In chapter 11 of Relentless Love I compare and contrast how the Bible is used within two approaches to social justice in Ireland – that of Trócaire and of Tearfund Ireland. Trócaire (established 1973) is the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Tearfund Ireland was launched in 2008 and is a sister organisation of Tearfund UK, a global relief and development agency operating within an evangelical ethos.
The chapter was originally published in Anderson and Kearney Ireland and the Reception of the Bible (2018). The broad theme was the Bible and social justice in Ireland. As I was trying to figure out what angle to take I knew it needed to engage with Catholic thinking and practice and not just the ‘minority report’ of Protestant/evangelical thinking and action on social justice. And so a comparative analysis of how the main relief agencies of those two communities approached social justice seemed a good way in to the subject.
In terms of budget Trócaire dwarfs Tearfund Ireland. It takes in c. €30 million each year in donations alone during its annual Lenten appeal. But my interest was more in the two organisations theology and practice of social justice.
On the surface, they have much in common: Both:
- are professional and experienced faith-based development organisation which depends to a significant degree on support from local churches across Ireland,
- prioritise aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world
- offer resources and training for churches in Ireland to engage with issues of social justice.
- recognise that the causes of poverty are complex and that bringing justice involves both aid to relieve suffering and action to address the root causes of injustice.
- place significant emphasis on sustainability and empowerment at a local level.
- root their call to action in God’s love for all people and the God-given worth of each individual
But under the surface some significant differences emerge. Below is a summary of the argument.
From its beginning Trócaire was focused on global economic justice – ‘no nation has a right to build its own prosperity on the misery of others.’ What emerged in the analysis is a tension running through Trócaire’s work between its identity as a Catholic relief organisation set up by the Irish Bishops and informed by Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and its largely secular approach to establishing justice through human rights legislation within a firmly ‘this worldly’ political framework.
To illustrate: the organisation’s six core themes (sustainable livelihoods; human rights; gender equality; HIV; climate change; emergency relief) are framed within a general theme of justice rather than being developed around specific biblical themes.
So there is little talk in Trócaire’s many publications, as far as I found, of themes such as the kingdom of God; future hope; the New Testament’s eschatological structure for Christian ethics; themes of sin; forgiveness, the uniqueness of Christ; new life in the Spirit; the church as the people of God and so on.
The three elements of CST that Trócaire highlight are dignity (all people are created in God’s image and are therefore due respect); option for the poor (putting the poor and vulnerable first); and the common good (everyone is included with a right and responsibility to promote the community’s good and benefit from it). These are applied in ways to support (good and valuable) development objectives of helping practically those in need.
The same can be said in general for how the Bible is used. Verses used include classic “justice” texts such as Isa 58:6, 10 (fasting as loosing the bonds of injustice), Mic 6:8 (do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God), Prov 31:8-9 (speak out for those who cannot), Luke 4:18-19 (good news to the poor), and Luke 10:25-37 (parable of the Good Samaritan). These texts are applied within a broad creational framework to support general rights-based teaching on the value of all human life which compels those with resources to help those without.
The overall impression is of a highly professional aid organisation, but one in which its Christian identity is largely in the background. The approach is primarily political and legal and sits comfortably within the values and goals of secular aid agencies. On the ground, Trócaire is a non-missionary organisation, its primary focus is a rights-based approach to global development.
Tearfund’s theology of integral mission
The critical difference between the approaches of the two organisations, in my view, is Tearfund’s commitment to integral mission. I’m not commenting here on the merits of either – just observing that it is Tearfund’s explicit attempt to integrate mission and social justice that distingushes it from Trócaire.
Within integral mission, mission is framed within the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The church exists ‘between the times’ of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, Pentecost and the consummation of all things when Christ returns.
This means that the call of the church is to declare the good news (gospel) of forgiveness of sins but also new life under his lordship in the power of the Spirit for all aspects of life.
This leads to the most significant different between the two organisations. Integral mission has the church “as a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world” (Dewi Hughes) at the centre of Christian mission. Hughes argues that
“[t]he church is not the means by which Tearfund can deliver ‘development’ to the poor but the most convincing evidence that we now have of the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem his creation.” While churches are frequently broken and imperfect, it is Tearfund’s “privilege to be continually looking for such churches within the worldwide evangelical community that we may encourage them in their integral mission” since “showing mercy and acting on behalf of the poor belongs to the essence of the church. . . . a church that does not care for its poor is not a true church. (Dewi Hughes, ‘Theology of Integral Mission”)
And so an integral vision for mission is to knit together Christian mission, development and the local church into a coherent rationale for praxis. This means that integral mission embraces practical needs being met, increasing participation and empowerment of the poor, advocacy to challenge structural injustice, personal understanding of individuals as made in the image of God, local church engagement in service to the poor alongside worship and witness.
This sits very much within the Micah Network’s Declaration on Integral Mission
If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.From the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission: http://www.micahnetwork.org/integral-mission.
And this issues in a different perspective on human rights and the goal of a Christian relief agency. Tearfund say human rights legislation needs to be viewed through a Christian lens. It may be the calling of Christians to accept injustice and violation of their rights, but simultaneously be committed to seeking justice for other people’s rights. A motivation of love rather than law.
First, the comparison between Trócaire and Tearfund revealed some fascinating distinctives in their theology and praxis. Perhaps this is best summarised in Trócaire having more of a ‘top-down’ rights-based approach to development and Tearfund having more of a ‘bottom-up’ emphasis of change at a local level in partnership with local communities of Christians.
Second, more broadly, given the negative legacy of so much of ‘Catholic Ireland’, the work of Trócaire, and many other Catholic organisations committed to serving the poor, is a reminder of a ‘thread of grace’ woven into the fabric of Christianity to serve those in need.
Third, the motive for engaging in social justice is crucial. Within Ireland, (some) Protestant relief work during the Famine fatally tainted an astonishing range of aid by multiple organisation. Within Catholicism, the enormous contribution of the Church to social action in Ireland has tended to be lost today. Not only because of scandals, but because it tended to be pragmatic – as a means to an end (the dissemination of the Catholic faith) rather than out of a ‘no strings attached’ love or desire to reform embedded injustices in Irish society. All churches today – of whatever hue – need to love and care for people as people rather than ‘care for the poor’ becoming, however subtly, a means to an end, whether church growth, praise from others or as a means of attracting funding.
Fourth, in an era of unrestrained capitalism that is wrecking havoc on the world’s ecosystems and harming the poor most of all, the call for Christians is to reflect the character of God. He is a God of the poor in whom there is no partiality. His church is called to loving action in his name.