all forms of injustice.

The Gospels point to a way of living in a world, which weaves justice and love in a powerful way. Jesus gave his life to heal the brokenness of our world and to restore God’s reign of love and justice. The Church of Jesus Christ is God’s light and justice in this world. Jesus’ crucifixion was an imperial execution, carried out by the authorities against one whose teachings went against the grain of their institutions, as he stood firm for justice. Jesus resisted the death dealing ways of empire; he crossed the boundaries of propriety in the imperial culture of his day, speaking the truth to power and bringing about God’s reign-dom on earth.

The resurrected Christ is known in the body of Christ – a believing community of faith, which demonstrates an integral bond between faith, justice and action. The church cannot afford to sit comfortably in chapels and cathedrals while people are engaged in a struggle for survival against heavy odds. It needs to be conversant with the meaning of struggles of people and to find its way to a greater connection with people and communities, in their search for meaning in life. When the church takes to the streets like Jesus did, connecting with people and their struggles, its liturgical acts become a street theatre for communion and justice.

Justice as essential to being in communion is a significant focus for the newly established WCRC. In a Message from the Global Dialogue on the Accra Confession held in Johannesburg in 2009, participants said, “On the one hand, we give thanks for the gift of reconciliation in Christ, and on the other, we understand that authentic faith cannot be divorced from actions for justice (Isa 28:16-17). We come together in unity for the sake of justice (I Cor 12:26)… This is reflected in Trinitarian Communion as the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit based on II Cor 13:13.”

The WCRC’s emphasis on communion and justice provides a way forward for the global Reformed family to become a living sign of the oneness for which Jesus prayed in fulfilment of his mission to bring all creation to the fullness of communion with God and with one another. This new nature of our being a communion of churches cannot be built on one-sidedness, power relations, denial of disparities, or pretense of reconciliation. For this “oneness” for which Jesus prayed, and which can serve as a model of ecclesial and human communion, it must be rooted in that communion born of the Spirit, and manifested concretely as member churches live in relationships of integrity, mutual accountability and solidarity.

Being a communion requires engagement in the ongoing transformation that will signal the full realization of this vision of communion in its broadest and most inclusive manifestation in our world. Humanity is one and, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, no one is liberated until all are liberated. We were created by God to live in community with each other and not against each other. We must, therefore, break down the barriers that separate people from one another (perhaps starting with ourselves) because true community is only possible if it is founded on justice, peace and right relations.

The call to communion resonates with our witness and mission for justice. We cannot enter into full communion if the body is marked by indifference, exclusion and blindness to injustice. The WCRC needs to hear the voices of the many oppressed people – from people who do not speak the dominant language, from women and from people from the south and also the north who live with the daily reality of hunger, violence and a culture of death, under systems that were created by dominant powers and characterized by the poverty of unemployment and unending debt, political and economic corruption, degradation of the earth, racial, gender and cultural discrimination, lack of education, personal devaluation and marginalization.

Being a communion requires that we take each other seriously. It means walking in the shoes of those who are different and who have different experiences of life, different perspectives and worldviews. It requires naming the sins of injustices and recognising our complicity, asking


and granting forgiveness, and reaching out to one another in a spirit of reconciling love and solidarity. This means that the WCRC and its member churches must break silent complicity with empire or centres of power and systems of injustices that have perpetuated oppression, inequalities, resulting in injustice. This call to be one requires the WCRC to strengthen its prophetic witness, confronting systemic injustices that lead to the current patterns of unjust social and ecclesial relationships that contradict God’s call to communion.

Women who gathered in Grand Rapids for the Women’s Pre-Council reflecting on the UGC theme, “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace” (Eph 4:6), asked questions about communion and justice for the newly formed WCRC: “How will the communion navigate the multiple and overlapping diversities that constitute its body given its biblical and theological rootedness in Ephesians? How will the Communion treat alternative visions? How will the communion determine the lens from which it decides on or negotiates what does not fit?”1

What does this mean for the WCRC? For you, your church and for your region?

Questions for discussion: 1. How can the WCRC become a living sign of the oneness for which Jesus prayed in

fulfilment of his mission to bring all creation to the fullness of communion with God and

with one another? Give some concrete examples from your context.

2. Reflect on the questions asked by women in Grand Rapids. What are challenges to being a communion and what steps need to be taken to address these?

3. What does being a communion mean for churches in your region? How do you envisage living out the communion and how can the global family and its means support this process?

4. What are the gifts of communion that the WCRC can offer to the ecumenical movement and to the world?

5. What are the gifts that you, your church and your region can offer to build up the communion?

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