I’m not a big fan of mission statements. I understand they are important. A good one makes a big difference to an organization. One of my current favorites is from the Old Dominion Freight Line, which has condensed and painted this statement on every ODFL truck motoring down the highway: “Helping the World Keep Promises.” That’s so much more meaningful to clients and inspirational to employees than something about moving freight efficiently.
So why am I not a big fan of mission statements? Because mission statements themselves can’t handle all the freight we expect them to carry. We think they keep people on the same page and promote unity. But that’s not necessarily the case. In short, they are overrated.
Have you ever helped load a moving van with two or three people who have different ideas about how to pack everything in? They have a shared mission — load the van — but often disagree over the best way to accomplish it. Every parent’s mission is to raise their kids to grow up healthy and wise. But they often argue over how to do that. Democrats and Republicans alike want our citizens to enjoy peace and prosperity. But political conflict over ways and means could hardly be more acrimonious than it is these days.
In short, people may have the same destination (mission) in mind but argue over what route to take. That’s where conflict usually comes in, even in the church.
Consider the cause of social justice. This is a missional concern of more and more churches these days, and rightly so. The world around us — including our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and even our churches — is populated with harmful injustices. The people who see them tend to be those who suffer the injustice; those who perpetuate injustice are often blind to it. Eliminating injustice is not only a moral cause; it’s a kingdom priority.
But what is the best way to accomplish that mission? That’s why Christians and churches often experience disagreement and division. We need to agree on a common route, not just a common mission. I would like to suggest that the best route is already mapped out in the words and work of Jesus: call it the path of peace.
The Best Route Toward Social Justice
Our most important signpost toward social justice is found in Jesus’ seventh beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). It has long been noted that Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers.” That’s important. Our mandate as followers of Jesus is not to keepsomething that already exists, but tocreatesomething that doesn’t. We should be peacemakers. In a moment we will look at how that occurs.
However, first we must face one very surprising gospel fact: Jesus rarely talked about justice. Shocking? Search through all the red-letter words that have captured Jesus’ statements in the four gospels and you’ll find just two times He talked about justice. In the first case, He accused the Pharisees of superficial righteousness with no concern for just legal decisions.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
In the second case, He told the story of a woman pleading for justice before a reluctant judge (Luke 18:1–8). Finally her annoying persistence paid off; she got what she sought. However, this parable was not a call to justice but a call to persevering prayer. In fact, Jesus’ underlying promise was that harassed people could expect justice from heaven eventually, because it is not likely to come from human institutions.
The remainder of the chapter then presents us with a series of examples showing how heavenly justice looks and acts. First there’s the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where Jesus taught that the contrite sinful person will be justified and exalted rather than the proud self-righteous one (v. 9–14). Next Jesus welcomed and elevated children to their just position in the hierarchy of valued people (v. 15–17). Then He disappointed a rich young ruler by telling him that his entire wealth was to be used to rescue the poor (v. 18–30). Finally the chapter concludes with Jesus rebuking His own disciples for attempting to prevent a blind beggar from gaining access to divine healing (v. 35–43).
These are examples of justice in action to be sure. Nevertheless, it is crucial to note two things: how little Jesus talked about justice as a missional mandate and, second, each of these examples of justice involves an obligation upon individuals to treat other individuals or categories of people with proper respect and compassion. Is it possible that many churches are not on the best route to social justice? Should we prioritize the development of a special kind of people over special kinds of programs? I think so. In my opinion, we should prioritize developing peacemakers. But first a caveat: This does not mean social justice programs are unimportant.
It’s important to launch social justice efforts of all sorts in both secular and sacred environments. It’s particularly meaningful when the church teams up with initiatives and programs already operating in the public and private sectors. After all, Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. We should not isolate ourselves in church and faith-based programs only. In fact, it is often better when God’s people bring their resources and influence into what our communities have already created rather than reinventing the wheel.
However, there will always be “gaps” that the secular world can’t see or hasn’t addressed effectively. In those cases, we should be brave enough to create new programs that lead the way toward justice for all.
Nevertheless, whether God’s people choose to populate existing social justice efforts or initiate exemplary ones, our route toward social justice should follow the path Jesus marked out. That path focuses on developing peacemakers — people whose personal qualities, convictions and actions shine with the goodness of God to the glory of God.
Peacemakers and the Father’s DNA
According to the seventh beatitude, peacemakers are likeGod — “they will be called children of God.” They are spiritually reborn with His spiritual seed (DNA), as the Apostle John wrote, “Everyone who loves has been born of God … because God is love” (1 John 4:7–8). That divine love has its fullest expression in the cross of Jesus. And according to St. Paul, that is the location where peace is made.
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19–20).
The True Cross
So what goes into making peace? Peace has many ingredients that are important: reconciliation, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, advocacy and hospitality. But just as you can’t make a cake — even with all the right ingredients — until you place it in the oven, you can’t make peace apart from the environment of the cross. Cakes happenin the oven. Peace happens only on the cross. What characterizes the cross of Jesus?
It is common for most Christians to think of the cross of Jesus as a place primarily of suffering. And, of course, it was. But we must never forget that Jesus’ suffering had a specific purpose: He suffered to provide a remedy for the predicament of others. He had committed no wrong. He deserved no punishment. He brought us peace because He was willing to pay the penalty for our sins of negligence, ignorance, disobedience and rebellion.
“He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him” (Isaiah 53:5).
Our sin wasn’t His fault, His problem, or due to His neglect. Yet He provided the remedy at great personal cost. Therefore, it can be stated simply: Something isn’t a true cross until you are paying a personal price to provide a remedy for someone else’s suffering whether due to sin, foolishness or misfortune. This is when peace is made. This is what peacemakers do.
Jesus commanded His disciples to take up their cross — daily, Luke adds (Luke 9:23) — and follow Him. That means we can only carry a true cross and become peacemakers like Him when we, like Him, give up something we may never regain — time, money, credit — to provide something others may never deserve — grace, forgiveness, a second chance. (I go into more detail about the true cross in my new book “Fresh Eyes on Famous Bible Sayings,”one of a three-book series being released by David C. Cook publishers this month.)
How do you know when you’ve arrived at one of these daily “take up your cross” moments where peace is made? Your insides will resonate and moan with a single question: Why should I have to be the one? You’ll hear yourself thinking:
- I wasn’t the one who made the mistake; why should I have to be the one to take the blame?
- Why should I have to be the one to bend over backward?
- He never says he’s sorry. Why should I have to be the one to initiate the apology?
- She almost always misses her deadline and leaves me with too little time. Why should I have to be the one to look bad?
These kinds of situations happen every day, particularly ones involving our use of time and resources. But there is no way around it. The true cross of Jesus calls you to lose what you may never regain to give what others may never deserve.
Justice, Peace and Paradox
You see, there’s a paradoxical relationship between peace and justice. Peace is made by people who don’t seek justice for themselves, people who don’t retaliate when struck on the cheek, people who bless rather than blister their enemies on Facebook, people who surrender their cloak when their tunic has already been taken, people who forgive 77 times (Luke 6:28-30; Matthew 18:22). When social systems and organizations are populated by peacemakers who live this self-denying ethic of Jesus that does not seek justice for one’s self in this world where picket lines clash and party lines accuse, where sabers rattle and sword-like words cut off civil ears, paradoxically justice has a better chance of rolling down (Amos 5:24).
Don’t get me wrong. As I said, justice-for-all efforts are important. As a pastor, I encouraged our people to engage in social justice. One year we used our church building to host a reconciliation movement in our Southern city during the steamy racial unrest of the 1970s, and we faced gun-wielding threats of the Ku Klux Klan inside our sanctuary. We helped birth an African-American church, held joint worship services and shared fellowship meals. Two of our small groups started the first rescue mission ministry and the first crisis pregnancy center in our town that still serve the community more than 30 years later.
But as the years have gone on and I have grown in my understanding of God’s kingdom and His purposes on earth, I am even more convinced about this peace/justice paradox: If we care about social justice, do not try to make justice happen unless we first lift up the cross, call people to follow the path of Jesus, and lead them into the life-saturating power of the Holy Spirit that makes peacemakers possible. Otherwise our efforts toward social justice will be short-sighted and short-lived.
If all this is true, then perhaps in our desire to deliver justice, the church could adapt Old Dominion Freight Lines’ motto and say instead: “Helping God’s People Make Peace.”
Doug Newton is the co-director of the National Prayer Ministry of the Free Methodist Church – USA. He served for 30 years as a senior pastor and for 15 years as the editor of this magazine. He is the author of nine books — three of which are being released this month: “Fresh Eyes on Famous Bible Sayings,” “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Miracles” and “Fresh Eyes on Jesus’ Parables.” Visit dougnewton.com to read more from him and to order his books.