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.

Unexceptional in Exile

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

One of the things about being in a wilderness or exile situation is that you really want to believe you’re not. Maybe this is what made the recently liberated Hebrew people susceptible to misremembering their years in Egypt. It could also be what made those same people, generations later, prone to believe the lies peddled by the false prophets: It’s not so bad actually. You’ll be heading home soon.

Last week I finished Margaret Regan’s beautiful and sad Detained and Deported in which she narrates the stories of migrants and immigrants caught up in this country’s ferocious immigration policies. She writes about the privately owned detention centers whose profits depend on how full they can keep their beds. We’re confronted with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous law man who was convicted by the Justice Department for “racial profiling, targeting, and discrimination” and who was promptly pardoned by President Trump before he could even be sentenced. Then there are the small Arizona towns which depend on the economic engine that is the local detention center; locking up immigrants is one of the more stable forms of employment in many of these towns. She also reminds us about the destabilizing impact of our trade agreements.

Orbelín, thirty-seven, also had been pushed out of his home – Chiapas, Veracruz’s neighbor to the southeast – but not by anything so brutal as the drug wars. It was economics that took his livelihood away. He had worked in maïz, cultivating corn in the fields around the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but the cheap Iowa corn flowing into Mexico post-NAFTA undercut the price of his Chiapan corn. Once the trade agreement was in place, Mexico went from a corn-producing to a corn-importing nation. Orbelín was one of the casualties.

The power of Regan’s book isn’t in the information she conveys. I knew at least something about the broad strokes of how we treat immigrants and migrants in this country. The gut punch is having it all put together in a coherent narrative. These are not isolated policies haphazardly strung together by a few xenophobic politicians. The stories Regan tells are not the exceptions; taken together, they are the rule.

Despite how severely we treat those who are desperately trying to cross our border – destroying water that is left in the desert for them, separating parents from their children, building political campaigns around the fear of immigrants – many of us won’t see this exile for what it is. In our imaginations, it continues to be a God-blessed, manifestly destined, and divinely exceptional place.

This instinct is what made the exilic prophets’ task so difficult. No one wanted to hear that things were worse than they’d willed themselves into believing. After all, what, would that admission say about themselves? Ourselves?

“You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.” (Hosea 10:13)

But this is what coming to grips with wilderness and exile requires. Not only do we open our eyes to the harshness of our situation, we have to tell the truth about how we’ve made it so.

(Photo credit: Peg Hunter.)

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.

Terror, Trauma, and Better Questions

Last week Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, was interviewed by NPR about the white evangelical presence at the U.S. Capitol insurrection. It’s obvious that, for Stetzer, this is a catastrophic moment which requires serious reflection and blunt questions. He asks, “How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?” Later in the interview he wonders, “What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.”

It’s right that white Christians would ask questions about ourselves after seeing so many of us represented amidst symbols of violence, conspiracy, and racial supremacy. I wonder, though about the timing and direction of our reflection.

In early 2017 the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wrote an open letter warning of the un-Christian and destructive aims of the Trump administration. Here are the first two sentences. Note the explicit call to action.

The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church had hoped that the Trump Administration would alter the views and policies espoused during the presidential campaign, but is disappointed and troubled by the decisions and actions taken during the early days of this administration, and vow to do all that we can to see that these decisions and actions do not last. We ask that every member of this denomination, and people who are committed to justice and righteousness, equality and truth, will join with us to thwart what are clearly demonic acts.

It took far less than a deadly insurrection to compel the bishops of the AME church to warn of the coming danger. It’s probably inevitable and necessary that white Christians are asking the sorts of questions suggested by Stetzer right now. But shouldn’t we have been doing this a long time ago?

Was an attack on our nation’s symbols of power and democracy really necessary to force this introspection? Why was the attack on the Central Park Exonerated not enough? The slander of immigrants from Mexico and Central America? Separating children from their parents?

The collective disinterest in these previous dehumanizing offenses hints at my other question about this reckoning. For many of the white Christians who were appalled by the scenes from Washington D.C. last week, the foremost question seems to be, How? How did we get here? This is the framing question for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s excellent new book, Jesus and John Wayne. Not surprisingly, the book begins and ends with our outgoing president and the rest is a compelling answer to that How? question.

But why is this the first question? Let’s review again that ugly scene last week. Whatever their specific aims, the mob successfully broadcast their racial/religious messages and symbols of supremacy. There’s nothing new about this. Listen to what James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America was a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’“

The white supremacist insurrectionists should be prosecuted. But any eventual convictions will do little to blunt the terror that was already brazenly unleashed. Every attempt to downplay the terror – as many Republican representatives have done – only exacerbates it.

Terror aims beyond its specific victims. It is the members of the community represented by the victims who are the real targets. Cone writes, “Whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness.” Terror is meant to traumatize communities.

I hear a lot of non-Black people who are outraged at the desecration visited upon the country by that white mob. Our sense of dignity or respect or civility or patriotism or justice or whatever has been offended. This is when we start asking our preferred question, How?

But many of us don’t see the terror and the trauma. Why not? Cone writes, “Whites acted in a superior manner for so long that it was difficult for them to even recognize their cultural and spiritual arrogance, blatant as it was to African Americans.” Supremacy inoculates us against the truest experience of the insurrection. We see but don’t rightly interpret what has been wrought. We don’t feel the shattering impact on flesh and blood. And so, rather than beginning with the intended trauma of that terrorizing mob, we make ourselves the focus. Again. Rather than opening ourselves vulnerably to the experience of suffering, we retreat to our analyzing and theorizing. Again.

How did we get here? We have to ask this question. But when we make this our first question – and often our only question – we are revealing just how incapable we are of answering it truthfully.

(Photo: Brett Davis on flickr.)