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Justice and Suffering in Worship Centered on God

Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, explains why confessing that Jesus is Lord applies to the economy and earth. As the Accra Confession affirms, God calls for just relationships with all creation--so our worship should reflect that faith stance. A feature story exploring Justice and Suffering in Worship centered on God.

Economic and environmental changes are hitting closer to home. Perhaps you feel numb to statistics that more than 800 million people go to bed hungry and 50,000 people die every day from poverty-related causes. Then your son gets laid off. Or your cousin loses her home because she got her mortgage from a predatory lender.

You see how much Canada’s Athabasca Glacier or mid-Atlantic U.S. beaches have shrunk—and wonder whether there’s a connection between your diet or energy use and climate changes that force entire communities to move.

“What is the Christian message for people in times like this?” Maybe you’ve asked that. Setri Nyomi certainly has. He’s the general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which links more than 75 million Christians in 107 countries.

“With the economic meltdown and credit crunch, I am hearing more people in Europe and North America ask, ‘What would God have us do? We see what climate change and the economy are doing to people in our own community and globally,’ ” he says.

Many Christian communities are reexamining what it means to confess that Christ is Lord of all. These biblical encounters often lead congregations to include suffering and justice in worship.

“Here I stand”

“Right from the beginning of the church, people said, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ That’s a confession and has implications on how I live my life,” Nyomi says. Polycarp and other early martyrs didn’t divide faith from life. They understood that saying “Jesus is Lord” meant rejecting emperor worship. They chose to die rather than say “Caesar is Lord.”

Nyomi reels off key moments in history when “communities of Christians came to a point of saying, “With my faith, here I stand. I can do no other.” In the 16th century, the Reformers spoke out against church teachings they saw as inconsistent with the biblical witness.

“During Nazism in Germany, when humans were thought of as less than because of their race and Jews were targeted, the Christian church had to indicate very clearly where they stood,” Nyomi says. The result was the Theological Declaration of Barmen. In South Africa, the Belhar Confession spoke out against racial segregation. Apartheid ended six years later.

In 2004, Reformed Christians from around the world visited Ghana’s Elmina Slave Castle during the 24th WARC General Council. Many were shocked to learn that the fortified castle had included a church. For centuries, wealthy Portuguese Catholics and Dutch, British, and American Protestants had attended worship directly above a dungeon packed with women bound for slavery or rape.

Experiencing that graphic faith-life disconnect motivated WARC delegates to speak out for justice “in our world so loved by God.”

No longer dividing faith and life

WARC’s 2004 Accra Confession, “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth,” asks Christians to acknowledge that we “live in a scandalous world that denies God’s call to life for all.”

Among other things, the confession states, “We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation (Gen 9.8-12). God has brought into being an earth community based on the vision of justice and peace. The covenant is a gift of grace that is not for sale in the marketplace (Is 55.1). It is an economy of grace for the household of all of creation.”

The Accra Confession rejects “any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation, and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all. We reject any teaching which justifies those who support, or fail to resist, such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

It ends with these words: “Now we proclaim with passion that we will commit ourselves, our time, and our energy to changing, renewing, and restoring the economy and the earth, choosing life, so that we and our descendants might live (Deuteronomy 30:19).”

Confessing Christian communities

In a 2007 address to Presbyterians in Belfast, Nyomi spoke about how remaining silent about economic and ecologic injustice tarnishes Christian witness. He said that limiting God’s sovereignty to a narrow spiritual realm is false doctrine.

You’ve seen for yourself how many (and conflicting) economic and environmental solutions are being proposed. The global denominations represented in WARC and the Accra Confession have diverse views on these complex issues. They agreed, however, that justice and unity belong together.

Nyomi offers tips for framing discussions on how Christians can live as one body, yet without glossing over injustice. He suggests using “the term ‘confessing Christian community,’ not ‘confessing Christian.’ Thinking only in individual terms can create problems and makes it easier to hate ‘those kinds’ of people.”

He avoids splitting justice issues along north-south lines. “The global economy’s oppression is not limited to a geographic area. I’ve seen the ‘global south’ in Chicago, New York, and London. People all over are saying, ‘It can’t be right for the world economy to consign many people to poverty, suffering, and death while a few are able to benefit from those economic arrangements.

“I encourage people of different opinions to do Bible studies together and be open to the Spirit’s leading in those studies.

“Visit Christians from other parts of the world—or other subcultures in your area—not for the sake of bringing charity or help but to have real encounters. Visit together. See how they live. Learn the things they come up against simply because of how the economy is arranged. Ask how they address those things on the basis of their faith.

“We are confessing Christian communities together. Seeing how things affect my sister and brother ought to affect how I live out my faith in my own community from now on,” Nyomi says.

Why and How to Include Suffering in Worship

What does the gospel offer—now, in this life—to people in areas overwhelmed by suffering and death? Setri Nyomi thinks about that a lot. He travels the world as general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which links more than 75 million Christians in 107 countries.

Nyomi had to preach in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. “There were still bodies lying in the streets,” he recalls. He worshiped with Christians in Iraq in 2003, just before the “shock and awe” began. He’s seen firsthand the effects of HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, war, illegal immigration, and hunger.

“Do people in these circumstances even worship God? Yes! And their worship may be even more vibrant than those not acquainted with such magnitude of suffering,” Nyomi said during a 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship workshop on worship, suffering, and justice.

He has discovered that suffering is sometimes the catalyst that leads people to deeper worship and a larger vision of the gospel.

Everyone suffers

“Ministering in suffering situations is at the core of our Christian calling. As God’s people gather for worship, we come with many burdens. In any worship service someone is dealing with pain,” Nyomi says.

Worshipers struggling with changes they did not expect—from lost relationships, health, or jobs to natural disasters and war—need to know who God is and what God’s message is amid pain and injustice.

“To talk about suffering in worship should not be out of the ordinary,” Nyomi says.

He suggests calling people to worship with a greeting that acknowledges their needs. This could be as simple as “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” or “God has called us from many places and troubles, and God promises, ‘I am the Lord, who heals you.’ ”

Prayers, Bible readings, hymns, and sermons can reinforce “the truth proclaimed in the Bible, that the Word became flesh. The incarnation marks a difference between Christianity and other faiths. God coming to us is a sign that God goes global,” Nyomi likes to say.

“I often meet Christians who had thought, in the past, that our faith applied to a small part of life calledspiritual. But look at Romans 12:1-2. What it calls ‘spiritual worship’ is giving our whole bodies, our whole lifestyles, to God,” he adds.

Worship that acknowledges the mess we’re in, while affirming that Christ journeys with us and is making all things new, is worship that can explode into jubilation.

“The church has been living and active in places we find difficult to believe, like Palestine, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Turkey has had a continuous Christian presence for about 1700 years and Russia for more than a thousand years.

“For some cultures, adoration in prayer and song is more contemplative. In others, worship has an hour of singing, dancing, and what you might call shouting. It’s praise as an act of defiance against the power of evil and suffering. Faith tells us that evil does not have the last word. God does. And we’ll praise him no matter what,” Nyomi explains.

The biblical model

The Bible, especially the Psalms, gives us words to bring our entire lives to God, everything from praise and adoration to anger and desolation. From Genesis to Revelation, God notices and responds to suffering.

“Justice is at the heart of Christian living. It’s not just peripheral,” Nyomi says.

Jesus echoes the prophets in rebuking religious leaders who tithe their cooking spices but “have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Nyomi sees 1 Corinthians 11:17-24 as especially relevant to worshipers who seem to have no perception of or compassion for needs of fellow members in Christ’s body. Conspicuous divisions between “those who have and those who do not have makes nonsense of the agape meal and the Lord’s Supper,” he says.

“We can go to the Word of God in worship and see that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ And beyond all the rituals and everything we do on Sunday, God requires of us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” he explains.

Nyomi says that truly hearing God’s call in worship has many results. The suffering receive comfort and hope. The comfortable receive a nudge or gain clarity to discern how they benefit from others’ suffering. All are called to offer charity and take action against the root causes of suffering and injustice.

From gathering to sending

“Many who bear the name Christian don’t allow God to make a difference in their lives, to come in and walk with them daily. Some confine God’s presence to their own corner of the world, God and me right here. Or they see the USA as the only country that has God,” Nyomi says.

He challenges North American Christians to pray for at least one other country every day. He also suggests that worship prayers address issues ignored by the news. “How is it that the world cannot find a fraction of the $13 billion needed to feed the rising number of the world’s poorest peoplefor a year, yet hundreds of billions are available to shore up financial industries?” he asks.

Nyomi warns, though, that sincerely praying in worship for justice can be dangerous. “In prayer, I put myself in a vulnerable position. As God said to Ezekiel, ‘You go and prophesy.’ If you are not open to where and how God may call you, please don’t pray. Prayer is not simply giving God a shopping list and telling God, ‘You do it.’ ”

Learn More

Listen to Setri Nyomi’s 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship workshop on worship, suffering, and justice.

Sing these versified forms of the Accra Confession to common Scottish, Asian, or Zimbabwean tunes. Get the back story on the Accra Confession. Living out that faith stance requires congregational spiritual renewal.

Find justice-related Bible studies and worship resources at Christian Aid (UK), Creation Care, and Micah Challenge (international). Check out Catholic, Christian Reformed, Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA), Reformed (RCA), and Uniting Church (Australia) perspectives.

John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 2:15 calls Christians to care for the earth. Theologian N.T. Wright explains the biblical relationship between God and Caesar—“Christ, church, crown, and state.” In his “Resisting the Intolerable” address, Argentine Roberto Jordan links economic realities and the Accra Confession with parishioners’ daily struggles. Listen to three lectures by South African theologian Dirkie Smit on loving justice in the Reformed tradition.

Enter your zip code to discover whether your home or business is on a power grid connected to Appalachian mountaintop removal. Then learn aboutcommunities on the other side of your light switch. Consider visiting Christians in areas being destroyed by coal mining.

Brush up on contemporary confessions and what it means to be a confessional church. Enter a justice song contest. Sample Shane Claiborne’s 50 ways to love your neighbor. Download a free copy of Food Force. This educational video game about ending hunger is especially fun to play with kids ages 8 to 13. Calculate your congregation’s carbon footprint. Get creation care ideasfrom other congregations.

Open your heart to learn more about one or two people, whether they are war orphans, thirsty for clean water, refugees, Palestinian Christians, or migrants without documentation. Then pray for the Spirit to show you the next step. Singer Holly Near inspires Methodist lay leader Amory Peck to do one thing beautifully, to remember each of us has a part (not the whole responsibility) to “be one in divine love for the world.”

The Presbyterian Church of Ireland’s Global Concerns Committee 2008 lifestyle report rejects the idea that focusing on economic justice and environmental degradation means ignoring Christ’s call to preach the gospel. Nor does caring for God’s entire creation mean giving in to “New Age philosophy…nature worship” or “the bandwagon of current political thought.” The global concerns report states, “Jesus Christ is either Lord of all or not Lord at all.”

The Alban Institute offers advice on dealing with difference while encouraging healthy conversations. Read Reformed Worship stories on the 2004 WARC meeting in Accra, hunger, justice, poverty, and urban renewal.

Browse related stories on Abraham Kuyper, economic woes and worship in Argentinahealing in worshipministering to soldiers, and Reformed worship worldwide.

Start a Discussion

Talk about what Christ’s lordship means for our economy and earth:

  • What do you think about the claim that, if Jesus is Lord of all, then taking action against economic and environmental injustice is part of what it means to follow Christ?
  • Setri Nyomi says that to talk about suffering in worship should not be out of the ordinary. Which kinds of suffering get mentioned (or neglected) in your services?
  • What are the clearest connections between your worship services and how worshipers see themselves as sent out to live in relationship to the economy, the earth, and people who are poor? How might you clarify these connections?
  • Where do issues of justice and unity intersect (or break down) in your congregation, region, or denomination? Which us-them divide would you most like your church to bridge and what first steps might you take to address this in worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about living as members of one body with Christians who live in situations very different from yours?

  • Did you create a process and set of questions that really helped you learn with and from people affected by economic or climate changes that they did not cause? How did these insights change the way you worship and live out your faith?
  • Which resources—Bible studies, music, visuals, drama, video, online, whatever—have you found especially helpful in either framing large issues of the justice God seeks or connecting biblical and theological materials with simple, concrete, group actions?