One of the aspects of the job of the deacon is defined as ‘taking the church to the world, and the world to the church’. This means we are to not only care for the needs of our congregations, but also take the concerns of the church to the wider world – in other words, ‘speak truth to power’.
At the recent meeting of the Association of Episcopal Deacons (AED) Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was our keynote speaker. Just prior to his speech, he heard a reference to “AED” and had an epiphany. AED in the medical world refers to “Automatic External Defibrillator’ – an application of electricity which stops the heart’s arrhythmia, allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm. He suddenly made the connection that deacons “apply electricity of the Holy Spirit” to the world. And he is right! Bishop Curry went on to say that “we need a revival”, and he couldn’t think of “a better group of people more appropriately placed than deacons”. He ‘encouraged’ deacons to begin applying electricity to righting the wrongs in the world at the national and local level.
In the Episcopal Church a deacon exercises “a special ministry of servanthood”, serving all people and especially those in need. Deacons often work directly in ministry to the marginalized inside and outside the church: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. Deacons have specific liturgical responsibilities in the worship that are intended to reflect their role as servants of Christ. These duties include taking the Good News of God’s love to the world (proclaiming the Gospel), bringing the concerns of the world into the church (working with others on the prayers of the people), modeling servanthood (preparing the table) and sending the people of God out to serve the world (proclaiming the dismissal). Ideally, each of these liturgical duties is matched by real world and congregational ministries.
Deacons are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world – in other words, work for social justice.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary social justice is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society”. Aristotle, in The Politics, said ‘justice’ ensured that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles and received what was their due from society. Joseph Joubert, a French moralist and essayist, said “Justice is truth in action”.
Who could be against justice? If there’s one thing that the laws and prophets – especially Jesus –agreed on, it is ‘justice for all’, regardless of background or social status. This is one of the main things Jesus did in the world: identify with the powerless, take up their cause.
And who better to take up the cause of social justice than deacons?
Social justice might mean personally taking time to meet the needs of the handicapped, the elderly or the hungry in our neighborhoods. Or it could mean the establishment of new non-profits to serve the interests of these people. It could also mean a group of families from the more prosperous side of town adopting the public school in a poor community and making generous donations of money and pro bono work in order to improve the quality of education there.
When we try to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and calls to justice are inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as blessed creations of God. ‘Doing justice’ includes not only the righting of wrongs, but practicing generosity and interest in social concerns, especially toward the poor and vulnerable.
And who better to ‘do justice’ and apply the electricity of the Holy Spirit than deacons?
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus angrily challenges the religious authorities, mocking them for their self-aggrandizing, self-promoting ways. He alienates the elite by spending time with and showing favor to the poor and marginalized; he talks to women, eats without regard for the dietary rules, he heals those considered unclean and returns them to wholeness. He questions current laws and challenges the status quo. And as a result, he becomes the target of those in authority. Ultimately, those authorities kill him.
Nevertheless, Jesus showed us that there are times when we must stand up and express ‘truth to power’ in constructive, meaningful, unyielding ways despite the possible consequences. Consider how often, and in how many ways, Jesus expressed anger in the Gospels. He was clear and direct, bringing about justice or revealing malice or ignorance. He made no personal attacks, but sought to uncover the evil behind the actions. There is no record of Jesus being angered by a personal offense no matter how wrong, unjust, or violent it may be. He lived and taught that the one who is persecuting us is also created in the image of God and loved by God, and in that reality, we can love our enemy.
And who better to ‘speak truth to power’ than deacons?
Just as God is righteously angered over oppression and injustice, so should we be. Learning how to balance these teachings and actions is a lifelong process for those who choose to follow his ways. The Good Samaritan wasn’t good because of his origins or because he was traveling. Instead, he looked around him, around where he lived and worked and traveled, saw a human in need, and got involved. He gave up time, money, and most likely status and respect in doing so. As he went about his day, he loved someone and righted an injustice.
Deacons are, destined by nature of their calling and ordination vows, to right injustice as well as care for those who are needy.
There are many ways we can be involved in helping set things right. We can advocate for stricter, common-sense gun laws, or work toward offering much-needed services for those suffering with mental illness; we can encourage our governments to shelter the homeless; we can feed those in poverty, visit those in prison, clothe children in need, serve those with special needs; we can work with youth who need an adult mentor. The needs are endless, the injustices everywhere.
This is the time for each of us to ask ourselves: How can our sense of outrage at injustice be channeled into loving action? We, as members of the Association for Episcopal Deacons have an obligation – no, a mandate – to work for social justice, just as Jesus did. We must be angry at instances of injustice, speaking truth in love to our friends, our neighbors, our legislators, our nation and the world.
When we witness wrong done to others, particularly those who do not have the strength or means to defend themselves, then as deacons we need to express the anger of love — the anger that gives us boldness and outspokenness to defend what is right and just.
Jesus’ example and teachings reveal to us that anger, channeled and directed in love, can redirect our anger into positive acts. We open ourselves to the guidance of the spirit of the Holy Spirit to determine how best to express our moral anger, and in all matters, how to speak and act in love.
This kind of direct action is risky because it involves other people, who are also made in the image of God. People about whom Jesus said,
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:45)
The Jesus who said,
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
We need to remember what Micah 6:8 says:
what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
We, as deacons, are called to be a witness to the world of God’s love and Jesus’ teachings.
Are you ready to be the electricity to return the world to its normal rhythm?
Are you ready to take those steps needed to carry out the teachings of Jesus?
Are you ready to:
‘strive to do justice,
love kindness and
walk humbly with God’?
Rev deniray mueller, Legislative Liaison, Diocese of Southern Ohio