As I began to try to understand my call to ministry, this driving purpose that propels me forward but asks me to try to bring about change without doing harm, I look towards theology. Perhaps others start with theology and head in the direction of ministry. Either way, we wind up in the midst of the theology of ministry, where we must ask ourselves how we can understand what that ministry should look like. Through gaining an understanding of God’s nature and Laws, we begin to understand how our ministry should be shaped. This is the premise of theology of ministry. We cannot do that that without context though; people require comparison to something they already understand or a demonstration to really begin to grasp theology of ministry because otherwise it is incomprehensible. Jesus shows us these two things clearly in his ministry. We therefore must take a situation or circumstance and, using our understanding of God through the Scripture and other historical writings and teachings, discern how God is present, what aspects we can come to know God in this situation, and what it tells us about what we should do.
Let us look, for example, at slavery. Now we all know that there are various verses in the Bible that offering a variety of insights on slavery at the times those book were written. This is too broad. If we instead narrow down to slavery that is present in the US up until the end of the Civil War we begin to see a very different context. These slaves were stolen or traded from villages who endured inhumane conditions on ships where, if they survived, they were treated as animals and auctioned off. Most were not allowed to marry and any children they had were property of their owners. They could be beaten, raped, tortured, killed and there were basically no repercussions to the “owners.” They could be separated from one another at any moment never to see each other again. These were a people abused and oppressed.
When we try to discover where God is present biblically within the context of these abused and oppressed slaves, we see it is with the oppressed and not with the oppressor. Psalm 82:3-4 tells us, “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” God called the Christian people in power to service, gave them direction on how to treat the slaves who matched in every adjective this description. Yet it took 10 million lives crossing an ocean as captives and four hundred years to pass before freedom would be gained. In Deuteronomy 10:18 we are told, “”He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” We see in 1 Samuel 2:8 the promise that Christians know, and that the Christian slaves saw in the resurrection of Jesus: “He raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the ash heap To make them sit with nobles, And inherit a seat of honor; For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, And He set the world on them.”
Now that we understand both the historical and biblical context (in compact form), we can discern that from this context, God is one for justice of all who are not treated as a person of free will: orphan, widow, weak, fatherless, afflicted, destitute, needy; all to be delivered out of the hands of the wicked. These individuals aren’t in this state because of their choosing but because of the oppression they suffer and so we know that God also stands against oppression. Lastly, we learn that there will be a resurrection for all these individuals, a place of honor. God will bring reconciliation through resurrection. We also know that Jesus told us that as he does, we are also to do.
In summary, we walk away from this contextual theological analysis of slavery understanding God and our call as Christians in three critical ways. First, God seeks justice for those who are at a disadvantage and we should do the same. Second, God takes side against oppressors and with the oppressed and we must try to make sure that when we act, we always act in solidarity with the oppressed and not with those that oppress. Lastly, just as God promises to do, we have the ability and call right now to treat people with honor, dismantle unjust power structures and bring reconciliation into the lives of our fellow human beings through compassionately loving them.