Review: Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom

Title: Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom
Author: Adam L. Gustine
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019
Pages: 204 plus end notes
Reviewer: Susan S. Baker

There are a number of books written about how a church can be effective cross-culturally. Multi-ethnic churches are attempting to reach across cultural lines to bring kingdom transformation primarily in urban areas. I have been privileged to minister in a multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational church for over thirty years and have learned how challenging all these multis can be.

Becoming a Just Church looks at the role of the church as God’s arm for justice/shalom in this world and how the American evangelical church has fallen short of this mandate. It is written from the perspective of a white American male who has struggled with and learned how to bring a church into proper alignment with God’s shalom in this world.

After a foreword by Dennis Edwards, the book is divided into three main sections plus an introduction and conclusion. The introduction is written in the form of moving between a personal testimony by the author and an understanding of how the American church has fallen short in so many ways in fulfilling its role as God’s gift to the world for justice/shalom. On the personal level, he recounts how difficult it has been to recognize that due to the privilege inherent in his white skin, he is actually a liability in ministering cross-culturally. He credits Manuel (Manny) Ortiz of mentoring him through these new insights by directing him to the hermeneutic of reconciliation which says, “I’m so blind I don’t even know the question to ask.”1

Gustine wrote this book out of a concern that the church is not fulfilling its role. He is writing specifically for white American evangelicals as he challenges them and their churches to not just talk about justice but to do justice, in spite of all the messiness this might entail.

Part one of the book is entitled “An Ecclesiology for Justice” and is focused on “unpacking a theologically rooted vision for justice through the local congregation.”2 It is divided into four chapters that are intended to challenge local congregations to see themselves differently as they approach justice. The first chapter, “Justice Isn’t an Outreach Strategy,” challenges the way churches look at their responsibility for justice. Too often well-meaning churches establish outreach programs for justice thus making it optional for congregants. This is not accurate theologically as we are all exhorted “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). Also, too often justice outreach programs have evangelization as their goal. On one hand, that is fine. We want people to come to know the Lord. But it is not enough. It is not modeling God’s faithful shalom to a community in need of transformation. We are going through a very interesting time right now. As we are sheltering in place due to COVID-19, there are no programs. Everything is shut down. Even our Sunday community worship times are handled electronically. I believe that when we are confronted with such a crisis, especially as it highlights so many areas where justice is absent, we must fall back on the church as a family, as a community, as the body of Christ, as embracing justice as a way of life.

Chapter two, “Exiles in the Promised Land,” attempts to couch the identity of the church as being exilic in this world. We must see ourselves as separate from the world even though we are in the world. Over the past few years we have seen an approach to the exilic journey of Central Americans as they journey toward the U.S. on the southern border. These refugees are looked at as foreign and are mostly rejected. We should think of ourselves in the same way—we are foreigners in this, and if we live our lives according to God’s desires, we will be rejected. What does this have to do with justice? Gustine exhorts us that “justice is not a partisan endeavor, it is supremely spiritual in nature. . .[and] injustice is tangible evidence of the kingdom of darkness at work in the world.”3 As exiles, as foreigners living this world, we must stand against the devil’s schemes.

Chapter three uses Justo Gonzalez’s book, Mañana,4 as a model of what the church should be and is entitled “Demonstrating Mañana.” Basically, he exhorts us to see the church as a mañana people to recognize God’s eschatological plan. We, as God’s vehicle for ushering justice and transformation into this fallen world, have a wonderful calling, but we cannot continue to look at ministry the way it has always been done, a way primarily brought to the U.S. through its white European ancestry.

Chapter 4, “Gardeners of Shalom,” critiques the passage in Jeremiah 29:7 which says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Here we are beginning to break down the difference between us and them to become we. Welfare is understood as the ability to flourish and be transformed. Our ability to flourish is bound up in others’ ability to flourish. If one person or group of people are not flourishing due to systemic injustice in our cities, then we cannot flourish either. Flourishing has little to do with wealth or the “good life.” Rather it is becoming more of what God wants us to be by seeing others become more of what God wants them to be. In Gustine’s words we are to pastor the parish by “blurring lines between congregation and community.”5

Part two of this book, “Justice in our Congregational Life,” is meant “to build on the theological vision of part one by engaging the concrete arena of congregational life”6 and has four chapters, the first of which is Chapter five, “Low-Ground Church.” Gustine uses high-ground to describe those with privilege, who look at themselves as elite, and usually use low-down to describe the “others.” High-ground is characterized by those who are upwardly mobile, who buy into the prosperity gospel, who are the cool kids. Gustine writes about them, “Christianity for cool kids is not only inherently exclusive, it prioritizes the values and aspirations of the high ground by creating a space where our consumptive quests go unchallenged.”7

In Chapter six, “Recovering Kinship,.” Gustine explains,

The evangelical impulse toward issues of injustice, particularly when it deals with the character of our relationships, has been to gloss over the long history of slight, injury, discrimination, and outright oppression. These injustices have shaped our national story as well as the story of the church in America, and we have not done the hard work of wrestling with the implications of that long history of hurt.8

The idea of kinship is that we are to be committed as a community not only to personal injustices but also to systemic injustices.It is to walk with the “other,” to care for the “other,” and to be able to learn from the “other” and accept care from the “other.” We are not urban messiahs. We must develop mutual relationships. Gustine admits, “I find that when I’m tired, stressed, wounded or emotionally thin, I retreat back to sameness, back to the well-worn paths of exclusion.”9 He views hospitality as a way of demonstrating a desire to be with the “other” in community, in a parish.

Chapter seven, “Finding Common Kingdom Ground,” begins by relating the story of the rich young ruler. He could not forgo his high-ground, merit-based social location. Gustine notes,

It seems Jesus is saying that a high-ground person cannot faithfully follow Jesus without a radical transformation of their high-ground reality. (By extension a high-ground church will find itself similarly positioned.) This is radical, challenging, and uncomfortable.10

I am a white evangelical American woman who grew up in middle-class suburban communities. Over fifty years ago the Lord called me to inner city black and Hispanic neighborhoods, first in Chicago and then in Philadelphia. So much of what Gustine is saying rings true to my experience, especially in trying to realize I was privileged and could never totally rid myself of my white middle class upbringing. I was fortunate because Manny Ortiz came to Chicago and challenged me bit by bit to understand my need to walk with, not above, the residents of our neighborhood. Manny and I became partners in ministry for 43 years before the Lord called him home. What Gustine is learning, and what I am still learning, goes back to the hermeneutic of repentance he mentioned in his introduction, the need to recognize what questions to ask, even more than trying to find answers, and repenting as God peels one layer after another off our sinful selves.

Chapter 8, “Worship” also rings very true to me. As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, I have been ministering in a multi-ethnic, multi-class, and multi-generational church in Philadelphia. We had to learn how to embrace styles of worship that were not what we were used to. Everything had to be very intentional. We had to have worship leaders and participants in the service representing all the ethnic groups. Song selection was very purposeful to include Spanish corritos, black gospel, contemporary, old-time hymns, etc. The idea is that nobody has everything their way but everyone has something that makes them feel welcome, that they are an important part of the congregation. People have noted that in our worship services you can often see an ex-offender sitting next to a lawyer, or an ex-addict sitting next to a doctor. The church is not perfect, but it does attempt to show hospitality to all, and we are growing. Gustine mentions the need to have room for confession and lament in worship. This is difficult at first for people who grew up the way I did, but it is important.

Part three, “What’s Next?” primarily deals with the question of power and has just one chapter, Chapter nine, “Power.” This chapter was set up as a dialogue with two friends of Gustine. It deals with the idea that white leaders have power, whether they want to or not. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. The idea that privilege is inherently assigned to those of us who are white just seemed wrong. I had worked hard to not assume positions of power. However, the Lord gave me a lesson that I will not forget. In 1987, when Manny and his family, and I and my family, made the move from Chicago to Philadelphia, we had to face the issue of where our youngest children were going to go to school. Manny’s son and my daughter were both going into eighth grade. We were advised by our new neighbors that we should petition an out-of-district school admission for them. Manny and his wife went first to the recommended junior high, Manny was required to get letters of recommendation from a judge he knew in order to enroll his son. It was an arduous task. Then my husband and I took my daughter. The principal came out to see us, we explained why we were there (with no letters of recommendation), and he immediately said, “Oh, of course you don’t want your daughter to go to that school.” He then gave us papers to sign and she was enrolled in fifteen minutes. The two children had been in school together from pre-k through 7th grade in Chicago, and both of them had good grades. There was no reason for the difference in their admission process except that my husband and I were white. I hated that this was so, but I had to understand that reality and how it affects our lives.

In the Epilogue, “Commence Justice,” Gustine finishes by noting,

This book is written on the premise that we need a way of being the church that makes sense of our calling as the people of God so we can pursue God’s justice in the world without being co-opted by the right or left, without being corrupted by the vain motivations of our consumer society, and without falling prey to the temptation of using the world’s tactics as we seek God’s kingdom ends.11

I have inserted more of my own life in this book review than I normally would, but it resonated so much with my own experiences, and I believe it will challenge others too. Gustine wanted this book to be focused primarily on people like me: white evangelical Americans. I believe it is a vital read for people like me, but I also think that it is vital whenever cross-cultural ministry is involved. It is unique and should be a blessing to all who read it.

Notes

1 Gustine, 8.
2 Ibid., 15.
3 Ibid., 49-50.
4 Justo Gonzalez, Mañana (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
5 Gustine, Op. Cit., 91.
6 Ibid., 15.
7 Ibid., 107.
8 Ibid., 121.
9 Ibid., 133.
10 Ibid., 144.
11 Ibid., 198.

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