I heard a description in college about three different ways of viewing the world:
The Western way is atomic. It breaks things down into the tiniest parts and analyzes them. Our great big world is made of minuscule atoms, of individuals. The Eastern way is oceanic. It views everything as one whole. Every little drop is really one aspect of a great ocean that is everything. The African way is like a spiderweb. The world is a web of relationships. It is the relationships between things that are important. The world is not the tiny elements or the big whole, it’s the spider-thin threads that connect things to each other.
I like to think African and I think that’s why I am involved in faith-based community development work. As someone who follows Jesus, I believe all our relationships are really, really broken. The relationships of people in Sweetwaters towards the Hilton community are broken. The relationship between teachers and students towards education is broken. Their relationships towards material goods are broken. Their relationships towards each other that end up in abuse, AIDS, teen pregnancy are broken. The Hilton community is also broken. Their relationships towards each other, towards the poor, towards those who work for them, towards the environment– all these relationships are broken.
And I believe the reason all these relationships are broken is because our primary relationship– our relationship with God–is broken. When God, the creator, who created all things good, who created things in harmony, who created Shalom, is not central to our lives, we have no power to really set things right. We were created to image God, to reflect the joy and love of the Trinity in the way we interact with the world. We still carry the image of God, but rather than dancing through life in relationship with one another and the world, we trod and stomp and break and kick our way through. No matter how hard we work at it, there is no way for us to live in perfect relationship with everything in the universe.
But the beautiful thing is that God makes a way to restore all the brokenness, and it all revolves around Jesus. Jesus Christ, who was God, who showed us what God is like, spent his time bringing restoration to the broken relationships: healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and freeing people from the burden of law and from the weight of their sin. His death and resurrection mean that we can actually be made whole again– that everything that was dead and broken inside of us can be made new and whole and alive.
Once we have the life of Christ inside of us we have the power to be a part of God’s plan of restoring the world. It starts with Christ slowly repairing all the broken relationships in our own lives, and overflows as we get to join in the work of restoring all the other broken relationships in the world. Johns gospel uses pictures like being reborn, becoming a spring of never-ending life water, becoming a light in the darkness. These are all pictures of being a source of life to everything around us.
There are people who don’t think the way I do that still make a huge difference in the world through loving acts of service and compassion as they give their lives to repair broken social systems. It’s just that I believe they are missing a crucial element: the broken relationship with God which causes this mess. As we can see from the materialistic, self-indulgent Western-world, just having a good education and clean water and more stuff doesn’t make you a happier, more-fulfilled, better person. Alternatively, there are some Christians who think that God only wants to restore your soul then fly it away to heaven when you die. They, also, are missing the fact that God is the creator of all things and therefore wants to restore all things. Salvation isn’t some abstract disembodied event, it’s embedded in the mesh of relationships that all need to be salvaged and put right. (Romans 8, Colossians 1)
The other week a friend asked me if I’d still be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t follow Jesus. I’d like to say I might be involved in empowering poor communities through education and mentoring. I hope I would be a nice enough person to still do that. But my actual motivation to do what I do is not because I have noble humanitarian instincts. Most of the time I’m pretty selfish. The reason why I do what I do is because I have a relationship with Jesus, and with that comes the joyful mission of being a part of his work in restoring everything else.
So really, the question for all followers of Jesus is not “are you involved in social justice?” or “why are you involved in social justice?” it’s “how are you involved in social justice?” And the answer to that, of course, will look different for everyone.