Just Life

This article first appeared in the Salvationist magazine and is published with permission.

By Nick Coke

I hear the same question all the time. Essentially it’s this: I know we should fight for social justice, but how do we actually do it?

2 Match FactoryIn terms of theological, devotional and motivational material urging us forward in the fight we have never had it so good. The biblical mandate for action is being preached with new fervour in the light of austerity, political upheaval and the refugee crisis. Resources are plentiful – campaign material regularly finds its way into our letterbox, email inbox and social media feeds. Dutifully we follow the instructions to pray, fundraise, get informed and click on the link to another petition website. Online activity in the cause of social change has led to the coining of a new word – ‘clicktivism’. Apparently we’re clicking like we’ve never clicked before. Yet beneath it all comes that nagging question – is any of this really making a difference? It all feels so detached. There’s surely more to justice-seeking than this.

Ten years ago those nagging doubts started my journey towards a more active justice-seeking faith. What follows are four lessons I have learnt along the way. I share them with the hope they might provoke and encourage you a little.

LIVING A JUST LIFE

1 RedbridgeThe beginning of justice-seeking is neither an action nor a programme. As an officer once reminded me: ‘We don’t do social justice – we live justly.’ In Salvation Army theology it springs from our holiness teaching, where the inner life of a believer, orientated around a relationship with God, spills over into public life. Faith may be personal but it’s never private. The inner working of our hearts is manifested in hundreds of actions and decisions we make every day. Living a just life begins with how we treat others, who we include, how we use our wealth and time. This applies to those closest to us, neighbours and work colleagues, our corps family and, by extension, the whole of humanity. The rather wonderful truth I’ve discovered is that the more I’ve chased personal holiness the more compelled I’ve been to seek a just world and the more justice-seeking I’ve engaged with the more convicted I’ve been about personal transformation.

MOVING TO THE EDGES

6 Housing action SouthwarkWhile justice begins with God, it clearly involves people. In the Exodus story the groans of the Israelite slaves rise up before God and initiate a social justice movement (Exodus 2:23–25). In today’s world we constantly hear the groans for ourselves – the low-paid worker at the food bank, the refugee, the homeless and the discriminated against. Most of us long to end such suffering. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that real justice-seeking compels us to move to the edges and experience first-hand the sufferings of others before we can act. There really is no other way. Of course when we get there we discover God is well ahead of us.

In justice-seeking circles I hear the phrase ‘being a voice for the voiceless’ over and over again. But true justice- seeking demands something more costly and sacrificial than speaking on someone’s behalf from a safe distance. Far better to stand with someone as they find a voice of their own. To sit with the homeless person who just got

evicted unfairly, to listen to the asylum seeker who was mistreated at the immigration centre, to turn up at the mosque that has just been daubed with anti-Muslim graffiti. When we personally connect with the issue then we really start to get stuck in.

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT

3 Sam Tomlin SouthwarkOnce personally involved in the sufferings of others, it is tempting to offer charity and stop there. We meet the need, bandage the wound and move on. Most likely people will call us saints.

Justice-seeking, however, walks a different path as we seek to move beyond the sticking plaster to tackle the root cause. Careful analysis is required to unearth the issue, to research in detail the layers behind it and to identify those with power to change things. When working for change, moments will come when we face challenge. Earthly and spiritual powers will do their best to block our way. Disturbing the status quo or pointing out an injustice will not always make us friends. No longer will

everyone call us saints and some will consider us troublemakers. This is often where we begin to falter. We like to be popular. History, however, reminds us that justice is always, always a struggle. We must purposely and prayerfully push on.

POLITICS, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT

8 refugee welcomeThe final stage is to move from a protest voice on the margins into the corridors of power, where decisions are made. Forcing your way into this space can happen only when we organise ourselves to be powerful enough for decision-makers to take notice. This is the work of politics – not party politics – but community-based, people politics. And this is where corps and centres come into their own. After all, we know our communities and, in most cases, we have been a constant presence for generations. Almost every local expression is connecting directly with those who suffer injustice and, crucially, we are collectives who exist to transform the world! In a society where institutional

life is waning, it positions us in an extraordinary place to be justice- seekers.

When we look at our neighbourhoods we soon discover others who share our concerns for justice: faith organisations, schools, community groups. The work of building broad and powerful alliances of justice-seekers will position us around the table where we can speak truth to power and be heard.

The good news is that I hear stories of Salvationists increasingly joining in exactly this kind of grassroots justice- seeking and of powerful transformational results. My prayer is that we grasp the moment presented to us. May God bless us with his holy discomfort to live the just life.

Living for the City

This article was first published in the March-April 2016 edition of The Officer 

1 goBy Nick and Kerry Coke

IN 1973, within a year of our births, the great American musician Stevie Wonder released the song ‘Living for the City’ – a track from his groundbreaking new album, Innervisions. The song is startling for its howl of protest at the systemic racism of American society at the time. It traces the journey of a black family from rural Mississippi to a New York ghetto. The parents work menial jobs for poverty wages, the older brother looks for work in vain, the sister has to go to school in ill-fitting clothes and the younger brother finds himself sucked into a life of crime.

On the day of its release Wonder, blind from a young age, arranged for a group of journalists to be taken on a tour of New York City, blindfolded. He encouraged them to hear the soundscape of the city streets – the pounding of feet, car engines, police sirens and the myriad of spoken languages. As the tour ended, and still sightless, he played them ‘Living for the City’. The song opened with the trademark soul of Wonder’s voice, but as the last verse kicked in his voice transformed into an unfamiliar cry of anguish. It finished with him bellowing out these words:

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel nowhere could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city!

We recently rediscovered this song on an old vinyl record we found in a charity shop. As we listened through the crackles and pops it felt as though Wonder’s prophetic voice was speaking down the generations. We began to reflect on what it meant to ‘live for the city’. We considered our own heritage and how the underbelly of city life was the crucible in which The Salvation Army was formed. When William Booth ‘found his destiny’ it was on the stricken streets of a city with circumstances not unfamiliar to the characters in Wonder’s song. Knowing this context is key to understanding our movement – who we are and why we do what we do.

In a biblical sense, ‘living for the city’ goes beyond the realm of the urban physical space we name ‘cities’. Take the call of Jeremiah, for example, to the Jews living in Babylonian exile: ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city… Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (29:7). It is a plea to build the common good with those the exiles now live amongst. Instead of setting themselves apart and only looking after their own interests, Jeremiah charges them to embrace a radical new way of life where they are to build relationships across ethnic, religious and cultural divides. In doing so, he says, the land in which they live will flourish with peace and prosperity. Surely this is a message for our time. In an increasingly globalised and urbanised world, many of us live in communities which are becoming socially fragmented in ways that previous generations could never have imagined. It is becoming the new norm. Jeremiah’s call to a radical way of life, however, gives us a framework for peace in our time.

Living for the city, we suspect, begins with listening. How else can we win souls, care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable and befriend those who have no friends, without first bending our ears to the struggle of the people? Without doubt that means presence, patience and an enduring spirit of love. Take a moment to consider your ‘city’ – what is it that you hear?

In the end, of course, there is another city. A perfect city when Heaven descends to earth (Revelation 21:2-4). In this ‘Holy City’ all tears are wiped away and all sorrow ends. Street lights are no longer necessary, for the glory of God will suffice (22:5). All poverty and pain are things of the past. Even death will be no more. This is the city we should live for – in the now and for the future. For it is coming. Close your eyes, lend your ear to the soundscape of the city streets and perhaps you can hear its coming.

Let’s be ‘Wise Builders’

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By John Clifton

In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a story that Jesus told about a wise and a foolish builder. The wise builder builds on rock. The foolish one builds on sand. When the rains come, the wise builder’s house stands solid but the foolish builder has his house washed away.

The traditional approach to this story is to spiritualise it. We say “Oh, the house is like someone’s life. It needs to be built on the solid foundation of Jesus’ example and teachings otherwise when the storms of life come it will crumble and wash away.” I wouldn’t disagree with that.

However, recently, I’ve started to interpret the passage in a different way. It makes me think about actual builders and actual housing developers. Some motivations for building are solid, like rock. Other motivations are less secure like sand. In my mind, a rock solid foundation is ‘commmunity’ – the consequence of deep relationships built between people. A sand-like foundation is profit and money, for the purpose of getting rich.

Too many housing developments in my city are built on sand – they are for the purpose of making money. What we need now is housing that prioritises the fabric of our community. We need housing that helps our communities flourish, where people can put roots down and settle.

I’m really excited about the London Citizens Housing Manifesto for the London mayoral election.  Check it out – I think you’ll agree that the approach reflect the values of the Wise Builder whichever way you interpret it.

May God Bless You With Anger

welcome

By Nick Coke

This article first appeared in the January-February 2016 edition of ‘The Officer’ magazine and is re-published with permission.  

I sat in a coffee shop with a veteran Christian minister from my neighbourhood. At his instigation we were meeting to talk about community engagement. I’d barely taken a sip from the cup in front of me when he looked at me across the table and asked, ‘What makes you angry?’

I was a little taken aback. I hesitated for a moment to gather my thoughts before speaking. At first my words were faltering – offering something about being a Salvation Army officer and a minister of peace and love. As I listened to myself I sounded unconvincing – dispassionate even. Glancing across the table I could see he looked disappointed.

Pausing for a gulp of coffee I reappraised my response and opened up a little. ‘Well, I suppose I’m angry that some people living here are so privileged that they have far more than they will ever need whilst others are trying to get by with virtually nothing.’ The words began to flow. ‘I’m angry that some people feel they’re inferior because of their culture, religion, gender or the colour of their skin.’ The flow turned into a torrent. ‘I’m angry that the landlords round here charge extortionate rent and the politicians appear helpless to do anything about it. I’m angry that some people work day and night and still don’t get paid enough to live on. And I’m angry that when we Christians do get worked up it’s almost always about internal issues rather than the great injustices in our world.’

Slightly embarrassed at my outburst, I grinned weakly, reached for my coffee cup and asked, ‘What about you, what do you think?’ He nodded gently and with a smile on his lips replied, ‘That’s a lot of anger, my friend. I think we can do business!’

Since that day, I’ve thought much about anger. Oh I know that anger can be destructive, a conductor of reckless, damaging behaviour and impulsive, ungodly words. We must flee from this kind of selfish anger and root it out of hearts and minds. Such hot anger should never be allowed to get the better of us and it is not compatible with the Spirit of the living God (see Matthew 5:22). ‘Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry’ (Ephesians 4:26) wrote the apostle Paul. Wise advice. We’re foolish, however, if we consider this the only kind of anger.

There is a rich tradition of cool, righteous, sanctified anger flowing through Moses, the prophets and Jesus himself to the Church and down through the ages. Such anger inspires us to action, drives us forward in the struggle and agitates us to a holy discontent with the world as it is. I know this to be true from my own experience ministering in various contexts.

I love the quote attributed to Augustine of Hippo (354-430): ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.’

Hope that has no intention of changing the way things are, that has no means to grip the passions of the believer’s heart, is no hope at all. That rather is a vague wish or aspiration – here today and gone tomorrow. But hope fuelled by anger and courage, filtered through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, is a most potent weapon for the fight. Such anger becomes terrible in its beauty and a righteous tool for confronting the ‘powers and principalities’ (Ephesians 6:12 KJV) that stand against the coming Kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10).

So my friends, I ask you, ‘What makes you angry?’

May the restless Spirit of God fall upon you, bless you with anger and discomfort at the way the world is, and agitate you to work for the world as it should be.

A nightshelter to a housing campaign: I had no power but you showed me how to take it back

By John Clifton

A week on Thursday, Ilford Salvation Army will open its night shelter for the 5th consecutive winter.  During this time, hundreds of people have stayed in the shelter, which accommodates 28 people per night.  For those 93 nights, during the coldest part of the year, the Corps building becomes ‘home’.  However, we’re very aware that sleeping on a camp-bed in our upstairs hall doesn’t constitute fullness of life.  Let’s take a look at Matthew 25 again:

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

Continue reading “A nightshelter to a housing campaign: I had no power but you showed me how to take it back”

A Calais protest

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By Nick Coke

On Sunday I preached a sermon from the Old Testament prophet Amos. Standing before my congregation, they graciously listened as I wondered aloud how this unlettered, unqualified, shepherd from nowhere could pull off delivering such an angry howl of protest at the religious and political establishment of his time and still manage to have it remembered for millennia as part of the canon of scripture. His message has virtually no hope – a handful of verses at the very end promise a better day but for the most it’s wave after wave of finger-pointing, judgement, warning and lament. The reason it stands the test of time is that sometimes there are moments when all you can do is protest. Whilst protest does not provide the answer it certainly raises the question. Protest marks the moment of refusal to be comfortable with things as they are. It is the beginning of change but never the end. Continue reading “A Calais protest”

The justice-seekers dream… Spiritual exercise #2

By Nick Coke

What is a justice-seeker? What do we dream of becoming? What characteristics should we desire and pray for? What should we be doing? Here are some personal reflections. Although far from this, I pray I might walk this path. When you have read it, have a go at writing your own version. Use it as a source for daily prayer.

Justice-seekers are…

Present: justice-seekers understand therbrick lanee is no justice to be done from a distance. Like the Good Samaritan, they go out of their way and take risks to recognise and know the suffering of others. There are no boundaries that they will not cross, nor comforts they will not dispense with in order to build relationships and understand others. They know that first and foremost change begins with relationship and relationship can only begin with presence. Continue reading “The justice-seekers dream… Spiritual exercise #2”