Tag Archives: social unrest

Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers in a Culture at War

In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Or the words of John the beloved disciple:

“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.

In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.

After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).

Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.

In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

Where’s the Outrage?

Today we return to the theme of  “Love not the world,” taken from 1 John 2:15-17:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

In times of social unrest we often hear extreme expressions of such emotions as fear, anger and anguish. These expressions are sometimes accompanied by dismay that more people do not seem to feel these emotions as violently as they should. Hence the agonized questions, “Where’s the outrage?” “Why the apathy?”

I’d like to reflect today on these questions.

They presuppose that the right response to perceived injustice is extreme, near out-of-control emotion. A good person, one who cares about right and wrong, justice and injustice, would feel these strong emotions and be moved by them to express them in equally strong ways. Anyone who doesn’t feel and express these emotions shows themselves to be insensitive to wrong and lacking in compassion for its victims.  But is this presupposition really consistent with the Christian understanding ethics and virtue?

John tells us not to love the world or anything in it. Love for the world crowds out love for the Father.  He condemns three emotions or passions, passion for physical pleasure, passion for possessions, and passion for honor. John does not mention other passions, fear, anger, and jealously, but his argument applies equally to all emotions. Allowing any object or any experience in the world to control our emotions and direct our behavior will displace love for the Father. We should not allow ourselves to be controlled, consumed or outraged by the world and its desires. They will pass away.

What then should a good person feel and do in the face of wrong? If allowing ourselves to be outraged, fearful, and anxious conforms to the pattern of the world, what is the correct response? I think John would say that our utmost passion should be to love the Father and do the will of God in every situation. In other words, our emotions and actions should be determined by the unchanging love and will of God rather than by the images and words we meet in the world. Every day the world confronts us with enticing things and revolting things, with good and bad, curses and blessings, beauty and ugliness, safety and danger, right actions and wrong actions. John tells us not to allow our emotions and actions to be determined by the changing scenes around us. We should instead anchor them in God so that we can experience clarity of purpose, steadiness of composure, and consistency of action.

John is not alone in his caution about human passions. I know of no place in the teaching of Jesus or anywhere else in Scripture that encourages us to be angry and express outrage. Quite the opposite is taught. We are taught self-control, moderation, and patience. Would Paul, the author of Galatians and the following ethical teaching, encourage us to rage?

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:19-26).

Would the one who pronounced his blessing on the “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and instructed us to “turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39) rebuke us for apathy because we are not sufficiently outraged at our enemies?

James seems to think our tendency to outrage is a fault not a virtue:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be…17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:9-18).

Peter also lived in a time of social unrest. What advice did he give?

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing…14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

No my friends, outrage is never a virtue. Anger is not a reliable guide to justice. Cursing is never a sign of devotion to truth. Nor are self-control, patience, kindness and blessing indications of apathy. Where is the outrage? I can tell you where it’s not: it’s not in any heart devoted to “the love of the Father.” There is no room for outrage there.