Religion walks abroad

This post was written by Andy Murray, whose own blog, Ragged Theology (raggedtheology.blogspot.co.uk) is well worth following. I’ve mentioned him here before because it’s largely his fault that I fell among bloggers at all. His passion for Christianity as social justice is inspirational; I think Thomas Guthrie would have approved.

I love Edinburgh. Every working morning, I come out of Waverley Station and glance at the Mound, the Scott Monument, and the Castle and remember how fortunate I am to live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I battle through the tourists, taking in the breath-taking views, as I struggle to get to the bus stop. But as with every city, Edinburgh has a dark side. My own charity, Safe Families for Children Scotland, works with families in crisis so I get to see plenty of children in desperate situations. The number of looked after children in Edinburgh has reached record levels with many having to be placed out of authority and sibling groups split up. While millions of pounds are spent on taking kids into care, a tiny amount is spent on prevention. The results of this strategy are seen in prisons with a huge number of prisoners who have a care background. Safe Families recruits, trains, supports and matches volunteers from a range of churches to families in crisis. Our strap line is ‘hope starts here’ and we see time and again how the introduction of a volunteer can bring hope into a desperate situation. We see it as grace in action – loving with no strings attached.

Begging and homelessness are also a very visible reminder that behind the beautiful buildings and wealth of Edinburgh, there is a large group which has missed out on the city’s progress. Every night of the week 50-60 rough sleepers will gather in a church hall in Edinburgh ready to be fed by a local church team and provided with a bed by Bethany Christian Trust, a 35-year-old homeless charity. Hundreds of church volunteers, dozens of church venues, and a willing group of Bethany staff provide a lifeline to men and women desperate for help. Every year the shelter is funded largely by the free will offerings of churches and individuals.

There was a time when the church was at the very heart of poverty relief and the fight against injustice. We see clues to this in the architecture and sites of Edinburgh. Towards the West End of Princes Street we see the imposing statue of Dr Thomas Guthrie. Under one arm he has a Bible while under the other arm a fearful looking ‘ragged child’ looks out. It is like the portrait of Guthrie in the National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street entitled ‘A Mission of Mercy’. He stands at the top of the Lawnmarket patting affectionately one of the many ‘ragged children’ while behind him stands one of the ‘Dram Houses’ that Guthrie so hated. Dr Guthrie’s great legacy, as the statue states, is that he was ‘a friend to the poor and to the oppressed.’ His great friend and mentor, Thomas Chalmers, stands close by in George Street. One of Scotland’s foremost social reformers, Chalmers, like Guthrie, is now an unknown and unrecognised relic from Scotland’s Christian heritage.

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The fathers of the Free Church never saw the false and unbiblical divergence between preaching the gospel and helping the poor as we do today. Largely the Christian church (and the Free Church in particular) have franchised out to the government their responsibilities to love the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger. Most Deacons’ Courts have become finance and fabric committees without any serious attempt to deal with the poor around the congregation. Many ministers and elders seem to think the government have largely solved poverty and need through the welfare state so the church no longer has a role. Not unlike the Victorian era, the church has ceased to fight injustice and is no longer the conscience of the nation. We have become part of the establishment rather than seeking to fight against the injustice and corruption of the rich and powerful.

Thankfully, when Guthrie came to Edinburgh from his rural parish in Angus in 1837, he was willing to take the civil and religious establishment head on. Thousands of children were living on the streets of Edinburgh or in squalor. As if this wasn’t bad enough, most of the church not only ignored the situation but some even argued it was God’s will. Like today, rather than investing money in care and welfare, huge amounts of money was spent in prison and punishment with little effect. It was the same in London when Wilberforce took on the slave trade. Some of his fiercest criticism came from the religious establishment. As Metaxas says in his excellent biography of Wilberforce: ‘Many thought God had ordained the poor’s situation, that it was part of the natural order, and that they should therefore be kept where they were, in their misery. To help them was tantamount to shaking one’s fist at God.’

Like Isaiah and Micah, Guthrie saw the connection between worship and social justice (Isaiah 58). The prophet Micah ministered at a time of great corruption and injustice. Israel’s sins ranged from sorcery and idolatry (Micah 5 v 12-14) to deceit and fraudulent dealings (Micah 6 v 10, 11). Justice had broken down particularly in the distribution of land. The land intended for the inheritance of all God’s people was seized by the rich and the powerful (Micah 2 v 1-5 and Numbers 27 v 1-11). God’s people had ceased to be the conscience of the nation and instead had become complicit with the rich and powerful. Micah condemns Judah’s religious leaders for their disregard for justice and truth. He tells them in Micah 6 v 8 ‘He hath showed thee O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of thee: surely to do justly, and to love mercy, and to humble thyself, to walk with thy God.’

The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat which emphasises the activity of ‘doing justice’. This word comes up over 200 times in the Old Testament. The mishpat or justice of a society in the Bible is based on how certain groups of people were treated. In the Old Testament, this included widows, orphans, the immigrant or the poor. Thus, in Zechariah 7 v 10-11 we read; ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart’. Why should we stand up for the poor? Why should we fight injustice? Because God commands it but also because it is the very character of God. In Psalm 146 v 7-9 we read; …who executes justice [Mishpat] for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; The Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojouners; He upholds the widows and the fatherless, But the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.’ Micah calls on God’s people to practice justice. To stop stealing land, to treat people humanely, and to stop oppressing the widows and orphans.

Even more than that, the people of God are to love mercy. The Hebrew word used in Micah for mercy is hesed – faithful or unfailing love. It is not enough to do justice – we are to delight in doing it. Doing justice and loving mercy is the fruit of walking humbly with God. When we walk with God it means that we come to know him intimately and desire what he loves and desires. The people in Judah had forgotten God and had become self-absorbed. This led to oppression of the poor and a lack of love for the marginalised. People were selfish not loving. But when people walk with God in intimate fellowship Him they are infused with the love of God. They love God and love their neighbour. They love the first and second table of the law.

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Justice and love aren’t just a nice idea, they are the fruit of the gospel. The more we understand of the grace of God, the more we will do justice, and love mercy. We don’t need to decide between preaching the gospel and loving the poor. God asks us to both. When we fight justice, and love the poor it doesn’t dilute the gospel it makes the gospel more attractive, the church more authentic and Christians become like beacons in a dark society. We fulfil the command of James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.’ The gospel calls for activity. We are called to love those have nothing and can offer nothing in return. As Dr Guthrie says ‘Religion does not consist in doctrinal or prophetical speculations; nor lie like a corpse entombed in old dusty confessions. She lives in action, and walks abroad among mankind – calling us to leave our books, to shut our Bibles, to rise from our knees, and go forth with hearts full of love and hands full of charities.’

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