When we met to do some theology at the end of last month, The U.S. Social Forum was still winding down. It calls itself a “convergence driven by the understanding that people’s movements are what create social change….The goal is to map out action plans for a cohesive movement and organize to be on the offense against all forms of oppression.” We felt some solidarity, since our “doing theology” time had the feeling of convergence, too; and being on the offense against oppression sounds like Jesus.
What’s more, we have been reignited, since last August, about the racism in the country and the ongoing injustice it causes. The Black Lives Matter movement has energized a lot of us. Several of us have been involved with the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice (racial, economic and legal) who demand justice through “policy work, direct action and community education.” It feels like a new environment these days and we want to think about it with Jesus. What about justice? What does God think about it and are we practically following the Lord’s lead?
So we did some theology about it. You can see some of our study on the previous blog post. When we say we “do theology” we mean we are mentalizing with God and his people. It is all about listening, but it is not social construction of reality; it is listening for the reality behind what we think we know, hearing the voice of God. In that we honor the Bible as the trusted basis for hearing God’s voice and we respect people who have done the work to understand the Bible. But we are not just parsing words, making laws, or arguing over theories. We are trying to figure out what to do and who to be. Doing theology is thinking and feeling along with God and letting my thinking and feeling conform to my truest, God-given self.
Knowing what to do often feels like an emergency. Right when we were advertising our meeting, the aftermath of a divorce caused some deep feelings of injustice among us! How should Circle of Hope respond to injustice? That is, how should we apply scripture and corporate wisdom, not just cobble together stray political philosophies? We had a few answers to that question:
We need to make reconciliation happen. We can start by laying down any sense of moral superiority when we begin.
We want to keep in mind that Jesus faced and faces the ultimate injustice. People laced with empire thinking and demands might find the Lord hard to identify with, but they need to do it.
Worship is a tangible way to make justice. As different movements have shown, the songs of justice give a place for the Spirit of God to move. So worship while making justice.
We need to remember who is the author of justice. The government, or whoever seizes the reins of power, will try to be god giving us justice. But Jesus is author. He is executed again in the body of Christ and creating what is right with us.
We need to stay inclusive and insert ourselves even where were are not normally welcome. Bring people in to the presence of God and prophecy and take the presence with us when we prophesy. Jesus will rise after wrestling with the root of injustice. We reflect that miracle.
It would be great to get everyone together to do something so notable that it was a sign of resurrection to the powers that deal death. We’ll keep trying and not be fatalistic. At the same time, a lot of little stuff, like we normally do, is also effective. When we need to all show up we do. But incrementally is also a way to work justice.
A month ago we had a “Doing Theology” time on JUSTICE. We had to think things over after being moved all year by the heartache and turmoil caused by police brutality and the protests about systemic injustice that is poured out on African Americans, especially. This is one of two posts that attempt to sum up what we heard when we gathered to listen to God about justice. Hopefully, they will contribute to our ongoing dialogue.
To begin with, there is no justice without Jesus. We are all wrong. God graces us with “right” and the ability to bring things to right. We exercise His grace by the power of the Holy Spirit and it leads to justice. We demand justice from the powers-that-be from our place of safety in Christ, we don’t beg the powers to give us what is right as if they create it.
Jesus’ mission is to restore humanity and the whole creation. He envisions well‐being for people who are spiritually poor and people who are socially poor. As he walks among us, righteousness and justice mark the events of his days and nights. Jesus lives right and makes life right with and for others. If Jesus had offered a justice code (and it is dangerous to think he might have done this) it might have been centered around this idea: to love is to be just; to be just is to love. When we claim to follow Jesus, we are disciplined by the call to love like Jesus.
Justice is a concept with many meanings. It is too multi‐dimensional to be reduced to a single dictionary definition. It is summed up in the person of Jesus. It is also well-explored in the Bible. Romans 12-13 is a good place to see all the different aspects of how justice is worked out in one place. Modern people divide things up when they think. The Bible writers tend to mash things together because they are doing something personal, not conceptual. They are relating to wholeness, not particularity.
What follows is an attempt to sort out these two chapters according to ideas of justice that often aren’t thought of together, or are considered in competition with each other. Paul mashes them all up in his teaching masterpiece and helps us get a feel for how God feels and how God would like us to act.
This is by no means the final word about how to divide up these chapters, but it gives an idea of how Paul understands the levels and depths of how justice is understood and applied.
1) There is legal/courtroom justice. In democratic societies and many other cultures there is an assumption that “you get what you deserve.” Virtue is rewarded, evil is punished and criminals are brought to justice. They get their “just desserts” and are penalized according to the law as guilty offenders. The justice system holds court, and penalties are meted out to fit the crime.
Romans 13:1-5 — Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
2) There is ethical/human‐rights justice: Ethical justice gives a different meaning to “you get what you deserve.” In the moral equation that links basic rights with being a human being, individuals are inherently worthy to receive benefits from their society. We should look for what is good and bring about justice.
Romans 12:3-4 —For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function 12:14-18 — Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 13:6-7 — This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
3) There is divine/God’s justice: God’s justice embraces measures of both legal and ethical justice. In some sense, people who disregard God’s laws of life and love get their “just desserts.” Selfishness eventually inflicts its own punishment. Unrestrained greed guarantees disdain and even revenge from those who are exploited. Deceit may lead to short‐term gain but guarantees long‐term pain.
God’s moral equation lifts life from the noble level of bestowing equal rights on all creation to the human experience of both loving and being loved. God’s vision for a just creation sees people in right relationships with each other. Love protects the vulnerable, and offers the right to fail and the freedom to begin again.
The ethic of love and the practice of “loving your neighbor as yourself” are at the root of God’s vision for a just creation. The tenacity of God’s love refuses to accept injustice. Because of God’s relentless hope, we don’t get what we deserve. Instead of being forever guilty we are granted forgiveness. We are invited to walk alongside Jesus who shows us how and empowers us how to live right and make life with others right.
Again, Jesus is justice and personally gives it. He is not subject to an abstract idea that humans have socially constructed. He says in John 8:15-16 — You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me.
Romans 12:19-20 — Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 13:8-13 — Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
4) There is spiritual transformation or restorative justice. When God’s people get it right, they bring a distinctive contribution to the justice table. Even though followers of Jesus do not have sole access to human virtue or an exclusive claim on being principled people, they have two advantages: Christians have revelation to help them discern God’s will and ways for themselves and others; and they have Jesus with them in Spirit and in history to demonstrate what humans can be.
Followers of Jesus will never duplicate the full beauty and wisdom of Jesus. But their faith points them in the right direction. They bring the Spirit of God with them. The understanding they gain from the Bible and their relationship with God’s Spirit can enable them to translate their convictions into compassionate behavior that serves the eternal interests of others.
Circumstances will always influence the responses of God’s people. But personal concerns, self‐interest and material gain will not have the final word. Christians will champion the marginalized and be driven by the ethic of love. Right relationships will rule the day. Love will prevail. Justice will trump injustice. Reconciliation and restoration will be the goal. Gently, but prophetically, Christians will bring their confidence, born of being forgiven and renewed, to the table. Power‐brokers who have a vision for a just social order will welcome the participation of people of faith, or they will face their relentless conviction and hope.
Romans 12:1-2Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 12:9-13 — Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 12:21 — Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 13:14 — Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Justice is at play on many levels. People are able to grasp what justice means at many levels of personal and spiritual development. Some of us may devote ourselves to the most basic idea on the level first mentioned. But as a whole, we are determined to reveal God’s justice on the deeper, world-changing level listed last.
This Bible study helps us mentalize with God so we can think and feel more about what we can do to restore creation with the Creator. There will be more about that next time as I offer a few of the things our session collected for us to use.
At times, I felt a little guilty, because my self-imposed suffering was bearing delectable fruit: some of it tasted new and some of it tasted of well-loved flavors I had been missing. Meanwhile, some people were blowing off the discipline…for what? At times I felt like I was having a feast while strangely invisible to starving people.
I hope you find it acceptable for me to tell you a little about my Lent. One thing I experienced during the season is this reality: any number of my comrades feel that saying anything about ourselves is proud or self-referencing or coercive, so they never give a testimony of God’s work and , as a result, no one gets to know Jesus. Waking up to that shocked me and reformed me, so I am giving my testimony. Lent helped me realize how they had somewhat squeezed me into their tiny, dishonorable mold. They made me afraid.
I’ll be brief, though. I’ll organize my thoughts around the PM Plan, where it quotes Jesus calling us, in Mark 12, to “surrender to loving God with our entire beings.” Jesus speaks of a whole being as four parts: heart, soul, mind and strength. A whole being can never actually be separated into parts, of course. But these are good categories to help us mentalize: think and feel about what we think and feel — a basic Christian skill for which Lent was priceless.
We say in the PM Plan that the “heart” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. The center of our ego, our sense of being a person. Feelings, desires, passions, reflection, moral conviction.
During the Patrick Day Retreat I encouraged us to note our three levels of awareness: ordinary, spiritual and Holy Spirit. It helped me take note.
That retreat was symbolic of my reorientation. I’ve been discouraged, on and off, for a while. The congregation and the whole network have been missionally stalled, in some ways, and I am a missionary. Lent rekindled my fire, got me excited, helped me let go and change. Our focus on the Jesus Prayer spurred my contemplation, so I was hearing the inner voice. And, as you can probably tell, I felt convictions that I, and we, have an important outer voice.
We say that the “mind” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. Where we are conscious. Our understanding, ethical awareness, inclinations, attitudes.
During the Justice Conference I was stricken by what caring people can do. And I was also stricken by what Circle of Hope, as caring people, has done. We are the lost poster child church of the Justice Conference. I felt the same way when we were speaking to the Atlantic Conference of the BIC about our Compassion Teams. We demonstrate remarkable, authentic passion. I love who God has made us!
But sometimes I have felt concerned because it seems like our radicality, our incarnational mentality, and our covenant intensity, just wear people out. I get afraid that people might lazily let it all go. But when I saw “pop” church popping up in our region I got competitive for reality. What’s more, my trauma study helped me see that learned helplessness is a constant threat when people are oppressed; you might have heard about that in this blog post. The church is floundering and pandering; the world is demanding and deceiving. I feel called to be an antidote, if I can.
We say what Jesus means by “strength” is: Not only bodily strength, but primarily. Our ability, capacity, potency. The power we are given to exercise.
I feel better when my Lenten fast has the corollary benefit of reducing my weight and making me aware of my body. When I am feeding myself in a healthy way and requiring my body to match my morals, I feel better and act with more freedom, I am more open.
I forced a personal retreat into my busy schedule at one point during Lent just because it needed to be done. I damned the consequences. The fact that I did that made me stronger. And the consequences weren’t that big a deal anyway. I also regularly force spiritual direction into my schedule and it makes me a stronger counselor and director myself. My doctoral studies are also way too much to do, but have also proven to be too strengthening not to do.
We say that the “soul” is: Our spiritual awareness. Where we most deeply connect with God. The life in us that transcends time. The place of accountability. The seat of sorrow, joy, suffering.
This is where Lent was most valuable, as you might expect. I am desperate for hours in “Holy Spirit awareness.” And although my heart, mind and strength propel me there, it is in my soul that I am most allured. During Lent, I felt remarkably, consciously relieved of lazy habits of self-protection and self-soothing. I think a lot of that was due to my study in trauma and revisiting my psychological character style. For instance, at one of the Holy Week observances I described my childhood home as “unsafe” — an admission I don’t usually allow. My friend’s response was so kind that a flood of emotions surged up. I was getting healed some more. During the Way of the Cross walk and during the vigil I realized the erosive benefits of Lent. I might long for something to knock me “off my horse” all the time, but the regular disciplines of exercising my spiritual awareness form me as they save me. The fact that I went on the walk helped me become aware of Jesus and walk with Him.
As I decided what to put into this testimony it was such a joy to realize that there is so much more to tell! It was a rich season in a rich life. God was with me and I was with God. I was in a body that is a real church and God was with us. I had put my hand to the plow and the way forward was challenging, but exciting — and I did not want to look back or elsewhere. One the main convictions I received was that I needed to talk about all that. So I have begun. Thanks for walking with me.
I’m sure you have a lot to tell, yourself. Right now at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer we are having the first of our quarterly times to talk back, reveal ourselves, and tell each other what God has been doing from January through March. That is hardly the only place you could give witness to God’s work in your life through Jesus, but it is a good one.
You may experience the same theological divide I felt at the Justice Conference last week. Whenever one is listening to a parade of speakers there is not a lot to do but compare and contrast. So I did. And I felt an interesting contest going on. It was a fascinating smorgasbord of evangelical do-gooders and I enjoyed snacking on various goodies.
Strangely enough, I think my most long-lasting good impression has less to do the the speakers and more to do with the wonderful notebook the organizers made for each participant. Across from a nice bio of each speaker they had a page for “notes,” the “key quote” and the “key take away.” I am so unused to going to conferences that I forgot that we are often encouraged to get a takeaway from a speech. We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sift the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.
Well, I think I learned to do that a bit.
We were talking about justice at the conference and one of the scriptures used was I John 4. One interpretation dissected my understanding of that chapter more clearly than I can remember. I had forgotten how it could be divided up.
In his letter, John is defending the incarnation. Most commentators think he has some opponents in his congregations that are tilting the gospel toward Greek, “gnostic” thoughts that would not tolerate a God in the flesh or tolerate relating to God in a personal way. So it was surprising to see that even while thinking about John’s letter it is possible to divide up John’s thoughts in such a way that one can strain out the personal and end up with principles. One of the speakers seemed so steeped in his principles and committed to a sovereign God who was so “other,” that he had a difficult time figuring out how to argue for doing justice, which is so incarnational.
But he gave it a noble try. This Bible study is my takeaway.
1 John 4:9-11 — This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Why do justice? Here is what I stereotype as an Evangelical way to look at it, according to the passage above.
You should do justice by applying the principle: God loved us so we should love others.
Then, moving along with what John says, you could add the principle that: Our love means nothing; it’s all God’s love that changes the world.
If you are really going for it you could add: We should show love like God showed it in Jesus by being sent into the world so others might live through Jesus.
I don’t think those thoughts are all wrong. But I don’t think it is all John is trying to say, or that he would ever say it. Especially since he immediately says.
1 John 4:12 — No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
John is not merely applying principles, he is explaining the reality of God’s love living in him and God’s love being made complete in the body of Christ as they love one another and show his love to the world.
The incarnation of justice
I never would have become a Christian in the first place, had I just been signing up for the impossible task of applying biblical principles. I had enough guilt motivating me already. To be honest, the arguments that well-meaning Christians presented to me were not that convincing until I met God personally, which happened in spite of their arguments.
They were doing things like making principles out of the following nuggets from 1 John.
1 John 4: 16-17 — God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.
One could read 1 John 4 like it was a very good argument for what a Christian ought to do. One can take the sentences above and focus on the last clause: “In this world we are like Jesus.” The principle could be:
Jesus cares about people so you should care.
Jesus desires justice, so do it.
Obeying the principles is the only way to have confidence on the day of judgment because you can demonstrate that you actually followed the commands of your teacher.
Doing what is written is the way that love can be complete and not flawed under God’s scrupulous eye.
God is love. If you say you are saved, you’d better be loving.
I don’t think those ideas are all wrong, but they might be missing the main thing John is talking about.
1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It is only the love of Jesus at work in our hearts that can transform us into lovers. No amount of proper principle-applying will do it – especially when we apply the principles because we are afraid we will be disobedient and possibly judged if we don’t! Doing the work of justice no longer has to do with punishment, either; it is mainly about fearless lovers bringing the presence of Jesus with them as they dive into tangled-up humanity.
Nevertheless, one could reduce 1 John 4 down to one verse:
1 John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.
That was a key verse the Baptists gave to me as a child. It was so short almost anyone could memorize it and get a prize! And even a child can get the point:
Jesus loves me.
And because Jesus loves me, I should love.
Only that is not all that John is saying. I’d say that sentence does not mean that at all, all due respect to Mrs. Roadhouse, my second grade Sunday school teacher. He means: Our capacity to love is set on fire by God’s love for us. We are rebooted for love by his love alive in us. Without God in us, we won’t be loving like God. John is experiencing an ongoing incarnation and he does not want it stolen by people who do not have God in the world, just a set of religious principles. I think he, again, quickly says just that:
1 John 4:20 — Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
It is not so much what you say, it is whether the love of the living God is in you.
It’s not that John is not making an argument. It’s that he is making an argument for incarnation. His God is not “up there” and we worship this remote God by effecting empathy — like Jesus demonstrated, and like he left us word about in the Bible before he returned “up there.” To the contrary, John’s God has entered into our experience and into our lives. We enter into the difficult tasks of love, like loving people we can actually see today, because the Spirit has entered into us and Jesus is entering into our situation with us.
What should be your takeaway from my Bible study? I don’t know. Did Jesus tell you anything? Did God’s love move you? If nothing personal happened between you and God, then there wasn’t much point in writing anyway. Especially when it comes to making an impact for justice in the name of Jesus, we’ll just be arguing if Jesus is not in us causing love to break out.