I remember the first time I saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned as his family attempted to flee Syria. The picture of his body washed up on a beach in Turkey sent shockwaves around the world and brought a sense of urgency to the long-running Syrian refugee crisis.
For me, the effect of that image hit home more personally than some. I have a three-year-old son, Caleb, who often slept in his crib in exactly the same position that the waves deposited Aylan. In that moment, I saw my own son in the place of Aylan, and my heart was wrenched in a way that no other social cause has wrenched it before. To this day, I still cannot look at that picture without weeping. Even this paragraph is difficult for me to write.
The Syrian refugee crisis is particularly tragic and relatively fresh in the news cycle, but there are ten thousand other scenes of similar heartbreak playing out all over the world even as you read this. Drive through the nearest inner city and behold what decades of red-lining, discrimination, drugs, violence, poverty, and incarceration have done to once-prosperous middle class neighborhoods. Visit a hospital’s oncology ward and see firsthand the ravages of the curse on the human body. Walk through a local cemetery, read the dates on the tombstones, and realize with slowly-dawning horror just how many children are buried there. Turn on the evening news, and you’ll be greeted by a never-ending litany of grief, violence, fear, and suffering.
How should the church—the outpost of the future and preview of God’s coming kingdom—respond to horrors and heartbreaks like these? What does our calling as ambassadors of reconciliation have to do with the division and death that fills our world? What does the gospel have to do with Aylan Kurdi, or Trayvon Martin, or Freddie Gray, or any others who have fallen victim to the injustices of our age? C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
“Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God “made up out of His head” as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.”
Injustice and suffering are not simply “the way things are,” nor should they be accepted as such. They are symptoms of a breakdown in the fabric of reality, the collateral damage of humanity’s abdication and the serpent’s reign of terror. The kingdom of God, ushered in by Jesus and dawning in the embassies of the church, is the means by which God has committed himself to reinstating the human rule which will restore all that has gone wrong. Being joined by faith to Jesus, then, means more than participation in his sin-conquering death and newness of resurrection life. It also means participation in the mission that he launched and entrusted to his kingdom ambassadors: the restoration of the human project, the reversal of Fall’s effects. Christianity is a fighting religion, taking on all the institutions that perpetuate Satan’s kingdom of oppression. The kingdom of God is an act of war against the serpent and his doomed insurgency against the image of God. Many things are wrong in the world, and God has positioned his people in the midst of the darkness in order for us to begin the eschatological work of putting them right again. There is no Plan B for healing a planet full of injustice and suffering. The church, the kingdom of Jesus, is God’s Plan A. We are the hope of the world.
It is impossible to separate the various aspects of our kingdom life into separate spheres, as if we could be faithful disciples without engaging in this mission of restoration. Jesus is clear about where the battle lines in the cosmic war are drawn: straight through our religious devotion. He makes compassion for those who are hungry and naked and sick and foreign and imprisoned the defining mark of participation in the great reversal which his kingdom is ushering in (Matthew 25:31-46). Proverbs 14:31 directly connects our attitude toward the poor to our attitude towards the God in whose image they are made. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” James warns against a false spirituality that claims to worship God while casually insulting image-bearers. “With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things out not to be so” (James 3:9-10). Isaiah tells us that God despises religious activity that does not result in generosity and justice:
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:15-17)
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
King Jesus himself embodied this work during his earthly mission, and has now entrusted to us the task of carrying out the great reversal. The church of Jesus Christ has a long and storied history of confronting and overturning systemic evil and misery and darkness. In 165 AD, only two generations removed from the apostles, an apocalyptic plague swept through the Roman empire. At the height of the pandemic, 5,000 people were said to be dying every day in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population perished. All told, between a quarter and a third of the empire’s entire population died. People fled the cities and doctors deserted their patients. Stricken with fear, people even abandoned sick family members to their fate.
Where were Christians during this plague, and another that struck a century later? While pagan Romans were fleeing for the countryside, Christians were moving into the cities on reckless missions of mercy. In Rome, Christians buried not just their own dead but also pagans who died alone and penniless. As social order broke down, the church in Rome provided food for 1,500 poor on a daily basis. In Alexandria, Christians risked their own lives by caring for the sick, washing infected bodies, offering food and water, and consoling the dying. The church father Tertullian records that the astonished reaction of pagans was, “See how they love each other!” Julian the Apostate, a committed enemy of the gospel, could not deny that “the godless Galileans support not only their poor but ours as well!” The rapid embrace of Christianity throughout the Roman empire in the second and third centuries was owing in no small part to this astounding sacrificial witness of the church.
In every age since, the church’s witness has been no different. Everywhere the gospel has spread, two of the first institutions to be established have always been hospitals and schools. Everywhere the church has gone, literacy rates have gone up and child mortality has gone down. The world’s greatest educational institutions—Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and others—were started as church schools. Many of the world’s greatest hospitals—Johns Hopkins Medical Center, St. Jude’s, and more—were founded by believers living out the calling of the kingdom. Even today, worldwide networks of Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist hospitals stand as monuments to how Jesus’ kingdom has pushed back the curse of death. Historian Albert Jonsen writes,
“The very conception of medicine, as well as its practice, was deeply touched by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. This theological and ecclesiastical influence manifestly shaped the ethics of medicine, but it even indirectly affected its science since, as its missionaries evangelized the peoples of Western and Northern Europe, the Church found itself in a constant battle against the use of magic and superstition in the work of healing. It championed rational medicine, along with prayer, to counter superstition.”
Relieving the darkness of ignorance, the suffering of illness, and the scourge of injustice have always gone hand in hand with the proclamation of the gospel, because the full kingdom gospel, incarnated by King Jesus and embodied by his kingdom ambassadors, has always been about the restoration of everything wrong and the healing of everything broken. This gospel story has driven and shaped the people of God through the entire history of the church. The history of God’s people is full of men and women living out this gospel agenda with radical dedication. Think of William Wilberforce, whose lifelong war against the injustice of slavery culminated in the abolishment of the slave trade in the British empire. Missionaries to India like William Carey who helped to abolish the evil practice of widow burning. Saint Patrick, whose disciples founded schools throughout Ireland that lifted the island out of pagan darkness and stewarded the intellectual wealth of classical antiquity through the tumultuous decline and fall of Rome. George Mueller, who established a network of orphanages throughout England. William Booth, whose Salvation Army brought revival to Britain and became one of the largest distributors of humanitarian aid in history. Mother Theresa, who gave her life to lift the “untouchable” caste of India back to the image-bearing dignity which God had bestowed on them. On and on the list goes, a “great cloud of witnesses” to the awesome heritage with which we, citizens of the kingdom in the twenty-first century, have been entrusted.
Today, the work of restoration continues with kingdom aid agencies like Compassion and World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. Around the world, wherever the cursed world thrashes against its chains with disaster and tragedy, it is often Christians who are first on the ground and last to leave. Church-run ministries like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and crisis pregnancy centers form the front lines in the kingdom’s expanding war against the darkness, defending the dignity of people made in the image of God against the bloodthirsty hatred of the enemy. All the missions of mercy which the church advances, including the message of salvation itself, are acts of war against Satan’s empire. Every orphan adopted into a new family, every unborn child rescued from the abortionist’s knife, every bowl of soup given to a hungry man, every marriage rescued from irreconcilable differences, every free healthcare clinic serving disadvantaged communities, every evangelistic conversation sharing the good news of Jesus, are micro-aggressions against this present darkness. They are part of the great reversal turning everything right-ways up again.
Some aspects of this mission intersect in complicated ways with the political sphere—health care, justice reform, the pro-life cause, etc. Christians often disagree on methods in these areas, but the mission should be clear. Wherever suffering and ignorance and darkness and sin is present, the church is called to bring healing and education and light and mercy. Your commission, as an ambassador of reconciliation and a citizen of the coming kingdom, is to extend the blessing and fruitfulness of the God-Man’s reign wherever the curse is found.
Just as there are ten thousand needs in this groaning world, there are ten thousand ways to get involved in Jesus’ healing mission. How do you decide what efforts to engage with? Whatever wrenches your heart, combined with whatever gifts and resources and opportunities God has given you, are the raw material of restoration at your disposal as an image-bearing regent of God. Bend them to blessing, extend them to the world, and find in those acts of mercy the fulfillment of everything it means to be human.