The Compassionate Life
8/2/20 Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
On July 17, Representative John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer. This week he is being honored, remembered, and celebrated for his life-long commitment to Civil Rights and service to his country. But what many may not know is that his faith was a driving factor in life.
In a recent interview, his biographer John Meacham said of John Lewis: “He is a biblical figure. He believed in the efficacy and the possibility of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. It’s a remarkable, radically and optimistic vison of life and not one that is widely shared in American history. Most religious folks … have believed the rewards of life … really only existed on the other side of paradise, on the other side of the grave…. John Lewis believed the opposite. He believed if we got our hearts and minds in the right place, if we actually acted on what Christians say they believe but so rarely actually put into action, we could in fact create that world where ‘justice comes down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ (Amos 5:4).…
“For him it was reality. He believed fundamentally in what he and what Dr. King called the beloved community what is the kingdom of God, the reign of God’s justice…. He was on that bridge and on those buses, in those bus stations, in that house chamber because of the gospel and never wavered from that faith…. He believed there is a power to a religious vision of the world that can open our hearts as opposed to leading us to clench our fists.” [To watch the two minutes clip, go to, click here.]
John Lewis, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is an example of the Social Justice Stream, or The Compassionate Life. In his book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster writes that this Christian tradition or stream reflects “a life committed to compassion and justice for all peoples,” and we should explore it “because through it God develops in us the compassion to love our neighbor freely and develops in our world a place where justice and righteousness prevail.”
The inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4:18-19 begins with a reading from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In this proclamation, Jesus is announcing a perpetual Jubilee life in which the kingdom of God is manifested pulling down the kingdoms of this world. God’s love, compassion, and justice will heal individual brokenness and overturn corrupt social and economic structures. Throughout his ministry, Jesus demonstrates compassion in healing the sick, approaching the unapproachable, accepting the outcasts, cleansing lepers, and breaking racial and social barriers. He demonstrates in his life and ministry the amazing power of God to confront human obstacles in body, mind, and spirit and to bring healing and transformation. And more than that, he confronts the ills of social and economic structures to right what is wrong.
Jesus’ Great Command is pivotal to the Social Justice Stream: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22.37-40). The disciples not only heard Jesus’ teaching and witnessed his interactions with others correcting incorrect understanding about what is good and right (like the Pharisee lawyer above); they also saw how he cared for the poor and even the outcasts of society. The disciples and all those who heard his teaching and witnessed his ministry learned from Jesus that to love God is to love our neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) makes clear that we are to define “neighbor” broadly—in essence, show love to all.
Foster goes on to explain that this concept of love of neighbor is further explained by three great themes summed up in three Hebrew words: 1) Mishpat—“justice” that has social, ethical, and religious connotations that involves bringing equitable, harmonious relationships between people; 2) hesed—loving action characterized by graciousness, courtesy, kindness, tenderness, and compassion; and 3) shalom—harmonious unity in the natural order, with God, and with our neighbors that leads to an experience of peace, wholeness, and well-being.
The “Three Great Arenas” of the social justice movement are: 1) personal, 2) social, and 3) institutional structures. We cannot impact social change if we are not personally transformed and experiencing peace ourselves in our personal relationships. From there we move out into the larger community and even to tackling dysfunctional and destructive structures.
The major strengths of the Social Justice Tradition are that it:
- Constantly calls us to a right ordering of society—right relationships with right living.
- Enhances our ecclesiology, promoting harmony in relationships so we can learn to live together with genuine love and appreciation.
- Provides a bridge between personal ethics and social ethics.
- Gives relevance and bite to the language of Christian love.
- Gives foundation for ecological concerns.
- Continuously holds before us the relevance of the impossible ideal.
Foster also explains the potential perils, including the fact that social justice can become an end in itself, caring for the social needs without reference to the condition of the heart or concern for spiritual realities. It can also demonstrate a strident legalism prone to rigidity and judgmentalism based on lifestyle and external standards. And it is often too closely identified with a particular political agenda.
This week I participated in a zoom event on with Vincent Bacote, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. One of the main take-aways for me was how, for many Christians, right belief (knowing the Bible and doctrine, Word-centered life) is disconnected from right living (ethics, the Compassionate Life). The challenge for us as individuals and as a church is to hold these things (and other streams) in balance or even tension.
The Social Justice Stream calls us to prayer and transformation, but it also calls for action. I’m grateful go be a part of a compassionate church that partners with ministries that are confronting injustice and meeting real human needs in a variety of ways: providing and delivering food to those in need, providing a hypothermia shelter, praying for and building awareness of the problem of human trafficking, and cultivating racial reconciliation, just to name a few. This kind of action is needed to be a healthy church and to love our neighbor.
But the challenge is also more personal. Each of us can ask ourselves some questions: Do I believe the kingdom is here and now? Do I really mean what I say when I pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Am I participating in what God is doing to make things right not just for me but for all? God invites us to live a Compassionate Life as we dare to boldly speak up for Jesus and courageously stand up for justice.