A passion for justice

December 19th, 2016

The whole gospel

When I entered Candler School of Theology at Emory University, I was assigned as a work-study secretary to retired bishop John Owen Smith, the “Churchman in Residence.” As bishop of the Atlanta Area in 1968, he had presided over the merger of the black Georgia Conference with the historically white North and South Georgia Conferences.

Bishop Smith was writing a book called Give the Whole Gospel a Chance, and my job was to transcribe it from his dictation. Bishop Smith, firmly in the tradition of John Wesley, wanted Christians to connect personal piety and social justice. He knew that loving God and neighbor meant not only helping suffering people but also challenging the situations and systems that harmed them in the first place. At age 26, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of his message.

Now I realize that his book may have influenced me far more than I’d ever given him credit. Bishop Smith had articulated for me the connection between faith and social justice. Years passed before I discovered our United Methodist Social Principles and long tradition of involvement in social justice causes. Then I began to wonder, How is a passion for justice taught and nurtured?

Bishop Smith’s passion for justice came both from his study of the prophets, particularly Amos, Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah and his understanding of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. He was also profoundly influenced by John Wesley’s concern for the social issues of his day — poverty, inadequate education and medical care for the poor, and slavery.

Biblical justice

Some people who are passionate about justice acquired that passion from the Bible. The Old Testament pair of words for justice are mishpat and tzadeqah. (There are different forms and spellings of these two words.) Mishpat, which occurs more than 200 times in various forms in the Hebrew Old Testament, means treating people equitably, giving people their due, whether that’s punishment, protection or care. It often means caring for or defending orphans, widows, the poor and immigrants — the most vulnerable members of a society.

Tzadeqah also means being just, but it’s often translated as “being righteous.” To modern ears the word righteous refers to private morality, but in the Old Testament it means living in right relationships. The righteous person conducts all relationships with equity, generosity and fairness. The two words frequently appear together in the Bible as justice and righteousness.

Another Hebrew word for justice is shalom, which also refers to peace, wholeness (in the sense of well-being), security and the restoration of broken relationships. God’s desire for humankind is shalom. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, explains that justice is “about repairing broken relationships both with other people and to structures — of courts and punishments, money and economics, land and resources, and kings and rulers.”

Justice is also a major theme in the New Testament, although English translations often make that difficult to see. Following the lead of the King James Version, many modern English versions of the Bible use the word righteousness in place of the Greek word for justice in translating the New Testament, even though they often translate tsedek [another form of tzadeqah] as justice in the Old Testament.

The Law and the Prophets

The Israelite law called for remembering the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow — the people most vulnerable to hunger and poverty. Deuteronomy 24:19-22 required the Israelites to leave grain in the fields and grapes on the vine at harvest time for the foreigners, orphans and widows. Verse 22 states the reason for this practice: “Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing.”

Other laws required lending to those in need without charging interest (Exodus 22:25), cancelling debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11) and observing a year of Jubilee every 50th year in order that property be returned to the family of the original owner (Leviticus 25:10). This law was intended to ensure that no family would go hungry.

The prophets spoke passionately about God’s vision of justice and wholeness for all creation. They knew that God requires both charity and justice, and justice can often be accomplished only through changing public policy. The prophets had the view that nations, as well as individuals, will be judged by the way they treat the weakest and most vulnerable among them.

Jesus’ passion for justice

The justice ethic of Jesus was profoundly influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures. In the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read aloud from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus’ passion for justice led him to reach out to those on the margins of society — the poor, women, children, Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. In addition, Jesus taught us to love not only our neighbors (defined as anyone in need in Luke 10:25-37) but also our enemies (Matthew 5:44). In both the Old and New Testament, God’s intention is justice, particularly for the most vulnerable of society.

Empathy and compassion

How is it that the justice demands of the Bible are so easily overlooked in our day? Have we simply ignored the message of the prophets or overlooked Jesus’ passion for justice? Is the problem that we haven’t the capacity to imagine how oppressed people might feel?

Empathy — the capacity to imagine how the experiences of others might feel — precedes the compassion that leads to action. Philosopher Rick Lewis says that a “way to see the importance of empathy is to ask what happens when it fails.” He cites acts of terrorism as examples and asks, “How could anyone be prepared to cause such intense pain to other human beings — the innocent victims and their families — except through a catastrophic failure of the imagination? It is as if the [terrorists] are so selfishly wrapped up in their own grievances, ideals and sacrifice — their own drama — that they forget about the pain they will cause.” He notes that “having a reasonable degree of empathy at least for those immediately around them saves people from selfishness and barbarity.”

Worship and justice

Don Saliers, professor emeritus of worship and theology at Emory University, has written and spoken widely about the relationship of worship and ethics. By ethics, he means “a concrete way of life” that is shaped by “a continuing remembrance of the vision” of “the covenant community in Hebrew Scripture, and the followers of Jesus in the New Testament.” This “remembrance” is mediated through communal prayer, Scripture, the proclaimed Word, music and the sacraments.

In this way, worship can reorient our lives and convert “the heart and social imagination to the rule and reign of God that Jesus proclaims and embodies.” Over time, these acts of worship can hold before us God’s vision of shalom for all humankind and for the earth itself and evoke in us a passion for justice.

Making the connection

If we’re willing to “give the whole gospel a chance,” we can learn, teach, and nurture a passion for justice. The process involves being shaped by the Law and prophets of the Old Testament and the example and teachings of Jesus through study and worship. It also involves practicing the empathy that leads to compassion and then to action. Then we’re in a better position to make the connection between faith and justice and to encourage others to do so.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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