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.

The Tension

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Life is full of irony. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted, funny irony, and at others times it’s an irony that causes you to enter the tension. We want to be successful in business, but for many it comes at the cost of a healthy family life. We long and fight for justice, yet many products we buy are unjustly produced. We long to eat healthy, yet most of the “good” tasting food is full of sugar, fat, and grease (at least for my taste buds!). We want to be unified, yet we have this pull to label, box in, and identity on a certain side. We want to serve the poor, but when we do, we often realize it’s we who are being served. We pray for answers, but when the answers come, they aren’t what we’re looking for, so we miss it. We hate racism, but when we truly address it we can’t deny the small (or large) seeds of racism in ourselves. Our children are living in relative comfort, while other children are rocked by a bomb, sitting alone and bloody, scared, confused (I guess this isn’t irony as much as tragic disparity). As Christians we brag about being servants of Christ, but when we’re treated like a servant, we become angry and feel entitled to better treatment (again, this is at least true with me…) Irony, yes. Irony that produces tension.
Tension: the state of being stretched tight. These issues, when exposed to us, seem to stretch us tight, create discomfort, and the tension sets in. “What do we do with this?” Most of the time, the easiest answer is to find a way to relieve the tension, so we run to one side of the issue and neglect the other side. Problem solved. Until the next issue arises, and if we’re honest with ourselves, these tense issues rear their ugly heads every day. We can’t run from the tension, but we can deny it, numb ourselves from it, remain ignorant. We can… but could it be that these are the very things that destroy our souls. 
This is why Jesus constantly drove people into the tension. Time and time again when asked questions like, “What’s the greatest commandment?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Do we pay taxes or not?” “How do you inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answers created tension. He didn’t give a pass to those looking for a quick way out or a quick answer through a doctrinal loophole. He pressed them to be honest, to live in to the tension of honesty, self-reflection, humility, sacrifice; to die to the habits that were killing them, and oppressing others. 
Most of the answers we are looking for in life, aren’t easy ones, or else we would’ve found answers already. And most of the time, the partial answer is mysterious and left open ended. It’s in this place of tension, where we can’t fall back on programmed responses. It’s here that we are thrown into the depths of our desires, our beliefs, and we are left to wrestle with who we truly are. Are we going to live in to the mystery, the tension, and trust that we aren’t the ones holding all things/all beliefs together? Are we going to allow the process of unknowing to shape us into a people who truly know the one who does hold it all together, at the cost (or risk) of being labeled by your own tribe as “going off the deep end,” according to your tribe’s standard, or are we going to settle, run to one side of the camp, and stake our flag on the “right” side. 
It’s in the tension where we have the opportunity to become properly tuned. Jon Foreman gives a great metaphor for tension, likening it to guitar strings that are strung tight enough to hold a tune. It’s in the tension where we play on tune. Strung too tight, we bust. Not strung tight enough, we make awful noises. If you have honest friends around you who aren’t just a fan of yours, they’ll tell you when you’re  about to bust, or if you sound horrible. When you are offended by a friend or acquaintance, you are then offered the gift of tension. Who are you going to choose to be? Are you going to run to one side and stake your flag, or will you live in to the tension of teachableness, humility? This is all too convicting for me, even as I write this. 
Right now, in this season, we have a great opportunity to live in to the tension of life without running to one side or the other, claiming the other side as demons, or wrong, or lost. I confess, I’ve done plenty of flag staking, and I am not proud of it, and neither has it produced any beautiful lovely sounding music. It won’t, because it’s not tuned. Today, we have opportunities to embrace the beauty of mystery and unknowing. To admit we’re not the ones holding it all together (or to admit that our country or tribe isn’t the one holding all things together). 
Jesus constantly broke the mold of what was right, and I’m convinced followers of Jesus are called to live in to the same ethos, to passionately stand in the middle, confidently living in mystery and certainty. Embracing the tension in our own lives first, then embracing others who are struggling to find the confidence to stand where it hurts as well.
The glory of God is revealed through a broken man. Tension. 
The cross, the greatest act of love. Tension. 
The tomb becomes a womb. Tension. 
Beauty is found in death. Tension. 
Ashes produce life. Tension. 
The way up is down. Tension. 
The way to access power is to give up power. Tension. 
To become the greatest, you must become a servant of all. Tension. 
Gain life by losing your life. Tension. 
“With that in mind, I feel like dying to myself is a daily task necessary for true abundant life.” Jon Foreman

The Body of Christ

In the book of Ephesians, the word body in the Greek language is sṓma, which means “an organized whole made up of parts and members; a body, a collective mass.” In other words, the whole body of Christians collectively, of which Christ is the head. This word shows up in the book of Ephesians many times (1:22-23; 2:15-16; 3:6; 4:4, 11-12, 16, 25; 5:23, 30) (see also Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13, 27; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).

There is a very striking illustration in 1 Corinthians 6:15 regarding the body of Christ (the Church), where Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” If you are a disciple of Christ, then you are a “member”, joined as a part of the body (family) of Christ, and the parts of your body are parts of Christ’s body. And this body feels what the other parts of the body feel. It also hold the body accountable to take care of itself when it’s hurting, neglecting itself, hurting others, etc.

We’re not Christians, we’re ‘family members’ joined by and with Christ, with a mission to make His beauty and worth known over every earthly treasure. Jesus Christ has a body here on earth. It is called the Church. She has legs to go to the places that Jesus would go. She has arms to do the work that Jesus would do. She has mouths to say the things that Jesus would say. She has backs to carry the burdens that Jesus would carry.

Paul said that his aim in life was that “the life of Jesus might be made known to others in his mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). In other words, his aim is that his body might make Christ’s body real to the world. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you follow me, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Love, not self-centered interest, or nationalistic commitment over the good of your neighbor.

Since this is not alway the case, Jesus calls out religious short-sightedness in Matthew 23:23c: “…you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” It’s this kind of neglect from among those who identify themselves under the term Christian, that misrepresents Jesus’ body.

It seems we as a church in all our forms and commitments, have often neglected the weightier matters of God:

– We’ve been far too focused on success…

– We’ve been far too concerned with entertainment and comfort…

– We’ve been far too consumed with material goods…

– We’ve been far too obsessed with being the best…

– We’ve been far too competitive with our neighbors…

– We’ve been far too promiscuous with others…

– We’ve been far too neglectful to the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner

– We’ve been far too quick to conform to the patterns of this world…

– We’ve both far too blind to injustice and the imbalance of powers…

– We’ve been far too committed to the American dream

God’s people are willing to humble themselves, receive the correction, and let God’s spirit change them from the inside out. We’ve all blown it. We’re all among those who are far too something… Christianity isn’t about perfection, it’s about death. God’s people are willing to die, to admit when they’re wrong or have blown it.

They are people who embrace brokenness, who boast in their weakness, and look for ways to serve the least, the last, the lost. Again, this is not a perfection competition, but a death sentence. A death sentence that places the Jesus follower into a tomb that becomes womb. The new birth that takes place after the death, is like ashes on forest floor, oil on dry skin, water in a dry desert, forgiveness from an enemy. A new life is willing to be poured out and consumed like the elements of communion, so that others might have access to God, or be refreshed, included,  The bride will not always look like this, but she also will not blatantly ignore these corrections either. Her heart will be soft and teachable, eventually.

The late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, writes this in 1967 with her message being addressed to the church: “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”  “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter”, The Catholic Worker, January 1967, 1, 2.

The body is the bride. She is messy. She is adulterous. She does not act like a bride of a king at many times. She has members, and those who claim to be members, and they both shall remain together for now. She is often entangled in affairs that makes the groom cringe. She is in many ways lost. She needs to run back to her first love. She needs a conversion of the heart, not a reform of methods or a GOP who can give her the freedoms she wants. It will take humility and love to move forward, and I know God’s people will rise up to the challenge.

The Cost of the Life You’ve Always Wanted

This summer my wife and I decided that we wanted to make the most of each weekend, and for us, making the most of it was camping as much as we could. Yes, we voluntarily signed up for packing for 6, setting up camp, putting out fights and complaints from our kiddos, and sleeping on hard, stoney ground (which used to be easier when we were younger). Crazy, not really. It’s the Phoenix heat we’re escaping. We’ll do anything to get out of the heat come summer time. It’s been a great summer, and now our kids start school in a couple weeks and routine will soon set in.

One of the reasons we wanted to get out was to ditch the heat, but something that motivated us even more was to leave the frantic pace of the city, slow dow, and learn to listen and see and smell and taste things that we would normally look past in the every day life of the big city. I have thousands of stories I could share about our summer, but one very small moment this past weekend near Williams, AZ has stood out to me. We were camping off of a forest road near White Horse Lake. We decide to take a walk and explore the forest. I’d like to say it was a great walk, but the family was divided, some of the kids were bored and one child was angry with me and all the awkward family dynamics were in full swing.

We were determined to push through it though, so we kept walking. As we did, we passed a tree that at one point in it’s life had died, or was burned at the top, as you can see in the pic. My wife stopped us and drew our attention to the tree. She has a canny eye for seeing things behind what you see at first glance. Notice the trunk, and how it just stopped growing at some point. All the glory that it promised to display has ended. The thick trunk no longer growing. I’m not sure what was going on when this tree’s life took a turn, but if you continue looking at the photo, you will notice a few more things.

There are about 4-5 shoots that have sprouted off the side of the trunk, and are reaching for the sun, now taking the water that the main trunk originally gulped for itself in years past. Water is dispersed now to younger, smaller shoots keeping alive the once promising tree. And they’re healthy shoots, with green leaves, working hard to provide a canopy in the midst of an ocean of other trees. Something else that is beautiful about this photo is all the new trees that were given birth by this once promising tree that lost the glory it once sought after. Dozens of new trees, growing, seemingly thriving, contributing to the earth what they were meant to contribute: oxygen, life, beauty, commitment to struggle through the elements.

There’s so much to say regarding this photo, and I would love to hear what others see and experience as they look at it. Some things that stands out to me as I look at this and think of the message it was speaking to me on that slow day up in the woods are:

Death gives life. Moving out the way give others a chance to get in on the action. Luxuries must be sacrificed to some degree for others to have the chance to participate. Glory doesn’t always look pretty. Beauty is diverse and mysterious. Death isn’t the last word. Sacrifice will rob you of luxuries. Inclusion means we won’t have the whole pie to ourselves. Sharing sounds nice when we’re teaching our kids to share, until the cost of sharing means we lose what was once “promised” to us. 

We live in a culture that gives lip service to kindness and sacrifice, but when the very cost of being kind and sacrificing is the cost of our own comfort, then we say, of course not orally with our words, “To hell with kindness and sacrifice.” We say this with our lives, our actions, by the way we treat others and neglect many evils right in front of our eyes. We protect our own privilege at the cost of others not having the same privilege, and we make up really great sounding ideas as to why we choose to live this way, vote that way, neglect those things, etc.

We love the Christian idea of God dying so we can live, but when the call to die comes to us directly, we say, “To hell with the Christian idea of dying.” Now again, we do not dare say that outrightly, because that would sound too harsh and make us feel like we’re bad people or we don’t believe in God or something. But our lives are lived harshly. We preach resurrection, but try to get the resurrected life before the cross. We keep broken people at arms length saying they’re not healthy for us to be around, and then turn around and say to the broken, dirty ones, “God bless you, be at peace” while the heavens weep!

We want the good life without the sacrifice. We want change, but not at the cost of our comforts and luxuries. We want glory that looks good to the eye, and loathe the brokenness that brought about glory to the Son. We want to be the large, glorious tree towering in the forest proving to be a work of beauty and strength, and look down upon those who don’t have it together like we do.

We want change. We need change. And for things to change, we must die to what we think is the good life, the glorious life. We must take responsibility for the injustices we’ve ignored or perpetuated (individually and corporately). We must allow the seeds of humility and death to be scattered all over the forest floor with new life, life that will take a portion of the pie away from us.

We’ll have to learn to share again. We’ll have to be willing to be re-ordered. We’ll have to allow the time and space and place for corrupt systems to be re-storied and re-constituted to include the ones that have been cut off in the past at the cost of the luxuries of the dominant culture. We’ll have to be willing to hear differing opinion without lashing out in anger. We’ll have to be confronted with our own privilege and not be so fragile. We’ll have to learn a new way to be human.

It will take a million deaths, but the life that will be re-born will be much more beautiful and intoxicating than anything we have seen in the past. This is what the life and death and resurrection of Jesus preaches and promises. This is the way forward. This is the life you’ve always wanted, but are still deciding if it’s worth it or not.

Holy Week Observations

Thursday: Power laid down. The master who has more power than any other human would know what to do with, shows us what it looks like to lead. Instead of using power to have others serve him, he wraps a towel around his waist and becomes lower than the lowest servant. He breaks bread with his betrayer, showing us what it looks like to observe communion. He sets a new standard for neighborliness and elevates love above all else. The greatest farewell speech ever is given in a small room with only a handful of attendees. Something is radically different about this Passover feast.

Friday: Betrayal. Abandonment. Confusion. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Resentment. Greed. It all took place throughout the tnight. Today, the earth goes dark, the way things are will continue to get terribly exposed, and we can’t deny that something with humanity is terribly wrong. Today, the ugly and brutal cross will serve as the means and the sign, of radical love, forgiveness, peace, and a path towards the renewal of humanity. All because of a God who gets us, who understands our frame, our hidden scars, who is passionate about us being with him as a reunited family, and was not afraid of our mess, absorbing it all into himself and offered us keys to remove the shackles that have kept us locked up, numb, vulnerable. Today we learn of the tension of the “good” Friday.

Saturday: If we’re truthful with ourselves, our longings, our desires, all the letdowns in life, today is the day of embracing the tension. The tension of what’s been lost, of what’s yet to come, or of what’s been promised but you haven’t seen it yet. It’s the tween time, it’s the time that’s hard to explain and it seems foolish to keep hoping. It’s the day many of us give up and give in. Let that emotion sink in today. Feel it, ponder it, share it with others, but know the story isn’t over. There’s green pastures coming, but it’s going to come in a way that’s totally unexpected, wait for it, ask for the eyes to see it today, in the midst of the tension. This is where beauty is born. Midnight is coming, and in the darkness, salvation will come.

Sunday: Early this morning, when it was still dark, in the quietness of the midnight, the world shook. A body that should’ve been decaying acted in such a way that is so utterly otherworldly. The most vile wickedness this world had to offer, the God-man absorbed, killing his body, setting in motion the first death among many, that would turn wickedness into goodness, ugliness into beauty, death into renaissance, a tomb into a womb. Angels were there to witness it, the women were the first to believe it, and the religious were the first to deny it. This is the day which has been forever debated, but regardless of the debate the celebration will always go on.