Justice


A quick search for at chron.com confirms my suspicion: tis the season for redistricting. Sunday’s Opinion section had a great visual of how important redistricting can be in swaying votes one direction or another. On Friday the Houston Chronicle editorial  talked about Texas’ “improper standard or methodology” for redistricting that did not adequately “reflect the interests of voters.” All parties are up in arms to gain as much as they possible can. I understand that. But what’s really at stake is fairness, equality, and democracy. John Branch‘s cartoon from the San Antonio Express-News captures what seems to be going on right now.

I bring this up because redistricting -or something like it – is at the core of the Advent season. All four of the gospel story tellers quote Isaiah 40:3-4 to define and defend the ministry of John, who came to prepare the way for Jesus.

‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.

In other words, his job is to change the landscape. What does redistricing mean for this Gospel prophet?

The first thing he does is show up in the wilderness, dressed like a weirdo, or at least an outsider. Both are things that stamp him as being on the margins of society. Jerusalem, the city, the temple, the palace, they were the Centre, where all the power was. The ancient Jews saw Jerusalem as being at the very center of the universe, the locus of God’s activity. Everything good came from the Centre; including all meaning in life. Margins were for outcasts and social deviants.

But this is precisely where John shows up! Under the downtown I-45 viaduct looking homeless, powerless, and out of place. And here, at the margins, he does and he says something extraordinary: He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

We moderns read right over this not knowing how forgiveness operated in 25CE. You didn’t kneel gently down beside your bed and pray the Lord your soul to keep. No! You had to take days to travel to Jerusalem, to the temple, and buy an expensive animal, and pay for it to be killed at the right time in the right way by the right people. How are sins forgiven? Sins are forgiven at the Centre, by the seat of power, by practicing Temple Piety. It didn’t happen at the margins, in the wilderness, or where most people actually lived. Only at the Centre.

Forgiveness of sin was a major business. A Religious-Industrial Complex you might even say.

But this message of forgiveness from John? This… was not that!
The Margin is not the Centre.
John is not the religious establishment.
Baptism is not expensive Temple Piety.

Religiously. Financially. Politically, John has just turned the world upside down. In doing this he fulfills the very content of the message Mark was preaching as narrator. Level the playing field. Down is up, up is down. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
To those on the margins, his was a message of Comfort. “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

But to those in the Centre, his was a message of repentance: “every mountain and hill will be made low.”

And I’m drawn to John’s integrity: what John says is supported by what John does. The two can not be separated. John didn’t just walk the streets shouting and singing “Comfort.” Oh my no. Had he done only that, history would not have shined on him. No, he rearranged the orders of society in such a way so that people not only heard comfort, it was their reality as well. Comfort was the new order. And everyone was invited to live into this new reality.

What is perhaps most intriguing is who responded to John. From “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem…” From the margins and from the centre people came streaming to hear news that is good for everyone, for all of us. In other words, both those who had a lot to gain from John’s redistricting plan and those who had a lot to loose responded to the good news of comfort and equality for all.

Will it be the same for Texas? Will we see redistricting in light of the advent story, and allow power to be shared with those in the margins?

Whether you come from the Margins or the Centre the message is the same for us all: God’s mission of justice and human flourishing changes the landscape of our world. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, raise valleys, lower hills, and challenge the ways we’re accustomed to living

You might be surprised that sweatshop labor is in your backyard. I was! Sweatshop stories are typically from overseas and surround well-known companies. For instance, according to laborrights.org the official inductees of the 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame are: Abercrombie and Fitch, Gymboree, Hanes, Ikea, Kohl’s, LL Bean, Pier 1 Imports, Propper International, and Walmart.

But that’s all a world away. Right?

Faithfully demonstrating against sweatshop labor and wage theft

 

Sadly, no. I joined about 60 others Friday afternoon at a Heights area wholesale clothing company on 25th Street to confront the owners for their illegal and immoral practices. Two employees contacted The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center after the company failed to fully pay them their last couple of weeks of employment. What was learned is shameful.

While working at the warehouse, the workers made shoes & bags for production, sorted large clothing shipments, and loaded and unloaded merchandise crates. They worked 6 days a week sometimes up to 12 hour days, often with no breaks and in a cramped space with no fire extinguishers, marked exits, or adequate ventilation, among other safety and health violations.

Bad enough, right? Not being paid for working in sweatshop conditions. But there’s more! In talking with the employees it was discovered the workers were never paid overtime and were both making below minimum wage. In other words: their wages were stolen.  They are currently owed over $6,500 in stolen wages.

These two workers who are part of the working families that help create our city’s economy, deserve more than sweatshop working conditions and stolen wages. They deserve more than having their former employers run out the back door when presented with documentation of their abuses. They are only two of thousands of Houston workers subject to these types of corrosive jobs which threaten the well-being of our communities and economy.

Wage theft in Houston is prevalent, but unquestionably illegal. The Texas Legislature passed stricter provisions against wage theft which took effect last month. Questions linger as to District Attorney Lykos’ willingness to pursue cases against employers who steal wages. But there are no questions that the Houston community stand in solidarity against this behavior. Area faith leaders, Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, Good Jobs-Great Houston and OccupyHouston folks all stoodFriday with these two workers who courageously confronted their employer. And we’ll keep doing so as needed.

I stand with workers because as a Christian the God I follow loves justice. And as I’ve said elsewhere, “The work of justice ultimately demands only one thing from you: that you believe God.” Do we believe God when he says worship (ie fasting) is less important than justice? God asks in Isaiah 58

Is not this the fast that I choose: 

“We demand justice” & “Stop Wage Theft” posters as The Peace Pastor tweets out updates on the our meeting with the fleeting employer

 

   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

As Jose Eduardo Sanchez, with HIWJ said, “All religions believe in justice, and we work with faith leaders to ensure workers have the respect and dignity they deserve.” Indeed. Many will read this on Sunday, your key day for worship. As you do, consider that God values justice more than worship.

If you or someone you know has had or suspects you have had wages stolen, please contact Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (713.862.8222). They can and will help! If you are interested in learning more about wage theft, standing in solidarity with workers, advocating for living wages or safe working conditions, or going on a delegation like described here, contact Laura Boston at HIWJ: lboston@hiwj.org.

Do justice Montrose and Westheimer, love kindness Midtown and Beltway, walk humbly Space and Energy city! You’re be blessed if you do & blessed if your persecuted. And together, we’ll be the remedy to the world’s great problems.

First published on Marty’s Houston Chronicle The Peace Pastor blog on October 23, 2011.

The other morning we were singing the African American spiritual “Be still, God will fight your battles (if you just keep still)…” My four year old son, ever the consistent ethicist, blurts out, “NO he won’t, because God’s not mean, fightings mean.”

That’s true, we’ve worked hard to teach our kids that fighting, hitting, kicking, biting, pushing or just plain being mean are not acceptable behavior. Sometimes words are the most destructive thing we can do, like using the word “hate.”

So why would it be ok for God to do those things?

Terribly, some in the church think so. For instance, a celebrity preacher from Seattle recently made headlines with his in-your-face sermon, shouting how much God hates people. Here’s an excerpt:

“Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is “meritous” [the word he's looking for here is "meritorious"]. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”

Or let’s not forget that the world is supposed to end today in a blaze of glory, according to one self-proclaimed prophet. Harold Camping, in the news for his missed prediction of doom back in May, is back today spouting a sad doctrine of God’s mean and hate-filled behavior toward us. In his twisted theology, earthquakes, death, chaos, violence and pain are all in store for people who don’t believe exactly like Camping.

But is God really mean? Does God hate, and kill, and judge like these men suggest?

Not according to most Houston area Christians I know. These groups reveal God as a God of love and not violence or hate. They live out a love for all people, expecting nothing in return, and are committed to the common good.

  • Newspring is a center for social entrepreneurship and business nurturing in the Spring Branch area of Houston. Because of their faith in the God of love, they are creatively and realistically addressing the instability in our community.  Robert Westheimer says in their promo video, “Newspring’s mission is economic development. Our vision is a community that offers people good jobs. Where stable incomes keep people out of the food pantry’s and resale shops; where children can stay in the same school.” 
    Good jobs are practiced through the Newspring Art studio, where local high schoolers are encouraged to create and sell artwork; through the annual Business Plan Competition at Houston Community College (Spring Branch campus); and through business development and microlending. Newspring practices God’s love not just for the whole person, but for the whole community.
  • Healing the Brokenness is a cooperative ministry of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. They live out God’s love by addressing some of the most pressing issues of our day, such as violence, poverty, racism, migration, economics, etc… Their vision is “Bringing together Christian leaders from across racial, socioeconomic and denominational lines for a time of fellowship and learning with some of the world’s leading scholars.” On Monday morning October 24 Michael Emerson of Rice University will speak on the topic “How Race Works in the Contemporary U.S.” A leading scholar on Race, he “will explore the factors shaping racial inequality and race relations today, and consider how we can constructively address the issues of brokenness.”
    This lecture series clearly identifies hate and mean-behavior as being outside the nature of God, and speaking words of healing into those places of pain.
  • Ten Thousand Villages is one of the world’s oldest fair trade organizations, begun by Mennonite missionary Edna Ruth Byler whose love for God and people sought “sustainable economic opportunities for skilled artisans.” This store spreads goodness across borders by supporting global artisans through the Christian faith.Ten Thousand Villages is a fair trade store in Rice Village (2424A Rice Boulevard, Houston, TX 77005) that sells organic fair trade coffees and chocolate, clothing, jewelry and household items, toys and decorations. Volunteering, shopping, and living Fair Trade is a direct expression of God’s love for all.

None of these groups operate out of a theology of God’s hatred. None of them think God is mean.

On the contrary, the very point of their existence is to embody a God of love through both word and deed. So celebrate life, love, and faith today. And together, let’s work to put an end to the mistaken ideas that God is mean, or hates anyone. It’s just not true. And thankfully, there are plenty of folks who know that already. I hope you’re one of them!

Houston: God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

P.S. I’m glad you’re still here!

“For God so loved the world.”

This is, to me, an absolutely astonishing sentence; nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around.

I grew up not loving the world, but fearing, rejecting, separating from, needing cleansed from, even hating the world. Non-Christians, Catholics, the poor, “townies”, communists, immigrants, the Chinese, Arabs, homosexuals, military personel, casinos, slums, cities, governments, culture, rock and roll… I could go on, were all on the list of unlove.

And so for God to love the world, is incomprehensible! People? Sure. Individuals? You bet. But the world: in all its diversity, pluriformity of cultures, ways of expressing itself, hungers, desires, passions, loves and beauty? That God loves the world is truly the kind of thing that can transform the Church today.

It’s certainly transforming my faith, character, and lifestyle. And thankfully, I’m not alone.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove chronicles The Next American Revival which will connect “the gospel with society’s deep need.” He looks at various movements in history that have believed ”the stuff Jesus said matters not just for the after-life, but for our lives here and now.”  Examples are early American evangelists during the industrial revolution, the “health and wealth gospel” of pastors such as Joel Olsteen, the freedom movement in South Africa, emergent churches, progressives and those labeled “new monastics.” This is a great article worth a read.

Wilson-Hartgrove claims much of these movements have a single event that binds them together: 9/11, the 10th anniversary of which is fast approaching.

Unanticipated in so many ways, that irruption of violence on U.S. soil was a wake-up call to a whole generation that something is deeply wrong with our world—particularly, with its social systems. Of course, the tragic events of 9/11 were only symptoms of deeper problems. But those symptoms opened our eyes to systemic connections between religious extremism and extreme poverty, between unjust wars and unsustainable economics, between dependence on oil and global climate change. Eventually, an analysis of these social problems begins to connect the dots, bringing more and more of us to a frightening conclusion: we can’t go on like this. Something has to change.

I certainly remember how 9/11 shifted the tectonic plates of my young adult soul and sense of vocation. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d be a lead pastor in Houston, Texas had those towers not fallen. And after the tragic events in Norway Friday, I feel the depths of this post more than ever (I originally wrote this Thursday to publish Sunday morning).

But Wilson-Hartgrove is not alone. I’m inspired over and again by the depth and breadth of love I see in followers of Jesus who find themselves on the fringes of dominant Christian culture: Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Shane Hipps, Rob Bell. Many of these names are familiar. Harry Jarrett Jr.’s name might not be. But it should be.

In a confessional, probing blog Jarrett wrestles with our quietness regarding the East African drought in his post: A dilemma of presence: Ours and Gods, Why we need to do something about the famine. Jarrett laments how a group of churches in his area spent 400 people hours on an issue related to the “purity” of the denomination (“What the issue was is not important,” he says). But he laments he has no idea how to spend 400 hours today trying to share water with those in need.

I too feel his sense of weakness at addressing this massive issue. His passion and love for the world shine through his lament. You can feel it dripping through the pixels. Listen to what he says about our world’s great needs:

In the horn of Africa, it is food and water. In Lancaster county [PA],  people are loosing their jobs in droves. Where you live, it is likely something else. I believe God is present there, in those places, wondering why we are discussing issues that will most certainly be completely spoken to when we are dead and gone. I believe that in the end we will know fully, see fully and understand fully, when we stand fully in the presence of God. Why must we resolve everything now when we are told we will get the “right answers” later. Why are we not focusing on loving God and loving our neighbor as our self? What should be so simple as a mission has truly become a mess of interpretive mayhem. We offer a meaningless message to a world in need.

I for one am all for purity: purity of mission, purity of love, purity of participation in God’s mission, purity of being missional, purity of presence. In my view, to be pure (as Jesus was pure) is to focus our 400 on East-Africa, the loss of Lancaster jobs, and the real stuff of life. Some famous guy (was it Barth, Chambers, Bonhoeffer?) said “Purity of heart is to will one will.” If God’s one will is to love the world, how can we call ourselves pure and do anything else?

Thanks Jonathan and Harry for showing me more today than ever before what John meant when he said “For God so loved the world”!

There is no dispute about God’s imperatives regarding the workplace. Human dignity in the workplace is an essential belief in the Abrahamic traditions. Indeed, over and again we find Godself at work: at work in creation, at work in redemption, at work in the lives of God’s people. So its clear when Pharaoh exploits and hu­miliates the Israelites how completely counter to God’s intentions this is. As was Solomon’s terrible treatment of the kingdom workers building temple, palace, and empire for a man who practiced forced labor and systematic theft of wages. So bad was Solomon’s treatment of the worker that God himself was forced to intervene, ripping the kingdom from the hands of Solomon’s descendants.

The record is not kind to Solomon,  “King Solomon conscripted forced labor our of all Israel, the levy numbered 30,000 men…. (1 Kings 5:13-15).”  In chapter 12 we see the kingdom divided over this precise point: economic injustice, labor rights, fair treatment of the worker, wage theft. How have we missed this story for so long?

Nehemiah too tells the important story of how God’s people pushback against economic injustice. You remember the story: coming out of exile God’s people begin the long, hard work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and city. The upper class begins to steal the vineyards and fields of the people, the currency of the day. But Nehemiah, God’s ordained faith leader, said “We are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves,… we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others…The thing you are doing is not good (Nehemiah 5:5,9).”

No! This thing you are doing, stealing wages, oppressing the poor, forcing labor; “is not good.” Indeed! Throughout the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions you find that the beating heart of God is justice. The liturgies of the ancients are filled with the reframe “justice and righteousness,” justice and righteousness make their way into history, prophets, writings, commentaries and sermons. God, says the prophet, “loves justice (Isaiah 61:8).”

From “Do not steal” (Exodus 20:15) to “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6),” support for the worker is clear.

  • Jeremiah 22:13 “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.”
  • Deuteronomy 24:1-5 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”

When the Abrahamic traditions define the ideal Person, the person we are all to strive to be, they introduce us to the character Job, who is in the incarnation of justice. Listen in to Job 29:11-17

I delivered the poor who cried,
   and the orphan who had no helper.
13 The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
   and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
   my justice was like a robe and a turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind,
   and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy,
   and I championed the cause of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
   and made them drop their prey from their teeth.

According to Eugene Peterson, we find the dignity of work throughout the NT story as well. “Jesus occasionally shows up in synagogue or temple, but for the most part he spends time in the workplace. 27 times in the gospel of John Jesus is identified as a worker. ‘My Father is still working, and I am also working (John 5:17). Work doesn’t take us away from God, it continues the work of God.”

In his greatest sermon Jesus mentions justice 6 times. Jesus tells us we’re blessed if we hunger for it & blessed to be hated for it. He tells us to strive for it more than anything else in our life and cautioned to have more than the religious leaders of his day who tithe but neglect the weightier matters of justice.

Seems pretty important to the guy we call “Lord.” In a blog earlier this week called “My wages are being stolen,” commenters accused me of being a communist, having never read my Bible, advocating for the overthrow of Texas industry, and hating Jesus. Why? Because I talked about pursuing justice. But if Jesus loved it, shouldn’t I?

The work of justice is long, but exciting. That’s why I’m here, to ask you to join the cause, and to equip you for the work of justice. It requires bravery and courage, an understanding of the issues and a willingness to be public. But the most essential element is much simpler than that. The work of justice ultimately demands only one thing from you: that you believe God.

This refrain is being heard every day in every corner of our city. Wage theft in Houston is exactly what it sounds like: the stealing of money from someone who has rightfully earned it. And Houstonians are notoriously creative in their ability to steal from their employees.

Take the story of Oscar, for instance. I met Oscar last Thursday at a speakers training event for faith leaders on the topic of wage theft. Oscar worked hard as a construction worker for a local company. As construction workers, he and his fellow employees work in some of the most dangerous conditions of all area employees. Texas has few laws regulating safety for construction workers, has no mandatory drink breaks, and is the only state without mandatory workers compensation. Perhaps this is why we lead the nation in deaths among construction workers, witnessing a worker death ever 2.5 days. So it might come as a shock to hear that after working several weeks in this job, his employer began demanding overtime work but refused to provide overtime pay. As time went on, Oscar’s wages began to fall, and finally dropped below minimum wage. Not paying overtime and paying less than minimum wage (both completely illegal) are two excellent ways to steal wages, if you’re in to that kind of thing. Misclassifying workers as “independent contractors,” or taking inappropriate deductions are two more creative ways Houston’s employers steal wages.

Today Oscar is owed $3,500, or half of what he earned, wages stolen from him by his employer. His employer has not shown up in court to give Oscar his due. Oscar, a low-wage worker, is forced to make a tough decision when his wages are stolen. Do you invest substantial time and money (that you’ve earned but not received) in recovering your stolen wages, or do you cut your losses and find another job? Oscar chose to advocate for what he and others have earned with help from the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.

When I first moved to Houston after Hurricane Ike, I didn’t know the widespread systemic nature of wage theft in American cities. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard the phrase “wage theft” at all. Labor unions, workers rights, strikes: these were as foreign to me as the top ten ways people actually steal wages. I certainly had no concept that what the citizens of Wisconsin and Michigan and other states are fighting for today is what Texas has already taken from its workers!

But I knew the heart of God beats for justice and that economic justice is a central tenant of the world God is working to create (read more here). And then I began to hear the stories of individuals like Oscar’s whose lives have been wasted by the theft of their rightfully earned wages. And after hearing the stories of individuals, I began to awaken to the truth of the 2010 Wage Theft Report written by Christine Kovic, “Rather than a few bad apples – or employers who do not follow labor laws – the barrel itself is rotten.” It’s not isolated to individuals, its of the nature of the system itself!”

The more I learned, the more I support the threefold approach to combating wage theft found in 2010’s Wage Theft Report and in Kim Bobo’s book Wage Theft in America.

  • Support for unions
  • Advocacy for change of labor laws and enforcement.
  • Direct Action as citizens, which consists of visits, delegations, vigils, and protests.
Houston Faith Leaders on Wage Theft Delegation

 

 There is a place, a powerful place, for faith communities and faith leaders in the fight against injustice. I’ve been involved in direct action and seen employers bend in the presence of faith-filled morality. I’ve watched workers whose wages have been stolen recover not just money rightfully earned, but dignity and community. I’ve sat in downtown high rises and church libraries discussing Biblical justice with company CEO’s and employers who make multi-million dollar salaries. Why? Because ultimately, according to our book, its our job, our call, our demand that people are provided justice. It’s ultimately not the states, or the unions primarily responsible to confront economic injustice or promote fair and living wages: its our job. Wage theft will never cease to be a problem for our workers until the faith community rises up to speak, and act.

If you or someone you know has had or suspects you have had wages stolen, please contact Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (713.862.8222). They can and will help! If you are interested in learning more about wage theft, standing in solidarity with people like Oscar, advocating for living wages or safe working conditions, or going on a delegation, contact Laura Boston at HIWJ: lboston@hiwj.org.

Also published on Marty’sHouston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor.  Follow Marty on Twitter.

In my last blog post for the Chronicle – Your thoughts on Israel-Palestine? – I asked you to share not what you believe, but why you believe what you believe. Your answers are as diverse as anticipated, ranging from scripture to history to politics to personal experience. For those who answered, Scripture played a heavy roll. But you most certainly did NOT use the same texts or core arguments. Indeed, what I said in the blog is clearly true of us, “There are, if its not obvious, different ways of looking at the past and the future of Israel and Palestine…Well meaning and committed Christians differ radically on what our faith suggests we should do.” Responders based their reasons in at least 5 very different Biblical principles:

  1. God’s ancient promises to “The Chosen People” are clear, literal, and final.
  2. God’s future promises regarding the End Times (particularly Armageddon) condemn non-Jewish nations and exalt Israel.
  3. The Ethics of Jesus life and teachings call into question the use of force and imbalance of power between these two people groups, and demand a response of nonviolent love.
  4. Justice as equal and right treatment of all peoples. Justice demands fairness, equitable distribution, and the righting of social wrongs (such as power imbalance).
  5. The Bible calls us to a new people-hood irrespective of national borders, centered on Christ. The point is not to “choose sides” but to seek total reconciliation.

As Jill Carroll asks in her excellent blog this week called My Bible Your Bible, “Are they reading the same Bible?”

She points out contradictions within the Bible, complicating quick easy answers to problems as complex as this. We see what she means (“that the Bible is not a completely harmonious text”) in the answers provided by my great readers. All of which are valid arguments, rooted in the text we claim to share, and tethered to a tradition much deeper than the individuals who posted them.

So what do you do when the Bible contradicts itself? Is Carroll right, we have no choice but to “highlight those [texts] we agree with, beat our enemies over the head with them, and claim that God is exclusively on our side”? Perhaps. But another option, rather than throwing the Bible out altogether as she seems to suggest (Bible is “highly problematic” and of little use in political discussions.), is to have a conversation on the validity of how we read our Bibles. Is one way of reading (what is called “hermeneutics”) better and/or more faithful than another?

This question raises a host of other questions, especially for a guy like me who sees peace as central to my faith, placing me on the fringes of Christendom. In one way or another, each option above has answered these questions from Bible professor Marion Bontrager, Hesston College:

  • What is the relationship between the two Christian testaments? Is there both unity and disunity between them, with Jesus and the New Testament superseding the Old Testament? Or are they “flat,” with God having two wills at the same time, one for personal and one for corporate ethics (and therefore no contradictions like Carroll outlines)?
  • Is Jesus the norm for Christian social ethics or is his life largely irrelevant because he came for a “higher” purpose?
  • How did the early church do their social ethics? Do Jesus and Paul agree? Were the church’s and Paul’s ethics from Jesus; or did they borrow from reason and society given they didn’t see Jesus teaching social ethics at all?

As much as I appreciated Carroll fleshing out Biblical contradictions, I’m not sure I agree that the Bible is “highly problematic” and of little use in political discussions. Let’s take only the first question above and see what clarity comes. Jesus clearly claims in his most well known sermon that he came to “fulfill” the law; then uses the formula “You have heard that it was said…But I say…” six times to reveal what that means. Clearly, Jesus sets himself above the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul seemingly does likewise, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Jesus towards Emmaus, and the sermons of Acts teach Jesus is the key to history and scripture.

There’s no space to address further questions, but with just one answer I’ve found a path illuminated through the murky contradictions that are the Word of God. The Bible itself seems to answer Carroll’s conundrum for us by pointing to an interpretive key: Jesus. If this is so, the scales of Christian decision should be weighted more by what Jesus said and did than by ancient or future prophecy, some of which is obscure anyway.

Jesus, who doesn’t rid us of the law, but fulfills God’s passion for justice, right relationship, and peace has recruited me to a life of breaking down the barriers of hate and injustice, which are present on both sides. The use of violence is clearly evident throughout this conflict, but the abuse of power rests largely with Israel. Jesus should never be used (as one of my commenters did) to implicate Jews with Jesus death; nor however should anyone be free to commit atrocity because they are “chosen.” Racism, hatred, violence and genocide should be confronted from any and all directions. Of the options my readers supplied, I find my home in #’s 3,4,5. Why? Because I believe they most authentically (and Biblically) address the contradictions of scripture in a way helpful to the cause at hand: Israel-Palestine. But also because, in choosing to base my ethics on Jesus, I won’t be beating my enemies anytime soon.

Also posted at Marty’s The Peace Pastor blog at: blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor where you can follow the discussion.

I pray everyday using the fantastic Christian prayer book, Common Prayer: Prayers for Ordinary Radicals. Today it opens with this for May 29:

 On May 29, 1968, the Poor -People’s Campaign arrived in Washington, D.C. The campaign was established to broaden the civil rights movement to include disadvantaged -people of all races. The main demonstration was held at the Mall in Washington, D.C., where -people camped out in tents called Resurrection City. Seven thousand demonstrators made this tent city their home to bring attention to issues of poverty and injustice.

What’s different 43 years later, is how little genuine debate is taking place about the poor in our midst. The “Ryan Plan” at the National level, austerity measures at the state and local level, are all looking to eradicate social programs and further disenfranchise the poor. Why are we letting this happen? Workers, labor unions, poor people, are all struggling more today than anytime in recent memory. Democracy itself seems to be up for grabs.Where are the massive marches today? Where’s the debate; if people want to further bankrupt the poor (and children, and the elderly) why don’t they at least tell us that’s the goal?

What was the church doing in 1968 to energize and sustain such a strong voice that we’re not doing today? Were they defining justice in more life-giving ways than we are? Were they somehow more equiped to speak and act?

Defining 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? Justice, as I am learning, is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It’s 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. You can read more of my working definition in my article called “For the love of justice.”

Speaking Justice
Back to our question: what was the church (and culture in general) doing in 1968 that we’re not doing today to equip people for bold action? One thing is train people to speak out against injustice, and on behalf of the poor. With this in mind, a Speakers Training for Economic Justice and Workers Rights called Labor in the Pulpit  is planned for June 23, 9-11AM at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church, 1805 West Alabama. For more information, check out hiwj.org or call director Laura Boston for questions or RSVP at 713.862.8222. You’ll here the story of a local worker, explore the differences between charity and justice and the call for justice hidden in plain site within the sacred texts. You’ll also have the opportunity network with likeminded individuals and hear of other justice work being done in the city.

Doing Justice
In the brazen face of injustice, the ancient prophet reminds us that God requires a simple response: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” Jesus lived this life from cradle to grave, though you might miss it if the extent of your Jesus-knowledge is recitation of the creed. In 20 verses of his most famous sermon Jesus calls this ethic to mind twice: once positively, and once negatively. In Matthew 5:6 Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Hardly what we’ve seen from our politicians these days. Fiscal responsibility? Sure. Safeguarding business? You bet! Advocating charity? Like its the core of the gospel. But we’re not seeing too much hungering and thirsting… except, actually we are, just not for justice. Then, in 5:20 Jesus says we had better have more justice than the religious leaders of the day, who loved preaching about piety, fasting, and (you guessed it!) charity!

Based on his understanding of faith, Tim Keller, author of Generous Justice: How God’s Grace makes us Just, says “If you are a christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously (pg 112).” He goes on to say there are three levels or ways of doing justice: Relief, Development, and Social Reform. This third layer, social reform, is really what was happening on May 29, 1968.

Has the time come for us to again move past responding through charity or mere relief efforts? Does the social storm of injustice demand we march, speak, and do what those of ancient times have done before us? There are many in the city doing it already. I think of The Metropolitan Organization, a group of religious congregations and non-profits working for a just and wholistic Houston at the grass-roots level. Check out their recent blog responding to economic injustice called, “Please! Raise my taxes!” And I think of The Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a local group of faith leaders working alongside workers to combat wage theft (yes, employers in Houston actually steal wages!) and further economic justice in our city. I’ve been a part of many actions with this committee, standing up for folks who need an advocate. It’s exciting work! Unfortunately, it’s also necessary.

So let’s channel our ancient prophets, from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the 60’s, calling our culture to connect faith and work like in Scripture; to safeguard the working poor with a living wage; and to hunger and thirst for justice.

First posted at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor.