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Tear Australia Day1 KIMLANDY 2096

Seeing Jesus as we seek change

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As followers of Jesus, what kind of change should we be working for in the face of injustice? And what can actually bring about that change?

Pete Greig Lighthouse19 66

Pete Greig is one of the founding champions of the international 24-7 Prayer movement, and sat down with Tearfund to share about the power of prayer in bringing about change, why mercy changes our understanding of justice, and why seeing Jesus in others can sustain us.

How do you see prayer, mission and justice as interconnected?

I don’t think you can separate prayer from mission, from justice, because they are all fundamentally expressions of the heart of God. I think the thing that holds prayer, mission and justice together is the presence of God. Prayer is where we encounter God. Mission is where we carry the presence of God into spaces where he’s not known. And justice is where we stand against those structures and those processes that are oppressing and resisting the presence of God. In the scriptures you see it’s inseparable. If you look at Isaiah 58, there’s a direct link in that chapter between the answering of prayers and our treatment of the poor. And, we see on the day of Pentecost, that there’s 24/7 prayer and then the Spirit of God comes, and they go out and preach the gospel. And then we see within two chapters, that the early church isn’t just praying a lot and preaching the gospel, but they’re caring for widows and orphans. So, prayer, mission and justice are completely integrated because they’re all reflections of the mission of God. Probably best summed up in Isaiah 61, quoted by Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me ... to bring good news to the poor”.

Prayers change world 2

You’ve said, “I used to worry about people who prayed because I thought they never did anything.” How do we overcome the myth that prayer in the face of injustice is passive, or a luxury?

One of the reasons I’m thrilled to be an ambassador for Tearfund is because of its integration of spirituality and social transformation. Ultimately, true justice is not something that can be delivered just politically, it has to be delivered holistically, which means you have to deal with whole people, which means spiritual people. And so, I think we have to address that question, both psychologically and cosmologically.

Psychologically: every time there’s tragedy somewhere in the world, and I post a thing saying, “Will you pray about this situation?”, I always get people on social media who say, “Why don’t you Christians stop praying and do something useful?”. And one of the many things that’s so wrong about that is this notion that people who pray don’t also vote, don’t also give their money. In fact, all the research says they give their money more generously than people who don’t pray and don’t engage. So, this idea that there’s spiritual people “over here” and people engaging “over there” is anathema.

One of the joys of praying is that it primes the way that I engage. It’s not just jumping on some bandwagon with some instinctive position on injustice, but it’s thoughtful. One of the journeys I’ve been on with Tearfund – I mean literal journeys, I went to Cambodia to visit some Tearfund partners there – is profoundly challenging to the very way I think. For example, as someone who cares about social justice in the UK, I had campaigned against sweatshops; cheap clothes that are bought. And then I found myself sitting with a group of village elders in a little town just outside Phnom Penh, where they were talking about the tragedy of the local clothes factory being shut down. So, all their sons and daughters had lost their jobs and some of them were now being trafficked. And as they talked, I realised with horror, it’s what we call a sweatshop, which I had campaigned against. I had been so on my high horse, I hadn’t thought about “how do we create better jobs?” Or “how do we work to reform what we have branded ‘sweatshops’?” I thought I was right. So one of the great things about prayer is we actually reflect on complex situations.

It’s essential for those of us who have a heart for justice, that we walk in daily mercy and grace.

But there’s also power in prayer, and this is the cosmological bit: if you are to be a true Christian, you must embrace the cosmology of the Bible, which is that there is a spiritual realm at work, and not just a socio-economic one that we’re trying to deal with here. When you see injustice, and engage with it, you quickly realise there’s evil at work here. And what’s really bewildering is sometimes you want to just blame a person, you meet the person and they’re not that bad.

There are evil structures. There are principalities and powers. This is basic New Testament stuff. Most of our justice conferences, we wouldn’t invite Jesus to speak, because we would think he was too spiritual for us. He cast demons out of people. He said he saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. You know, the Apostle Paul says, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in high places”. This is not about whether you’re Pentecostal or not, this is about: if that’s true, we must know how to fight spiritually, as well as politically, economically, and holistically in every sense of that word. I think internally, prayer is powerful psychologically, but externally it is accepting the Christian worldview that there are spiritual dynamics at play behind structures of oppression that must be dealt with spiritually, as well as in the other ways.

It’s not until the perpetrators of evil can have their hearts changed, that we can come full circle... I long for more Christians who talk about justice all the time to talk about mercy more.

I use one final example on that: I just heard the first-hand testimony of an Iranian man who has come to know Jesus, having been trafficking guns, drugs, and girls. I mean, dramatically he’s met Jesus and been baptised. Some of my closest friends have started an anti-trafficking charity that’s put more people behind bars in India than any other organisation, and is training the police in the UK. They are passionate about that issue, fighting the injustice of unspeakable horror of human trafficking. And here’s a man who’s been a perpetrator, a trafficker, who’s got saved. My friend was talking to this guy and said to him, “How do you even process what you’ve done?” and the man started weeping. And he said, “I pray every day for every one of those girls that I’ve trafficked”. In the economy of heaven, the primary intercessor on earth for these girls who are now trafficked, is the man who trafficked them. Now, something in me is appalled by that; is offended by grace. And then I remember, that is where the hymn “Amazing Grace” comes from: a trafficker who met God and could hardly believe that he could be forgiven. And then, I step right back and think of my friends who are fighting human trafficking. And this tests me, this trafficker who has got saved. I think, ultimately, if our approach to injustice is just to put people behind bars and change legislation, it’s not good enough.

It’s not until the perpetrators of evil can have their hearts changed, that we can come full circle. And so that’s ultimately where the gospel of Jesus is bigger than just being religious justice activists, it is about a mercy that is even bigger than justice. And I long for more Christians who talk about justice all the time to talk about mercy more.

How does mercy change our understanding of or approach to justice?

It’s essential for those of us who have a heart for justice, that we walk in daily mercy and grace. I meet people who are pouring their lives out for the sake of the poor and the marginalised, and have marginalised themselves in order to identify with the marginalised, and therefore they marginalise themselves from everyone else, and see themselves as somehow separate and perhaps even better than other kinds of Christians who maybe seem less radical, but they’ve so built their identity around being marginalised, that they in themselves don’t have anything left to bring to the marginalised because they themselves are no longer integrated anywhere. And so, we have to move beyond just this polarised, binary injustice of goodies versus baddies, to the offence, the scandal of grace that can fuel William Wilberforce and many others to fight the injustice of trafficking, but can also save a trafficker like Isaac Newton, and inspire that great hymn.

In my own life, the danger is if I spend my life just fighting injustice, and not dealing with mercy, I don’t know where that leaves me because I know there’s injustices in me; judgments that I make wrongly and unfairly, behaviours. I find it hard to know: how do I go shopping without perpetrating injustice? How do I drive a car? How do I get on an aeroplane without committing an injustice? And so ultimately, I have to stake my life on mercy and not just justice.

It is beholden upon us, as lovers of God, to love people – and as worshippers of God, to elevate the dignity of every human being on the planet.

We live in a rapidly changing world, with continually emerging crises and disruptions. How can we be sustained through the really long arc of justice that we’re called to?

We have to reframe our whole worldview around worship, and see what we do with and for the poor, not as an act, ultimately, of fighting injustice but as an act of worship to Jesus. The person who helped me understand this was Mother Teresa. It’s so striking to me that her religious order’s great mission statement says nothing about caring for the young, and the poorest people, or the dying. Their mission statement is, believe it or not, to “satiate the thirst of Christ on the cross”.

You think, well, how do you get from that, to caring for the dying in Calcutta? What Mother Teresa effectively said was this, “We are sustained to keep going by seeing Christ in the people that we are caring for”. She said, if we didn’t, what we’re doing is ultimately pointless, because caring for the lowest people in society, on this sort of conveyor belt, you never seem to run out: there’s always more and more and more, and most of them are already dying. So, these are “nobodies” who are going to die. And so, you just help them die with a bit more dignity – that’s a great thing to do. And really nice people might do it for a year. Really nice people might do it for five years. But ultimately, you’re going to go, “shouldn’t we get into the politics to stop people coming into this place in the first place?”, “Shouldn’t we get into education?”, “How can we deal with the macro injustices here?”, “What is it that kept and keeps Mother Teresa’s order there, caring?”. And it is that they don’t see those people just as disposable products – they see each one as Jesus.

So, at the start of every day, in prayer, and taking the communion, they are re-centring in the presence of God. And then they go and outwork it with the poor: it’s an act of worship for them. They come back at the end of the day, and instead of saying, “well, it’s a bit un-strategic, because there’s going to be more people tomorrow, it’s a relentless stream”, they say, “we were able to meet You and see You and love You in these people here today”. And so, this is what I said at the start: to be a Christian justice and mercy organisation is far more than just a Bible verse on your letterhead paper and a religious donor base. It is about seeing that what we’re doing is ultimately an act of worship. The reason injustice matters is that human beings have dignity, and they’re made in the image of God. And therefore, it is beholden upon us, as lovers of God, to love people – and as worshippers of God, to elevate the dignity of every human being on the planet.

Pete Greig is the bewildered founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, a Director of Waverley Abbey and, along with his wife Sammy, is Senior Pastor of Emmaus Rd Church in England. Pete co-hosts the Lectio365 daily devotional, serves as an Ambassador to Tearfund, and is a member of The Order of the Mustard Seed. His best-selling books include Red Moon Rising, God on Mute and How to Pray. Photos: Kim Landy