Week 1: Introduction
This year for Lent instead of giving up something, I want to take on something. For 7 weeks I would like to offer thoughts along the lines of what the Bible has to say about justice. How exciting, you say? Well, if you have the patience to bear with me, it might surprise you.
When we hear the word “justice” most people probably tend to think first of criminal justice. But the justice of the Bible is much broader than this. Biblical justice is not limited to individuals committing crimes but encompasses how society works as a whole, in fairness to all people such that all people can experience the goodness of God.
The Bible on Justice
The Bible actually has much to say about justice. A search of the NRSV Bible on “justice” finds 173 results. Considering the many laws governing social interactions that do not mention the actual word “justice”, it seems clear that the Bible is greatly concerned about a just society. Psalm 72 has a very interesting take on justice as the role of the king, to use his power to protect the poor and powerless from the privileged rich and powerful. “Endow the king with your justice, O God.” (Psalm 72:1) “The Lord works justice and righteousness for all the oppressed,” Psalm 103:6. The prophets particularly make strong appeals for a just society. One of the high points of the Old Testament is in Micah where the prophet proposes that the many religious practices of his time are not what God requires but rather “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) At the heart of the great prophet Isaiah’s message from God he said, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
Jesus on justice is sadly overlooked by many. Matthew explains Jesus’ mission as fulfilling “what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations… He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.’” (Matthew 12:17-18) Jesus got into trouble with the authorities over issues of justice. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42) Clearly Jesus was concerned about justice.
With so much in the Bible about justice, in all my many years I don’t recall hearing a single sermon about it. Why does justice seem so neglected? There are many reasons. Here are a few: 1. Human perception causes us to not see what we are not looking for. 2. We don’t look for justice in the Bible because it doesn’t seem very “religious” or “spiritual”. 3. Justice issues lead to how society operates and laws are made and how people govern themselves – things involving government and politics and supposedly out of the realm of religion. 4. If we assume that Christianity is mainly about personal salvation and getting into heaven, then these social issues are irrelevant or even a distraction. 5. Working for justice causes social tension and opposition from those satisfied with the status quo and thus inevitably stirs up controversy.
So in the remaining 6 weeks I hope to consider justice in the Bible and show how justice is very relevant to all who seek a life with God. I invite all my Facebook friends to join me in this and “take on” something extra for Lent.
Week 2: Justice in the Bible
Starting this 7 week series on Biblical justice was a hasty decision at a high point of inspiration. That inspiration soon faded and left me with a growing dread and terror, “What am I doing?!” I have read the Bible for years and accumulated thoughts and insights on Biblical justice. Now it is time to make some coherent sense of it all. So this series is not just for the benefit (hopefully) of my many Facebook friends but for me as well. I hope to make it worth the read for the next 6 weeks. OK, here we go!
One thing I learned this week is that the Hebrew word for justice is translated into several different English words, such as “righteousness”. Many times justice and righteousness are mentioned together, as in Psalm 103:6 “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed”. Searching for the Hebrew and Greek words for justice finds it used over a thousand times in the Bible. It indicates that justice is indeed a big deal in the Bible. So I want to re-tell the Old Testament story from creation to the prophets with a focus on justice.
Justice comes from the heart and character of God. It began at creation. It is a big part of God’s plan for the creation. During the creation process, God declared it “good”. And when everything was in place God called it “very good.” The goodness of creation includes everything; rocks and trees, skies and seas, humans and bees. [But please, God, why mosquitoes?] The humans were put in charge of it all to enjoy this life that God created and live in Shalom – at peace and harmony with creation and each other. But when the humans distrust the Creator and as the population grew, Shalom was broken. Humans began competing with each other. Violations of justice piled up as life became more complicated, and it seemed easier to compete and fight than find the path to the common good. Life became unjust as some groups of people dominated over others, and violence became the norm. The goodness of creation was being ruined by the humans – to the great displeasure of the Creator.
Fast forward to some slaves in Egypt. In ancient times (and modern) the gods were used by those in power to legitimize and bolster their power over others. But the Yahweh God of the Hebrews took the side of the oppressed slaves and delivered them to freedom in a great exodus. God led the freed slaves to form their own nation based on Shalom and established laws to help maintain justice in the daily struggles of living so that everyone could enjoy the goodness of life that God intended.
Fast forward to the OT prophets. They can be difficult reading because they present what seems like an angry God bent on punishment. This Creator God was upset for at least a couple reasons: 1) The people could not see the invisible God who rescued them so they made gods they could see like the neighboring nations worshipped. They didn’t trust the invisible God who rescued them from oppression and promised to provide and protect. 2) The people also forgot how God intended them to live with each other in Shalom. They allowed groups of people to fall into poverty and not experience the goodness of life. They forgot about the past when they were oppressed and God came to their rescue. Instead, they became oppressors themselves. Society became unjust and favored the rich and powerful over the poor and weak, the sick and stranger. This left some people to suffer and not experience the goodness of life. And no one cared. But Yahweh greatly cared! The prophets declared that God cares so much for the poor and needy that no amount of worship could make up for their unjust society. The prophets warned that God cannot bless their nation and protect them if they neglect God’s children on the margins of society. This is a violation of the goodness of creation and goes against the very nature of the Creator. The prophets not only cried out against injustice but they also formed a lofty vision of a just society some time in God’s future where the goodness of creation would be restored to God’s world. This became the messianic vision of hope for salvation where God delivers all people from oppression, wars cease because justice prevails, and all live for the common good with none left out. They saw God’s Shalom blanketing the earth and covering all the nations.
Summarizing: I hope it is clear that justice is a big deal in the Bible since justice comes from the goodness and character of God. Justice has to do with how life is lived so that everyone lives in the goodness that God intends. This consideration of justice makes understanding the wrath of God expressed by the prophets seem more reasonable. God is against the oppressors and consistently on the side of the oppressed and all who are left out of the goodness of life. God is not impressed by the worship of those who deny justice to others and sees it only as lip service. God offers hope to His world by offering the path to justice that leads to a good life for all people.
Week 3: Justice, Punishment & Mercy
This week covers God’s justice, punishment, and mercy and hopes to show how they are related.
When God made life, he had something specific in mind: it was to be Good. God’s intent is to bless everyone with no one left out. This goodness was built in to the world from the beginning which, to my thinking, explains why every person has a sense of justice. Justice may be difficult to define, yet even a child knows when he or she experiences injustice. Injustice goes against the original plan of God for the creation so restoring justice is the work of God to make the world right again. So what should be done when injustice occurs? Is this where punishment comes into play?
Many modern people are turned off by the Biblical portrayal of God as the Divine Punisher. But a closer reading will reveal not just an angry God bent on punishment but more of a loving parent trying to woo his lost children back to their home with him. This “home” is the place of goodness and justice for all people – Shalom. For us mortals, we mostly deliver punishment out of anger and revenge which has no redeeming value except to make the punisher feel better and results in furthering offences. Not so with God who does not punish for its own sake but to make things right, to bring about justice, to restore broken relationships, and to heal individuals and society.
Yet it may seem to us that God’s “punishments” cause more suffering. But consider this; when we get sick, we do not call it “punishment” when we are poked with needles, cut on, or nearly killed with toxic chemicals and radiation. These harsh treatments are means of healing and restoring health. The resulting pain of these measures is not punishment but is, in fact, mercy. Such is the intent of God; not to punish wrong doers but to restore his children to the life of goodness for all people. The mercy of God is not the opposite of the justice of God. Mercy is the means to achieve justice. In fact, mercy is the best way to make justice for the long term.
When injustice is committed, how can justice be restored? The human way of retaliation and revenge has been proven by millennium of human history not to cure anything but rather it just furthers the brokenness. God’s way is the way of mercy that brings together those on both sides of justice.
So what should God do with a sick society where goodness is violated and justice is denied to some? Should God not take some action to bring about the lost goodness and restore justice? In the OT when the land of milk and honey turned sour for some people who were pushed aside by the majority, God took notice and sent the prophets with warnings, threats of punishment, and appeals to return back to the way of God. Their message was that God is on the side of all who suffer from injustice and against those who cause it or could relieve the suffering but do not. This is still true for modern times. Those who would seek a life with God will be lead to espouse justice since justice is in the heart and character of God. To love this Yahweh God of the Bible puts one on the side of justice, an all-inclusive, world-encompassing justice, not just a tribal justice for one’s own people. Unless, of course, one’s god is a tribal god that permits and even encourages ill treatment of one’s enemies and others out of favor with the tribal god. The Bible seems pretty clear on this, especially in the New Testament. “How can you say you love God and hate your fellow man?” (I John 4).
Another consideration is to view punishment of oppressors from the side of the oppressed. Rescuing the oppressed will probably seem like a punishment to the oppressors but mercy to the oppressed. When broken justice gets made right again, it depends on which side of justice a person was on as to how it gets interpreted. But even to the oppressors, God desires to show mercy. The offer is always made to the offenders of justice to turn from their wicked, hurtful ways and be restored and healed into right relations again – to be made righteous. This is in stark contrast to the human way of the former oppressed to become the oppressors and thus perpetuate the cycle of injustice.
I have a theory that since God made life to work a certain way where all his children are blessed with God’s goodness, that to live some other way will not work very well and lead to all kinds of discord, injustice, and violations of the common good – poverty, suffering, wars. These natural consequences are the “punishments” for trying to live outside of God’s good way.
Week 4: Jesus and Justice
I think it safe to say that Christians universally agree that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. There is a long list of OT verses that make this connection. Putting them all together is like connecting the dots to arrive at a complete picture of Jesus as the Messiah. In addition to the vision of a coming Messiah, there are many more OT references as to what is the role of this Messiah and what the world will be like after his arrival. These provide many more “dots” for us to make an even clearer picture of the work of Jesus, the Messiah.
There are so many references to the visionary world after the Messiah I can only summarize here. They are not hard to find. Search for the phrase “in that day” or “day of the Lord” then read about the new world. This new world will be unlike the former world, as it will restore the goodness that God intended at creation that is ruined by mankind’s sin, greed, mistrust, and unfaithfulness to the Creator. God will be known and honored by everyone.
The difference this makes is seen in society as a whole. It is a society of justice and righteousness. In practical terms this means an end to the normal course of domination of one group over others. Governments will use their powers to protect the poor and weak from the rich and powerful. This spells the end of oppression. This is deliverance and salvation for those who have been oppressed, persecuted, or left out of full participation in God’s good life. This is the world that God had in mind at creation. But to the wealthy and powerful it seems like a disaster of astronomical proportions. The poor, the weak, the sick, the disadvantaged, and all people normally pushed to the margins of society are now included instead of shunned, exploited, abused, etc. The promised Messiah is to bring all this about “in that day.” It is a new order of justice and goodness for all people.
If this is true, and Jesus is that Messiah, then it should be expected that his actions would be along these lines; this would define Jesus’ mission statement. And, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus does. See how Jesus defines his mission early in his ministry in Luke 4:14-21 by quoting one of the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah 61:1,2:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn…”.
He told his audience in Nazareth: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) Have we really comprehended this audacious statement?
Another big clue in connecting the messiah dots to Jesus is when John the Baptist questions if Jesus is “the one to come.” Note how Jesus responds in Matthew 11:4-5: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Jesus was describing the work of the expected messiah as confirmation to John that was he was the one. Why didn’t Jesus say that sinners are being converted, and souls saved from hell? Another detail in this encounter between Jesus and John B. is Jesus’ reference to Elijah, 11:14. This is a direct connection of Jesus to the OT prophecies that the “day of the Lord” has come.
And again, near the end of Jesus’ ministry he speaks of the final judgement of God on mankind in Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. The criteria for those who were judged favorably is based on who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick; who helped the needy and who didn’t. This is the work of the Messiah and all those who would enter into the kingdom of God. This is in line with the God of the Old Testament who consistently takes up the cause of the poor and oppressed. Jesus is defining the mission for all who would follow him.
Reading the gospels finds Jesus doing the very things in his mission statement. These are the very activities of the Messiah prophesied in the OT. These are the activities he expects of his followers and on which God will judge his followers. And reading the book of The Acts of the Apostles finds the first disciples creating a new society that included all classes of people, the poor, the rich, the outcasts, outsiders and sinners, and even women. They lifted up the poor and God’s spirit lead them to include non-Jews – everyone was to be a part of this kingdom of God that Jesus declared; just like the prophets foretold. Their prayer was for this kingdom to come on earth, as in heaven. And when this new society discriminated against the poor in favor of the rich, the apostle James called it out of bounds (James 2:1-12). This is the time of the prophets vision; the promised “day of the Lord”.
What is the main aim of Christianity? Is it not to continue the mission and work of Jesus? This mission is not just a spiritual movement to get people saved and thus spared from God’s eternal punishment for sinners in the afterlife. It is primarily a mission of justice and mercy. It is taking up the cause of the poor and needy, the sick, the stranger, and all who are left out of the goodness of life that God intends for everyone. It is a mission of spreading the kingdom of God on earth by opening the doors to invite all people into a life with God.
Summary: There are a lot of “dots” in the Bible to be connected to make the complete picture of Jesus. Modern popular Christianity that I know about is missing the “dots” that connect Jesus with God’s desire for justice in society. Instead, it is focused on a spiritual Jesus concerned mostly about getting souls safely to heaven. This Jesus is “safely” kept from challenging society’s injustices or dealing with contentious social issues. But this picture of Jesus is incomplete. The Jesus I find in the Bible reaches out to the poor, the needy, the forgotten, the sinners, and the outsiders in order to include all in the kingdom of God. This Jesus warns about the dangers of riches and those who neglect the needy. This compassionate Jesus stands against discrimination, persecution, oppression, and all forms of domination of others.
Week 5: If Jesus is for justice, so what?
If Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, as in last week’s message, then the work of Jesus is defined by the mission of this Messiah. The aim of this work would be to bring about a new world order that restores the goodness of creation to all people so that peace would blanket the earth as all people live not just for themselves but for the common good. Sadly, Jesus is not seen in this light by many Christians that I know of. Yet I am becoming more convinced as I study the Bible that this is a more complete view of Jesus than the “conventional wisdom” prevailing in the Christianity that I know.
I did a Google search to find the biggest problems facing humanity. Try it yourself, and you will find thousands of hits. Here are some of the common top items:
1. environmental issues
A. adequate clean water in both undeveloped and developed countries
B. sustainability of the planet for future generations, including climate change, depletion of natural resources, and massive population growth
2. economic issues:
A. severe income disparity that leaves almost a billion people barely surviving
B. fragile economies in massive debt
3. massive health care shortages leading to widespread disease and death that could be easily cured
4. food shortages due to drought, wars, lack of good agricultural methods
5. massive lack of education
6. widespread discrimination against women
7. political instability and wars
8. major religious factions at odds turning to violence
9. sadly, the list could go on…
I see these as issues of justice. They indicate that life is not so good for millions of people. This is not what God had in mind when he called his creation “Good.” How these issues are treated will determine a great deal of the future of the humans on the planet. They are very complex but we must still ask, “What is the right thing to do?” What should be the Christian response to these huge issues? Would Jesus the Messiah have anything to do about these issues?
I believe Jesus is calling his followers to engage these issues in order to bring about a more just world. These are not just moral failures to be condemned by religious people who consider themselves morally superior and thus fit to judge. These critical issues call for creative thinking and cooperation and serving at great cost involving great risk and even suffering. I see it as the work of Jesus, the Messiah.
But I don’t see much work on these issues coming from the Christians, at least on a scale that meets the massive need. Here are a few reasons why I think Christians are missing out:
1. Jesus is seen mostly as a spiritual leader concerned with getting souls fit for the afterlife. The emphasis here is hardly concerned with issues of justice in this world but to get sinners saved from hell in the next. Salvation is viewed only as a personal sin issue having nothing to do with saving the poor from poverty or saving the oppressed from their oppressors or saving the planet for future generations. These activities I’m proposing may not seem like religious activities at all since they don’t directly get people “saved” to heaven. They are easily dismissed as the “social gospel”.
2. Obsession with the end of the world leads to short-sightedness. Two thousand years ago the first followers of Jesus thought Jesus would soon return. Many Christians today feel the same way. And this thinking leads to lack of concern for the future. Maybe the end is near, but what if there is still another 2,000 years to go? How can humanity survive that long at the present way of living? BTW, the latest end times prediction I saw will be the solar eclipse over Israel in August, 2026.
3. The OT prophetic vision of a new world order is pushed out past the second coming of Jesus into a 1,000 year millennial reign of Jesus. Further, it is supposed that Satan rules the world as it stands now and the kingdom of God as pronounced by Jesus cannot survive in such a world. However, if this is true then why did Jesus teach us to pray “thy kingdom come on earth…”?
4. Tragically, the Revelation of John is read literally by many people and Jesus is supposed to defeat Satan by force and thus reign after a violent war at Armageddon. Therefore, until this violent overthrow the Christians will just have to wait on Jesus to return and whip up on Satan. This view, spread by the Left Behind series and much of popular Christianity, has more problems than I can deal with here.
So what should the Christians do now? Get to work! Quit moralizing and condemning. Be servants. Study economics, politics, agriculture, engineering, etc. – all aimed at contributing to these massive humanitarian issues. Encourage our children into fields of serving instead of just making money and living the “American dream”. When we see this as the work of Jesus, the study and work will be done with great passion and purpose. This will turn the hearts of many to the Jesus we love and serve. And to those who do not turn to Jesus, we will still serve and love, including our enemies. It will be like an army of love and hope. This would be the work of Jesus, the Messiah.
For most of my life my understanding of Christianity was limited to the notions of getting souls saved so they will go to heaven. I saw these massive global problems only as proof that the world was going to hell. As long as I had my ticket to heaven and did a little bit to get tickets to a few other people, then I was content to let the rest of the world go to hell. May God forgive me and help me to do what I can in my few remaining years to take my part in the work of Jesus and influence others along these lines. This gives new meaning when I pray the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven…”.
Week 6: When Christians Practice Injustice
The contribution to humanity by Jesus from his followers through the ages has been enormous – hospitals, orphanages, universities, and much more. The Spirit of Jesus has power to transform sinners into saints. Yet Christianity has also been responsible for many persecutions, injustices, and gross atrocities against humanity. How can we account for this coming from the gentle Jesus who proclaimed love to all? Is this dark side of Christian history the result of momentary lapses or is it a sign of some systemic condition or flaw? What can be learned from this mixture of blessed good and damnable evil? My claim is that a Christianity without a strong connection to social justice accounts in large part for the wrongs of the past and that more wrongs will be committed by Christians if justice is not part of the Way of Jesus.
There could be a very long list of examples of Christians ignoring justice, supporting injustice to others, perpetuating injustice by being oppressors, using violence against others, and committing atrocities all the while worshipping God. Here are just one:
In the 1800’s the Bible was used by southern Christians to justify slavery. Even though they claimed correctly that the Bible never specifically declares slavery bad, they could not see the bigger picture of the God of justice loving all people, no matter what race, nor that Jesus had anything to do with a just society. Somehow they could not see any correlation of God freeing some ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt to their modern situation. They were blind to justice. This should be a warning to all who seek to follow Jesus that if we are blind to justice we will not be able to see injustice in front of our face!
This is exactly what happened in my own life. I became a Christian as a teenager directly as a result of a loving congregation in rural Indiana during the mid-1950’s. This was during a period of national unrest in the civil rights movement. But my group of northern Christians were opposed to the civil rights movement. We took sides with the oppressors. We had no clue that we were on the wrong side of justice because our version of Jesus was limited to a personal savior who had nothing to do with justice in society. Our Jesus was more like a tribal god who blessed us law-abiding citizens in our comfortable status quo and was against those southern trouble-makers disobeying the law.
Fast forward to today and consider the harassment and persecution against homosexuals. Many Christians that I know support the ill treatment of homosexuals because they are considered not only sinners but “blatant sinners.” I believe Jesus would not only not condone ill treatment against homosexuals, but Jesus would stand up for them against the condemnation and wrath of righteous people just like he did in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery. Even with Bible verses against homosexuality, this does not give permission to practice injustice against them. The hollow cliche, “hate the sin but love the sinner” does not equal genuine love. Issues of gender identity are far more complex than I can understand. But homosexual people have a long history of suffering from injustice at the hands of judgmental Christians who see themselves as morally superior. If Jesus has anything to do with justice, then this should not happen.
Another contentious social issue today is immigration. Illegal immigration is a problem and needs to be fixed. But I see many Christians not taking the side of the poor. I don’t know how to “fix” the problem, but I know that Jesus is on the side of the poor. Jesus would not make poor people into scapegoats to be whipped by those better off. Jesus knows no borders. I have to wonder if to some Christians Jesus is less like a global God and more like a tribal god who blesses their nation and agenda over others and legitimizes ill treatment of “sinners” and others out of favor with their tribal god.
Finally, I have to question my own nation’s spending on military might. I love my country, but I still have to ask why we need to spend more on our military than the next 10 nations combined. Our national security is important, of course, but how can the world be made safer for all people? If the US had spent just 10% of our military budget since WWII on humanitarian projects in underdeveloped countries, I can image a different world today. We could have helped build schools to teach literacy and hygiene and train teachers and health care providers and farmers. Build hospitals. Help nations develop their own economies. This could be done differently than in the past where our “foreign aid” fosters dependence or promotes corruption. These and many more avenues of helping others are issues of justice on the earth. The US has been blessed by God beyond imagination and thus has the responsibility to bless the rest of the world. Massive military spending may guarantee our national security, but it is not the way to promote justice in the world and make the world safe and good for all people.
Summary: These issues of justice are not simple and there will not be total agreement on what is the common good for all people. But unfortunately, too many Christians make no connection at all with the God of the Bible and the complex issues of social justice. This results in not only blindness to injustice and the cause of the poor but the sad perpetration of injustice against others who are unable to defend their cause. The God of the Bible, made visible in the life of Jesus, consistently takes the side of the poor and disadvantaged and stands against oppressors and those who could help but have no concern for justice. Therefore, all who seek God will be drawn to also seek justice.
Week 7: Justice in the Bible – Summary and Conclusion
Justice is a big deal in the Bible. Justice is part of the character of God and flows out of God’s love for all people. Therefore, whoever would seek to know God will come to a place of concern for a world of justice and love for all people. In spite of this, the attention to Biblical justice from the modern church that I know of does not measure up to it’s importance in the Bible.
The Bible is clear that no amount of worship can compensate for blindness to injustice. God will not be satisfied with praises from those who do not also seek justice for all his children.
Any understanding of Jesus without the Messianic mission of bringing justice into society, what Jesus called the kingdom of God, is incomplete. In fact, it is even dangerous since it easily results in a religion of injustice.
Just as Jesus said about seeing the speck in someone else’s eye but missing the log in one’s own eye, it is easy for us to see that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time rejected him as the messiah because he did not seem to fulfill their expectations. But what we have difficulty seeing is how we ourselves as modern Christians are missing the many dots that connect this messiah to a concern for justice in society. It seems like many believers have somehow convinced themselves that Jesus went around preaching against the sinners in his society, calling for moral purity, and condemning sinners for their unrighteousness by threatening them will hell fire. When I read the gospels, Jesus does nothing like this.
The justice of God extends to the natural world of all things, living and non-living. How humans treat the planet matters to God. There is a strong connection in the Bible with all of creation belonging to God, praising God, and being a part of God’s goodness and blessing to mankind. I have to ask: why are the Christians not environmentalists, even the leaders of environmentalism? In part, it is a result of the disconnection from Biblical justice. This issue deserves further discussion beyond this document.
Helping the needy is more than an act of pity towards the poor. It is a work of justice that takes a small step towards the kind of good world that God intended for everybody. Charity without a sense of justice results in a condescending treatment of the poor and strips them of dignity. This consideration of justice gives a much deeper meaning to mission projects, knitting squares, giving food and clothing to the needy, building a Habitat for Humanity house when such acts of charity are seen as part of justice work.
Beyond acts of charity there is a great deal of work to do in structuring a society that does not generate so much poverty. This is what the Old Testament prophets were demanding. They were not challenging the kings and leaders to increase their charitable giving. They were God’s voice for demanding a just society.
The work for justice is not limited to Christians. Concern for justice and human dignity is important to people of all religious beliefs and even people with none. This makes Christians partners with anyone who would also work for justice. Contrary to popular opinion, this even includes Muslims. My study of Islam indicates that the original intent of jihad, “holy war”, began as a struggle for justice in society. It was a fight against oppression to defend the poor and needy against abuse. Just as Christian believers can twist the Bible to justify all kinds of things, some Muslim believers corrupt the concept of jihad to legitimize hatred and violence against their enemies.
Some might say their ministry focus is spiritual and aimed at seeking the “lost” for salvation and my ministry is aimed at this “social gospel.” But it seems to me that concern for justice is not optional for anyone who seeks to know God because, as discussed before, justice is part of the character of God. I claim that any gospel that does not lead to justice in society is missing the call to follow Jesus. When Jesus said, “follow me”, did he mean follow him to heaven, or follow his way of life?
I have heard it said that if everyone just got “saved” the world would be all right and at peace. But I beg to differ. If being “saved”, as widely understood, is mostly about going to heaven and does not include concern for justice, then it has been well demonstrated that “saved” people can also be prejudiced, selfish, hateful, insensitive to injustice and even perpetrators of injustice. I see this as a strong indicator that the prevalent version of Christianity is missing something vitally important. And I am convinced that the disconnection from justice is a big part of what is missing. The president of World Vision, Richard Stearns, describes this as a “hole in our gospel” in his book of that title.
One mistake too often made is to take the easy path by steering clear of justice issues because they lead to contentious social issues, like abortion, immigration, homosexuality, and relations with other religions, which will unavoidably stir up controversy and threaten the unity of the church. The problem is not just that they are controversial issues, but the mistaken notion that Jesus does not lead us to them and is concerned only about our heavenly welfare and little about our earthly welfare. We cannot deal with issues that we don’t even agree that we should be concerned about in the first place. So the source of disunity is not the contentious social issues themselves, but the mistaken notion that they are not relevant to our faith or, even worse, seen as a distraction in the spiritual battle for getting souls saved for heaven. The “unity” achieved by avoiding controversial justice issues is more like conformity to the status quo than unity from a common love of the God of justice and the struggle to live it out. There may not be agreement on what to do but at least it will be acknowledged that we must not close our eyes to injustice. Even in disagreements among Christian brothers and sisters, it can be conducted in such a way that the world would take note of “how they love one another.” In his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to criticisms from white church leaders who said they agreed in principle with his cause but objected to the civil uproar being caused by the marches and other protests demanding equal civil rights for blacks and advised Dr. King to wait. The civil rights movement was very contentious, but history has proven the white church leaders were wrong. Despite the contention, justice could no longer wait.
So what to do? Repentance is due for not seeing justice as important; repentance for pointing out the specks in other’s eyes and not seeing the log in our own; repentance for willfully looking away from injustice; repentance for not feeling the pain and suffering of others; repentance for cowardice in tolerating injustice when we see it; repentance for having the means to help but withholding it.
Looking back at the history of Christianity, there is plenty for which to repent. Like how the European Christian immigrants treated the native Americans and then made slaves of another race; how the Irish Catholics and protestants smeared the goodness of God by espousing violence against each other; etc., etc… Sure, none of this is our “fault”. But facing up to it is to face up to the possibility that we right now might be just as blind as our fathers of the past.
Donald Miller in his book Blue Like Jazz tells of his experiences in a small group of Christians on a very secular college campus, Reed College in Oregon. At a time of traditional revelry and debauchery the little group decided to set up a confession booth for the sinning students. But the confession was reversed. The Christians confessed to any who came about how Christians through the ages have so many times not loved like Jesus and been persecutors and leaders of injustice and violence. It took the campus by surprise and turned around the general negative image of these Christians. After this the Christians and Christianity were taken seriously by many on campus who had previously dismissed them.
After confession and repentance, there is work to do. Obviously, the first task would be to reformulate the Christian message and mission and lifestyle to elevate justice to its proper place. I see this simply as going back to the Bible. How have we studied the Bible for generations and missed justice? Maybe it’s part of human perception to not see what we do not look for, even if it is right in front of us. Maybe because we interpret the Bible from a position of prosperity and comfort. Maybe the Bible looks more like a book of justice when it is read by people who are suffering from poverty and oppression.
It is easy to think that just one person can’t make much difference against gross injustice in the world, so why try. But what if there is a way to combine with others also working for justice and when their efforts are combined, significant work can be done for justice. One example of this is when the 52 mile long Lake Travis lake level rose over ten feet in just a few hours one night. It was an unbelievable amount of rain. But it all came down just one drop at a time.
Here is a practical example: The Austin Habitat for Humanity has a group of about 20 volunteers, mostly retired men, dedicated to electrical wiring. In a year’s time, this group contributes as much as one of several large corporations that finance one house a year. It’s a significant step towards a more just society from a small group of dedicated people.
Imagine a world with millions of Christians seeking to find genuine love for all people, including their enemies, working to defend and elevate the poor and needy, opposing oppressors, and defending even “sinners” from persecution. Instead of going along with society in general to maintain the status quo and judging and condemning others, they would be like an army of love plotting goodness, loving and serving their neighbors and spanning the globe seeking out opportunities to serve others, even at great personal cost and risk. Imagine this going on for a generation or two and what would the world be like? I can only imagine. This is what Jesus is calling his followers to do. This is truly hope for this world, not just in the afterlife. I want to be one of those millions of Christians. It is my prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Suggested Reading List:
The Little Book of Biblical Justice, by Chris Marshall
The Hole in Our Gospel, and Unfinished by Richard Stearns
The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne
A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren
Journey to the Common Good, by Walter Brueggemann
The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink