Worship → Justice → Worship

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I shared ten characteristics of biblical justice. (If you’re interested, I expanded the the list into an article for Missio Alliance.) Of those ten, I’ve found myself regularly returning to this one over the past year: justice begins in worship. Today I want to tell you why I think this one keeps surfacing for me and why I hope those of us who are waking up to injustice will lean into worship.

When it comes to justice, my most significant formation has come through relationships with Black women and men and their churches. What I’ve noticed is that, for many of these Christians, the pursuit of justice is theologically and experientially tied to worship. I mention this for two reasons: 1) the connection wasn’t always intuitive to me and 2) there are plenty of Christians for whom it is and theirs are the voices we need to pay closest attention to.

Now, about that connection. God does not simply command his people to seek justice, though he does. God is just. “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.” (Isaiah 5:16) To really understand justice, according to Scripture, we need to know God. And one of the primary ways we know God, not simply know about God, is through worship.

Animated by the Holy Spirit, we proclaim our singular allegiance to the Lord Jesus. We adore him above each of our desires and longings. We join our voices and lives with God’s people and testify to the One through whom all that was created derives its being.

In worship, we encounter that righteous God. This is the God who cares that the scales of justice are balanced, that land is honored with rest, that animals – domesticated and wild – are respected, that workers are dignified, and that vulnerable outsiders are protected.

The friends and churches who have formed my perspective know how to worship. Proclaimed allegiance and sung affection are priorities. This wouldn’t surprise many white Christians, but here’s what might. I’ve stood with many of those same friends in the middle of protests, marches, and die-ins as we agitate for justice. I’ve been invited to their tables as we plan, strategize, and fund raise for justice for our communities. Worship and justice, in these space, are a seamless garment.

And here we need to ask the obvious question. If our worship does not lead to justice, who exactly are we worshiping? Surely we have remade the God who severely condemns injustice into a benign deity who affirms ill-gotten wealth, privilege built on oppression, and the stolen land we delusionally claim to own.

Many of us remember God’s command to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We might forget, though, that this is a command to worship, a contrast to the people’s empty festivals, assemblies, and offerings. God wasn’t asking his people to stop worshiping in order to do justice. He was exposing their actions for what they were, an idolatrous form of worship which led to injustice. Like many of us, it seems Israel had remade God into their own self-serving image. As a result, justice was neglected. Worship too.

There’s something else though, something that, for the Christian, makes the relationship between worship and justice wonderfully and permanently tangled. As Vince Bantu writes in Gospel Haymanot, “God’s desire for our liberation is so that we may worship Christ alone.” Justice points beyond itself, to its source. Worship leads us to pursue justice, yes. But also, justice fulfilled leads to worship.

Frankly, I’m nervous that as some Christians are waking from their privileged slumber, they will overlook the importance of worship. Because their previous forms of worship ignored God’s true nature, they will assume that justice is separate from allegiance and adoration. They will construct methods and strategies that pay only the faintest lip service to the righteousness and justice of their God.

I understand this misguided tendency. It’s hard to pursue what you’ve never seen. But just because you can’t imagine this beautiful tangle of worship and justice doesn’t mean that a whole host of Christians haven’t been living it for generations. For many of us, the journey to justice needs to begin with finding some guides and friends who know the way. Thankfully, there are many who know this truth in their bones, that justice begins and ends with worship.

(Photo credit: Luis Quintero)

Ten Characteristics of Biblical Justice

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week I spoke (online) at a church in California. They had assigned me the topic of biblical justice which ended up being a good excuse to think about what we might actually mean by that phrase.

Often, in my observation, there’s a certain kind of Christian who talks about biblical justice so as to assure other (nervous) Christians that they’re not dabbling in social justice. (Why that certain kind of Christian is nervous about social justice is a newsletter for another day.)

But despite this strange use of the word “biblical” to limit what is meant by justice, I am a Christian and one those for-real-for-real Bible-believing ones at that, so it seems reasonable that there could be some constructive ways of thinking about how the Bible helps us imagine justice. I ended up sharing ten characteristics of biblical justice with the California church, and I’m going to share them again here in a condensed form. Mostly I’m interested in what you think I missed. What’s another characteristic that should be on the list?

OK, without further ado, here’s my list along with a scripture or two for each.

1. Justice is God’s idea. (Deuteronomy 16:20) Justice might be new for some, but it’s been God’s idea since the beginning.

2. Justice is affirmed by Jesus. (Luke 4:18-19) For lot’s of good reasons, most of the Bible’s direct language about justice is found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t take long, though, to see how Jesus affirms his Father’s expectations that his people will seek justice.

3. Justice begins in worship. (Isaiah 5:16) Christians who’ve only recently woken up to the biblical concern for justice can easily miss the connection with worship. Don’t be that person.

4. Justice demonstrates God’s sovereignty. (Deuteronomy 4:40) God desires that all of the creation would flourish under a people living justly. When we live that way, we are demonstrating God’s caring sovereignty over the world.

5. Justice is social. (Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 25:1-5) That Leviticus passage is one of my favorites in the Bible. No, really! Here we see that God’s understanding of justice is one that includes all of the social fabric of the creation. Individuals matter but, biblically speaking, you can’t engage the individual outside of their social situation.

6. Justice prioritizes the truth. (Exodus 23:1-3; John 14:6) Christians will refuse to prioritize the comfort over the truth. (Which ends up being a lot harder than it sounds.)

7. Justice prioritizes the oppressed. (Exodus 20:9-10) I’m always amazed that the sabbath commandment includes “your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Those who were most vulnerable to exploitation were given the same weekly gift of non-productive rest. Could our own society be any more different?

8. Justice humbles the powerful. (Matthew 23:23-24) This privileged white man has way too many stories to illustrate this one.

9. Justice is a normal part of the gospel-anchored life. (Matthew 19:8-10) Zacchaeus is so instructive: confession and repentance lead him to do justice. Justice is not occasional for the Christian, but wrapped up in the normal stuff of the gospel on which we depend daily.

10. Justice leads to reconciliation. (Romans 3:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) What does justice have to do with reconciliation/forgiveness? is a question I’ve been asked way too many times. Those of us who are rooted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus understand the importance of justice being satisfied for genuine reconciliation to be accomplished.

All right, that’s my very incomplete list. I’m curious to know what you’d add.

Manifest Destiny and Black Faith

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Not long ago I noticed how often over the past few years I’ve been returning to the biblical themes of wilderness and exile. There’s a lot to say about these themes and I hope to explore some of them in this newsletter, but for now I’ll just say how much more sense our circumstances make when interpreted through the lenses of wilderness and exile.

It seems to me that the only reason this way of seeing isn’t intuitive to some of us has to do with how we’ve imagined ourselves in – or on our way to – the promised land.

In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglas makes the case that this country’s sense of manifest destiny has its origins in the mythology of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, an exceptionalism that came to be imagined as racial whiteness tied to Christian belief. To access America’s promises, one had to acquiesce to the myth and, if possible, become white.

To be white, then, is to be the object of God’s delight, in no small part because whiteness expresses the will of God. Douglas mentions Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton who, in a speech in 1864, claimed, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.”

To summarize, racial whiteness came to symbolize God’s divine sanction to subdue the earth. Manifest destiny was evidence that this people – white people – were God’s people and that this land was the land of his promise.

Few of us today hold to this warped theology but I’m not sure we’ve adequately reckoned with how significantly our imaginations have been shaped by it. That is, many of us, on a level we’re mostly unaware of, assume something of the promised land in how we interpret our daily frustrations and longings. So we overlook the injustices and inconsistencies that might betray our actual location, something more akin to wilderness or exile. We satisfy ourselves with a narrative which legitimizes unearned privileges and rationalizes someone else’s suffering. We act as though a bit more work and/or prayer will finally pry open the door to the promises of the American Dream.

Well, some of us are prone to this sort of misinterpretation. Douglas writes about an alternative.

Black faith was forged in the midst of the perverse and tragic paradoxes of black life. It is a faith, therefore, that does not ignore the unthinkable and irrational terror of black living. It takes it seriously. It does not belittle or romanticize the pains and sufferings of black bodies. It does not revel in illusions and false hope. Neither does it allow black bodies to give into the hardship and to be overcome with despair. Indeed, the faith born in slavery provided a weapon to resit and to fight against the religiously legitimated tyranny of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

I don’t think it’s hard to agree that the Christian life, in general, is less like the promised land than it is wilderness and exile. It’s something else entirely though, for those steeped in racialized, divinely articulated exceptionalism, to imagine our way to the sort of resiliency and hope Douglas describes. For this, we need the example and tutelage of those who never believed the myth, who’ve always been clear about the true nature of our collective circumstances.

Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

During our ministry staff devotions this week we ended up talking about what our Christian responsibility is to those in positions of power whose attitudes and beliefs about racial justice (among other areas) are damaging to people. These powerful individuals could be a parent, a boss, or someone whose own access to racial privilege grants them a measure of power.

It’s not a theoretical question. I’ve had lots of conversations in recent months with people who’ve been wrestling with exactly this. How do I respond when I see, overhear, or experience a racially damaging perspective or action? After this initial question comes the follow-ups: Who might be impacted if I don’t respond? How will my silence be interpreted? What will be the personal cost if I speak up?

One of the ways I think many of us respond to these sorts of scenarios is by being diplomatic. Our strategy is to determine which sort of response will be most effective in getting the powerful offender to change. So, when that racist thing is said or done, we start asking how questions: How can I get this person to see what they’ve done? How can I gain this person’s trust so that I can say the difficult thing? How can I bring up this racist encounter without alienating them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very good diplomat. I’m unable to keep anyone at the table and I certainly can’t know, on any given day, what is just the right way to point out that instance of racism.

In the end, much of our attempted diplomacy ends up being little more than negotiating around the edges of an inferno. Or some polite conversation amidst unmitigated theft and plunder.

I’ve come to believe that Christians oftentimes take the diplomatic approach in order to avoid telling the truth. By focusing on the how we overlook the what. What damage has been caused by this person’s words or actions? What lie has been advanced? What truth needs to be articulated? As followers of the embodiment of truth, our loyalties are to the Truth, even when it’s impossible to speak that truth diplomatically.

During our staff conversation I said something I’d not quite verbalized before: I think the Holy Spirit is the diplomat. We are called to speak the truth in love. It’s not our responsibility to determine whether the truth will be received or not; this is something that God alone can do.

So let’s not confuse our timidity with an effective diplomatic strategy. Let’s pray for courage and commit ourselves to speaking the truth all the time. (Try this, for example: The president is not investigating election fraud; he’s attempting to disenfranchise voters of color.) And then let’s trust that the Holy Spirit is more than capable to make even the most powerfully heard-hearted person tender to the truth.

(A postscript: None of this is easy, especially for those of you who will experience painful repercussions for speaking truthfully. Here we need two things. First, wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Wisdom, unlike our attempts at diplomacy, never tells half-truths. And thankfully, the Spirit wants to give us wisdom. Second, for those with some racial privilege, the constant reminder that whatever blow-back we experience from telling the truth about racism pales when compared to, you know, experiencing it.)

Hoping in Herod: An Election Day Lament

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. (Acts 12:21-24)

This quick narrative is among my favorites in the Bible. King Herod has come down to Caesarea and a group of his subjects who’d previously been a nuisance to him now sought an audience to flatter his fragile ego. “They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’“

The timing of this little story is important. Acts is a book all about the spread of the early church and, until this point, very little has been said about Herod or any other governing authority. But then, in chapter twelve, Herod begins to persecute the church, including imprisoning the apostle Peter. Peter is freed from his chains by an angel, but the point has been made: the young church can no longer escape the attention of political power.

It’s interesting, then, that a few verses later Luke sets up the scene in Caesarea. Having flexed on the church, Herod now basks in the blasphemous praises of his subjects before suffering a dramatic and ignoble death. Herod, it turns out, despite his fawning crowds, is not all that impressive.

And then, revealing why he included this strange occurrence at all, Luke adds that God’s word continued to flourish. Neither Herod’s persecution in life nor his humiliation in death were enough to stop the Christians from announcing the arrival of God’s reign.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about the grief of the past few years. We’ve had our own Herod on the throne, a fragile and corrupt man whose need for the crowd’s adoration has proven insatiable.

But this is not the source of my grief. After all, we’ve known plenty of Herod’s kind of ruler in our history and there will certainly be more to come. No, the grief is provoked by the fawning crowd, singing the praises of a violent and deceptive man prone to dehumanizing those over whom he exerts his fickle power. This assembly is filled with my fellow Christians, heirs of the word of God which extends the divine welcome not because of this world’s kings but despite them.

I’ve spent some time with Dr. King’s reflections over the past few weeks and I hear this grief in him too: the lament over the silence of his supposed friends, the white Christians who continually urged him to slow down, the many Christians whose faith seemed to make them more violently opposed to their neighbor’s flourishing.

I’m not sure King ever got over that grief. I’m not sure we should either. God’s vision for his people is beautiful: reconciled to one another, bound together in our baptismal waters, a witness to Herod that his oppressive reign will not last. How can we help but to lament when we don’t find our sisters and brothers offering comfort and hope in Herod’s destructive wake but standing with the crowd, urging him on?

God’s love extends to the crowd; about this I have no doubt. I’m no more worthy of the love of God; about this, too, I’m sure. In fact, it’s this shared experience of God’s love which has made these years so hard. The gospel of Jesus’ kingdom is going to spread and flourish regardless of the outcome of this election, but too many of my own kin have pinned their hopes to Herod.

There will be a lot of reactions to the election today. For Christians though, our witness compromised by another arrogant and manipulative ruler, lament will mark our response no matter who wins.