Thoughts About Justice and the Christian Life…

There is no peace without justice while we are living “east of Eden.” If shalom (universal peace and flourishing ) is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human), then peaceableness is the top floor of shalom and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will (read my thoughts about peace here).

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

The words “righteous” and “justice” seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared “right and good” before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s rebellion and brokenness because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice) with his sacrifice.

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s inner and outer brokenness, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of simply saying: justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God.

At the least, in the talk of renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and repairs made because of the wrongs done are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, sojourners, the homeless, the naked, the hungry and the afflicted. And this justice was never a nationalistic priority that made one nation or one people group more important than another. Actually, we can see in the narrative of Scripture, when Israel took their nationality too seriously, or saw themselves as more important or elite and selfish, correction swiftly followed. Humans, universally, who are a part of the demographics of God’s special concern are to be an integral part of our every day relationships.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power, and in many cases, Western Christendom has been more about law and power than justice and service.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our brokenness, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for all, deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created, both internally and externally. God brought justice to humanity through the advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The righteous demands of the law, or in other words, the legal expression of God’s justice, were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the “unjust,” that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer making our home in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, condemns all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice does not make sense to a world committed to the four P’s: power, progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness, and within this world view, many forms of churches in the West have been engrafted.

When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the four P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice, and it’s hard to build a church when downward mobility is one of the chief engines of church growth. This new ethos must be present in the renewal of the Western church.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the four P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in churches then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the P’s within the old institutional church model, and begin courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability of church business.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. The promise of comfort is very seductive, especially when faced with needed changes in lifestyle to begin standing against injustice. Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to get in on the fight for “justice.” It’s not attractive nor easy these days to stand for what is just and right, nor is it always clear what we should be fighting for.

I hope in this short article I gave you the beginnings of a blueprint with which to pray and meditate about what justice looks life in your life and among those around you. We are living within a contemporary Christian culture that has lost much of the ancient orthodox faith that has painstakingly been passed down to us and made Christian worship more about events, projects, and business, but not justice. I believe this “norm” must be renewed to have not just a biblical view of justice, but a biblical life of lived justice.

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Refugees, Immigrants, and the Accessible God

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It is often in the place of the dominant culture where freedom is most fully experienced. I know this may still be surprising for some, but in America, where we were established on the freedom and the right to pursue happiness, the freedom that was dreamt of only became a reality for those who had access, or for those of whom access was created for; and let’s be honest and clear… access was not created for all. And yet, there is a voice, a faint one, from the margins, of the lonely, tired, forgotten ones, crying out, “Love me…”

For those without access, alternative social communities had to be formed to give voice to the voiceless and powerless, to fight for the rights and freedoms that are experienced by the dominant culture, of which are usually the ones creating more boundaries around their freedom, in fear of losing power, prestige, or possession. Walter Brueggemann calls this the “religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation” The Prophetic Imagination, 17.

The king (dominant culture), usually, does not want a free god, rather, he wants a god he can control, because if god would ever disagree with his rule, he can persuade and manipulate him to do as he wishes. The result is a god who is not free in the sense of being accessible to all. The god of the “royal consciousness” is absent to the minority, the marginalized, the immigrant, the refugee. We expect this to happen within structures and systems where a Christian worldview isn’t the prevailing belief, but when this “royal consciousness” resides within the Church, among God’s kin, His children, we begin to have some confusion within the family.

Again, I want to remind us that God is radically committed to giving access to those who have none (i.e. while we were dead and in sin, Christ died for us “so that” we could have access, so we could be included… to live!). When God’s freedom is limited inside feudal-type systems, especially these systems created from within the household of God, one could imagine the disconnect many have with Christians closing doors to those on the margins.

The God of the Bible is always moving to the margins, exploiting those who oppress the margins, bringing alternative ways of living for those on the margins, and making access for those on the margins to be included, to have space to belong. Indeed, it is from the margins that the thrones of false kings are overturned, and where the true King arises.

One could argue that much of the Old Testament is filled with God focusing “only” on the Israelites, making it about this “one” people. But to see this would be to neglect the thrust, or what some scholars would call, “the arc of the narrative of Scripture.” The arc of the narrative of the Old Testament is pointing “one” people who will represent the “many,” which will eventually, point towards one person from that one people group, who would make access for all peoples.

From Exodus (22:21-22), to Psalm (86:9), to Isaiah (Is. 60:3-4), to Malachi (Mal. 1:11), and all scattered in between, we read of God’s heart to welcome ALL the nations, to make room for the sojourners, the poor, or those running for their lives (Deut. 4:41-43). God’s heart has always been to unite the nations, that His name would be great among them, and a family reunion wold once again be realized by kin from across the globe.

And for “such a time as this,” in a day where there’s a plethora of corrupt leaders that are driving out humans from their land, evil gangs terrorizing, promising to slaughter and humiliate whoever stands against them, nations making profit off the poor, and powerful stakeholders trying to control world destiny, families are being displaced, seeking refuge and security, landing in cities all over the world. A very small percentage of these families are landing in the U.S., in a city near you. Even among those who are fleeing, there some wolves (real or perceived), pretending to be poor sheep running for their lives, only to infiltrate other nations to poison them. Yet, there is still a narrative arc that points towards love, acceptance, access, and belonging for those who are part of the household of God. It is terribly dangerous to live out of a Christian worldview, and sadly, few Christians are living into this.

I have found myself in many conversations with Christians who have called me foolish, lost, blind, naive, and the like, all because I think we aren’t opening ourselves up as much as we should as a nation to refugees and immigrants. But Scripture has a different understanding of being foolish, and so should God’s people. I feel we’ve protected ourselves from the suffering of these suffering sojourners through policy, fear of terrorism, nationalism, and good intentioned blog posts like this one :-).

As a nation, I can believe how we could feel protective and not intimately join in the suffering of the plight of brothers and sisters from other nations. I get it. We have a lot to loose in America. Freedom is under attack in new ways, threats that we’ve never faced are now before us, the economy is fragile, and the nation is divided.

It is a different way of live within the household of God. Our leader is rich, full of resources, is not trapped by geographic boundaries, is not motivated by fear, does not see death as losing, isn’t represented by one church or logo, and love and belonging are his weapons of choice, especially love and belonging for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the poor, the sojourner. Sadly, within the household of God we spend a lot of time talking about loving our neighbors in crisis, and little time living it out. We’ve allowed the culture of our day to rub off on us so much that the fear of loss, self-protection, and discomfort from suffering has handcuffed us. I know this is not true for everyone in the house, but when the vast majority of the family members aren’t getting it, when is the proper time to call this a crisis of faith?

The family is in critical condition and in need of resuscitation. We’ve lost sight of our first love, and new gods have stolen our hearts and we don’t believe it when people tell us so. The “royal consciousness” of God’s people has been high-jacked by a lower consciousness that sees self-preservation as more important than sacrificial-love.

God creates access for all. This is what He does, and his household does the same. The fullness of God’s access is best seen through the lens of Jesus. The God-man, coming to remove the barriers we’ve made to access God, became human. Think on that for a moment, the God of perfect glory stepped in to the margins by becoming human. He was born to Mary, an unmarried teen mom, who soon after her birth became a refugee in Egypt. When it was safe to return home, He grew up on the wrong side of tracks, where nothing good ever came from, right? Never went to formal school, worked His father’s trade as a mason/carpenter, promising never to amount to much, except to be an honest tradesman (something that’s hardly valued these days).

At the proper time, He left the business, had no where to call home, and lived off the generosity of others, calling a ragamuffin group of shady characters full of pride and anger to follow him. He brought worth and value to the women who followed him and included them in his work which was risky, since he was single, right? He touched the untouchable leper and the outcasted bleeding woman, slowed down long enough to listen to the improper yelling blind man and offer him what he needed, stayed in the home of a single Samaritan woman who got around with the fellas, and welcomed the tears and treasures of prostitutes to be poured over his body, so that he might be anointed to die the next day on a tree that represents a cursed man, dying for a cursed people who cursed the Him, only to be marched outside the gates, in the margins, outside the city center, to be crucified and left to die.

Then he went to the most ultimate marginal place, death. Jesus went there too, only to convert the tomb into a womb, thus giving life, value, worth, dignity, and access to not just those on the margins, but those all the way to the palace too!

God went to the margins, because it’s there where everyone has access. The rich can go serve the poor, or fancy their favorite spot whenever they like. The poor do not have the same access to the rich man’s part of town and favorite places. If the God-man was born in a castle, only the powerful and privileged would have access to Him, but thanks be to God, He went to the margins, became a part of the margins, and invites us in our new life to follow Him into the margins. This is the God of the Bible I’ve come to know, and it’s why I’m persistently writing about and living and moving into the margins of our culture.

We present an inaccessible God when do not stand and fight for the suffering sojourners. When we neglect to see their plight and ignore their cries, we represent to them a God who does not hear and who is not concerned with lower-level dwellers who aren’t citizens of America. We don’t hesitate to call them illegal or terrorists, and never once have we slowed down long enough to acknowledge their stories, validate their pain, and cal out the injustice of the home situation that has left them desperate. This is a huge problem with in the household of God.

My prayer is that Christians in the church would be able to see this same God that moved to the margins and be challenged to move to the margins as well, however God might challenge them, especially in regards to the refugee and the immigrant. I pray that people within the household of God would prophetically create alternative social communities for the forgotten ones to belong.

“Crisis” is too small of a word to describe the state of humanity right now. The Church can’t do this alone, but surely the Church can lead out in it and be a display people modeling the love and movements of our leader and savior, Jesus. God help us live into the margins and learn to be radical lovers of our new neighbors, who many of them have been part of some of the oldest churches in the world. God has brought the nations to a country with freedom of speech and religion, and it has not been an accident. Now the Church is responsible to display the accessible God in word and deed.