Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
The map of biblical law and the compass of right relationships are metaphors to help us with the process of renewing our minds that Paul writes about in Romans 12:2. Followers of Christ are called to look critically at the assumptions of the secular media and education systems that they have grown up with, and learn how to think biblically about the many challenges facing society today. This is about asking the right questions, diagnosing root causes and working out effective interventions for change – all things that Jubilee Centre’s training programmes seek to impart.
However, Christians need to do more than just think biblically – they are called to live in the light of the gospel too, and work towards the kind of social transformation that is rooted in the good news of God’s kingdom. But how? What strategies can guide and inform this process?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides a beautifully simple framework for social engagement. In Matthew 5:13-16 he declares that his followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What could that mean? In the first century, salt had to be dispersed and placed on the meat it was to preserve, or the food it was to flavour, to be of any use. In the same way God’s people are called individually to be involved in different aspects of culture and society, seeking to resist the corrupting effects of sin and to promote all that is good and beautiful and true.
The light of the world is like a city on a hill, said Jesus, a cluster of houses all lit up at night. This suggests that the gathered people of God – the church – are to demonstrate collectively a radical alternative way of life that lights up the world around them, and causes people to ‘see their good deeds and praise their Father in heaven.’ Jesus describes some features of such a lifestyle in the rest of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7).
This concept of salt and light is in continuity with the calling of Israel as a nation, to be a light to the Gentiles through their ethical distinctiveness. But Jesus also recognised the reality of the Roman occupation, and indicated that from then on the people of God would need to be a faithful minority, working as salt in a society that worshipped other gods.
How does this become an agenda for social engagement today? Our booklet ‘Shining in the Sun’ explains the salt and light metaphor in more depth, and from it derives a strategy for social engagement both for individuals and for local congregations or Christian organisations.
A key focus for this strategy is changing structures and institutions, because they are the primary vehicles for expressing and transmitting the values of society. We’ve chosen the term ‘social reform’ to signify this emphasis on institutions – making a lasting difference to families, businesses, schools, hospitals, prisons, town halls, trades unions, sports clubs, libraries, public service organisations etc.
Much Christian social engagement in the past focused on the twin goals of persuading governments to change unjust laws (which people like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury laboured tirelessly to achieve), and on influencing hearts and minds – and ultimately public opinion – through grassroots campaigns. However, the impact of reforms in the ‘middle institutions’ between government and individual citizens, including the organisations where most people work and find their place in the world, can be multiplied vertically. Changes that are experienced in the purpose, culture and values of organisations will permeate down to the level of individual staff and other stakeholders. Similarly, the tale of a transformed institution can find its way up to policy makers, who may go on to translate that success through regulation or legislation more widely.
We can also learn from the Creation narrative in Genesis, which shows how God forms structures (separating light from darkness, land from sea) and then fills them abundantly (with stars in the heavens and vegetation, birds, fish and animals on the earth). The structures bring the order that is needed to allow the creation to flourish; it prevents chaos.
The same pattern can be seen in the metaphors we have introduced above. We can think of biblical law as providing the necessary structure to allow relationships to flourish – with both God and humans – in world where sin is an ugly reality. And the salt of the earth works both negatively and positively: to restrain corruption and to enhance what is good.
In thinking about social reform today, we need not only to consider how to change institutional norms and structures where we see exploitation, corruption or injustice. There is certainly a need for that when we look at much of what is taking place in politics and business. But that is not enough by itself. We also need to offer a better narrative about what it is to be a human being and how to live with others in society. These two agendas are complementary and parallel: Christian social reformers need to seek institutional change, and simultaneously tell a better story. Without it there won’t be sufficient vision for change, and reform proposals may lack the popular support necessary for change to last.
The biblical story arc is magnificent in this regard: unfolding a profound narrative of what human beings are created to be, why our experience falls short of that, and how through the gospel we can be restored to the richness of a relationship with God, and to our proper calling and vocation as human beings.
The strategies of social reform which Jubilee Centre has pursued over the years fall broadly under these five categories:
Political engagement: for us, this isn’t primarily about reacting defensively to changes in the law that undermine Christian values, but rather about seeking to influence positively both the outcomes of policy changes and the means to achieve them. This could involve engaging with political parties, civil servants, international organisations or campaigning groups. At the local level, opportunities for engagement as councillors, school governors or other community initiatives abound; ultimately Christian political engagement is rooted in a commitment to loving your neighbour as yourself and seeking the common good.
Changing attitudes and values: sometimes we think this will flow automatically from spiritual revival – but that is unlikely to happen unless the structures and institutions in society that shape cultural values are reformed in the process. This strategy should begin with convincing the church that the gospel is about transforming all of life and explaining the biblical vision for society. Christians should ‘no longer conform to the pattern of this world’, while finding ways to communicate those values which lead to justice, peace, solidarity and human flourishing with people who don’t share their faith.
Reforming organisational structures and working practices: this process taps into may wider debates, for example around social justice, working hours, gender equality, remuneration, personal responsibility, and the role of the state. For this to be an effective strategy, there need to be successful examples of how these values can be applied in practice. If Christian involvement is to lead to effective change, it needs to be innovative, high quality and leading the field.
Peace-building: conflicts within and between nations can make it all but impossible to address underlying social and economic concerns. Christians can take the initiative in promoting reconciliation across class, race, religious and sectarian divides.
A movement of people: recruiting, nurturing and resourcing agents of change who work together over the long term towards one or more social reform goals is one of the most important aspects of any strategy for change. Jubilee Centre has been an incubator for projects and initiatives (see history) which have gone on to become separate organisations around particular issues. In 2020 we are exploring ways to catalyse new initiatives for change, through ‘communities of reform’.
In this talk from the Social Reformers Summer School 2019, Jonathan Tame unpacks the biblical foundations for social reform. He presents a biblical worldview for public engagement, articulates the importance of Biblical Law and offers some suggested principles for political economy.
Watch more videos from the 2019 Summer School here.
Discover more about biblical foundations for relational societies here
In this talk, given at the Social Reformers Summer School 2019, Jonathan Tame explores lessons from the life of Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize.
Watch more videos from the 2019 Summer School here.
Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) was a Christian pacifist, social reformer, and labour activist from Japan. A man of extraordinary learning, passion and impact, he authored over 150 books, both fiction and non-fiction (many of which haven't been translated into English). He was nominated for the Nobel Prize five times, twice in Literature and three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
This talk explores three aspects of Kagawa’s writings and life-work: The cooperative movement in Japan as a response to the extremes of capitalism, Christian pacifism as a response to the military-industrial complex and his unique scientific mysticism as a response to the environmental crisis.
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