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Going Upstream: Compassion, Mercy, and Justice

Addressing poverty holistically

By Debbie Blue
September 2011

Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord (Isaiah 1:16-18).

From its inception in 1885, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) sought to be a denomination founded on the mission of Christ to live out a holistic Gospel. At its first annual meeting, the gathered delegates voted to establish the Home of Mercy to serve the sick, the orphaned, and the elderly.

Our former ECC president likened efforts of compassion and mercy to saving those drowning in the river. He challenged the church to go “upstream” to find out why people end up in the “downstream” condition. In other words, what are the systemic problems creating these conditions? How must we advocate to make things right? We are called to help hurting people and stop what hurts people.

I responded to God’s call in 2007 to give leadership to our newly created department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice for the ECC. Ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice were a part of our DNA. However, we also discovered that we weren’t as clear today as we were in the past on how we understood justice. Clearly the demographics and issues of our day are radically different from those of 1885, particularly our political environment. Many voices today are actively defining “social justice.” Yet, there is only one “voice” that remains consistent and faithful in this conversation—the voice of Jesus the Christ calling us “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free …” (Luke 4:18).

This requires more than a “downstream” response. We need a biblical and theological understanding of justice from God’s word. The ECC has undertaken a multiple-year communal discernment to understand how we are also called to be “upstream” people. We better understand that following Jesus’ command in Matthew 25—serving the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner—must be coupled with Micah 6:8. In response to the question, “What does the Lord require?” we must “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Advocacy is a major component of “doing justice,” work that is powerfully carried out through Bread for the World. How do we speak for those who have no voice and make visible those the world doesn’t see? How do we empower those who have been marginalized and have no power? This is the call of Jesus and must be our call as well.

We are recognizing that, as Christians, we must address the sufferings of our brothers and sisters holistically. We must not only go downstream by responding to urgent needs. We must go upstream and address why people are in need in the first place.

Debbie Blue is the executive minister of the Compassion, Mercy and Justice Department of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

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