About 80 years ago, a bright young German theological student deemed too young to be ordained decided to travel to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies. There, he made friends with another student - who invited him along to his church in Harlem.  

Worshipping with the African American congregation, the 24-year-old German began to see things “from below” – from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. 

MLK Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial in Washington, DC. PICTURE: Brian Kraus/Unsplash

 

"Empowered by God, Christians like Bonhoeffer have become a shining light in a world of sin, by speaking up and starting social movements that have brought injustice to an end."

This encounter led to his personal conversion - from being a theologian focused on the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teachings of Jesus.

That young man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

A pastor and theologian of great intellect, he went on to repeatedly speak out against Hitler's persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself”. 

Despite persecution, Bonhoeffer insisted that Christ, not the Führer, was the head of the Church. His involvement in the attempted assassination of Hitler led to his arrest and eventual execution.  

Empowered by God, Christians like Bonhoeffer have become a shining light in a world of sin, by speaking up and starting social movements that have brought injustice to an end. 

Think of some of the most successful social movements in history: Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States; Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; Gandhi and the independence movement in India; Oscar Romero in El Salvador; William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement – the list goes on.

These movements all had a spiritual base. More specifically, they had Christian faith at the centre of them. Even Gandhi, who wasn’t a Christian, based much of his non-violence on the Sermon on the Mount. He said it was the greatest teaching that has ever been given. 

Why are social movements with a strong Christian foundation so successful? For a start, they go beyond just protesting. They offer an alternative, one that puts human dignity at the forefront. It is the kingdom of God alternative.

Working for the kingdom of God involves transformation of every part of human existence. This includes of course the human heart which Jeremiah describes as deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).

History shows that the early Christians brought about major changes in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries after Christ. Social historian Rodney Stark explains that the explosive growth of the Christian movement was caused primarily by their acts of service and unconditional love to the outcast people of their day. 

Acts 2 and 4 describe how the new Christian community lived out their lives, and the impact they had on those around them.

"The impact of the early Christians was such that by the time Constantine became the emperor in the 4th century, half the population of the Roman Empire was Christian."

They were a beacon of love and hope in the midst of what was a dark and miserable existence for thousands of people.  At a time when women and girls were second-class citizens, the Christians showed them their true dignity as equals. As outcasts such as lepers were left to die, the Christians took them in and cared for them. 

The impact of the early Christians was such that by the time Constantine became the emperor in the 4th century, half the population of the Roman Empire was Christian.

In a world marred by sin, these faithful followers of Jesus saw the outworking of their faith as the solution to the problems of the world. They gave their lives to help bring in the kingdom that Jesus began. Their faith was inseparably intertwined with their actions. 

Today, Christians are still called to be a beacon of hope for those facing injustice.

Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer all those years ago, let’s speak out fearlessly against injustice and shine the light of Christ’s goodness into a world of darkness.

This article was an excerpt from Bending Towards Justice: How Jesus is more relevant than ever in the 21st Century.