Living Social Justice

A blog about responding to poverty and injustice, everyday and in all sorts of ways

Archive for the category “Reflection”

Is this an Opportunity or an Obligation?

This isn’t a question many of us ask as we go about our days, but when it comes to responding to the needs of this world it could be a very important one. Richard Lundie explains.

Photo Credit: Amy L. Riddle via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Amy L. Riddle via Compfight cc

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed HIV+. She was working her hands to the bone to earn enough to prove that she could take care of her children who had been placed in a foster home. As her friend I wanted to do everything I could to help her, but her situation also made me ask myself, “If I help her, shouldn’t I also be doing something to help the millions of other South Africans with stories similar to hers? Why should my compassion stop with her?”

The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 demonstrates that our neighbour is anyone in need. Anyone. In a world that is so fill of need how do we show love to all our neighbours?

Helping a friend or family member is one thing, but what about the needs of the millions of other people in this city, this country, this continent?

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when the needs are so broad, so deep and so big!  But should we treat each situation equally? With limited time and resources, where should we be focusing our efforts?

How can we sift through these immense challenges and point our time, talents and treasures towards a few? We are only human after all. If we tried to respond to every situation we could risk burn out, or we might become so demoralised by our attempts to ‘save the world’ that we’d eventually stop trying to respond at all.

There is a concept called ‘moral proximity’ which I think can be a helpful lens to look through when deciding how or when to respond to an injustice or a need.

Let me explain.

When reading scripture, we see how the early church was called to provide for their families.  1 Timothy 5:8 uses pretty strong language to get this point across saying that not providing for your family members makes you “worse than an unbeliever”. Yikes!

But I think the reason Paul made this bold statement is because our family is the closest to us in terms of our ‘moral proximity’.

Moral proximity states that the closer the person is to you, the more responsibility you have to act and participate in addressing their need.  This is not necessarily a geographical proximity, but primarily a relational proximity.

An example is: your sister, who lives in another part of the country or continent, has a particular need.  You feel a stronger desire and perhaps obligation to assist her, compared to another person who lives in the same city as you, but whom you barely know.  That is moral proximity.

This is why in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul urges, encourages, inspires and blesses those from the church in Macedonia who contribute towards supporting the church in Jerusalem undergoing famine, but at no point does he say that if they don’t give they’ll be “worse than an unbeliever” – the strong warning he gave to the believers in 1 Timothy 5:8.

I believe the reason for his change in tone is because the two churches he’s speaking about in 2 Corinthians were far apart, but connected, so the contribution was an opportunity, rather than an obligation.

The closer the person or the need is to you, the greater the obligation.  The further away it is the more responding to their need becomes an opportunity, and less of an obligation.

This is not about drawing a line so we can ‘get away with less’.  It’s more about distinguishing between those situations which provide an opportunity for us to be generous and those situations where we are obligated as Christ-followers to sacrificial love. And, here’s the tough part, where not responding is actually sinning.

So what does this mean for us?  As we face the wide range of human needs in this world, the first people we should be looking to help are those around us.  We should be careful not to clamber over people in need who are in our midst to help others ‘further out’.

Who are the people in your life in need who you could move towards in relationship? Have you perhaps overlooked the person that works with you or for you?  Or the congregant in the seat next to you?

While God still wants us to take those opportunities to love our neighbours across cities, oceans and continents, he has mandated us to care for those who are nearest to us in space, kinship, time and geography.

There could be people who are outside of your social circle, but who fall within your moral proximity. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 shows us that we should not limit our love to those in our ‘inner circle’. And moral proximity should definitely not be used as an excuse to only help those who are like us.

Why not prayerfully consider those people who God has placed in your sphere?  What are the opportunities that God is offering you to be generous and loving?  Who are those closest to you – in your family, your small group and so on – who you could moved towards in compassion and support during a time of need or injustice?  What can you do to journey with them?

God wants to use us as his instruments to bring hope and restoration to this world but he can only do this if we’re willing to open our eyes and see the people in our midst who he is calling us to love and serve.

-Richard is the Partners and Initiatives Programme Manager at Common Good. He also serves on the leadership team of Common Ground Church Wynberg, together with his wife, Ruth.

(Author’s note: I’d like to credit the book “What is the Mission of the Church” by Kevin deYoung and Greg Gilbert as a key resource in writing this post)

What are your thoughts on this? How do you decide when and how to respond to those in need? Do you think ‘moral proximity’ could be a helpful lens?

P.S.  Related articles you might want to read: “Social Justice and the poor” by Kevin DeYoung and “What does it really mean to live social justice?” by Rigby Wallace

Government, Church: Who’s in Charge?

It’s the dinner party conversation that is every hosts worst nightmare, but maybe it’s time we talk about it like adults. Tim Hoffman explores the unique roles of church and government. 

People tend to get shifty-eyed when religion and politics are brought into the same conversation, right? But most of us can agree that despite not having the cleanest track record, the church and government both still play important roles in combating poverty and injustice. And God uses both!

In Matthew 22:21, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him into denouncing the government by saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” His answer shows a respect for the system of government but it also makes the listener ponder, “What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?”

Even here, Jesus isn’t giving us a simple yes or no answer.

Tony Campolo has said, “There is no question in my mind that God is bigger than the church and that the church will be used in God’s endeavors, but not only the church. In God’s work in the world, all principalities, all powers, all dominions, and all thrones will be used (Ephesians 1:19–23).” Governments and nations will be held accountable before God for how they cared for his Kingdom, just as we will as individual Christ-followers.

But the designation of specific roles for church and government is much more complex. To what should we hold the government accountable and what is our responsibility as Christ-followers within the church? Especially when it comes to caring for society’s most vulnerable?

According to Martin Luther, the civil government’s role is to keep outward peace in society. An expression of this is to look after its citizens’ physical and social needs.  Government can create and implement policies, which can affect the lives of millions of people. Community service can come in the form of tax breaks for low- or no-income earners, subsidized meals for children, and aid to areas affected by storms, floods, disease, and other disasters.

All of this is much needed and as Christ-followers we should play an active part in engaging with the efforts of government to strengthen our city and our country. We should be model citizens by paying our taxes and exercising our right to vote and being part of nation building. And when we speak about our country, we should do so with the hope that Christ has for our country.

But as the church we also have a very unique role to play in social transformation.  As Christ-followers, we’ve had our hearts transformed by the Good News.

Once we realise what Christ sacrificed for us on the cross, we suddenly become far more willing to risk life and limb to help others. I believe that this is why the church’s response has penetrated society at a much deeper level. Because the motivation behind it – when it has been pure – hasn’t been to glorify man, it’s been to glorify God.

God has given the church the mandate to care for the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant and the poor (Zechariah 7:10–11). So where does this position us as Christians? Perfectly. We as individuals are the church scattered. What are we doing to love others, in our own capacity – with our time, talents, and treasures? What are we doing as advocates for change?

I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a rural area. We lived in the parsonage next to the church building. I remember many times when there was a knock on our door by a stranger who was looking for help. Food, money, clothes, shelter. Every time they walked away either with something in their hands or details about a place nearby that could help. People came to our house because they knew they could get prompt help and without judgment.

The church can impact society on a far more personal level by loving and caring for those in need, and by providing a community where transformation and reconciliation can take place from the inside out. 

We need to hold government accountable for meeting the needs of its citizens but we shouldn’t rely on it to do the unique work of the church.

Some of us may feel called to open our homes to foreigners. Some of us may feel called to take a vested interest in the lives of the people around us – our domestic workers and gardeners – and pay them at higher rates than normally accepted to help them to break out of the poverty cycle. Others may feel God drawing them to volunteer at schools or with NGOs. And others may feel the nudge to engage government by writing letters to legislature, to sign petitions, peacefully protest.

But no matter what we do to love others, we do it out of a response to God’s love – and this is where our response differs from the efforts of government and the world.

We respond in love and get involved in bringing hope and transformation – not out of a sense of guilt or obligation – but because we have been mandated by our Father to care for all that he has created and given us.

A thought to ponder:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

– Tim is the Mobilise and Equip Programme Manager at Common Good. Him and his wife Natasha are members of the Common Ground South Peninsula congregation.

Some questions:

How do you think the role of the church and the role of government should differ?

How do you think we as Christ-followers can keep the government accountable to fulfilling their role?

And how can we fulfill our role in our daily lives?

What’s it really like to be a woman in South Africa?

Inspired by Women’s Day, Sam Rawson shares how meeting a homeless mother in a parking lot challenged her understanding.

I’ll never forget the night I met Ayanda*. I was rushing back to my car across the grocery store parking lot when she called to me. It was dark, cold, and I was alone. All my instincts told me to put my head down and get in my car. But then I heard another cry – this time the desperate cry of a baby – and I stopped.

She came over to me with a bundle in her arms, and asked if I had any money for her and her baby. By now I was thinking, “Oh dear, why on earth did I stop?!” But I could see her belongings piled up against the wall behind her and something compelled me to not brush her off.

I asked her what her name was and where they were staying. She pointed to the nearby canal and told me they slept under the bridge. Her baby was only three months old. Feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I offered to buy her a meal and some baby supplies.

Over the course of the next few months, I got to know Ayanda’s story a bit better as I tried to help her in various ways. But it wasn’t easy. She told me differing versions of her life story that didn’t match up.

And then there was the phone call from the police station to tell me she’d been arrested and put in jail for the night with her baby – and could I bring her supper?

And then there was the time she ran across a busy street – dodging cars with her baby strapped to her back – just to avoid me because she’d been drinking.

And then there were also her repeated attempts to get me to take care of her baby for her. Me – a single girl of 24 at the time!

The initial compassion I’d felt for her in that dark parking lot began to ebb. And then sputter. And then all but die away.

Why I am telling you this story? It sounds pretty hopeless, right?

My purpose was to write a blog post celebrating Women’s Day, but as I sat in front of my computer, I kept thinking of Ayanda.

Both Ayanda and I share something very basic in common. We are both women. We were both born and raised in the same country, but our stories couldn’t be more different.

At the age of 15, I was at a good school, loved and encouraged by my family and given numerous opportunities to grow my skills and talents. But by 15, Ayanda had already dropped out of school and run away from home.

When I turned 21, I was studying at university, living in a digs with my friends, and enjoying the carefree life of a student. By 21, Ayanda had been hardened by years of living on the streets and was already living a life patterned by abuse and addiction.

The sad reality is that women in South Africa are not all born equal. The latest Census 2011 results shows that 12% of black women (aged 20) have had no schooling – zero! – as opposed to 0.6% of white women. The results also show that black women have the highest unemployment rate in the country, with 41% of black women and 24% of coloured women unemployed. This statistic is 6.9% for white women.**

As women, I think we can sometimes be quick to judge one another. I know I certainly judged Ayanda when she made decisions I saw as being irresponsible for a mother. I saw the addiction, the manipulation, and what seemed to be unwillingness on her part to change.

Why did she return to the streets after we’d found her permanent shelter?  Why did she put her baby son in danger when she could protect him?  Why did she not see what her addiction was doing to herself and her baby?

I buried my judgement behind questions like these, safe in the knowledge that I would never make those mistakes in my own life.

And yet, as I’ve reflected, I’ve realised that my questions, though well-meaning, were not the right ones.  There are bigger, more uncomfortable questions about Ayanda’s story which I neglected to ask.

Why was she forced onto the streets as a teenager? Why was she robbed of her education? Did anyone fight for her rights as a child?

These are just a few of the many unasked questions which litter our South African context, in the same way that they do Ayanda’s story.  They’re questions which I didn’t think to ask, because they weren’t relevant in my own life.  And yet, for Ayanda, to not ask them would be to misunderstand her situation as a woman entirely.

Until we can begin to grapple with these bigger issues, we may end up judging those around us too quickly and hardening our hearts, when they should be softened to the core.

In Ayanda’s case, it eventually became necessary to get social services involved for the well-being of her baby. Even though I believed it was necessary, it was still heart-breaking to watch her hand over her child into a stranger’s care.

Afterwards, she still clung to the empty bag in which she’d kept his clothes, bottles and nappies. I believe that, in her own way, and with the cards stacked against her, she’d tried to be a good mother.

How should we celebrate Women’s Day when being a woman in South Africa can look so different depending on which side of the socio-economic divide you’re born?

I’m challenging myself to judge less, and listen and love more, knowing that each woman has a very unique story to tell.

Here are some practical ways you can celebrate Women’s Day in the months ahead:

1. Drop off receiving blankets and new-born clothing for mothers at Mowbray Maternity Hospital

2. Build friendships with abused women by joining the Sisters Incorporated Bible study every Monday night (Email us for more info)

3. Help build into the lives of young women by volunteering at one of Izandla Zethemba‘s weekly support groups (Email us for more info)

4. How much do you really know about the lives of the women around you? Your domestic worker, for example? Or the cleaner at your office? Why not offer to make them a cup of tea and spend some time listening to their story?

Do you have any other ideas?

– Sam works part-time for Common Good, offering communications support. Her and her husband, Jonothan, are members of the Common Ground BoschPM congregation.

Name changed

** Source:

Could we be the hope of the world?

What if we are God’s solution to the world’s brokenness? Common Ground Church pastor Ryan TerMorshuizen shares why he believes the local church is the hope of the world.

I heard a statistic a while ago that stated that the person you are is pretty much determined by the age of 13. Thirteen? Really?

The research, conducted by the Barna Group, went on to state that there are only three major factors that will cause you to change after this age. The first is if you have a true desire to change, the second is if you’re in a community, which provides an environment for change, and the third is what they called “acts of God”.

It hit me like a wave. Who better to provide those three things than the local church?

Suddenly, I realised that the local church is the ultimate environment for change because it’s where the gospel brings a real understanding of our identity, our purpose, and our destiny – calling us to change.

And not only is it the perfect community to come alongside those with a desire for change, it is also in the local church where we can have the greatest expectation for the miraculous ‘acts of God’ in ours and other peoples’ lives.

This was such a huge moment for me where everything fell into place. I committed myself freshly to the mission of the church, not because of the pay check but because I wanted to be part of bringing this message and building this community of change.

The lights had gone on for me. The church really is the hope of the world.

That’s quite a statement.

Yes, it is. And I hope a few of you are now asking yourselves, “But isn’t Jesus the hope of the world?”

And of course he is! The only reason I can say that the church is the hope of the world is because Jesus is the true and ultimate ‘hope of the world’ and the church is called to represent him.

One day he will return and reveal himself in fullness but until then he has chosen to link himself to human instrumentality and use us – his church – to spread this good news and point people towards him.

And so we, the church, become the hope of the world in our time.

Why the church?

The word ‘church’ is a loaded one that means many different things to different people. So it’s important to clarify that when I talk about the ‘church’ I’m not referring to a building or an organisation.

As Christ-followers, we are all ‘scattered’ as the church into our many different communities, families and work places, while still being grafted into the greater body of Christ. And there is also the ‘local’ or ‘gathered’ church, which is a gathering of believers in a certain area under a specific leadership team of biblically mandated elders and deacons.

William Temple wrote that, “The church is the only cooperative society that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”

Almost everywhere in the Bible, evangelism and social concern go hand in hand. When we look at the life of Christ we see that Jesus held in tension a relationship between evangelism and social concern. It is said that he went about both “teaching and preaching” and also “doing good and healing”.

That’s why the local church becomes the hope of the world, not just in the redemptive potential of people being healed and transformed by the love of Christ, but also in the redemptive potential of Christ-followers being ignited with a passion to restore justice and love one another in a way that brings human flourishing to all.

We are the hope of the world.

When we see the brokenness and despair in the world, it’s tempting to ask “What is the church doing to fix this?” or “Why isn’t the church involved here?”

We should be cautious not to shift the responsibility off our shoulders and onto the shoulders of local church leaders and the church as an establishment.

The role of the leadership team of the local church is to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4: 12).

But ultimately we, as individual Christ-followers, are the church wherever we are and we are called to live out our faith in very practical ways.

What does this mean for us as individuals?

By saying that we are Christ-followers, we are saying that we are the incarnational, “sent” ones. We are the ones who, like Christ, go out.

We are the ones who leave behind privilege and comfort, just as Christ left behind the splendour of Heaven, to go into our earth, to make ourselves lowly amongst others in order that we may serve, teach and give our lives for them.

Once we start to see that each individual has an intrinsic value as created by God then we will count it a privilege to serve and do everything in our power to bring hope to human life.

Christ is ultimately the hope of the world, but until his return he has commissioned us to bring his hope into the world by living our lives in a way that continually points to him.

If we will fully take on this responsibility and get involved wherever we can to bring Christ’s wisdom and love into everything we’re a part of, then we’ll begin to see true transformation happening in our city.

– Ryan oversees the Common Ground Church base staff team, as well as the leadership team of Common Ground Bosch AM. He is married to Kate and they have three children. 

What are some practical ways you can bring hope to the lives of those around you – particularly those who are in need?

What does it really mean to live social justice?

Rigby Wallace shares five key pieces of wisdom he’s learnt after years of grappling. (We reckon this is worth printing and sticking on your fridge!)

1. It all begins with encountering the authentic Jesus:

For Jesus it was about being and bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Paul calls the Christ-follower to put off his/her old ‘self’ and put on the ‘new self’, which is our call to become more like the most compassionate and just person in the universe. Col 3:12 makes it clear that putting on compassionate hearts is a way to evidence our relationship with Christ.

The more we follow Christ and become like Him, the more we will have hearts that care for the least, the lost and the lowest in our city.

2. Make your home the first frontier:

The way we pay our domestic workers and gardeners needs to be evaluated. If you can’t pay any more, then reduce the work hours so they can work a bit more somewhere else. This is an area that God is clearly watching over.

James makes the point when he says, “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you” (James 5:4).

Whenever you get a bonus, give your staff at least the same percentage. Help with school fees and extras wherever you can. Speak to your staff and all those who are economically disadvantaged in any way with great respect. The gospel calls us to guarantee all those we meet the dignity God created them with.

3. Learn the power of team:

Wherever we can operate from community, we will bring more to that moment than we could ever bring as an individual.

That’s why I am so excited about Common Good. This team of dedicated ‘social justice’ champions, stand ready to equip and mobilise us towards the poor and marginalised in our city. I love it that they can cater for the guys wanting to take baby steps to the seasoned campaigners who are ready to slay the giants.

For Sue and I we have seen the wisdom of giving some of our mercy giving towards their efforts, rather that indiscriminate acts of kindness at robots or when our doorbell rings. Whilst we still respond to these requests from time to time, we find it easier to look people in the eye and say ‘Sorry sir/madam, not today, we are helping through our local church in projects where we are helping people we know!’

If we all did this together, we could empower Common Good with some of their big initiatives. Doing it together in team keeps us wise, focused and encouraged.

4. Keep informed:

Practice noticing the challenges facing our city and church as we seek to follow Christ as an opportunity for gospel faithfulness. Their is no virtue in hiding our heads in the sand.

Read the Common Good blog. Sign up for their newsletter and read it! Read Tim Keller’s ‘Ministries of Mercy‘. Listen to the media as they report on the socio-economic challenges facing us in Cape Town specifically.

And don’t be intimidated, because we have Jesus as our heavenly champion ready to give grace and wisdom wherever He is calling us to respond.

5. Embrace an empowering economic philosophy of life:

I learned the following economic wisdom 15 years ago:

a. Earn more: Live in your full income generating potential (Study, develop skills continually)

b. Consume less: This tempers and helps draw a circle around our life-stage monthly budget . Sue and I need to revisit this periodically as our circumstances change.

c. Hoard nothing: This calls us to regularly get rid of stuff that may benefit others. When we buy new clothes we can give away some of our good-quality clothes. We moved house a couple of years ago and were amazed at how much stuff we had been hoarding.

d. Be generous: This includes more than financial generosity. It’s time. It’s hospitality. It’s growing your relational range by opening up your home. We have been doing this over the years.

A highlight for Sue and I is opening our home over most Christmases to displaced people that have made Common Ground their home. Having four or five of these amazing people in our home, seated with our family for a Christmas feast has been special. And listening to their incredible stories has enriched our lives wonderfully.

e. Celebrate life: This is a call to avoid the ascetic trap of doing all the right things but being miserable in the process.

Living social justice will have difficulties and bring serious challenges to our lives, but when we do it from gospel ravished hearts and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are going to experience mountains of joy.

And, finally, remember, it all begins with encountering and following Jesus…

– Rigby oversees the leadership team of Common Ground Church in Cape Town, together with his wife, Sue.

What from the above really stuck out to you? Do you have any wisdom you’ve learned you’d like to share with us?

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