March 20, 2022

Paths of Christian Spirituality: The Social Justice Tradition (Lent Sermon Series)

A Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler

Isaiah 58:6-12; Matthew 22:34-40

During this sermon a child – Margot – was baptised.

For those of us visiting today or here for Margot’s baptism I should explain that we are exploring six traditions of Christian spirituality during this season of Lent, six ways in which over 2000 years Christians have lived out the faith into which Margot is to be baptised shortly. We’re starting each session with a video like the one we’ve just seen, which offers a practical exercise to help us understand what matters to each of these traditions.

Today’s spiritual tradition – the Social Justice tradition – is the tradition of Martin Luther King, the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, of Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, and of the late Desmond Tutu to name but a few. It reminds us that when we think about the word “spirituality” or even the whole business of Christianity, we aren’t talking about a private, individualistic, inner experience alone. Truth be told, we are talking about a profound inner commitment as we shall see, but let’s remind ourselves as we begin – and let me remind Margot’s parents and godparents this morning – that this business of God and faith in Jesus Christ has profound consequences for the way we are called to live in our public as well as our personal living.

A small example from our first reading in Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet, a man who speaks God’s word to the people, and here is is speaking God’s critical word to the people of his time about their attitude to fasting, which isn’t a dietary fad in the Bible, but a religious duty. But Isaiah realises that the religious duty has lost its purpose so he says this to the people, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring your homeless poor into your house (that’s topical isn’t it?); when you see the naked, cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” The social justice tradition of Christian spirituality tells us that our attitudes to good relationships and our actions in those relationships matter to God – attitudes to the people we live most closely with, attitudes to our neighbours, attitudes to our society and, perhaps too often ignored until recently, attitudes to the creation of which we are part. Good religion is as much about the good ordering of society, about politics with a small ‘p’, as it is about going to church and saying your prayers.

But it’s not either/or. If you look at the list of names of the people I mentioned earlier – Dr King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and the like – they were definitely activists, but they were also people of prayer. Each of them would say that the basis for their faithful activity and ours in the cause of social justice in the world goes back to the teaching of Jesus as we heard it in our gospel reading: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.”

Our faith is a faith of the heart. You might say that it has two movements. A movement of the heart towards God – a vertical movement if you like based in prayer and a deepening and ongoing relationship with God, and a horizontal movement towards others, in the practice of love, mercy, peace and justice in the world. And one without the other is not biblical faith. White-hot love of God, the sort of love we see in these extraordinary lives, compels us to compassionate love of neighbour.

Both are needed you see, prayer and action. And they are deeply intertwined. Two examples of how that is playing out right now. First, in Ukraine. Christians have joined with virtually the whole world (outside of places where state media control the narrative) in wanting to respond to the humanitarian crisis that has followed the invasion of this free country. You can make a practical, financial commitment to that work as you leave today. But Christians have also seen the need to pray for Ukraine as well because, first, we see so many Ukrainians praying in the face of a powerful invader, and second, because we see that it is important to hold the people of Ukraine within the stream of the love, mercy and justice of God. We also pray because, as the Scriptures remind us regularly, God stands firmly against the tyrant and the oppressor and we want to see evil defeated. Because we believe that the Gospel offers the only way for evil to be defeated – and that is ultimately through love not force – we pray for love to not only comfort the oppressed, but to change the heart of the tyrant.

Many in Ukraine have taken up arms in defence of their country as a way of showing that they align with the defeat of evil and do what they can to play their part in that. But, truth be told, there is another tradition of Christian social justice that sees the taking up of arms as deeply problematic, that sees Jesus only responding with non-violence. But whatever you think of the pacifism versus just war arguments, pacifists and just war folk agree that action without prayer and a deep spiritual commitment to the cause of justice is likely to perpetuate the problem. How often have we seen wars end and what follows disappoint as governments fall into corruption and evil again and again. This only underlines the need for our action to be rooted in a deep spiritual commitment to God, something that for the Christian disciple applies to every aspect of life as we seek to build families, communities and countries on not just human concepts of justice but on biblical ones. Christian social justice wants to win the peace as well as the war.

But if action without prayer is likely to lead us up a blind alley, so is prayer without action. So here’s another example, much closer to home. This week we’ve seen Christians intervene in a much more local situation, following the extraordinary high handed way in which P & O Ferries dismissed 800 workers by pre-recorded video. This has united political parties of left and right in an area – labour relations – where there has often been a great divide. But it has also caused the Archbishop of Canterbury to intervene in strong terms: the port of Dover is part of his own diocese of Canterbury. In statement he says this, “Ill-treating workers is not just business. In God’s eyes it is sin…it treats human beings as a commodity of no basic value of dignity and is completely unethical.” He calls on the government to prevent P&O from operating until proper consultation has been carried out and he asks them to make representations to Dubai, where the parent company has its base.

This may seem to some an area which an Archbishop is unwise to comment. Usually some politician can be found telling the Archbishop to concentrate on the business of saving souls when they intervene in politics. But, as any Christian who has actually read the Bible will say, the saving of souls is as much to do with this life as the next. A spirituality that focuses only on heaven and not on earth is not the spirituality of Christian faith. Christian have a duty to seek the welfare of others whether they are abused by a Russian tyrant or a stock market listed company, or even the Church itself (let’s not forget our own complicity in slavery in the past and the sexual abuse of children in recent decades). One famous Christian social activist – a extraordinary woman called Dorothy Day – spent her life campaigning and fighting for the rights of workers. One of her biographers sums up her life as a ‘living reproach’ to those who settle for the easy path of ignoring the suffering of those around her. Perhaps one of the responsibilities we have to one another – and maybe the particular responsibility of those who stand where I do know, as preacher – is to be this sort of living reproach to us all for the compromise and easy willingness we have to settle for the comfortable life when so much injustice and suffering is going on around us.

So, faced with the call of Jesus to love our neighbour and to love God, the Christian tradition of social justice invites us to ponder where we stand in relation to the world around us. It invites us to see God as on the side of those who are oppressed and asks us to think carefully about how our lives contribute to suffering and injustice in the world.

Just one word of caution however – I speak as an activist here myself. I do think we need to be careful not to be overwhelmed by the problems of the world around us. We all know that we cannot solve all the world’s problems ourselves. But this is where the prayer and action duality comes in: we can, in as much as we are aware of the plight of others, we can pray for them all. We can, in our prayers, seek to place people suffering in the face of injustice within the stream of the love and mercy of God. That may be all that we can do, but it is something.

But it is also likely that there are places where we can actively make a difference.

We can probably all do something to make our families and communities places where fairness and justice are central: what could you do this week to make that a reality? Remember those random acts of kindness as one way. We all have a Christian duty to participate in public life to a greater or lesser extent, and we can in all probability make a tangible contribution to the plight of the needy across the world.

Because we believe in the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we are likely to be convicted of the need to act in certain situations and hold back in others. Part of what the social justice tradition of Christian spirituality invites to do is to refuse to hold back completely or to concentrate solely on what we narrowly define as ‘religion’. It asks us to discern where we can make the most significant difference. That could be in the workplace by running an business on solid ethical business practice (unlike the board of P&O) or managing staff in your office with the virtues of Christian faith; it’s also likely to be in the community, where we can all find a way of helping our neighbours and seeking to change things about the way their experience life (something Aaron, who was meant to be preaching today, has led on effectively in the past three years, and – as I’m preaching instead – I can say that we’ve not engaged in as well as we might have as a wider church); and it’s definitely worth pondering how we can make the lives of those we are closest to better through our care for them, our conduct in our personal relationships, and the attention we give to our own behaviour when no-one else is looking.

A life of prayer and action is the gift of the social justice tradition of Christian spirituality. It is a reproach to all forms of prayer and spirituality that seek to escape from the world or to water down faith into an acceptance of the status quo; it recognises that to be a Christian is always, if it is lived out faithfully, to bring us into conflict with the powers that be, because we answer to a Higher Power; and it invites us to be firmly rooted in the places we find ourselves, that we may, as the prophet Micah famously said, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”.

If you came here today to be given a little warm feeling inside, then this tradition won’t let you escape from the wider calling of the Christian disciple. That’s a message not just for Margot beginning her life long journey with Jesus Christ today, but for every one us. Each of us is called to make a difference in this world, that Jesus Christ might be glorified.

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