Call to Justice
The City of God
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides the Hebrew people with a vision for God’s kingdom that extends far beyond religious observance in the narrow sense. Here we discover a detailed and challenging vision for political and economic affairs that clearly agitates us as we contrast God’s vision to the world as it is today.
Particularly, we encourage clergy to reflect on God’s challenge to political leaders to ensure that justice be impartially administered for rich and poor alike:
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice ; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe for a bribe blinds the eys of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice and only justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” - Deuteronomy 16: 18-20
We also encourage clergy to explore the economic system presented in Deuteronomy that commands special protection for the poor:
“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed… There will however be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.”
For further study on the theme of the City of God, we encourage reading Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community by Rev. Robert Linthicum
Redeeming the Individual and the Systems
Many valuable lessons can be learned about justice and God’s concern for the poor when studying the Christian Bible. Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, confrontations with the Scribes and Pharisees over their hypocritical ways, and lessons on money and the seduction of wealth all point to a persistent love and concern for the poor. But beyond Christ’s earthly ministry, the New Testament offers great understanding about creation, human failings, and redemption.
During Bible Study, Christians learn that Christ’s life was not simply a collection of valuable lessons and deeds, as invaluable as these instructions are for our day-to-day living. Christians learn that Christ was sacrificed for the redemption of a world that has fallen away from its Godly origin. Conventional Christian teachings often view this sacrifice solely in terms of one’s individual salvation, so that Christ’s sacrifice is limited to forgiveness for our personal transgressions. Many Biblical scholars would question such limitations, and believe Christ’s sacrifice acted to redeem and transform the world including the political and economic systems we relate to every day (e.g., schools, healthcare industries, corporations, governments.).
Dr. Walter Wink, a Christian theologian and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, discusses this topic in his books on the “Powers and Principalities.” He writes in Engaging the Powers, “The Powers are the necessary social structures of human life, and it is not a matter of indifference to God that they exist. God made them… The Jesus who died at the hands of the Powers died every bit as much for the Powers as he died for people… Nothing is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God. The Powers are not intrinsically evil; they are only fallen. What sinks can be made to rise again… We can love our nation or church or school, not blindly, but critically, recalling it to its own highest self-professed ideals and identities. We can challenge these institutions to live up to the vocation that is theirs by virtue of their sheer createdness.”
For further study on Redeeming the Individual and the Systems we encourage you to read Dr. Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and The Powers That Be.
Acts of Justice and Mercy - Moses and the Good Samaritan
We often find agreement among clergy on one thing: we are called as people of faith to have an impact on society. We settle on this common understanding because our traditions provide ample stories, examples, parables, and commandments that repeatedly express an obligation to ensure God’s love, mercy, and justice. Where confusion often sets in is when we begin to discuss how we are to make an impact. Two well known Bible stories provide insight into the difference between doing justice and loving mercy.
In Luke, Chapter 10 Jesus describes the parable of the Good Samaritan. This story gives us some clues about assisting individuals in need. First, we notice that it is the unlikely Samaritan – not the priest or Levite – who stops and helps out the beaten man left for dead. Second, we learn the Samaritan does not hesitate and is quite generous toward the man in his time of need. He not only bandages the man’s wounds, but also pays his expenses while he recuperates at a nearby inn.
In the Hebrew Bible, we see a different form of action taken by Moses. In this example, we see extreme hardship placed on an entire nation – not solely an individual. We learn that Pharaoh has turned the Israelites into slave laborers and ordered midwives to kill every male infant at birth. In response, God calls upon another unlikely champion, Moses, to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. We watch Moses powerfully confront Pharaoh, demanding freedom for his people, bringing God’s powers to bear on Pharaoh, and ultimately winning justice for the Hebrew people.
These stories have contrasting elements that are helpful when evaluating the needs of our community today, and the responses we may choose to take. First, Moses does not deal with the individual victims of Pharaoh’s rule – he confronts the perpetrator of the injustice. The Samaritan does not attempt to survey the causes of highway banditry. Instead, he provides much needed immediate relief. Second, the scale of the problem and the ultimate solution in both examples are completely different. The Samaritan limited his work to the beaten man, and simply resolved the problem with good deeds, although the underlying problem of banditry still remains. Moses does not have this luxury because the problem is institutional, and therefore, he is required to take public action to bring about justice. In short, the Samaritan’s action was one of mercy, and Moses’ was an act to secure justice for the many.
This distinction may seem elementary on the surface but is often overlooked within congregational life. A classic contrast can be found in our response to the public education system. The basic ability to read and write has proven to be directly related to one’s quality of life. Yet, public schools throughout the country are failing to produce quality education for all. In the spirit of the Samaritan, the church may decide to respond to this crisis by establishing a tutoring program through the generosity of its members. As a result, twenty-five kids show remarkable improvement in their test scores. Meanwhile, the school system stumbles along and hundreds of other children fail to achieve basic reading and writing abilities. Another church may decide to act similarly to Moses by recognizing the failure of the school system and organize with other congregations to publicly call for needed changes to make all schools more effective. These two responses are clearly different choices.
The choice between justice and mercy can be seen time and time again when looking at various responses to crises in community, no matter what the issue. Housing, healthcare, increased pressures on the family due to rising costs of living, unemployment, discrimination, access to transportation – all of these can be addressed through charity and/or justice.
We highlight the distinction to demonstrate the clear differences in types of ministry. We also understand that we are required to do both – to help the victim and fix the system.
These organizing reflections were excerpted from the DART network website.