Today I asked the church, “As you see them, what are the world’s biggest problems?”
Their answers included: poverty, violence, addiction, injustice, war, abuse of power. In my head I added climate change and mass patterns of migration. Yesterday I listened to an Amy Goodman interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and Serbian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who were discussing the serious business of transparency & treason, war & brutality.
If these are the biggest problems of our time, why am I as a Christian clergy not equipped to address them? Is this, perhaps, not my job? Indeed, many of my commentors here have urged me not to mix faith and “politics.” Does the Bible not address these issues, choosing instead to focus on matters of personal piety and faith?
Gratefully, the Bible does indeed address these enormous macro issues. The catch-all words from the Hebrew mindset to address these issues were “justice and righteousness,” a holy pair which refer to the way things are meant to be. Christian scriptures narrow it to one word, dikaiosyne, which can be translated as righteousness or justice, but still always refers to right relationships with God, self, others, and creation. To use modern language, justice is God’s remedy for the world’s greatest problems.
Regarding justice, Jesus’ sermon on the mount says you’re blessed if you hunger for it and blessed to be persecuted for it. He tells followers to strive for it more than anything in their life and cautioned that we need more of it than the Pharisees. It must be something important! Christianity also says that the new and most complete definition of justice is Jesus. In his sermon on the mount Jesus says he’s come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and then advances several arguments of what that fulfillment looks like (reconciliation, nonviolence, non-reciprocity, etc..). Paul says in a key text “The gospel of Jesus reveals the justice of God.” (Romans 1:16-17)
So I asked my people a second question, What would it look like to find a remedy for those problems? In other words, what is the justice of God? Their answers highlighted why I love my church: we wouldn’t need to lock our doors, the arts and beauty would flourish, everyone would be filled with joy, and have enough to eat, and have a friend or two to care for them. One person even said it might be a little boring, unmasking the dignity and spirit we gain in working for justice.
But how specifically is Jesus God’s justice? What is the shape of justice that Jesus’ life, sermons, and death reveal? First off, it’s pretty broad, as Peter Heltzel says in The Justice Project, “Jesus teaching and ministry show us what justice looks like in every dimension of human life – individual, social, and cosmic (pg 44).” Heltzel fleshes this out
Individuals are called to repent and be baptized. Social hierarchies between men and women, young and old, slave and free are turned ‘upside down’ as the early church becomes a radically egalitarian counter-imperial prophetic community in the heart of the Roman Empire. Instead of an economy of exchange, they practiced a gift economy through living in intentional community. The healings, signs, and wonders they performed were seen as acts of creation care.
In other words, justice is more than the mental band aid of charity. Charity, essential for addressing immediate needs, is not and cannot be the solution to the worlds’ greatest problems. Nor is it, according to the Bible, meant to be seen this way. Jesus tells us we must have more justice than the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 5:17-20), who “tithed” but “neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23).”
Rather, God’s invitation is clear: Do justice. Seek justice above all else. Have more of it than pious religious leaders. Why? Is it because our God is lazy, or concerned with individual salvation?
No! We are to love justice precisely because God does: “For I the Lord love justice (Isaiah 61:8).” Move beyond handouts and work for God’s kingdom coming now. Pursue God’s will being done here, in every nook and cranny of Houston, every street corner, business and crack house, every school and home. Houston, don’t be ashamed, this is the gospel of Jesus Christ! A gospel revealing the beautiful new Houston God is working to create.
So 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.