In the year 2020 the focus of my biblical studies has been the role of culture, first in understanding the biblical text, and second, in application to the 21st century world in which we live. This is an endeavor of a decade or a lifetime, not a year, but because I have felt it to be a major gap for me, I am making this my focus for at least this year. Valuable resources for getting a better understanding of culture to understand the biblical text have been books by N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Walter Brueggemann, and the Bema Discipleship lessons – all helpful in getting historical, cultural, and Jewish context. This is a work in progress, and I am not writing with a special expertise, only an increased awareness.
As I wrote in another article, “Do You Get It?”( https://gordonferguson.org/articles/do-you-get-it-by-jim-mccartney/), I have a nagging sense that I am missing something important due to my many biases as an upper middle class, western, educated, older white man. Consequently, I am continually observing the integrity of my efforts to follow Jesus, striving to balance grace and the expectation of a high moral/ethical standard. While doing so, I cannot help but think about the extent to which I am influenced by the culture, place and time in which I live, and how that often is an undertow to my heart’s desire to love God. Additionally, I consider the role of the church today, and how it is to interact with the 21st century culture to which it ministers.
The goal of this article is to explore the role of the church in addressing issues of social justice. I hope to open the door wider for dialogue and exploration of the many specifics issues only mentioned here which deserve greater thought and consideration. Again, I am not an expert, and only hope to stimulate a broad audience to engage a critical conversation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (all quotes are from the New International Version, 2011)
Justice and acting justly is a major theme in the Old Testament text and Americans, especially, can completely misunderstand it. The Hebrew word, Mishpat, implies not so much a punitive justice (the punishment fits the crime) but a restorative justice, a making things right again. Compare and contrast the American judicial system with working out a conflict in a family caused by a wrongdoing. The judicial system is primarily designed to determine guilt or innocence and then to punish the guilty. In the family, however, the goal is to work things out and restore the harmony that existed before the wrongdoing. Mishpat, restorative justice, is the latter; it is a making things right again: in the family, in the community, in the nation, and in the world.
With the good creation of Genesis 1-2 as a perpetual context, God acted through history to create a justly ordered people, a community of his that would model his desire for all of creation. Because of the undertow of human selfishness, the Old Testament is filled with grace, guidance, (yes, some punishment), a perpetual call to righteousness (right relationships, with God and each other) and justice.
Consider the following scriptures that are highlighted in this video on Justice by the Bible Project (https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4) which is about six minutes in length :
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” – Proverbs 31:8-9
“He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” – Psalm 146:6-9
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
Reading the Old Testament there is a continual call to take care of the orphan, widow, foreigner/alien, and the poor and needy. Righteousness and justice depended on it.
The Jewish people, however, could never get it right and hold it together for very long. God went to great lengths to redeem and restore his people between the Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but ultimately it could only be done in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, God could make things right again.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, by reading the following from Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As the promised Messiah and suffering servant, Jesus in his earthly ministry was continually caring for the poor and needy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus cared about both the body and the soul, and he demonstrated the righteousness and justice that God had been calling his people to all along. He did it right. Reading the gospels, it is amazing how much Jesus attended to the physical needs of people, elevated the status of women, and extended his ministry to those who were culturally avoided or ignored, the tax collectors and “sinners.” He also spoke to the ways that various segments of the Jewish people had assimilated to the Greek and Roman cultures and/or missed the major points in God’s desire for Mishpat, a justice that would make things right.
While dying, Jesus showed God’s love and mercy by meeting the needs of his mother, his disciple, John, and the repentant thief, and his death provided the sacrifice for our sins and the means to be restored to a right relationship with God. Then, through the promised Holy Spirit and the community of the early church, the good news of the kingdom and God’s grace was proclaimed throughout the Jewish communities and out to the Gentiles which had always been God’s plan promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis added)
In the words of the Bible Project video, the early church was comprised of disciples of Jesus who had received undeserved righteousness and were seeking righteousness and justice for others.
The earliest Christians were known for their love and for their care of those in prison (Christian or not), the orphans and the widows, imitating the life of Jesus. Making things more right for those who were hurting and oppressed (justice) was part of the church’s mission. But with time, many Christians came to believe that our lives on earth don’t matter much. The focus of the church narrowed to obedience, forgiveness, and preparation for a future state of disembodied spirits in heaven. And this opened the door to a sad chapter in Christendom characterized by abuses of power, oppression, and an appetite for violence. The church lost its distinctiveness, conformed to the culture of its age, and gave up on God’s desire for Mishpat.
Fortunately, over time, the Holy Spirit worked through various reformation and restoration movements to call Christendom back to God’s heart for his people. But again, because of human selfishness and the pulls of culture, the history of the church, not unlike the Old Testament history, has been full of fits and starts.
21st Century Christian Church
So, how are we doing today?
First, the “we” is problematic because there is so much diversity of teaching and practice among modern Christians in the most general sense of the word Christian. For this writing I will narrow the “we” to those who honor the biblical text, strive to follow Jesus, and practice Christian community – still broad, but a bit narrower!
The dominant culture and world view of the 21st century western world has been heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic world view. The importance of education, entertainment, and athletics dominate our leisure, economy, and lifestyle. We have also borrowed the concept that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around. The prosperity gospel and prayers dominated by asking God for things reflects this cultural influence. Add to the mix western individualism, and spirituality becomes much more about the individual than the community. We have also borrowed from Aristotle that our souls can live separately from a body and ultimately will congregate in an ethereal heaven (or hell) in a disembodied state. This has led to all kinds of weird thinking about Christianity and life on planet Earth, from the problems I discussed above in church history, to challenges in today’s modern church.
I would now like to focus on a text a friend and the editor of this article, Lai-Yan Faller, reminded me of from Jesus’ model prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6: 9-10
Jesus asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While we are here, we pray with a desire to bring heaven to earth. This is consistent with the promise of Genesis 12 that through God’s people all peoples on earth will be blessed. The kingdom and the church are described as a city set on a hill and the bride of Christ. The ministry of the modern church therefore should reflect the promise to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus, showing everyone how to do it right.
God cares about how we live here and now. If John Lennon understood God’s heart, he may have changed the lyrics of “Imagine” saying instead of imagine there’s no heaven, imagine heaven on earth. John was an atheist, but I think he had a legitimate complaint that those who called themselves Christians were so focused on a future heaven that they did not care enough about life on Earth.
Much of evangelical Christianity focuses on the individual’s freedoms and rights, reflecting a culture of western individualism. In addition, a philosophy that God helps those who help themselves may contribute to a lack of compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Pretty Hellenistic and not much Mishpat in this worldview.
Additionally, the church can be conflicted. There may be a reluctance to wade into the waters of social justice because it is deemed to be political, divisive, or disruptive to the church’s primary mission to get as many as possible to a future heavenly state.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection and a life after this one. And I believe that what we believe and how we live determines our next life.
On the other hand, I believe that how we live matters to this life. And how the church demonstrates Jesus matters to this life. We are to bring heaven to earth, to restore justice, to make things right today – which has been God’s heart from day one.
There is a cost to doing this. Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 9:23 is “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus’ example requires self-sacrifice and an undying devotion to being like him. As wonderful as it seems to be like him there will be a strong negative reaction from those who prefer the comfortable western and materialistic approach to Christianity and don’t want to be challenged to deal with their sin, inclusive of sexism and racism and all other forms of oppression.
In the early 1960’s my paternal grandmother’s brother, Carl Spain, a preacher, missionary, and college professor spoke to an audience of Christian ministers in the Churches of Christ. He called them out on racism, denouncing the segregation of churches and the lack of accepting black students to Christian colleges. He was strong while speaking up for the oppressed, and the reaction was not mild. He received the expected nasty calls and letters from those who disagreed, an attempt was made to bomb his house, and his life was threatened…by “Christians.” Ultimately change happened, but it was slow, and even today Christian churches are some of the most segregated communities (https://carlspaincenter.org/). I am fortunate to be part of a very multicultural church in Boston, but it is still quite rare.
Is it possible that the fear of reaction or persecution from those trapped in a cultural norm, Christian or not, causes us to prefer to fit in rather than practice justice? To be normal rather than like Jesus? To be selfish rather than selfless? To be more focused on speaking up for our rights than that rights of the oppressed?
What can the church do to practice Mishpat (restorative justice), to bring God’s kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven, in the 21st century? This is a big question, and the task may seem daunting. Indeed, just as I personally am a work in progress, so is the church. Here are a few suggestions of steps we can take:
- Take care of the poor and the needy, as part of the mission of the church, and not relegate it to a voluntary contribution to a non-profit.
- Speak up for and take care of the orphan, widow, alien, and all who are oppressed; remaining in uncomfortable silence is neither acting justly (Micah 6:8) nor rescuing from the hand of the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).
- Address racism and sexism: set things right biblically.
- Meet the whole spectrum of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people – as Jesus did.
- Speak to God’s good creation and challenge greed and the normative values of economic empire and consumption.
- As the bride of Christ, be his partner and show him to the world. He is the answer and when disenfranchised baby boomers, millennials, and others see him clearly, unclouded by a corrupt western and materialistic culture, not only will fewer walk away from the church, but they will tell all their friends about Jesus. He is the way. He is our Mishpat.
- Pray and live that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of the day, how we live on planet earth matters today and how well we practice Mishpat will draw or repel many to or from God’s heavenly kingdom – on earth and in the resurrected life to come.