“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
“Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.” (Matthew 6:33)
I was recently confronted by these two quotes:
“Faced with human suffering, all people of compassion must confront this dilemma: either become numb to the pain of those around you or begin to take action on their behalf.” (Oscar Romero)
“In an age of massive human suffering from poverty, war, unjust social structures, and the quest for world empire, the real mystery is the moral and political complacency of middle-class American Christians.” (paraphrase of Walter Rauschenbusch)
The point that these two quotes make is a powerful one—too many Christians seem complacent, even disconnected from a suffering world.
But it’s really no mystery. It’s simply a reflection of mainstream Christian theology. It’s more than that, of course. It’s also a reflection of the American cult of rugged individualism. But since the fourth century, Christian theology has played a significant role in our moral indifference.
For centuries, personal salvation theology has obscured the deepest meanings of Jesus. Our traditional focus has been on personal salvation, not on individual or social transformation. The church has focused on individual redemption, not on the redemption of the social order. We have focused on maintaining and expanding the church, but not on building the reign of God.
The church has failed to put the reign of God at the center of our theology. We need to expand our understanding of salvation beyond the personal. Jesus was concerned for far more than the redemption of individuals—he wanted to redeem the very powers that shape the domination system in which we live. Jesus died for the reign of God, and the gospel he proclaimed is a social gospel.
peace and justice in the church
Peace and justice aren’t front and center in our churches. They are not a central focus. They get some mention in the prayers of the church, but the way our prayers are often worded, it seems that it is God’s role to establish peace and justice in the world, and our role is simply to remind God not to neglect to do so.
In the Lutheran church (ELCA), peace and justice also get some mention in the liturgy for affirmation of baptism, when the catechumens are asked to affirm their baptismal vows, made on their behalf as infants. They are asked, “Do you promise to work for peace and justice in the world?” It always surprises me when I hear these words because nothing about peace and justice is found in the baptismal liturgy. We don’t charge parents and sponsors with the task of raising their children to work for peace and justice. So why have the confirmands affirm this as adult members of the church? At confirmation parties, I often ask confirmands how much time has been spent in their two to three years of catechetical study on peace and justice issues. Most give me a blank stare.
The church pays lip service to justice but does not teach or preach it as a major part of the faith. That is because peace and justice issues lead us squarely into politics. This is not safe territory for most clergy in most congregations.
William Sloane Coffin has said, “That God is against the status quo is one of the hardest things to believe if you are a Christian who happens to profit by the status quo.”
The word justice makes most Americans immediately think of criminal justice. This is about “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s about evening the score and balancing of the scales of justice. When they speak of getting justice, they have in mind punishing criminals. Fundamentally, this is retributive justice.
Another form of justice is procedural justice. This deals with fair play in laws and legal processes. We expect the rules to be the same for everybody. Procedural justice requires that there is no bias for the wealthy or powerful. The rules must be enforced equally for everybody.
Another aspect in the church is the topic of divine justice. If justice is about fairness, then divine justice is about God’s fairness to us. Like Job, many people ask “Why did this happen to me?” Clergy deal with this all the time. Another aspect of divine justice is the theological position of God’s judgment on us. God’s justice is seen as a deserved punishment for our sins.
John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar points out that for many Christians, God’s mercy is often seen as the opposite of God’s justice. But, he says, in the Bible the opposite of God’s justice is human injustice.
justice in the Bible
So just what does the Bible say about justice? First, the biblical writers say over and over that God loves justice. This is especially true in the Psalms:
“The LORD loves justice.” (Psalm 37:28)
“The LORD is a lover of justice.” (Psalm 99:1, 4)
“The LORD is righteous, he loves justice.” (Psalm 11:7)
“The LORD loves righteousness and justice.” (Psalm 33:5)
But we find it also in the books of the prophets:
“For I the LORD love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8)
“I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
justice and righteousness
The terms ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are often linked in these biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios and the Hebrew word tzedaka both have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives.
The common understanding of righteousness is moralistic (being morally right) or relational (being right with God and/or being right with others). These moralistic and relational understandings can sometimes lead to self-righteousness.
But a more holistic biblical understanding would be standing up for what is right. Doing what is right. It means seeking justice in human society. We are told in Proverbs: “The righteous care about justice for the poor.” (Proverbs 29:7) So righteousness means working for justice.
If you start with this understanding of righteousness, you can amplify it to say that the moralistic and relational understandings are also true. But if you start with the other understandings, you may never get to its relationship with justice.
a definition of justice
Aristotle suggested that the essence of justice consists in a person receiving what he or she is due. We can expand that idea to include a person or group receiving what it is due. Justice consists in a person or group receiving what it has a right to receive—what it has a legitimate claim to have.
Our fundamental disagreements over justice are not disagreements over the bare concept of justice but disagreements over that to which people or groups have rights. We do not dispute, the concept of justice; we disagree about the contours of justice. There is much debate in America today over who has a right to what.
the contours of justice
As Christians, we need to understand the contours of justice in the Bible. The key to the biblical contour of justice is the repeated referral in the Hebrew Bible to widows, orphans and aliens. These are people who live without protection in society. They cannot own land and have no means of support. They have no access to the fundamental means of life.
Because they live without protection, God becomes their protector.
“The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” (Psalm 146:9)
“Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5)
“You shall not oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” (Exodus 22:21-23)
Over and over, when justice is spoken of, it is these three groups that are brought to the fore.
By contrast, when Plato speaks of the just society, widows, orphans and aliens are nowhere in view. In The Republic, Plato suggests that a just society consists of harmony in a structured political body where wise persons exercise authority that citizens willingly obey. Everyone in society knows and plays their appropriate role. The fundamental contour of justice is identified by Plato with a certain kind of “law and order.”
Evidently for the biblical writers, the fundamental contour of justice is something different. For them, the just society is the society in which the weak and voiceless ones have been brought into the community so as to enjoy its goods. The contour of biblical justice is providing the poor with access to the means of life.
the elimination of poverty
God wants poverty eliminated. We read in Deuteronomy:
“There will, however, be no poor among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5
There will be no poor among us if we obey God. God expects that the nation’s wealth—a gift from God—and the economy must be managed in a way that poverty will be eliminated.
creating a just society
The creation of a just society is rooted in this question: “How does everyone get a fair, equitable access to the means of life?”
How to they get access to the basic requirements of life: food, clothing, shelter, adequate employment, education, and medical care? These basic necessities are the entitlement of every person on earth simply by virtue of our shared humanity as children of God.
Walter Brueggemann said: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.”
The law of the Hebrew Bible works toward this end. It decrees systemic justice. It answers the age-old questions of humanity with regard to fairness.
- How is the stuff that belongs to God, such as land, going to be distributed fairly?
- How do we guard against one group accumulating wealth and power at the expense of others?
- How do we protect the weakest members of society?
- How do we make sure that everyone has access to sustenance and shelter?
This is distributive justice—a just distribution of the means of life.
the biblical call to justice
The biblical call to justice flows through the entire Bible. In the Hebrew Bible we find it in the law (including the Covenant Code in Exodus, the Holiness Code in Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy); in the wisdom literature, including the Psalms and Proverbs; and in the prophets. It flows through the New Testament, in the gospels, the epistles, and life of the early church as recorded in Acts.
It is the story of a God who liberates an oppressed people from a powerful empire and creates a remarkable covenant with them: worship no other God than me and create a contrast society to the oppressive empires of the world. The biblical story that flows through the Old Testament is about God’s strong desire to create an alternative community that is opposed to the values of empire. When the people strayed from a just society, especially after they created their own form of empire, God sent prophets to call them back to renewed social justice. Jesus emphasizes the alternative society as the manifestation of the reign of God. We can see it in the Jerusalem community in the book of Acts. Paul created similar contrast communities throughout the Roman Empire.
Justice and injustice in the Bible are about human systems—laws, economic systems, structural practices, conventional norms and attitudes—and how they impact human lives. Here are some brief examples of how a contrast society struggled to be faithful to God’s intent for humanity.
Hebrew law codes
Hebrew law codes were designed to protect the poor. They include:
- Requirements that allow the poor to glean the fields after harvest.
- Dedicating the tithe, a 10% tax on agricultural production, to feed the poor every third year.
- Wages must be paid to the working poor before nightfall.
- Cloaks taken as collateral on loans must be returned before nightfall.
- No interest may be charged on loans to the poor.
- The Sabbatical Year codes require that all financial debts are to be forgiven every seven years.
- They also require that all Hebrew debt slaves must be released every seven years.
- The Jubilee Year law codes require that the land, the economic capital in an agricultural economy, must be redistributed every 50 years.
- The law allows for special temple sacrifices for the poor, and expects that the community will provide them with equal access to religious festivals.
- And the codes demand that merchants use just measures in weight, quantity and length in dealing with the poor.
In addition to the Law, the prophets consistently addressed the injustice found in their society. Their main message to the rulers and elites of their nation was to maintain the Covenant that God had made with them.
The covenant had two main aspects. First, the people of Israel were to live as a contrast society, not as a domination society. The covenant required that the people not recreate the separation of rich and poor that existed in the empire of Egypt. They were not to create a society in which a few benefit at the expense of the many.
The second aspect of the covenant was that Yahweh was to be their only god. “You shall have no other gods before me.” I believe that this prohibition had to do with a concern that worshipping other gods would tempt the nation to turn its back on a God that demanded a just society. Many of these foreign gods were gods of individual prosperity. They offered their worshippers personal success and wealth. Their followers would be tempted to focus on themselves and their well-being alone. When individual prosperity is favored over the prosperity of the whole community, God is ignored and rejected.
So the prophets called upon the rulers, the powerful, and the wealthy elites to seek a just and compassionate society.
“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another”
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Jesus and justice
In calling people to practice and struggle for justice, Jesus was standing in continuity with the great prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus himself practiced and spoke of justice.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:6).
And he added, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
He accused the religious people of his day, the Pharisees, of focusing on religious practice and neglecting justice.
“Woe to you Pharisees… you tithe herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)
the early Jesus movement
The early followers of Jesus were a Covenant renewal community. They practiced distributive justice. Living as a contrast community, they eliminated poverty in their midst.
In Acts, we read about the Jerusalem community:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)
So the early followers of Jesus found a way to eliminate poverty in their midst. There was not a needy person among them.
They did this because they loved one another. Love was central to the first followers of Jesus: they loved God, they loved their neighbor, they even strove to love their culturally-defined enemies—integrating people of disparate backgrounds into an inclusive community.
love: the essence of following Jesus
The essence of Christianity is love. It is certainly the essence of the faith of Jesus. Jesus says that the two great commands—two great love relationships—are the summary of the law and the prophets.
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
They are linked—one cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor.
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20)
Jesus always deliberately and energetically bound humanity and God together; he would not let us deal with humanity apart from God, nor God apart from humanity—we cannot have forgiveness from God while we refuse to forgive others.
Paul says that the entire law is summed up in one command:
“The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:9)
“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (James 2:8)
love and compassion
There is a strong link between love and compassion.
Compassion is the response of love to suffering. The root of the word in Latin is a compound of com (with)and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning ‘to suffer with’. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.
True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action.
Jesus and compassion
Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
The compassion Jesus felt led to acts of healing and sharing. It was the engine that drove his miracles. Look at these examples:
- Healing two blind men: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” (Matthew 20:34)
- Healing a leper: “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” (Mark 1:41)
- Raising the dead son of a widow: Jesus “saw her and his heart went out to her…Then he went up and touched the coffin.” (Luke 7:13)
- Feeding the hungry crowds: “I have compassion for these people; they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat.” (Matthew 15:32)
Marcus Borg has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.”
Jesus confronted the Pharisaic theology of holiness, based on God’s command to “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy,” with this alternative command to his followers: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)
In the Sermon on the Mount he said: “Blessed are the compassionate, for they will be shown compassion.” (Matthew 5:7)
And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers.
the compassionate encounter with God
In the suffering of others, we encounter the presence of God. Active compassion for human suffering connects us with God. It connects us with God’s love within us. It connects us with the suffering God within our neighbor.
Matthew Fox said, “Compassion is the breakthrough between God and humans.” It is the fullest experience of God that is humanly possible. It is the way we act out the divine image in which we were created.
charity and justice
Compassion takes two forms: charity and justice.
The word charity is derived from caritas, Latin for love. It is the personal form of compassion. Its objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Samaritan:
- Felt compassion
- Was moved to the point of action
- Became personally involved
- Was interrupted / inconvenienced
- Took a personal risk
- Willingly covered expenses
Justice on the other hand seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. It is about transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassion. It is the social and political form of caring for the least of these.
The story is often told about townspeople along a river who began to see people floating downstream in distress, drowning, near death. With great compassion, they would throw out lifelines, row out in boats, and swim out to rescue the victims from drowning. The incidences, at first isolated, began to increase. Always, the townspeople would respond. Over time, they began to improve and expand their lifesaving abilities. Finally, one day, someone from the town suggested that they would better utilize their resources by going upstream to find out why people were falling in, or who was throwing them in, and try to prevent it.
This is the difference between charity and justice. Charity seeks to heal the wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”
William Sloane Coffin has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.”
charity over justice?
Both charity and justice are needed. The question is do we favor charity over justice?
In an unjust world, only the first response—charity—is acceptable to those in power. The work of faith-based charities is often lauded by government until those charities try to influence government policies to change the status quo.
Television journalist Bill Moyers has said:
“Charity is commendable; everyone should be charitable. But justice aims to create a social order in which, if individuals choose not to be charitable, people still don’t go hungry, unschooled, or sick without care.”
Moyers also said:
“Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth; justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.”
Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop from the poor Brazilian region of Recife said in the 1960s, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
And biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan once said, “Charity gets you canonized; justice gets you crucified.”
In the church, it is easier to talk about charity than justice. That is because justice gets us squarely into politics.
a God of justice
This link between compassion and justice leads us to another characteristic of a God of love and compassion—a God of justice. Certainly, the Hebrew Bible declares this to be true. We already saw how often the biblical writers declared that God loves justice. Now we are confronted by statements that justice is a central and defining characteristic of God.
“The LORD is known by his justice.” (Psalm 9:16)
“The LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice.” (Isaiah 30:18)
“I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” (Psalm 140:12)
[God says] “I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:16)
[God says] “My justice will become a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 51:4)
justice and love
If love is “a choice to do what is best for another person,” then love in a family involves feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating those we love. Likewise, love in the broader human family means insuring that everyone gets a fair, equitable access to these necessary means of life. Cornell West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Justice is the key to loving our neighbors, for justice is a form of love, and love is, in turn, a form of justice.
God’s anger at injustice
The biblical record contends that God’s anger is stirred up by injustice in human society. God condemns injustice not only within Israel, but also on a global scale.
We see this spelled out in Psalm 82. In this psalm, God is in the midst of a divine council, made up of the gods of all the nations. God rises to accuse the other gods of injustice to the weak and the poor.
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!
Because these other national gods do not know or understand the way of justice, the just order of the universe is undermined. The psalmist says that the foundations of the world were shaken. Justice, then, according to this psalm, is no less than the foundation of the earth and that which gives order to the universe.
According to the Bible, ustice is what God desires, what God demands. And social injustice stirs God’s anger at nations and their leaders.
But what kinds of things constitute social injustice?
- Activities that prevent people from having equal access to the basic conditions for life.
- Societal structures that favor the rich and disadvantage the poor.
- Decisions that benefit the rich and make life harder for the poor.
- Business practices that take advantage of the desperation of the working poor.
- Discriminatory practices that prevent certain groups of poor people from rising above their poverty.
loving our neighbor is political
To follow Jesus is to be political.
Loving our neighbors is more than a request to be charitable; it is a political command. It calls us to work for a just and equitable society. Justice leads directly and decisively to the realm of politics.
To proclaim the God of justice leads to a political stance. To avoid proclaiming the God of justice is to support the status quo, which is also a political stance. When the church proclaims and worships a God of the status quo, the church loses its prophetic voice. Unfortunately, that is by and large where the church is today and where it has been for the past sixteen centuries. Since Constantine, the church has struggled to find its prophetic voice—the voice of conscience that speaks truth to power..
But if the church is to be true to Jesus—if the church wants to follow Jesus—the church must once again regain its prophetic voice.
the redemption of the social order
The promise of God’s reign is the central story of the Bible: all of human life was created good, all of human life has fallen into sin, and all of human life is being redeemed. This includes every aspect of our lives—individual relationships, social relationships, economics, politics, even religion. The reign of God is a vision of a dramatic social transformation. It is a faith that God loves the world and intends to transform the world.
Within the last few years there has been a sea change of opinion when it comes to defining the reign of God. Many biblical scholars now refer to the reign of God as a transformed society lived out in the midst of the world. My own particular understanding is “God’s new society,” or even, “God’s revolutionary society.”
The reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus begins with personal transformation and ends with social transformation. The mission of Jesus is to transform both people and the social order.
Individual transformation involves emptying ourselves of selfishness and opening ourselves to God’s compassionate spirit. This is what is meant in John’s gospel by being ‘born again’. Social transformation involves ending the politics of selfishness that dominates our national life and embracing a politics of compassion.
Daniel Berrigan once said,
“The opposite of love is not hatred; it is indifference. When we have learned indifference, when we are really skilled and determined at the business of ignoring others, of putting our own well-being, or own options, first — we may be quite certain that at that point, life has become hell.”
transformation as a response to grace
Individual transformation is a necessary means to the end envisioned by Jesus, but it is not the end itself. This is the unfortunate shortfall of the personal salvation theology widely preached by the church today. It often doesn’t lead people beyond salvation to the reign of God. It frequently stops short with a proclamation of God’s grace without a call for a corresponding response of service or discipleship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace,” grace without response, grace without real transformation. “Costly grace,” on the other hand, is a response to God’s grace with a fundamentally transformed life that will surely lead us into conflict with the “powers and principalities” of this world.
a flea against injustice
Sometimes we feel far too inadequate to the task of justice before us. Our efforts often seem in vain compared to the enormity of injustice in the world. We despairingly ask ourselves, “What can one person do?” The answer is “Not much.” But we need to realize that when people work together for change, much can be accomplished.
Marian Wright Edelman once said,
“You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
the weight of nothing
Grahame Russell, a Canadian human rights lawyer based in Guatemala, told this story in his book, The Never Ending:
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coal-mouse [a small species of titmouse or chickadee] asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal-mouse said.
“I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away.
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself:
“Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace and justice to come about in the world.”
a church of justice
Individuals can join their voices to others in the call for justice in our world. There are many secular organizations that are actively engaged. But one of the largest and most powerful organizations—that of the Christian church—often seems only marginally interested in the struggle for justice in society. Prayers for peace and justice can often be heard in churches on Sunday mornings, but there is little call for a corresponding commitment to peace and justice on Monday morning.
Too many churches neglect God’s call to justice. Social justice is often irrelevant in a congregation focused primarily on individual salvation. Issues of justice become too political and dangerous to the status quo, and therefore dangerous to the comfortable worshippers in the pews who are often there only to have their own needs met. It’s a risky business, particularly for clergy.
Yet some churches do heed God’s call. They are the people who choose to follow Jesus, rather than simply worshipping him.
To be a church committed to justice, a church must be:
- The bearer of a vision
- Holding up a vision of how things ought to be
- A conscience for the world
- Critically assessing how things are
- A prophetic voice
- Speaking for God
- An advocate
- Speaking for those who have no voice
- A change agent
- Working for the manifestation of God’s reign on earth
working for justice is true worship
The central activitiy of nearly any congregation is worship. But the most elaborate rites and beautiful ceremonies do not please God when justice is neglected. This kind of Sunday worship is not what God demands or expects from God’s people. Here is what the Hebrew Bible tells us about true worship:
“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
“If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship.” (Proverbs 14:31)
According to the prophet Amos, authentic liturgy requires that the participants work for justice and peace in the world.
“I hate, I despise your worship, and I take no delight in your religious gatherings… Spare me the din of your praise singing; let me hear none of your strumming on guitars. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21,23-24)
We are told that God says: I reject your worship because of your lack of justice. God never says: I reject your justice because of your lack of worship. Human justice is the worship that the God of justice desires.
the Eucharist as a feast of justice
In a church committed to justice, the Eucharist (Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper) takes on new meaning: it is seen as a feast of justice.
Gabe Huck has said,
“The Eucharist can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. [But] It’s supposed to have a transforming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote.”
There are five elements of social justice that can be found in the eucharistic meal:
It is a meal of liberation. In three of the gospels it is linked to Passover—which is a celebration of liberation from oppression.
It is an egalitarian meal. It recalls Jesus’ table fellowship with the marginalized and outcast. At a table where Jesus is the host, everyone is accepted and welcomed.
It is a shared meal for a sharing community. In the early church the Eucharist was celebrated as part of a real meal shared by a compassionate community that met each other’s needs. At least one day a week, all were fed. The Eucharist is a call to share our food, so that no one is hungry. It is a call to share our talents and resources on behalf of those in need.
It is a sample and foretaste of God’s kingdom. In celebrating the Eucharist we are anticipating the day when all the world will be fed because of our compassionate actions for greater justice. The eucharistic meal should encourage and empower us to live the vision of God’s reign today. It should give us the strength to willingly accept the consequences of living that vision no matter what the cost.
It is a sign of transformation. In the Eucharist, we are reminded that the body of Christ was broken. The term body is both singular and plural. In this community gathered around this meal, we become a living metaphor for the body of Christ. The Eucharist is an invitation to us to go forth from the meal to break our own bodies and shed our own blood in the service of others, and the communal nature of the meal reminds us that we are not alone in this ongoing struggle.
Martin Luther wrote in 1519:
“When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy”
a life of faith
Being faithful means making the reign of God a priority in our lives. It means moving beyond ourselves to service to others. It means engaging in community. And it means proclaiming and promoting justice.
But as workers in the kingdom, we are also invited to suffer the consequences of living out this remarkable vision in the midst of the present fallen system. Our service, compassion, and advocacy in the search for justice and peace will be met with resistance by a world that doesn’t want to be fair or just or nonviolent.
“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)