Jamming a spoke in the wheels
Overturning unjust and oppressive structures (Luke 1:46-55, especially v51-53)
This final approach (of four) to Christian social transformation appears at first glance to be similar to the Reformed / transformative approach. But it is more radical and more confrontational; not transforming but overturning, not renewing but replacing. Of the four, it tends to be the least appealing to evangelicals, who tend to be socially conservative, but it has clear biblical support and so is a challenge to all of us who claim to accept biblical authority.
Mary’s song has strong Old Testament precedents, with the people crying out to God and the prophets railing against exploitation and oppression, all of them expecting God’s intervention on behalf of the poor, whether in psalms like Ps 73; 85; 86, or prophetic passages like Isa 1:18-25. The same emotion lies behind Mary’s song, with the Jewish people under Roman rule, the most powerful empire of the known world. Having previously been under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule for 500 of the past 600 years (with only glimpses of freedom), they were longing for God to intervene and deliver them.
How does this affect us in the UK today? Perhaps less than it used to, although one does not have to go far back into history to find parallels. Robert Tressell’s novel “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, which recounts the woes of exploited workers during the laissez-faire capitalism of early twentieth-century Edwardian England, was one of the most widely-read books by British soldiers during the Second World War, and is credited with playing a powerful role in post-war demands for a universal welfare state. Neither should the Christian socialist foundations of the UK’s Labour Party be overlooked. Perhaps the closest parallels today lie in unequal global trading relationships? There will be some who think that UK politics is heading in the kind of direction that might require such an approach closer to home as well.
Issues of injustice and exploitation can be complex, hard to understand and hard to decide what to do for the best. The challenge to the church is to keep the Old Testament prophets (and Mary’s song) in mind, and to have the courage to challenge and confront similar injustices today. As the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims caught beneath the wheels of injustice. We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”.
Earlier in this posts, I described churches as “communities of personal and social transformation”, empowering individuals to seek or work for transformation in their workplaces, neighbourhoods and families, with churches as bodies doing the same in their towns, nations and worldwide.
As we have seen, there are different ways of doing this – showing compassion and caring for those in need, working to transform politics and community life, demonstrating an alternative community, and confronting and overturning injustice. All four have strengths and weaknesses; all four have biblical support. All four should be in evidence in the mission of the church in Scotland today.