If I hadn’t set a one-word limit to these headings, I might have come up with “social justice”, which in the day this is written is a huge subject and is one that has contributed to churches both keeping on the rails and going off the rails. But “community” is ok too, given that twenty years ago I changed my job spec. to “community activist”, which my first Google hit tells me is “a member of a community who is voluntarily working with others from that community to. achieve common aims (Delivering Change) Someone who takes individual action or action with others in a community, in a planned way”. Actually, I tried to make a living out of it, with limited success, but these days, as a retired person, it is nearly all voluntary. My story from going from being a secondary school teacher to computer consultant to “gospel preaching, community activist, watchman on the wall” is told in my book “Outside the Camp”, due for an update after this.
One of the lessons drawn from studying the prophets was finding not only were they concerned with pure worship but also with social justice. It is a salutary lesson for Christians, both on the right and on the left (if I dare use those terms), that God is concerned with all these aspects of life and not to claim the spiritual high ground when righteously indignant concerning our brethren who see things differently, as often happens as this author can testify, with the scars to prove it. There is a certain irony in laying claim to the title “Community Activist” given my church background in most of the 54 years I have been a Christian, is Plymouth Brethren, which renowned church historian, David Bebbington, once described as an “Adventist Sect”, and might I add with some justification.
A story indelibly fixed on my mind concerns Frank Newman, brother of the recently sainted John Newman. He was there in the PB in its early years and had a lot to do with the PB leading light, John Nelson Darby, who did more than many to popularize dispensationalism and the pre-tribulation rapture. Newman once commented to the effect that if one were to follow Darby’s teaching there was not much point committing the next 30 years to becoming the next LaPlace (great French mathematician) if the Lord is going to return in the next 29. Not getting involved in activities to improve the wider (outside the church) community has often been a feature of PBism. However, that is a bit of a caricature, as Brethren have often excelled being good neighbours and have been responsible for setting up such worthy community activities as orphanages, hospitals and schools.
But it does go to show that Christians across the ecclesiological spectrum do take widely different views on involvement in community activity and, putting aside factors like spiritual fervour, may have something to do with whether one is post millennialist and beholden to improve society prior to Christ’s coming or a pre millennialist that might see such attempts as futile and rather focus on living pure Christian lives, doing good when obvious and urging those who don’t believe to flee from the wrath to come. It is simplistic but it was the prospect of making a difference and finding out what is really meant by loving thy neighbour, in the light of societal inequalities and the prospect of meeting real need that requires taking a wider view, combining doing what we can and challenging social injustice, along with the spiritual that recognizes the big issue is sin and being saved from it, that was the spur going down the route I did, with varying success.
I wrote in Chapter 16 “Brexit, Trump, Islam, race, LBGT, climate change, immigration, globalism, popularism, socialism, have become contentious issues” and in my experience have led to deep division among Christians when one would like to suggest these should come into the agreeing to disagree bracket. If is true that we can, and many do, operate in our own bubble, when trying to do good outside the strict confines on one’s local church activity, but as I tried to point out that while there is much to be said about addressing real needs, going about it, especially when helping the many rather than the few, is not without pitfalls, and sometimes it touches on these subjects, pits us against those who are hostile to the Christian gospel and forces us to come to a view as to where the truth lies, as well as ask when to sacrifice “Christian” principles to become more inclusive?
There are among many issues I have not dealt with here, as these do not fit into the remit of this book, although I hope to revisit these in the new edition of Outside the Camp. I suspect there will be some / many interested in doing social justice that question if taking an interest in Prophets of the Bible is an unhelpful distraction? They might rather learn how best to go about getting involved in their communities (outside the church). There is no simple answer to this, and I can only share my own experience and urge things like making wise choices. As for what cause one picks up, it will be an individual one depending on various factors.
If there is one myth that studying the Prophets should have dispelled is that while the Bible looks forward to a God in control Millennium (OT) and New Heaven and New Earth (NT), He is not disinterested in the present earth or lets us off the hook when it comes to doing our part here and now. Besides using this unusual time to write this Book and, mindful of personal limitations and circumstances, my main community activism interest is connected with helping the homeless, and more often than not with those of all beliefs and none, mindful there are many other aspects of our society where we can make a difference. In fact, the needs are limitless and as well as the need for wisdom there is a need for balance. It is not a matter of one thing or another. The fact “community” is but one of eight subjects covered in this chapter, is indicative of why all these things matter.