When we see the traditional order we value in ruins, we rush to rebuild. When we see a breach in the wall of morality, our instinct is to buckle down to get it repaired. This is the impulse behind much of the activism of the so-called religious right over the past several decades, mostly in the United States but also here in Europe, judging by the growing number of expressly Christian political parties vying for the votes of committed Christians. This seems a natural and straight-forward approach.
But Isaiah hints at a curiously counterintuitive response. He hopes that Israel’s walls will be repaired — both the literal walls of Jerusalem and the ancient landmarks of Israel’s social life. Isaiah’s plan for rebuilding is indirect:
If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. … And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:9b-12) (
Soup kitchens, food banks, homeless shelters, fair trade shops, anti-trafficking initiatives, orphanages here in Austria and in other countries like Moldova or Bosnia, refugee care, and many other ministries of justice and mercy are not only safety nets for the disadvantaged in our society.
Mercy ministry closes gaps in the wall, and repairs the city, makes it habitable once again. The Jews have coined the term “tikkun olam” for this — “repairing/healing/fixing the world” — but we must not leave this task to Jews and secular philanthropists, or see them merely as an occasion for evangelism, as many Evangelicals do. As an expression of God’s mercy, love, and good will towards His creation this type of ministry is very properly our task as “ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Cor 5:20).
For this reason I, as an Evangelical Christian in a Baptist church, support ministries such as Herzwerk, GaIN, OM, but also World Vision, Licht für die Welt, Diakonie and Caritas — some financially, some by helping them in practical ways, all in prayer.
And that is why we must not abandon such ministries too quickly, when they don’t seem to bear fruit in the form of conversions or church growth; that is why we must carry them on whereever they are needed, not just where we can expect “missionary success stories.” Jesus said, “The poor you have always with you” (Mt 26:11, Mk 15:7, Jn 12:8), and the purpose of such ministries of justice and mercy is to demonstrate the love and care of God to these poor. This is a task which will always be ours as long as we live on this earth.
(This blog post is an adaptation and expansion of a short piece by Peter J. Leithart entitled “Hidden Repairs” in the February 2014 edition of Touchstone Magazine. The article is not available online. Alterations authorized by Dr. Leithart.))