COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. At times like these, we look to our leaders for advice, wisdom and direction. Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a nation-wide lockdown that would restrict any movement that wasn’t considered “essential”. Can you guess what made it on the list of essential items? Puzzles. To quote the PM: “I can assure you that over the next few months, we’re going to consider those jigsaw puzzles absolutely essential.”
There are many different interpretations of the word “essential”. Whilst I mightn’t rate puzzles as highly as the Morrison family, I do enjoy a good puzzle! I recall spending three months tirelessly working on a 1000-piece superhero puzzle, only to realise at the end, that I was one piece short! There is something so satisfying about laying down the final piece and seeing everything come together to create a complete picture. An incomplete puzzle is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. It’s OK, it may serve some purpose, but it’s not finished. And it’s difficult to ignore the gap. The same can be said for a gospel message that doesn’t address social justice.
One could summarise social justice as a “concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society”.1 Biblical references to the word “justice” mean “to make right”. But my favourite description of social justice is from the former vice-president of World Vision, Adam Taylor, who wrote, “Social justice is about creating Kingdom space in the here and now, giving witness to the ultimate just society yet to come.”2
Some Adventists believe the Church should stop wasting precious time and resources on social justice issues, and focus on “spreading the gospel” instead. Spreading the gospel is imperative—Jesus commanded His disciples to “Go into the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The “good news” is great news, the best you’ll ever hear—so share it far and wide! But like a game of Chinese Whispers, failure to pay close attention to a message may result in a jumbled sentence that loses its original meaning.
Is the church mirroring Jesus?
In 2017, McCrindle released a report that explored the state of Christianity in Australia.3 According to the report, 9 out of 10 Australians knew at least a few things about the life of Jesus. And the attribute of Jesus that Australians connected with the most was love.
The report revealed that perceptions of Christians and Christianity are negatively influenced by the actions and behaviours of Christians in society. In the group of non-christian participants surveyed, they discovered that “in spite of doubts towards Jesus, they more positively connected to Jesus than the church”. Some even expressed that they felt “there is a disparity between the church and the Jesus that the church claims to represent.”4
How could this be? If Jesus is at the centre of our message and is the cornerstone of the church, why is it when they see us (the church) they are not seeing Jesus?
The missing puzzle piece
Jesus is the gospel message. His words and actions reveal that Jesus is a “practice what you preach” type of Man. Jesus paved the way. He walked the walk, so if we want to share the complete gospel message, so must we.
After all, the Bible doesn’t say:
“. . . Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you told me about your delicious dinner, and prayed that I could find some food . . . I was a stranger and you called me a ‘brother in Christ‘ but never visited me . . . I was sick and you pointed me to the direction of the hospital, and drove off in your car, leaving me to walk by myself. I was in prison and you forgot all about me” (read Matthew 25:31-46 for the correct version).
You can have social justice without the gospel, but you can’t have the gospel without social justice
The world is desperately craving hope, and we have a message that can give people all that their souls need. The offering of spiritual bread is what sets us apart from the crowd, but physical bread is also essential.
It’s recorded in the book of Matthew that Jesus spent three days healing and preaching to large crowds near the Sea of Galilee. Before He left, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way” (Matthew 15:32). Even after “spiritually feeding” the crowds, Jesus met their physical needs, and so must we. Otherwise, others will. [pullquote]
According to a 2019 Global Attitudes survey5, 79 per cent of Australians believe that it’s unnecessary to have a belief in God in order to be a moral person and have good values. Furthermore, Australia’s top five most reputable charities in 2020, according to Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine, have no religious affiliation at all.6 Yet, they are standing up to “rebuke the oppressor, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17), and they’re doing it for humanity. So why, then, aren’t we doing it for Jesus?
Freedom found in a practical gospel
I run the Social JustUs podcast with my friend Mel. In Episode 8, we interviewed a young lady named Manemma*. Manemma is a school teacher from Hyderabad, who left India for the first time ever to speak at an event in Australia run by Dignity Freedom Network (DFN).
Manemma was quite reserved at first, but once we started speaking about her role as a teacher, her face lit up! She’s so passionate about educating children so they can have brighter futures. Manemma wasn’t always going to be a teacher. At 12, her family planned to dedicate her as a Jogini. Joginis are young girls who are dedicated to the temple goddess and forced into a life of sexual slavery, where any man in their villages can use them whenever they want, wherever they want and for no money. The practice is heartbreaking and evil. Understandably, many Jogini’s develop alcoholism to numb their pain. It’s a lifelong sentence, and they often have a number of children. Their daughters usually grow up to be Joginis themselves, as it’s seen as their “karma” or “destiny”, and their sons will grow up trapped in bonded labour.
As I spoke with this beautiful, passionate teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like for her if it hadn’t been for DFN convincing her parents to allow Manemma to live in their nurturing shelter for at-risk girls, attending one of their schools—the very school that she would teach at 10 years later.
As a Christian organisation working in India, DFN don’t shout Bible passages on the streets of New Delhi, but they definitely show the love of Jesus with those on the margins, every single day.
Social justice is the practical component of the gospel message. Jesus was the ultimate social justice Advocate, and He paved the way for you and I to be advocates too. As the world rallies together to fight against injustice, will we be on the forefront?
*Name changed for privacy
Michaela Jones works in Melbourne as the National Acquisition Coordinator for Make-A-Wish Australia. She also hosts the Social JustUs podcast with Melissa Tracina (socialjustuspodcast.com).