Thursday, February 27, 2020

God Cares About Justice. So Should We.

I've been thinking more lately about what it means for a follower of Jesus to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) on both a personal and a policy level. By personal, I mean how I do those things in my direct circle of influence. By policy, I mean how I use the power of my voice and my vote to promote political policy. Christians have dual citizenship in a Kingdom and an empire, and it's not always easy to hear the still, small voice that ought to be guiding us above the tumultuous crowds clamoring for bread and circuses.

It's frustratingly tense for evangelical Christians to talk about justice issues. The Social Gospel movement in the 1920s became mostly social with little gospel pretty quickly; Social Justice Warriors have turned the discussion of justice into a vehicle for Identity Politics and Marxist ideology. To many evangelicals, "social" and "justice" have become dog whistles signaling leftist, neo-marxist radicals to storm the doors of their local church.

Nevertheless, neither society nor justice was their idea. It was God's. God rolled out a vision for a just society through biblical revelation, starting with the Israelites in the Old Testament and moving into the church in the New Testament. As a Christian, I see a lot of issues to which the Bible speaks. Justice is many splendored thing, and while some of issues will be more prominent in the minds of Christians than others - and should be - all of them are worth considering. Justice remains a deeply biblical issue, and it deserves our attention. 

  • “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” (Psalm 82:3).
  • “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17).
  •  "When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers." (Proverbs 21:15)
  • “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
  • “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42).
  • "For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong..." (Isaiah 61:8 )
  • "Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!" (Psalm 106:3)
  • “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another." (Zechariah 7:9 )
  • “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." (Leviticus 19:15 )
  • "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." (Proverbs 21:3 )
  • “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:19 )
  • "Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place." (Jeremiah 22:3)
  • "Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31:8-9)
  • "He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing." (Deuteronomy 10:18) 
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." (Matthew 23:23 )
  • “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hosea 12:6 )
  • "A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge." (Proverbs 29:7 )
  • "Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute." (Psalm 82:3 )
  • "I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy." (Psalm 140:12 )
  • “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zechariah 7:9-10)
  • "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." (1 John 3:17-18)
  • "Who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!" (Isaiah 5:23 )
  • "It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice." (Proverbs 18:5)
  • “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts." (Malachi 3:5 )
  • “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge." (Deuteronomy 24:17 )
  • "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail. Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor." (Proverbs 22:8)
  • “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit." (Exodus 23:6)
  • "Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!"( Isaiah 10:1-2) 
  • "The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice." (Proverbs 17:23-28 )
  • "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.“ Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" The King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."(Matthew 25: 35-40)
Let's briefly note what goes with justice.

We see a love of mercy, a concept integral to an understanding of God's dealings with humankind. It involves compassionate and loving acts, not just emotions, and must be expressed in tangible ways. Justice is intertwined with mercy: holding people accountable can be a wake-up call to the perpetrator and a blessing to the victims. That’s how we can “do justice and love mercy” at the same time. 

Grace is giving people more than they deserve irrespective of the cause of their need. It is, by definition, an undeserved gift offered to someone who is in need. The gospels present Jesus as one who brought good news of gospel grace to all who would listen, but especially to those who lived on the periphery of society: lepers, slaves, the demon-possessed, a paralytic, a tax collector, prostitutes, idolatrous Samaritans, a young girl, the blind. The message of God's grace was given to everyone, but it was given very purposefully to society's outliers. Throughout church history, people whose hearts were transformed by God's spiritual grace inevitably expressed this change by extending grace in very practical ways: taking care of all the poor, nursing all of the sick, adopting all of the babies set out to die. (The Roman emperors hated the fact that the early church kept drawing people into the church from the local temples simply by caring for them when their temple and their state did not.) 

The fundamental characteristic of love is that it seeks the good of the other. It is contrary to all selfish, self-centered attitudes. Love involves choosing to love the unlovable, including even those one thinks of as an enemy. Love exists most particularly where it is offered towards those for whom one feels the least inclined, or where it is reaching out to one who does not, or is not, able to love in return. ('Grace' and 'Love' are quoted excerpts from The Evangelical Alliance, "Eight Core Christian Values")

Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31); do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31); when you help the ‘least of these,’ it is as if you helped God himself (Matthew 25:40). All of these biblical commands are wrapped up in notions of justice, mercy, grace and love. And here’s where we begin to see why these things need to merge in our thinking just as they are intrinsically intertwined in the nature of God. I refer one again to "Eight Core Christian Values": 
 Biblical justice… refers to very practical, down-to-earth actions which ensure that the weak, the poor and the socially disadvantaged are cared for, whether they ‘deserve’ it or not… Biblical justice… ensure[s] that the weak are protected from abuse, that the poor have what they need, that the stranger in the land is shown hospitality and that the socially disadvantaged are cared for. Even when this means giving them what they do not ‘deserve’… Justice is often interpreted in terms of seeking rights for oneself or one’s own group (‘we demand justice’) when biblically it is really an action on behalf of others… ‘Justice’ is not for ‘just me’. This means that Christians will be more keen to protect others than themselves.“

* * * * *

I keep coming back to what Jesus said to summarize all of the Jewish law: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (or, as you want to be loved. #goldenrule). This should motivate us to seek and serve those in temporal need, even as we point them toward the God who offers eternal salvation.
  • As Christians, God has given us a message of salvation that offers hope and healing for them all. Preach the Gospel and make disciples: that's the Great Commission. God intends us to be a 'shining city on hill' lighting up the world with the good news of the person and work of Jesus.
  • As a church community, we have resources to help as well. How often does the New Testament talk about 'one another'? God intends for us to bear each others burdens and look for each other's needs in all kinds of ways. In addition, part of the compelling nature of the light from our city involves the radically sacrificial and loving 'boots-on-the-ground' presence in the surrounding city for which 1st century Christ-followers were known. 
  • As 'salt' and 'light' in our nation, we have a voice and a vote. It seems like God looks favorably on nations that "do justice" and "love mercy." It's worth pondering how to use our voice and our vote to bring these two things to fruition.
Tim Keller notes that the Bible offers three reasons why people are in poverty: oppression, calamity, and personal moral failure. I suspect those distinctions can be applied to a lot of issues. This means there will not be a "one size fits all" template by which to find solutions for these things.
  • Those with personal moral failure needs Jesus. The transformation of the soul will lead to a transformation of circumstances, to whatever degree dire circumstances resulted from bad choices. Meanwhile, grace calls us to take care of people who have undermined their own lives. Why? Because Jesus does that for us, and - let's be honest - people around us have done that for us, and may need to again.  #goldenrule  To be sure, "taking care of others" does not mean enabling them, glossing over what they have done, or unhooking generosity from responsibility. Wisdom is crucial here as we intertwine mercy with justice, grace with truth, forgiveness with accountability.
  • Those experiencing oppression need freedom in a very practical sense. Typically, this means looking at governments, bureaucracies, corporations - what some have called 'systemic injustice,' in that there are systems in place that cause or allow injustice. (For a practical and heart-breaking example, watch "Bitter Chocolate" in the Netflix series Rotten). From a Christian perspective, if the oppressors respond to the gospel, that transformation should express itself in a transformation toward justice. Meanwhile, we fight for justice to limit the oppression of sinful hearts and systems even as we preach the gospel. 
  • Those hit by calamity (natural disasters) simply need our help. This is the category to which we most easily respond well; we know an earthquake or tsunami is nobody's fault. 
So as you read this list, keep in mind that I am not weighing in on the cause of each issue. That's something that can vary case-by-case. What is know is that all of these situations have victims. They all have people who need help. I may not be able to help with all, but surely I can help with some.

I can use my voice to tell everybody about Jesus, and how justice, mercy, love and grace work first for the salvation of our souls, and second for the flourishing of our lives.

And I can use my voice and my vote to promote politicians, parties and policies built on that foundation.

* * * * *

1. Protect innocent human life from conception until death. 
2. Protect all life from abuse.
3. Promote just economic policies. 

This should neither punish success nor overlook the needy; it should promote generosity and discourage greed. A just economic system does not guarantee equal outcome, but surely it strives for equality of opportunity and looks out for those who are falling between the cracks. Are we as a society investing in the most needy among us through poverty initiatives, affordable housing, just wages and working conditions, etc? Surely there is a way we can give someone a fish while simultaneously making sure they have what they need to begin fishing for themselves.
Andy Posner, in a great article about the aforementioned fishing analogy, gets the last word on this issue:
This reminds me of one of my favorite Marlin Luther King quotes: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” And then there are the words of Jesus: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16) 
When we claim to be teaching a man to fish, we are ignoring the reason why they need to be taught to fish in the first place; we are doing nothing about the underlying issue–an unequal distribution, not only of fish, but also of access to fishing equipment, ponds, bait, education, and places to cook whatever is caught. In America, the poor are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime, worse schools, and poor air quality. More likely to live in dilapidated, unsafe, and unhealthy apartments that are also unaffordable. More likely to be incarcerated for small crimes for which the non-poor (and white) are often let off with a warning. And more likely to lack easy access to affordable banking services, quality health care, and fresh food.... 
So yes, let’s not stop teaching people to fish, but let’s remain awake to the complexity of poverty. Perhaps, in fact, we should amend the proverb to read, “Give a woman a fish, and she’ll have the energy to take care of her children, do well at work, and pursue her goals. Teach her to fish and give her access to a pond full of fish, and she’ll be able to feed herself and her family for life.”

4. Create genuinely just systems of justice. 

This includes prison reform (do we really want for-profit prisons?), and a court system that is truly impartial and not effected by race or riches.

5. Protect religious freedom. 

This is freedom to practice religion and worship - or not - without unjust discrimination or coercive social policy. This constitutional right has a messy and hard fought history in the United States. Since Jefferson, we have been fairly consistent in our protection of this right. I've done a series of posts that review Luke Goodrich's book Free To Believe which covers his (professional and thoughtful) insights on how our culture is currently navigating this issue and how Christians should position themselves within the different points of tension.

There are many ways in which serious religious engagement correlates with cultural stability in the United States. Religious freedom deserves  to be protected in principle, but it turns out we all benefit when it is. (See my review of Rodney Stark's book America's Blessing, which chronicles the positive impact Christianity in particular has had on the United States. 

6. Promote marriages and families in which children flourish. 

We as a society have a vested interest in our children,  first for their sake and second for the stability of society in general. Sociologically, there is little argument that children flourish best with their biological parents in a loving, stable, low-conflict family. When families do not match this ideal (for whatever reason), we should personally engage and serve, promote policies that bring stability, and put people in government who generously help families in need.

7. Promote a society in which leaders do several important things, at least from a Christian perspective. 
  • Embody truth and gentleness, justice and mercy, law and grace. 
  • Treat everyone with respect, even those with whom they disagree.
  • Model integrity (not perfection) in their personal and public life. 
  • Promote both natural rights and mutual responsibilities. These cannot be separated. 
  • If they claim to be a Christian, I would expect to see fruits of the Spirit on full display: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

8. Embrace immigrants and refugees fleeing abject poverty, violence and persecution. That in itself should make us generous in our immigration policy - the United States has 40% of the world's GDP. We can handle more people. But the benefit goes both ways.  In 2019, there were more jobs than workers.  Acting White House Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney told an audience recently,  “We are desperate — desperate — for more people. We are running out of people to fuel the economic growth that we’ve had in our nation over the last four years. We need more immigrants."  A local paper recently pointed out the crucial role immigrants play economically in "COVID-19'S  Impact On Migrant Workers - And the North's Ag Economy." Also, in spite of the rhetoric, immigrants commit fewer crimes than the rest of us. Immigrants actually bring our average crime rate down, so, yeah, that seems positive. 

We can and should do embrace immigrants and refugees, but it must be done wisely, carefully and proficiently.

First, we honor the government’s role in marking boundaries and setting laws by supporting the strong policing of our border, as well as the rigorous vetting of people entering the country on visas, etc. There are evildoers that want to get in to our country and sow chaos, and there is a clear biblical directive for the government to protect us from evildoers.The government can and should be as proactive as possible in arresting them in order to keep those around them safe.

Second, this kind of enforcement cannot be blind and cold. We do a disservice to the concept of justice if we think one size fits all. For example, the vast majority of the Dreamers have broken one governmental law - an immigration one -  and that was unintentional (they were kids). Many of them have desperately been trying to ‘unbreak’ that law, but inept lawyers and an overwhelmingly complex immigration system in desperate need of overhauling have stymied them. They do not want to be lawbreakers, yet our system forces them to stay in this status in spite of their best efforts. What should we do when the path for someone to stop breaking a law they don't even want to break is not available?

Many immigrants are fleeing homes where abject poverty, violence and human trafficking are endangering their well-being or their lives. Some, especially from the Middle East, are fleeing certain death because they are Christians living in the presence of ISIS.  They aren’t sneaking in because they are criminals. They are desperate; if they wait 10 years to go through the immigration process, it will be too late.

This isn’t every situation of course, but it’s true of many. In what ways can I personally do unto others what I would have them do unto me? 

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