Biblical Justice
Home Up

A woman in Haiti making biscuits out of butter, salt, water and dirt.

 

"If you want to do the work of Justice, find out what belongs to whom and give it back!"

 

Walter Bruggeman,

Hebrew Scripture Scholar

 

 

“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. Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth;

justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. 

 

Faith-based charity provides needed crumbs from the table.

Faith-based justice offers a place at the table.”

Bill Moyers

 

 

image:Ruth Fremson, New York Times

 

WHAT ARE WE TO DO?

...a Christian Reflection... 

 

As I read through the Old Testament, I see God's purpose for Israel to be the establishing of a society governed by the absolutes of justice, mercy and compassion.  The Law is replete with commands of the Lord to look after the orphan and the widow, and goes to great length to establish mechanisms for doing so, because God knew that left to itself society would rather exploit them than care for them.

 

Of God's purpose for Israel, Samuel and Sugden say in 'Evangelicals and Development' (Ron Sider, ed., p.55):

 

"He called a community to be the sign of the kingdom by demonstrating God's action of Law and promise in their life. The community was to exhibit

 in her economic, social and political life the operation of God's Law and promise, breaking down and building up, putting to death and renewing.

 

The purpose of his Law in the Old Testament was to prevent structures from exploiting the poor and to provide protection and relief for the poor

 and vulnerable. The Law did not preserve the status quo, but sought to change it and open it up for the ultimate acceptance of God's promise."

Walter Bruggeman, in 'The Prophetic Imagination', speaks of the "alternative community of Moses":

 "Whose role was to act as a prophetic voice to the nations, and that the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a

consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us."  

 

He then goes on to argue that this same purpose energized Christ's ministry, that Christ came to establish the kingdom of God -

in the hearts of men, to be sure, but equally within the socio-political and economic structures of this world.   

It is my conviction that Christ's redemption was intended to encompass not only man's vertical relationships (man-to-God, God-to- man) but just as importantly his horizontal as well (my relationship to my fellow man - my "neighbor"). 

Here, I humbly take exception to those who say, "Christ always first cared for people's immediate predicament whether pain, hunger, fear, whatever before going on to teach them about the Kingdom."  If you mean by this that needs such as hunger, homelessness, health, and the like are certainly important and to be addressed out of Christian compassion, but they are really only important insofar as they prevent men from seeing their true need - a relationship to God through Jesus; it is this latter - the winning of men back to God - that is the church's true vocation. 

This is where, to my mind, Western Christians have dichotomized the spiritual (vertical) and physical (horizontal), declaring that redemption consists only of the former.  Salvation means the establishing of a proper relationship to God; man's relationship to man will correct itself once the vertical relationships are restored.  

     And this is precisely where I disagree. I am convinced that true redemption encompasses both the vertical and the horizontal, and in (more or less) equal measure.  Any schema which stresses the one component at the expense of the other is unbalanced and distorted. Thus, the liberal social gospel of the early 20th century, which stressed social action and justice but ignored God, was fundamentally in error.  But equally in error is any theology which declares that redemption consists only in the vertical, and this is precisely what I perceive most modern theology to be doing. .   

     Now, all this would remain a purely academic debate were it not for the fact that it is precisely this sort of theology which is responsible for a lack of true commitment (and indeed a sort of blindness) toward the fundamental issues of justice, compassion and the human rights of our neighbors.  I look out upon the cries of a hurting humanity and grieve that the church of our Lord is failing to "do unto" its neighbor as Christ intended.   Largely, perhaps, this is a consequence of the wealth of the West which has allowed Christians the leisure to do abstract theology.

    Theology, you see, was never meant to be done in isolation from the issues of life.  Paul, for example, was a "task theologian" who did theology not as abstract reflection but in reaction to and in dialogue with the life-situations he encountered.  We, in our leisured, abstract, philosophizing, have so sterilized and formalized our theology that we have divorced it entirely from the human situation; we have become anesthetized to the very pain and anguish which God intended to inform and shape our theology.  We have ceased to grieve as we were meant to grieve.    

What would I call upon you to do, then? 

 

Look with me upon the griefs, the aches, the anguished cries of the world in which we live.

 Look out, and grieve. Look out, and ache. Look out, and feel its pains. 

 

 But most of all, understand that Christ, our Lord, lived and died and rose again, not only that we might be redeemed to God,

but that we might be redeemed to one another as well, and that we might come to live out that redemption

 by building a community of justice and peace.

 

 

 

Calvin Culver

CCN 

 03/18/03

________________________________________________________________________________________