June 2011

The day Jesus said to his followers “You are the light of the world” I think he was filled with wild hope. This was early in his ministry, before we really catch a glimpse of his followers incompetance. It was before Peter mistakenly tries to keep Jesus safe and Jesus  rebukes him saying “get behind me Satan!” It was before several of them asked for power positions and he responded by saying “If you want to be great be a servant.” And it was before Judas betrays him, Peter denies him three times, and all but one disciple run for the hills rather than be tagged as an associate of someone convicted of treason.

The City on the Hill

And yet the statement is as plan as day, “You are the light.” As Bonhoeffer points out in The Cost of Discipleship, it’s not that we have the light as a possession to pass on, the gospel as a content reduced to 4 Spiritual Laws which can be exchanged like a product. No, we in our ontological being are part of the light. And it’s not as if we can choose the light, we simply are to be gospel light to the world. 

Why then is my life a testimony to how frequently there is a gap between desire and reality in my living? I find myself resonating with Paul in Romans 7:15 when he says, ”I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Jesus points this out as well, acknowledging the presence not just of light, but of “bushel baskets” which block us from being true followers of Jesus. I know what’s right, but so often prefer the basket to the light!

Here are the Top Ten Bushel Baskets that keep me as a Mennonite from following Jesus.

10. Oh, this old thing? No one would want it anyway. We Mennonites have a strange concept of humility that has kept us quiet for centuries. But is there anything to be humble about if you are not first excellent?

9. Mission? Isn’t that somebody else’s job?
Little is more destructive to following Jesus than classifying some as “full time Christian ministry” and others as “just laity.”

8. I worship God. That’s enough, isn’t it?
No, worship is not enough. A person is an integrated being. For many in the modern world, spirituality DIS-integrated reality. Spirit over there, life and blood and sweat and work and money and skin and trees and lakes and music and tacos over there. Jesus was very holistic in including life, economics, politics and “religion” all together in his understanding of faith.

7. It’s all about the money.
Whether we have money or don’t have money, the imbalanced focus on ’charity’ insulates us from genuinely connecting to people missionally.

6. Let’s pack it up and ship it overseas.
Christendom has formed this impression in us that the mission field is “out there” and that ours is a Christian culture. Following Jesus is always local.

5. We love tradition! And nothing is as old fashioned as selfishness.
The phrase “focus on the family” sums up pretty well my personal favorite variety of selfishness.

4. But isn’t it rude to assume I have something they need?
Religious intolerance is indeed something to fear as western Christians have a bad history of cultural imperialism. But this does not mean that everyone you meet is whole, complete, or at peace.

3. I’m tired of sticking out like a sore thumb!
From our beginning Mennonites (and other groups) have been on the fringe. Read the comments in this previous post and you’ll understand why shining the light of peace might get tiring for some.

2. I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of failure, dissapointment, loss. As Gary Haugen has said, we’re afraid because we don’t know the path or the cost, and there’s no guarentee of success. But more than any other command, Jesus says “Do not be afraid.”

1. We’ve got to take care of ourselves first!
Rick Warren addressed this in The Purpose Driven Life with his opening words, “It’s not about you.” We are Stewards of Grace, blessed by God to bless others. Following Jesus in loving others is and must be at the core of our conception of being Christian. 

For me, doing the difficult work of naming my baskets (ie deconstructing Christianity) has been essential to becoming the light (following Jesus). May it be so for you! What are the bushel baskets in your own faith tradition that block you from following Jesus?

Marty Troyer practices removing his and others baskets as pastor of Houston Mennonite Church. You can join us anytime in Spring Branch or visit us online at houstonmennonite.org. Follow Marty by subscribing below or on Twitter.

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.

My friendly denominational magazine recently quoted the following from the New York Times.

  • United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, including more than six times as much as China, the next highest.
  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.
  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
  • The United States will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

That seems like a lot of money to me. The pie chart to the left reveals a whopping 54% of our national budget goes towards military spending.

News Reports suggest that our involvement in Libya is set to exceed the $750 million estimate by the Pentagon, a statistic not likely to help our blossoming national debt.

Of course it’s a lot of money. But perhaps we’ve decided as a community it’s necessary for our salvation.

Competing Gospels
But where does our salvation really come from? There’s a great worship song by Crystal Lewis sung in many of our local churches which says:

Salvation belongs to our God
who sits upon the throne
and unto the lamb
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength
be to our God forever and ever

These lyrics – a direct quote from Revelation 7:10 & 12 – are hard to argue with: salvation belongs to God. But in the historical context of Roman empire that these words were first penned, its not saying God and not Vishnu, Jesus not Allah is God. No, they’re a powerful and dangerous political statement: God, and not Caesar who promises pax Romana, is source of salvation.

This apparently is not a sideshow for the early church, but a central spiritual and linguistic premise. Jesus, Paul, and John all borrow explicitly political, explicitly Roman cultural-linguistic concepts to communicate the faith. Words like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “peace,” “Lord,” and even salvation are borrowed directly from Roman political culture to establish what NT Wright calls “a parady of the imperial cult.” 

Take for instance the word “gospel,” a key concept in Christian theology and identity. Jesus and the early church had a wide range of words to choose from to sum up the message. Out of that linguistic soup they chose the “secular” greek word “euangelion,” a strictly imperial word referring narrowly to imperial news, usually pertaining to news from the front lines of battle. Why choose this secular word to describe Jesus message? Precisely because it sets up a choice of competing gospels to choose from: Caesar’s empire, or Jesus’ kingdom. Paul makes his choice clear, proclaiming for those in the imperial capital to hear: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He bookends his letter to Rome with an equally dangerous counter-claim to Caesar that “all” people will praise Jesus and not Caesar.

It’s into this context of competing gospels that John assigns salvation to God, and not the “shock and awe” military might of pax Romana. The nature of each gospel and the character of each kingdom is radically different. Revelation portrays Caesar’s empire as a beast gobbling up innocents; but Jesus is portrayed not as a mighty warrior, but as the slain Lamb. Richard B. Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion (pg. 330).”

Military Spending in Context
As I write this I’m sitting in the safety of the most overwelming military muscle the world has ever prioritized paying for. Direct parallels to Rome’s pax Romana are striking. I’m also sitting in the presence of the slain now-risen Lamb, celebrated weekly in churches on every Houston corner through the breaking and pouring of bread and wine. So I’m forced to ask, to whom belongs our salvation? Do the absurdity of these budgetary numbers supply the answer? 

The gospels of Caesar and Jesus continue to recruit followers to this day, inviting us to repent, for their kingdom is near at hand. Can we afford to choose any differently than John and Paul?

 Sing it with me church! You know the words:

Salvation belongs to our God…
We the redeemed shall be strong
in purpose and unity
declaring aloud
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength!
Be to our God forever and ever

This post co-published at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog called The Peace Pastor.  
Follow Marty on Twitter.

What do you do when faith and patriotism collide? Are there limits to patriotism for the Christian? If so, what are they? If not, how is that in line with the first commandment? Can you be a Christian and, say, not sing the national anthem? Or, as a Christian, is there ever a time when civil disobedience is a necessary response to the injustice in the world?

Christians are called to live in the tension of being citizens of two kingdoms. We are to be both aliens and citizens. As Christians, we are to have no other God besides God. So what do you do when your country’s policies or anthem is contradictory to your understanding of faith?

Two religious news stories this week may help us each discern the shape of our highest calling to God above state.

“No” to the National Anthem
A Christian College in Indiana this week changed its mind after a year-long experiment in playing the national anthem,  declaring it will no longer do so. Throughout its history, Goshen College never had the anthem played on campus until early spring 2010 because it contradicts core facets of the college’s Christian identity. Instead, college President James Brenneman will now “find an alternative … that fits with sports tradition, that honors country and that resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” Surprise surprise, not everyone thinks too fondly of this decision. Goshen City Councilman Harland Lantz told Fox News Radio that the decision is “anti-American.” “It really hurts,” he said. “(The national anthem) is the American way…Instead of living here in Goshen, they should go down and live in Cuba or Iran. Then have them come back and see if their attitude has changed.”

As someone who stopped saying the pledge of allegiance the day after my country fired hundreds of missiles into Baghdad 20 years ago this August, I applaud the college’s reversal. The National Anthem with its violent battle imagery, and the Pledge which demands allegiance to something other than my King and Christ’s kingdom, are inappropriate expressions for me as a follower of Jesus.

What do you think? Is Goshen College able to be both Christian and patriotic? Or does Councilman Lantz speak for you in inviting all like-minded folks to take a hike? And if so, isn’t one thing that makes the US great our freedom to be critical of it?

Civil Disobedience
A second story is also helpful in finding the line between faith and patriotism. In North Carolina this week 2 Christians were arrested for protesting state policies that were, from their perspective, contrary to the Christian faith.  Mike Morrell tells the story of 2 Christians arrested in North Carolina for shoutin’ down the legislature with scripture. William Barber and David Lamotte were each arrested for their civil disobediance. As the Raleigh News & Observer reported:

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, was removed from today’s session of the N.C. House this afternoon by police officers after he and others shouted at legislators from the gallery.

Barber and the six other protesters were placed in handcuffs after they chanted, “Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With God.” The words are from a Bible verse, Micah 6:8.

They also chanted, “Fund education, not incarceration,” and “Save our children, don’t cut education.”

Also arrested was  a  singer/songwriter named David LaMotte. In his blog, Morrell quotes  David LaMotte, as saying:

The current legislature is making a host of decisions which are contrary to the teachings of Christianity, and I feel called to resist those actions with my very body…What is right and what is legal sometimes come into conflict, and when they do, our allegiance to God’s teaching should be stronger than our allegiance to the state.

What do you think? What would cause you to express your faith through civil disobedience? Is there enough congruity between “the American way” and your faith that you can’t imagine ever engaging in civil disobedience? Or do you see gaps between the two that beg for demonstration? I for one have never been a part of a community that has formed a courage within me to engage in this level of faith expression. Nor have I surrounded myself with mentors to teach me. But I do know that Jesus longs to be first. Above state. Above culture. Even above my favorite thing in the entire world: myself. This does not make me or anyone else unpatriotic in the least! It means we’re committed to human flourishing on either side of the border, seeking the welfare of this and every nation through acts of love and sacrifice. And I hope, with all my heart, that my love of the good news of Jesus is strong enough that when I see injustice and evil in our world I respond appropriately. May it be so for us all!

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

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.

It will be a busy summer in Texas for executions, again. Living in the death penalty capital of the Western World, this shouldn’t surprise us. Gayland Bradford will die for you and your state today at 6PM, and will be followed by 3 others this month. Bradford’s IQ is 68, 2 points below the legal level of “mild mental retardation.” In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants with ‘mental retardation.’  2 different courts in Houston are also currently trying cases with the death penalty at this time.  By the time summer is over, we’ll have executed 474 people since 1976, over 4 ½ times more than the next state in the union (Virginia).

We Christians are confused on this for some reason. On the one hand, Jesus message of forgiveness, mercy and nonviolence was unambiguous and clear. On the other hand, some support executions as a cultural icon.

Here’s an example of the disconnect. This morning I read an interview with a Christian preacher tying his authority to God’s word, “To see that His Word is good for conforming people to the image of Christ, for going into making radical changes in their lives, only the Word can do that—not my opinions, thoughts or ideas, but the power of the Word, the effect of the Word in that wisdom that is found in the Word (emphasis mine).” Now, let’s keep in mind Jesus said we are to love our enemies, receive forgiveness as we give it, and that when confronted with a perfectly legal opportunity to call for the death penalty, Jesus came to the rescue of the accused. He also offered absolution to the two terrorists beside him on the cross, then turned to ask God to forgive those who were killing him. So being “conformed into the image of Christ,” one would think, should look similarly.

Apparently, not so. His denomination has this to say on the issue: God “has established capital punishment as a just and appropriate means by which the civil magistrate may punish those guilty of capital crimes.” No mention of Jesus was given anywhere in their defense. Reminds me of a recent poll looking at the disconnect between Evangelical Christians and the teachings of Jesus. About the Poll, Phil Zuckerman says:

Evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message… Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world.

And so the death penalty machine rages on with the ironic blessing of those who weekly gather to worship Jesus Christ, executed-now-risen, the Prince of Peace. I’m proud the Mennonite Church has doesn’t give its blessing. Perhaps if we won’t take our cues from Jesus himself, we could take some cues from Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim man, who like Jesus was given second life. Mark Stroman, out for revenge against Muslims after 9/11, shot and killed 2 men in North Texas before shooting Bhuiyan in the face. He miraculously survived to advocate for Stroman’s life, against the death penalty, saying his Islamic faith led him to realize “hate doesn’t bring any good solution to people. At some point we have to break the cycle of violence. It brings more disaster.” Stroman is scheduled for execution in July.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the church for supporting the death penalty. After all, without trial, against all laws (including our own), we executed a man before the watching world and then celebrated in the streets. Choosing violence is just who we are. American citizens have every right to support violence such as the death penalty. But as Zuckerman says, “it is just strange and contradictory when they claim these positions as somehow “Christian.” They aren’t.”

Dear God, we pray for an end to the  hate and violence that led Gayland Bradford and Mark Stroman to kill, and to us wanting to kill them in return. We pray for healing and hope to flow through the victims’ families, for reconciliation and peace to flow through death row, and for courage to be conformed to your image. AMEN.

Also published on Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor

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.