Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.Matthew 22.36-40 (NIV)
Jesus implored his followers to love God and to love their neighbour. Throughout history the Church has sought to do this, with varying emphases and with varying degrees of faithfulness.
The Bible tells the story of God and his people. This story of redemption and hope weaves together the threads of justice that are so clearly sewn into its pages and overflow from the heart of a God who demands justice for the oppressed and marginalised. There is no getting away from it: our God is a God of justice.
He is also a God of mercy.
This is important to remember. The biblical text has inspired and motivated Christians to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ and ‘defend the rights of the poor’ (Proverbs 31.8-9) in powerful ways from anti-slavery campaigns to the Civil Rights Movement to local projects like Food Banks. But there is another side to this story. Instead of applying Jubilee principles of cancelling crippling debt, freeing enslaved peoples, and restoring land to its rightful owners (see Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15), this very same story of hope has also been used at times by some Christians and Christian institutions to oppress the poor for their own gain, to justify the enslavement of people groups on racial grounds, and to validate programmes of colonisation to ‘civilise’ indigenous peoples. We need justice… we also need God’s mercy for when we have failed.
None of us, as individuals, is responsible for this oppression, but its legacy lives on in what we often call ‘developed’ countries. As a nation, we have benefitted from this history of Empire whose wealth boomed because of oppressive policies and actions. Loving our (global) neighbour then necessitates an awareness of this history and an openness to question what has gone before; it must also involve evaluating current perspectives, the taproots of which run deeply into this past. Nevertheless, the evangelical tradition has a long history of social justice, mercy, and philanthropy. Many of these Victorian evangelicals have inspired movements for change that continue to echo today.
Though we do not want to ignore the uglier bits of our history, we want to continue this longstanding message that Jesus’ good news is for all people, and it is good news for life right now, not just good news for life after death. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. God calls us to work to build his kingdom here on earth. Jesus sets out his ‘manifesto’ in Luke 4.16-21 where he quotes from Isaiah 61. We too are called to bring good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. In loving God and loving our neighbour, we yearn for our relationships to be restored: with God, with one another, and with the natural world that we share.
One area of justice I have been thinking about quite a bit is what we often call ‘climate justice’. This is just one area of many that Christians are trying to address, but it is important that we understand the impact of climate from a biblical perspective on justice. There can be no love of God and love of neighbour without care for the earth that has been gifted to us to share.
Many of our global neighbours are facing unimaginable challenges due to long term misuse of natural resources. Around the world, even in what we call ‘developed’ countries we are seeing climate refugees, people forced to leave their homes forever due to flooding, drought, and other extreme weather events caused by a changing climate. The whole of creation is groaning, longing for restoration and freedom from decay. We are called to ask the question, ‘who is my (global) neighbour?’ and to respond with loving action.
‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24.1). Right from the outset, humanity has been called to care for this gift, sharing its resources so that everyone has enough. In order to satiate desire for international travel, technology, and fast fashion, systematic misuse of these natural resources by economically wealthy countries shows little sign of slowing, and this continues to ‘enslave’ some of the most vulnerable people groups with whom we share the world. Prophetic voices cry out for us to act for climate justice. Climate change hits the poorest and most vulnerable of our global neighbours first and worst. They who have done so little to contribute to the problem, whose carbon footprint is so minimal, experience the sharp end of its consequences as livelihoods are destroyed with failing crops and dried up wells. Loving our (global) neighbours cannot be separated from crying out for justice for all; justice is a discipleship issue.
So, who is my (global) neighbour? And why does it matter? My (our) global neighbours are not simply ‘beneficiaries of charity’ but are human beings made in the image of God, made for relationship with God, with one another, and with the natural world that we share. And why does it matter who my (global) neighbour is? It matters because it matters to God. What does God require of us? ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8). This high calling is not one that we are asked to follow alone; this calling is one that we share with our brothers and sisters, the whole body of Christ, including our global neighbours. So, let’s be encouraged to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10.23-24) as we seek to love our neighbours, locally, and further afield, in our pursuit of God and his justice… while showing and relying on his mercy.
Caz Weir is an RE advisor supporting schools in the North East to provide great RE for children and young people. Alongside this she works for Christian Aid running a global citizenship education programme for schools called Global Neighbours.