In the film version of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, a scene sees the young Ernesto Guevara and his traveling companion, Alberto Granado, refused lunch while staying at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. They had broken an important rule enforced by the nuns who ran the colony: if you didn’t go to mass, you didn’t get fed. The filmmaker’s contempt for such treatment is expressed by his characters, with Alberto commenting, “Ma’am, it’s unchristian to deny us food” and the patients later smuggling them their lunch. Another example of what has been called “souperism” can be found in the history of Ireland when, during the famine of the 19th century, Protestant clergy exchanged soup for conversions. Nor do we have to go so far back in history to find examples of this kind of behavior. The idea of church-based community development is problematic when that basis in the church translates as a bias towards the church, when community development is sought to bolster the church community rather than, if not in spite of, the whole community. The effectiveness of such an approach, both in improving community conditions and in spreading the Gospel, is highly suspect.
The Church’s social concern has, at times, taken the form of salvation by coercion because of an image of social action as subservient to evangelism. Our vision of the Church’s role in the world has too often been shaped by an unholy equation: while the Bible clearly details a mission of both evangelism and social justice we have viewed our resources as limited, have shown our compassion to be finite and as a result have made a pragmatic choice. Given that the fruits of evangelism are clearly eternal while social justice appears to have more temporal roots, evangelism has been “chosen”. However as Graham Cray suggests:
Mission is not a matter of putting in order of priority evangelism, social action or signs and wonders, but of an openness to the whole agenda of the Kingdom, including its priority concern for the poor.
For with Jesus has come the Kingdom, meaning that Lordship over the whole world rests with Christ. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden explain that this allows us to “boldly pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’ – and not just ‘in the church as in heaven.’” This prayer is answered when we see Kingdom values manifest in the lives of people, in movements or in the structures of life and politics. Crucial to our understanding of God’s Lordship and his Kingdom values is Psalm 89: 14, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” The significance of this verse is explained by Cray who writes, “Righteousness and justice form one quality, not two. The Old Testament knows no division between social justice and private morality. The two words…express one complex idea.” When the Church proclaims as well as models the Gospel it acts in line with God’s vision for it, it brings the Kingdom and points to its future fulfillment and in doing so it will change the world around it. According to the Micah Declaration then:
…our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life and our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.
The conclusions we come to about how to best pursue the transformation we wish to see in our world must reflect an engagement with the key intellectual debates but be rooted in an understanding of our place in the wider story of the come and coming Kingdom. It is clear then that the church must focus its efforts on alternatives which highlight the sustainable, the participatory and the human and be confident that our hope does not come from what technology or academia has to offer but is placed in the God of justice and righteousness who has the power to redeem. When Andrew Kirk writes that “Justice includes; injustice excludes”, he makes an important point, for if development is marked by exclusion, referring either to who is to be the focus of development or who is to be involved in the process, we risk failure and injustice. The church should be particularly alive to this truth since fostering participation reflects a central kingdom value, that all of humanity is made in God’s image and is equally important in his sight. Empowering the local community underlines their place in the world, their God given identity. By suggesting that biblical justice is exemplified in the practice of jubilee Kirk reasons that, “in a sense, justice is another word for liberation: the removal of the barriers which prevent human beings from participating fully in the benefits and responsibilities of the community.” This idea draws to mind the work of Amartya Sen whose book “Development as Freedom”, in my opinion at least, details a particularly useful understanding of development. His conception of development is one of , “a process of removing unfreedoms and of extending the substantive freedoms of different types that people have reason to value.” We see throughout the bible that Kingdom change can be brought even if Christians are not in positions of control or, in this context, are not the key drivers of development. Though the kingdom comes most fully through the action of the church it can also be ushered in through the action of society in general.
As explained by Archbishop Donald Mtetemala, “Our efforts must not only be to build the church into a strong institution for its own sake! We need to make the church a servant in the society in which it bears witness.” The church boasts another resource which perhaps positions it well to wrestle with these ideas since, given its quite unique make-up, when we talk about the poor we are talking about members of our own family. It is when the church bases its ministry on the ideas of justice and righteousness, when its words are backed up by its actions and its actions are explained in its words, that the Kingdom breaks into this impoverished world most forcefully.