When this year began, I carried a weighty burden with me that had been the source of much wrestling in 2019. I felt compelled to address the divisions our country suffers on political and social issues. Some pastors jump right into the fray. That’s not me. But that doesn’t mean I walk away from difficult discussions. Jonah’s flight from God didn’t turn out well, so a pastor learns how important it is to follow the Lord’s guidance, even when it’s uncomfortable.
When the Sunday lectionary appointed Jesus’ words about salt and light from Matthew 5 on February 9th, I received the confirmation I needed to address these delicate matters. So I preached a sermon on shining the light of Christ in divisive times, identifying seven principles of faithful Christian witness regarding contested issues. Initially I sensed that biblical guidance would be crucial for us in this election year and beyond.
But on February 9th I couldn’t have anticipated even more events that would further wound our country—the COVID pandemic, persistent racial violence against people of color, rioting in American cities. Though the turmoil of 2020 was hidden from me in February, I still believe these seven principles of faithful witness provide a solid foundation for Christians in divisive times.
That’s a foundation I trust for our times. No builder, however, would say a project is complete after setting a foundation. One establishes a foundation to build a dwelling upon it. Our church can be a dwelling place for our parish to think and act biblically on contested social issues.
A few Sundays ago, September 20th, I returned to the highly contested issue of racial justice. In the stories of Jonah and the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers, one encounters the justice of God whose mercy is more severe than his judgment. You can read or listen to last week’s sermon in full here.
I also addressed this topic on Pentecost, which occurred shortly after the murder of George Floyd. These two messages are connected in thought and spirit, though preached a few months apart.
My greatest concern regarding any disputed issue in our time—whether racial justice, COVID, the presidential election, or any other issue—is faithfulness to the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ and the whole Word of God. Our time pits one concern against another: personal salvation vs social justice; individual sin vs systemic or communal sin; prayer vs action. These are false choices. These divisions aren’t present in Scripture. God judges Cain’s personal sin (Genesis 4) and the nations’ systemic sin at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.6-9). Prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Micah call out injustice among the entire nation of Israel; a prophet such as Nathan calls out the sin and injustice within a single person, David (2 Samuel 12). The Gospel calls each person to repentance (Mark 1.15); the Gospel sets at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4.18).
The same Jesus who saves a man from addiction and baptizes him with the Holy Spirit is the same Jesus who empowers his servants to shut down brothels and rescue young women from slavery. Presented with false choices in our time, we embrace the whole Word of God and the whole Gospel.
Embracing the whole Word of God means embracing the whole story of God to be faithful witnesses. When we consider matters of justice, we seek to understand justice from the story of God revealed in Israel and Jesus Christ. In our time, the word “justice” seems to have as many meanings as the word “democracy.” “As many people, as many definitions of democracy” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once said.1 Christians who profess Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life seek to understand justice revealed in the whole story of God.
Creation, Redemption, New Creation
When you seek the whole Word of God, you find three major “chapters” in God’s story—Creation, Redemption, and New Creation.
- The Creation chapters teach me that God made his world good and beautiful. He crowned male and female with his ultimate goodness, giving them his own image. He made them to live in harmony with one another and with their Creator. Sin brought division and death; division from God, neighbor, even one’s self. The consequences of sin are death and a wounded, damaged world.
- The Redemption chapters teach me that God will stop at nothing to repair his good but damaged world. In Israel’s story and ultimately in Jesus Christ, we see how God deals seriously with sin, idolatry, and death to remove its curse. God is determined to heal and repair all that is damaged in his good creation and especially among his image bearers.
- The New Creation chapter teaches me that God will complete his redemption work. Jesus Christ will come again to his world as Judge of the living and the dead. When he comes again, his judgment will remove sin, idols and death and his world will be made new for eternity.
That is the story of the whole Gospel and the whole Word of God, sketched in the broadest brush strokes. Unless I have this story, this Gospel, this Word of God in my mind and heart, I will not have a thoroughly biblical view of justice. If another ideology—whether from the right, the middle, or the left, has greater influence on my thoughts, my words, and actions, then I’m living in a different story.
No matter the issues we face in our time, I’ve resolved to think through these basic categories of God’s story: creation, redemption, new creation. When I’m confused, torn, or unsure about an issue, I delve deeper, I drill down further into these themes in Scripture.
Justice in God’s Well-Ordered Creation
A closer look in the Creation chapters helps us understand the source of justice: God’s goodness and harmony in creation. In the six days of creation, we see how God made all the elements of his natural world to fit together in wonderful harmony. On the sixth day of creation, he created male and female to live in the greatest harmony of all: oneness with God and one another. God’s well-ordered world in creation is a vision of his justice. Without a vision of God’s original goodness in creation, we will not see the heart of biblical justice. Biblical justice is always a redemptive response to the damaging and disordering effects of sin in God’s good world. The Creator God reveals his glory through his well-ordered world. Justice, then, means the restoration of hearts, souls, bodies, relationships, communities, institutions, and nations according to God’s original, well-ordered creation.
The first priority in God’s creation is worship. We were made to worship our Maker, who created us in love. The second priority in creation is to love our neighbor as ourselves. When God gave Israel the Law; when the Law was summarized by these two great commandments, we see God guiding us back to the original order of his creation. Love of God and love of neighbor is the order of biblical justice.
The Heart of Injustice
The heart of injustice, then, is the betrayal of these commandments. Cain commits the first act of injustice after the Fall. Cain kills his brother, Abel, whom he was called to love. Instead of friendship and harmony, Cain chooses violence and murder.
Cain also becomes a city builder (Genesis 4.16-17). In Genesis, Cain’s city prepares the way for the building of the Tower of Babel, a sign of humanity’s desire to be God, not worship God. Babel is one of the first examples of corporate, systemic sin in Scripture. Cain’s violence and Babel’s hubris are signs of God’s good world fallen into deep dis-order.
We were made for brotherhood; we commit violent acts against our brother. In the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aurbery, Breonna Taylor and more; in riots and retributive violence that destabilize neighborhoods and cities; human beings perpetuate acts of violence against brothers and sisters. The story of Cain remains with us.
Abraham as God’s Answer
But the story of God’s persistent redemption remains with us even more. In a deeply disordered world, filled with violence and injustice, God called Abraham to be ‘the father of many nations.’ God calls Abraham to be a blessing to the nations.
Abraham’s calling is God’s answer to the sin of Cain and the sin of the nations at Babel. God redeems his world through people who worship him and live according to his ways—his well-ordered ways revealed in Creation. Those who walk according to the ways of God participate in the redemption of God’s good world. God has his whole cosmos in mind when he calls Abraham. He’s determine to restore harmony for his whole world.
I’ve sketched some thoughts here reflecting on justice and injustice from the drama of Scripture, particularly in the Creation portion of the story. I pray this foundation becomes substance for even more reflection and faithful action. Until I wrestle deeply with these stories, I will not see God’s ultimate purposes to bring justice to his world. I will not know the ways in which I am meant to participate with God in the redemption of these wrongs.
How does God summon me in an age given to violence against or brothers and sisters? The Lord warned Cain against anger because “sin was crouching at his door.” Cain was called to conquer his anger against his brother. How will I confront enmity and hatred in my own heart? How can I live a life of repentance that pursues love of God and neighbor?
Injustice always begins in the heart. That is where the work must begin if we desire to participate in God’s redemption story. Repentant hearts, compassionate hearts, loving hearts are powerful means by which God reveals his redemption in our broken world.
- Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, I Am An Impure Thinker (Essex, VT: Argo Books, 2013), 44. ↩︎