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.

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.

Loving Opposition

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

On Wednesday, two weeks prior to the election, our church began two weeks of prayer and fasting. For a template we are using a list of 10 commitments that Dr. King’s movement used in the non-violent movement in Birmingham. Each weekday we’re reflecting on one of the commitments, sometimes with slight updates, and a corresponding scripture passage.

Yesterday we looked at the third commitment: “Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.” The scripture came from John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” For being so simple and direct, both of these caused me some dissonance.

One of the reasons we called the fast was a sense that the days before and after the election will call for American Christians to demonstrate a particular kind of faithfulness and courage. The possibility of deception, chaos, and even violence is not hard to imagine given what we’ve seen in recent months and how so many influential voices are willing to stoke those destructive instincts.

What makes the third commitment feel particularly difficult to me in this moment is the way so many of my fellow-Christians have themselves aligned with or been animated by these dangerous leaders. What does it look like to believe that these sisters and brothers are so thoroughly wrong – and wrong in a manner that threatens lives – and still love them?

Of course, any struggle of mine to love is small when compared with what the participants of the non-violent demonstrations faced. In that case, the adherents pf Christ’s command to love were daily faced by those who made of themselves violent enemies. And yet, I’ve heard the testimonies of those who chose to love their enemies even as their bodies were bruised and beaten.

I find that what the philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about prayer helps me imagine a non-violent expression of love. He wrote, Prayer is never other than a sequel, a consequence, a response, to the word of invitation If it is not God who is speaking, then there is nothing. The relationship is begun before the idea of praying occurs to us. I never have the initiative. Otherwise, prayer would in fact be a discourse, a monologue.

Prayer, for Ellul, is a response to the word of God which has already been spoken. It does not create something but acknowledges what has already been created and revealed in Jesus Christ.

I hear a similar expression in Jesus’ command to love. We love as a response to the love that God has expressed in Jesus: “As I have loved you.” We do not create the circumstances which allow us to love others. That possibility has already been accomplished in God’s love for us.

King and those who committed to the way of non-violence, were opposed in their freedom struggle by mobs who claimed to share the same Christian faith. It was necessary and right for the leaders of the movement to state plainly their disagreement with these fellow-Christians and to tell the truth about the many ways the segregationists and racists were doing terrible damage to people and their communities. And still, they refused to enter this spiritual battle armed with anything less than love, “for God is love.”

This, I’m convinced, is what is necessary in the days to come. We need Christians of every race, ethnicity, and culture to obey Christ’s command to love one another. And the witness of the non-violent movement reveals that this command is best understood and expressed not from the comfort of a church pew but from wherever those who fashion themselves as our enemies present themselves. We can love these men and women because we stand on the objective foundation of God’s love for us. It’s the same reason we can place our bodies in peace-making opposition to those same people when they align with violence and deception.

The command to love one another is not at odds with our obligation to seek justice. They are, in fact, sustained by the One who calls us to both.

Your vote matters less than you think. But also, way more.

This was first published in my newsletter earlier this year.

No matter who wins the election, God is still sovereign! How many versions of this sentiment have you heard expressed during an election cycle? In my experience, this sort of exhortation is common in white Christian circles. It’s deployed to lessen partisan tensions and to remind people that politics should not be divisive.

Can we break this down?

On the one hand, yes! Of course God is still in control regardless of who wins any election. But why is it that we need to be reminded of something so ridiculously obvious. I think it’s related to how many of us have been shaped to understand the U.S.A. as a sort of Promised Land. It is exceptional, John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” In a land flowing with milk and honey we look to our leaders to be more than slightly better versions of ourselves; we’re looking for a source of redemption, salvation, and hope. Someone to affirm our greatness or to return us to it.

From this vantage point it’s clear that we do need to be reminded of God’s sovereignty over our politics. We are prone to forget and to make idols of frail and greedy men in suits.

But what does this exhortation sound like to those who’ve never been confused about this country’s identity? What about those for whom the American day-to-day feels more like imperial exile than the land of promise? It seems to me that this heart-felt charge might ring ignorant. After all, elections have consequences and not only of the ideological variety. For communities who have long suffered and survived this nation’s politics, the notion that any elected official can save us is ridiculous and demonstrably wrong. But just as wrong is the sentiment that there aren’t lived implications at stake on election day.

Let me try to get at it this way: When I hear white pastors assure their congregations about God’s sovereignty, I’m left wondering if they realize how their neighbors of color will be disproportionately impacted by foolish politicians and their equally foolish policies. And when I hear the Black pastors in our community urge their people to vote, I don’t question for even a second their belief in the sovereignty of God. After all, they’re clear about where we live and what we can actually hope for from our cracked and corrupt systems.

A friend of color recently described his voting philosophy as selecting the least worst options. There are a bunch of assumptions baked into that straightforward perspective and those of us who’ve confused imperial exile for the Promised Land would do well to pay attention to them.