Dealing with the enduring legacy of historical sin, such as our treatment of marginalized peoples, can be an overwhelming, perhaps impossible, task. When we immerse ourselves in the moment of historical clarity, when we truly glimpse the enormity of our failings as a church and as a society, we begin to realize the pervasiveness of injustice all around us – how do we avoid moral paralysis? Surely, it is too much for us! How could we possibly make a difference? Yet, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ, who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20). We are not alone, and we are not expected to go it alone. God in Christ has made us new, entrusted us and empowered us.
“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; Everything old has passed away, see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation that is. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making this appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5: 17- 21).
Living into the moral witness of the church is a daunting and humbling task. We cannot do it as we were. We must be transformed. For this we pray: “Lord, let us act in recognition, love, justice and solidarity with our neighbors, even those who may be strangers, and to all of creation. Empower us through your Spirit to bear witness to your will for a more just world. Create in us a new spirit. Let us become the moral witness of the church. Amen”
Reconciliation Allows All to Flourish
It is clear Paul did not intend to limit his Corinthians 5: 17- 21 declaration to the day on which he wrote this passage. Rather, Paul was pointing to the external present in which God is constantly acting to save. To join in God’s action in the present moment is the call of discipleship, the motivation for the church’s moral witness. Paul explained this ministry in the above passage, offering a holistic evangelical mandate to become ambassadors for Christ, and trusted us with the ministry of reconciliation. This is a powerful responsibility involving justice-making and extravagant welcome, penitent to race relations, immigration, LGBTQA+ advocacy and many other arenas in which humans have built walls of division among ourselves. To overcome our division, to heal relationships, and to experience reconciliation, we are called to lives of holiness.
God works in us, with our cooperation, as we mature in faith. God’s grace not only precedes our understanding and awakens us to humility, it not only renews the image of God within us, but it also enables us to grow.
Discipleship is the name for our participation in God’s work. Growth in Christlikeness allows us to love each other, to encourage development of each person’s full human potential. Flourishing is for everyone, not just for the select few or the demonstratably pious. As children of God, bearing God’s full image, all of humanity is redeemed through Christ. Every person is invited to flourish.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus proclaimed, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10 ). We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We seek to live together in Christian community; welcoming, forgiving and loving one another as Christ has loved and accepted us. This is the work of new creation. We witness to God’s renewing and reconciling work through our commitment to assist every person to realize their full human potential.
“Jesus has no feet but ours, no hands but ours.” (Grace Musuka) Before putting our feet and hands to use for Jesus’ sake, we need guidance. Where shall we walk? What shall we do?
Support of the Christian Community
You cannot be a Christian by yourself. To flourish as Christians means to live into Christlikeness in a community of faith. This involves personal growth as well as social awareness. Faith always includes a social dimension. To nurture the potential of Christlikeness in ourselves and our neighbors is the communal task of being a church together. A distinctly Wesleyan emphasis claims, “scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.” Thus, community is vital in learning to love our neighbors and the world around us. Community extends to all creation.
Protecting God’s Creation
God’s offer of abundant living includes a “theology of enough” to counter rampant consumerism and exploitation of the environment. Accepting that the whole of creation contains all that is necessary to sustain itself, a vision of “abundant living” means providing not only for the needs of this generation, but also for generations to come.
Our individual and corporate response to the global environmental crisis allows a choice between being sustainers or exploiters of creation. This idea of abundant life as a sustainable and just lifestyle indicates that the church must address (climate justice) so that abundant life is insured for our children and future generations. Here, abundant life refers to the ability to provide basic human needs and the potential for full human flourishing – essential elements for justice. If we exploit the global environment, we deplete the quality of the God-created resources we depend on.
Imagining God’s justice
Nor can the church today be silent on issues of economic justice. The material conditions of human existence matters to God and to the church. Poverty, inequality, oppression and all forms of injustice, cry out for neighbor-love. We know that we need to lift up marginalized voices. We also recognize the common but inadequate tendency to separate love from justice; to attempt to satisfy the demands of neighbor-love through mercy only. Society is very comfortable with the God of compassion, but much less comfortable with the God of justice.
The Challenge of Gender Discrimination
As we advocate for full participation and inclusion of women in the church, we are challenged to confront institutional sexism, and help church leaders address issues of sexual harassment and abuse in ministry settings. Preventing and addressing sexual abuse between adults in the church should be a focus of ministry. In many different contexts and economic environments, injustice is faced by women in ministry. The connection between economic justice for women in ministry and the sin of sexual violence against women, underlines our need to revisit the meaning of God’s justice, and prompts the church to embody justice in the world.
There are many stories of abuse of women and girls. As anecdotes are collected together, they become statistics, indicating what is true for many individuals at many times and places. When these statistics reveal patterns, we gain a broader outlook as patterns of injustice indicates systemic oppression. These stories reveal not only statistical trends, but also a fuller picture of the daily struggles of women and girls facing abuse and exploitation from within their own communities of faith.
When their lived experiences are shared and supported in a community of faith, they become a liberating, historical project of reclaiming moral agency. Bearing witness to women’s stories also helps men to see a reality different from their own and to join with women in this struggle. When we bear witness to one another stories, we participate in God’s liberating action. Joining in God’s mission is not something we can delegate. Bearing witness to the truth of these experiences is our act of discipleship.
Of the concerns that threaten the cause of women and girls’ equality and well-being, the most significant is violence. Sexual harassment and abuse are forms of this violence. The reliance on violence to subjugate women inflicts “wounds of the spirit”. Based on his work with individuals on both sides of sexual violence, theologian James Polling suggested that the authentic church for both victims and abusers needs to be a community of nonviolent resistance. One that is attuned to the human problem of abuse of power and systems of domination that institutionalize power in abusive ways. We must recognize violence as a sinful behavior before we can imagine God’s alternative.
Structures of violence are used to control and dominate some groups of people at the expense of others. It is our historical and current reality that structures of violence across the globe create economic injustice and disproportionately impacting women.
Gender-based violence derails economic justice at the outset. When women suffer sexual abuse and harassment in the church, as well as in the home, neighborhood, and workplace, power is being used against them to create inequalities. Unequal access to rights and goods then leads to greater disparities of power. Abuse of power sustains a negative feedback loop.
Let us look at the story of Mary. When Mary reported being the victim of clergy sexual abuse, it did not matter whether her salary had been commensurate with male staff. What mattered most at that moment was her personal safety. What mattered next were the basic human needs of food shelter and healthcare. As a single mother of two small children who relied on her for their sole support, being fired in retaliation for her truth-telling left her with no salary and no health benefits. Her abuser – and the church community colluding with him-had robbed her of the basic capability to flourish at that point in her life. A life free of violent coercion is a fundamental human need. Without this capability, full human flourishing is compromised.
Becoming the Moral Witness of the Church
When we bear witness as the church, we do so with bodies scarred from a lifetime of violence. To bear witness is to speak the truth of what we know about violence in this world, to call out the ways in which violence is used to perpetuate economic injustices against women, and to imagine the church to be a place of justice. We must bear witness to each other. Through prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace, God empowers us to become the kin-dom we are meant to be.
Created as creatures loved equally by God, we bear witness through attentive empathy with our neighbors, historical clarity about our own failures, and meaningful participation in God’s preferred future. When we bear witness as a church, we do so as the broken resurrected body of Christ. The church’s moral witness is lived out in as many ways as there are members of the body of Christ. Can you imagine the possibilities?
When asked what kind of struggles women leaders face in the Philippines, the response was, “sexism, discrimination, roadblocks to women speaking up; racial, ethnic, and classism issues.” Referring to the combination of sexism, racism, and classism, triple burdens are still alive. We must try to help women speak up about their own issues. Coaching them begins by listening. By somebody listened to their stories, women experience healing and confirmation of God’s grace.
“Rise! Take your mat at walk”. God entrusts and equips us. God will transform us. Reckoning with the future, we glimpse God’s will for a more just world. This is a future of reconciliation and shalom in which all creation will flourish. This is our hope. The renewal of all creation includes each and every one of us in solidarity. As we imagine God’s justice, we find meaningful participation by challenging and transcending structures of violence. As disciples, we manifest the Kin-dom by bearing witness to our neighbors. Growing in Christlikeness, we become the church’s moral witness. We can be transformed.
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I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4: 1 3)
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13: 34 ).
Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom by Darryl W. Stephens