Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

A Christian’s Concern for Justice (May-Jun 2002)

Filed under: — @ 6:50 pm and

by Rubel Shelly
May – June, 2002

As a concept in ethics, justice has to do with fundamental fairness. To certain ancient Greek thinkers, it was “giving each person his due.” In the Preamble to the United States Constitution, a type of social contract is implied in which it is the duty of the government to “establish justice” for its citizens. For a modern theorist such as John Rawls, a society’s obligation is to remove all “arbitrary distinctions” in order to assure that everyone who plays the game is allowed to do so without the burdensome penalty of inequality.
As a concept in theology, most of us understand that justice is what we sinners do not want. If justice is getting what we are due to be treated and mercy is being spared at least some of the things we deserve, we much prefer to appeal for grace, asking God to treat us in benevolent ways we could never deserve.
With this much having been said, however, it is premature to dismiss the subject of justice. Sinners saved by grace still live within social and political structures where justice is supremely important. While we cannot be saved on the basis of a justice principle, saved people–as well as their neighbors who are still unsaved–are better served in a society that values and pursues justice. What is more, Christians bear a more faithful and credible witness to the presence of God in the world through the church by pursuing, implementing, and modeling justice.
Jesus once challenged an episode of personal injustice when he was struck in the face by a temple policeman (John 18:23). Once in the Book of Acts, Paul asserted his civil rights as a citizen of Rome to protest injustice already suffered (Acts 16:37ff). And once he asserted those same rights in order to be spared a manifest injustice (Acts 22:25). While stipulated and best protected in laws, the concept of one’s basic right to justice appears to be more fundamental than human law. It is rooted in the likeness to God borne by every human being. Human beings are entitled to justice because of their intrinsic worth.
This issue of New Wineskins addresses a variety of issues related to the theme of justice. Issues like racism and sexism must be addressed cautiously, for we have no strong voice. Instead, we speak from embarrassment and with a sense of shame for past injustices–and for too much silence still in their aftermath. There are still battles to be fought in which believers of both genders and with a variety of skin hues must make common cause on behalf of social justice. Other topics can be written about with more credibility and less personal embarrassment.
Jesus once taught a lesson about persistence in prayer by telling the story of a hard-hearted judge and an unrelenting petitioner. As the story is told in Luke 18:1ff, a widow continued to press her case: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” She eventually prevailed, in great measure because of her doggedness in pursuing the matter.
Yes, I am biblically literate enough to know that the story is an illustration rather than a treatise on ethics. But one should also recall that every parable begins with a person (e.g., farmer, steward, merchant) or event (e.g., fishing, trading, traveling) that has a real-life counterpart. In other words, there is clearly a difference between parables and fables. Stories Jesus told for the sake of their use as teaching metaphors are interesting in their own right. For example, scholars have frequently pointed out Luke’s interest in citing Jesus’ parables in which females are the central characters–such as this one from chapter 18. In a culture that was patriarchal and sexist, the story was surely as shocking for some to hear as the one in which a Samaritan was the focal point.
So follow my reasoning: If the parables of Jesus sometimes teach at two levels–the nature of the story itself and the interpretation-application of the story to larger spiritual issues–it is not difficult to catch the point of this one! In the social structures intended to defend and deliver justice, it is possible for justice to be delayed, denied, or perverted; aggressiveness in pursuit of justice is therefore always appropriate and sometimes morally obligatory. (In this particular parable, identification with the original story is easier with some than the interpretation which must account for God being represented by a man who had no respect for the basic rights of people!)
An African-American reader of Luke 18 is more likely to sense the woman’s agony and frustration than a Caucasian. If that same reader is a female in one of our society’s major professions, she may well get angry by the time she has read through the eighth verse–and slam her Bible shut. It isn’t that she doesn’t love God, respect Scripture, or get the point about persistence in prayer. It is simply that the story itself is so personal that it causes pain.
There is an old adage of the Quakers that captures much of our current obligation to pursue justice in the world: Speak truth to power. I fear it is easier to see Moses before Pharaoh, Jesus confronting Pontius Pilate, or Paul appealing to Caesar as our visual image for this obligation than to recall our own recent history. Where were most churches and most white Christians during the Civil Rights Movement? Where are those same churches and same Christians today in relation to workplace justice for women–whether on sexual harassment or equal pay for equal work? What are they doing to “care for orphans and widows in their distress,” since that is an explicit condition of pure and undefiled religion? (Jas. 1:27). What are we doing for Latinos and Asians, handicapped and homeless, imprisoned and poor?
The good news is that wonderful ministries of justice and compassion have been created in recent times. Thus Habitat for Humanity, Prison Fellowship, Manna International, and dozens of good works that plead the case of the most vulnerable. The bad news is that these ministries are always having to beg for volunteer workers, money, and awareness.
The essays in this issue of new Wineskins are not meant to give the final word on any of the topics addressed. There are even topics left unaddressed that are equally as worthy of attention as the few explored here.
These are only points of beginning. They are meant to give information, challenge, and spiritual motivation for others to step up and get involved. They are written in the hope of inspiring someone to the persistent and unyielding boldness of the woman in Luke 18 to plead for justice–for herself, for a situation in his community that cries out for a champion, or for matters involving their church where persistent voices must be heard for the weak and voiceless ones.
The end of a Christian case for justice is significantly more than giving another his or her due. It is love great enough to move one to sacrifice for another’s good.
Our goal in this issue is to renew the prophetic call that Yahweh issued through his servant of old: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly

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