Seeking justice is 'absolutely central' to Christian faith, says Archbishop

Seeking justice is 'absolutely central' to Christian faith, says Archbishop

You can read the Archbishop's speech below or watch the speech here:

(And you can watch Maurice Glasman's speech here.)


The Archbishop of Canterbury's speech at the Church Urban Fund Tackling Poverty Together conference

Old Town Hall, Stratford, London, 13 November 2013

Justice is a very dangerous word: innocent on the outside, yet full of high explosive. Its dynamite comes from the understanding in both Old and New Testaments, that it is one of the key ways in which we understand who God is and what he wants.

It is a word with power to raise revolt, motivate war, undermine tyrants and even to redeem God’s historic people at a time when they were drifting from the covenant relationship with God. Isaiah says, ‘Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent by righteousness.’

Jerusalem, at the time of Isaiah, was a place of corruption and religious observance. Like Britain in the 17th or early 18th century, no link was made between oppression of the poor and confession of Christ. Like other parts of our world in the 21st Century, financial power too often dictated political influence – or judicial attitude.

Isaiah cried out against the corruption and spoke the words of God rejecting Israel's worship. No amount of religious observance or pious comment can replace justice. It is a word that holds a concept which is ultimately powerful, for good and ill.

Justice is a word with spiritual power in the New Testament. The cross of Christ is about justice and love meeting and embracing. Through Jesus, God justifies every human being; and so because Jesus is God, the Crucified God, justice for sin is satisfied and love is lavished upon all human beings. Without the Cross, either justice is denied or love is unavailable.

The trouble with justice is that too often, almost invariably, it is the justice of the powerful, which is not justice at all, of course. And that is the point that Isaiah makes. There was justice in his time, courts operate, judges decided; but they decided for class and money, not for truth and the common good.

Justice redeems because it delivers people from slavery to their own desires and decisions, from serving anyone except God. A nation experiences the redemption that justice brings as its people are liberated to live for one another on a system that affirms that self-giving is better than sole advantage.

The cry for justice by the church - any church - is a cry for a redeemed society, a society that is free of mere self-interest or class interest or financial persuasion. A society that is free for human beings to flourish. Justice is not based on the nature of God who is just: when there is injustice we are enslaved in one way or another.

Yet, justice, as I have said, is an explosive idea. When it explodes uncontrollably it often ends in violence; it is the cloak for atrocity; it simply replaces one slavery with another. So it has to be combined with something else to keep it pointing in the right direction: and that is welfare.

God spoke to Jeremiah and said to him: ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29:7). Another absurdity.

Israel had been taken into exile, and the exiles asked Jeremiah what they should do? Surely God would rescue them quickly, bring them home. If you will excuse the anachronism, it would all be over by Christmas. Jeremiah is less than encouraging. No way, he says, you are there for a long time, decades. Settle down, make the place work, care for those around.

The blessing of our communities and justice. The love of God and the love of neighbour. These are challenges God has set before us. And they are also aspects of the calling that we each have as Christians and that we have together as the Church.

When Christians speak in public about community flourishing or about justice, there’s always someone who will pop up and ask why we’re sticking our noses in, as if these things were miles away from the proper concerns of Christianity.

Recently there have been the issues of money and credit unions and power costs of which the church has spoken. Stick to God, we are told. So we do, and we find not only the passages I have mentioned, but Jesus saying: Love God, love neighbour.

The common good of the community and justice are absolutely central to what it means to be a Christian. They flow from the love of Jesus on the Cross, offering salvation, enabling justice and human freedom.

Loving God and loving our neighbour go together like the warp and the weft of a piece of fabric. They hold each other in place and together can be strong, and beautiful, and adaptable, for any number of uses.

But each without the other would be disconnected strands. When we weave them together in our life as people of God, we open up a range of possibilities that can make a real difference. Possibilities that can transform lives and transform communities.

That is our calling. We don’t speak about common good and justice because we think we have some automatic right to be heard, but because loving our neighbour places responsibilities upon us.

On any given Sunday, churchgoers are a minority of the population, albeit in many places a rapidly growing one. And since we serve a God who gives free-will, we must accept God's rules and not demand privileges that Jesus himself foreswore. He emptied himself on the cross, to save us.

Yet we have responsibilities to act, to do what we can to make a difference, to work for our neighbour’s flourishing, to bring justice. We have responsibilities to speak, even when it might be easier to stay quiet, to point to injustice and to challenge others to join us in righting it.

Is this politics? Absolutely. Is it party politics? Absolutely not. Politics is the art and the science of securing the common good of the community through government. Party politics is a mechanism we use as a society to make decisions about who governs.

That’s an important task and there are countless Christians who are deeply engaged in the work of our political parties, and making a valuable contribution there. Party politics is a field where some Christians will rightly feel personally called to contribute: politics in general is something from which none of us should seek to escape participation – if we respond to the nature of God.

The consequences, among other things, involve sharing Jesus Christ’s concern for the poor and the marginalised, building communities where we recognise our responsibility to one another. We recognise that whether we are poor or rich, we have the same dignity before God.

The Church Urban Fund has always been committed to making a tangible difference in local communities where it really matters. Your recent efforts to emphasise partnership with the local church by building the Together Network recognise the dignity of communities in need.

And your focus on delivering projects through local partnerships cuts through one of the great political challenges of the present day – how one actually makes a difference on the ground.

Since the days of William Temple, the Church of England has sought to convince the nation by reasoned argument of its vision for a just society. The postwar changes were in large part the brainchild of Beveridge, Tawney and Temple, close friends, working from their Christian understanding of society. That is, incidentally, why the concept of a purely secular society does not work. Our history has too many strands, some Christian, some based on other convictions, which are woven into the way we think and the way we act – into our ethics - Our structures of understanding cannot be picked apart into secular and spiritual, and the latter discarded.

The post WWII reforms also showed – with their explicitly Christian theology, yet influenced too by secular philosophers – that the task of Government and of those who are taking any part in the political debate is not merely declaration but delivery. And that is where you come in again, so essentially, in the CUF. We are not allowed the luxury of ‘something must be done’! You are among those leaders who add, ‘and we will do something’.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Church is part of the solution for building community blessing at local level – although I suspect that it might be questioned by some.

But the Church has been an integral part of delivering education in this country since before the state ever agreed to get involved. And here in the Diocese of Chelmsford, there is some immensely creative work happening to deliver quality childcare and early-years education - through the Sparrows project.

We need the imagination to see where we can do more. And we need to be rooted in that vision God has set out for us, of welfare and of justice. It is the common good and justice that transforms our communities.

My challenge to the Church Urban Fund today is to keep on responding to the challenge that God has been giving us, his people, for thousands of years: seek the blessing of the city, seek justice.

Do this by making it possible for the Church to do something transformative in a thousand different places across the country. Build your networks and your relationships so that they weave together our Church and our communities. So that together we develop a new vision of the common good – of the welfare we share – that grows from the practical action of people. And that we don’t just let it stand as a vision, but we begin the process, little by little, of making it real. Of delivery, not just declaration. Because that is our calling.

Author: Jeremy Aspinall

Date: 14 November 2013