I have had the privilege of training some of the most amazing leaders through my years in ministry and now higher education. I am blown away by this group’s intentionality, longing for justice, and search for truth. These leaders are on the front lines of a changing world and church every day. I believe they will lead the most effective group of society changers in history. This group will face questions around gender, race, emotional health, online presence, justice, sexuality identity, worth, and so may others in ways that no one could have imagined. They need to be the kind of people that can lead even when the culture sees them as part of the problem. They are the most important group of leaders at the most connected time in the history of the world. My job is to pour into and train up this next generation of ministry leaders. I am privileged to help prepare these leaders for new ministry realities in ever-changing terrain.
These past couple weeks, we have seen our Church wrestle through the pain rising, yet again to the surface of our country. Our brothers and sisters of color are crying out for justice, for change, and many of us cry out alongside them. This is one of those moments in our Church where everything could be different on the other side. As a leader of ministers and pastors, I want to be very sure that I lead them by truth. I seek wisdom from others, those older and wiser than me, those of color with experiences I will never know, and those around me who have the same questions. As a follower of Jesus and a representative of His truth and Kingdom, I have to look intently to the Scriptures as my rule and guide.
The Scriptures are clear on God’s heart for the oppressed and the responsibilities of His followers. He speaks both to the oppressed and those who oppress.
It’s impossible to spend time in the Scriptures and without seeing God’s love for the hurting, the oppressed, the poor, the put-down. In Isaiah, the first chapter sets the tone for the book:
“Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17, emphasis added.)
I always thought it was strange that the Israelites would add oppression to their list of sins since they themselves had been in bondage and experienced oppression from the nations around them. But they did, and God literally hated it (Isaiah 1).
The oppression of God’s people continued as they longed for Him to save them again, to send their Messiah, to send their King to bring peace and a righteous rule. Enter, Jesus.
Born into an oppressed people group, God began His plan to save His people. Jesus was a Jew in a Roman world, which means He was mistreated, held down, and hated. So often, the Jews were in bondage or mistreated because of their bloodline. Then He was looked down upon among His own people. He was dismissed because of where He came from even among His own people. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46a).
Jesus’ message to his Roman oppressors was different than I expected at this point in the story. He doesn’t change their plight politically or nationally. He quickly called out those who claimed to follow Jesus but seemed apathetic toward paying Caesar what is Caesars. Some of the Jews tried to make Him king by force, but that was not His purpose. In short, He seemed more concerned with spiritual matters than with the cultural limitations.
When He ascends, His people are still under Roman rule. Jesus said, “It is finished,” but we look back and wonder why He didn’t change the rules where His people were living. Instead, He addresses the hearts of His own people, the oppressed Jewish people. He focuses His ministry on the message of a new Kingdom, a Kingdom of love, where the first is last, and the poor, the hungry, the justice-seeking, the persecuted, the merciful and the peacemakers are blessed. A Kingdom that rules simultaneously, not subversively but superlatively (I like alliterations to help me remember things) as the Roman empire from which they long to be free. He focuses on changing the hearts of the oppressed and persecuted.
Jesus came to save that which was lost. The word Salvation carries more than the idea of being forgiven of sins; it has the idea of being healed. It is where we get the Latin salveo (where we get the English word salve) and can mean healed or well. To say that one is saved and to say that one is healed are parallel. When He saves, He heals. What this world needs, and has always needed is healing and that is the message of Salvation.
One man who was unchanged by Jesus during His time on earth, but greatly changed by the message of Salvation, was the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Roman and a Jew, a double negative as far as oppressors go. He stood and watched, maybe even cheered as the Jewish leaders persecuted Christians. But after an encounter with Jesus, Paul becomes a new man. He moves from the oppressor to the oppressed in a matter of days. How does he navigate that change? How does he take up the cause of his fellow believers and change the Romans actions against them? The same way Jesus did, it seems. He teaches and ministers to the oppressed, the persecuted. He works to change the hearts of the Jews and the Gentiles and grow the hearts of the new believers in the new way of Jesus.
Kingdoms rise and fall but most oppressors don’t stop oppressing on their own. Paul, when given the opportunity, spoke to political leaders but they did not change (Acts 24-26). Laws are needed and needing to change but even with a thousand more laws, injustice will still manifest. The real, deep, long-term solution is for more hearts to be changed, for salvation (healing) to come, so this is where I put hope.
Some may think that is too trite, too easy, but I believe it is some of the most difficult work.
Postlude: Is there hope?
This past weekend was my second COVID wedding and my first Zoom wedding. It was picture perfect, a small group of close friends and family (with many virtual onlookers). It happened to be the most beautiful day, probably the most beautiful outdoor wedding I have ever performed.
On one side of the isle, an all-white family, on the other all black, in the center a beautiful biracial couple. I’ve only performed three weddings this year and all three are biracial couples.
At the reception, the groom’s father stood up and welcomed his bride’s family. He said, “You are welcome in my family and I know that we are welcomed in yours. Now we are one big family.” It was beautiful. In the backdrop of racial divide was racial unity.
I am still hopeful. I am doubling down on the ability of the good news of the Gospel to bring hope and healing to this world and am thankful to work with such a great team of people in work that is designed to bring lasting hope.
Please pray with us for lasting change here. We are praying for you.