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Christian social reform: What is the agenda (Part II)

A foundational lecture on why and how Christians should be involved in the public square by Dr. Michael Schluter for the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland (Part I here)

I started looking at the role of the law in 1975 when I was living in Kenya and subsequently working with the World Bank. We were trying to find a response to capitalism in Kenya, socialism in Tanzania and Marxism in Ethiopia.

I started looking at the Jubilee laws on land and the ban on interest, the rules on kingship and the justice system. As I did so the question I asked was: What holds all these laws together? What is the big idea? We tried the idea of justice. that seemed a promising start, but we couldn’t get all the laws to fit under the term justice. So we tried other ideas. We tried family. We tried stewardship. But none of these seemed satisfactory. 

The turning point came when I found that Jesus himself had answered my question. He was asked, What is the greatest commandment? He replied, “Love the lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength,” and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This love of which Jesus speaks is a relational term. Then he says that on these two laws hangs all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22.34-40). 

Suddenly it occurred to me that Jesus was saying that the whole of the law and the prophets depends on understanding the world in terms of relationships. The key questions to ask in looking at the application of the old testament law are: What impact does this have on relationships with God? And, What impact does this have on relationships between people? 

From there I began to realise that the Bible and Christian faith are about relationships. the Trinity is a relational understanding of God. The idea of covenant refers to a committed relationship, and God enters these kinds of relationships. The cross is described by Paul in terms of reconciliation – a relational term. ethics is about the love of God and neighbour – again relational language. Eternal life, says John, is this: that you may know the Father and the Son whom he has sent. (John 17.3)

Our goals, as Christians, are also defined in terms of relationships. Paul writes: 

I keep asking that the God of our lord Jesus Christ may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. (Ephesians 1.17) 

Paul’s concern is that our relationship with God should develop and grow. Christianity is not an individualistic religion; it is a community faith. Christian lifestyle is about relationships. Paul says you may have all the knowledge in the world, you may give your body to be burned, you may give all your money to the poor, you may speak in tongues, but if you don’t have love – if your relationships aren’t right – then your Christianity is worth nothing. (1 Corinthians 13.1-3) 

That must be one of the most challenging statements in the Bible, for few of us would claim to have perfect relationships. But despite the problems we all have in our relationships, it is by these that we will be judged. When we meet Christ he’s not going to ask us how much money we left in our bank account or what size of house we lived in. He’s going to ask us about our relationships.

(Part III will be published next week)

Michael Schluter 

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

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