One thing, more than any other, has captured my attention in the last several years. Its beauty, complexity, and force overwhelm me at times. I’ve caught myself at times being either giddy or afraid just thinking about it. And I think I understand a little more about Jesus when in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) he says that we are blessed when we hunger for it, because I am energized to talk about and work for it. What is this one thing? Justice!
Did you know that the Bible talks about justice well over 1,000 times (a very conservative count)? Or that Jesus confronted the authorities of his day with their injustice 40 times? We are told over and again that the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8) and executes justice (Deuteronomy 10:18); and that, like God, we are to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and hunger/thirst/seek after justice (Matt 5:6 & 6:33).
But what exactly is justice? And why do I care about it so much? Justice, as I am learning, is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It is love writ large. In the same way love and mercy should define individual relationships, justice is the biblical term for what should define community. Beyond acts of charity towards individuals, justice creates patterns of behavior, systems of community, and relational interactions so there is no longer need for acts of charity. If a ministry of mercy would feed the poor through a food pantry, a ministry of justice would explore the systemic reasons why poverty exists in the first place, then seek to change the system so poverty is no more. The Bible closely ties justice to righteousness, and defines both words as that which creates and sustains right-relationship. And so to “do justice” is to do that which is necessary to establish right relationships at all levels within a community.
The book Kingdom Ethics suggests that justice has 4 dimensions: 1). “Deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience; 2) lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed; 3) stopping the violence and establishing peace; 4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and the refugees to community.”
Embracing an ethic of Justice
As a Mennonite, my church passed on to me a solid pacifist ethic that centered on interpersonal nonviolence and nonparticipation in international war. But in general my ethic did not include justice. My faith had little room to process such social realities as racism, sexism, homophobia, economic justice, political corruption, environmental degradation, judicial inequality, health care, globalization, or poverty. I saw the world (and myself in it) made up of individuals with the power to choose, rather than as systems or interconnected communities with a corporate identity. Justice demands seeing the world as one interconnected community, where the actions of the individual affect the reality of everyone.
How have I come to the point today where I fully embrace and work for both peace and justice? I work for justice today because I have been swept up by the beauty and power of Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom God longs to establish. Ours is a kingdom where lambs snuggle with lions, the mountains and hills are leveled, dividing walls are broken down, all are welcome at the banquet table, neighbors and aliens are loved like we love ourselves, debts are wiped clean, injustice is punished and violence defeated, and religion is cleansed from being the purveyor of cheap grace. I love justice (Isaiah 61:8) because it is how God intends the world to be!
I work for justice today because I find myself more and more praying the prayers of Isaiah, the Psalmist, Jesus and Paul. “Rise up, O God! Lift up your hand! O Lord, you will do justice for the orphan and the oppressed (Psalm 10)!” These prayers boldly acknowledge there is brokenness in the world, address a God who longs to fix the brokenness, and call us to participate in the solution. It remains impossible for me to ignore that God’s heart beats with justice.
I have a long list of reasons I have embraced an ethic of justice in my adulthood: mentors, books, awareness, our move to Houston. But the core root of my conversion has been Jesus himself, who continues his unrelenting invitations for me to follow him. As early Anabaptist leader Hans Denck said so well, “no one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.” As Christ was in the world, so are we called to be. As I draw closer to Christ my peace ethic has grown to embrace concern for all of God’s creation. Last week I drew the distinction between being a pacifist and being a peacemaker, this too has been part of my journey as I follow Jesus ever more closely. For peacemaking and justice are parallel terms, if not synonyms, and both are rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
On Sunday we conclude our worship series on being Pilgrims in the City by looking at what it means to be socially just citizens. I invite you to look at the texts for the service (Amos 5:21-24, Micah 2:1-2 & 6:6-8, Mark 12:35-13:3, Psalm 146) and to ask yourself the following questions for further discussion:
• When did I fall in love with justice?
• How do I define Justice?
• Where do I see injustice in our world, and what would it mean for someone to “do justice” in response?
Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ!