The Debt of Justice
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
In truth, this week we have only scratched the surface of a Christian perspective and responsibility for justice. It is a subject both deep and wide, and it is easy for us to get lost in it. However, it cannot be avoided. In many ways, it is like learning to swim. Some people never do and just choose to avoid water for their entire lives (which means they miss out on a lot of incredible experiences). Today however, we do not live in a remote desert wilderness, isolated from matters of justice. The entire world today is like the city of Venice, Italy where you can avoid water only if you refuse to leave your home. So we had better learn to deal with it.
Two very influential theologians today support this idea. Scot McKnight author of several books and a blog called Jesus Creed has been tackling the false dichotomy between social justice and personal evangelism in church ministry. These issues that have divided “evangelical” churches from “mainline denominations” for decades have come to a head where the whole Body of Christ has undergone enough loss and transition that we must face the truth of just how out of balance we have become.
No longer can social justice be attributed to a slippery slope to political socialism. Indeed, I suspect that when social justice does become political socialism it is not because justice is being done, but rather individuals neglect their own responsibilities for taking care of social justice issues, thus leaving it to the state to pick up the load. The difference between individual morality and social justice is only a matter of scope. Wherever many individuals are practicing good morality, you will have social justice, because, as Scot McKnight points out: the command we are given by God is to love God and neighbor.
I believe N.T. Wright another prolific author and blogger would wholeheartedly agree. He comes a bit more from the perspective of reinterpreting New Testament Theology as a whole, and in doing so has both garnished a bit more attention and a bit more controversy, particularly among evangelicals of a more Calvinist leaning. I believe, beyond the massive amount of New Testament research he has done as a historian and theologian, his greatest gift to the Church has actually been in rewriting some of the apologetic classics of C.S. Lewis, a scholar from Wright’s own church tradition.
As an example, Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, a journey into the Christian faith, starting from the philosophical point of belief in the existence of God – a very sensible, modern approach. Wright wrote, as a post-modern interpretation of that book, Simply Christian (notice the title connection). Instead of beginning at the philosophical point of belief in God, Wright begins with the concept of justice, of right and wrong, and our experience of the brokenness of the world. You have to get through most of Lewis’s book to end at that point.
Why does Wright begin there? Because that is the starting point for most people today. Belief in God is no longer a theoretical issue, something we can convert people with well-crafted logical arguments. It has to have some meat on it. There needs to be some practical application. The post-modern world cries out with James “You believer that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that…”. What difference does your faith make? That is the first question of non-believers (and believers alike) today. That question inherently involves justice.
Every leader in the Old Testament from Moses on dealt head on with issues of justice, and in fact, most social justice movements today take their cues from the Old Testament prophets. Pre-Moses (so if you limit yourself to only the book of Genesis) you still find justice in the Patriarchs indirectly. Whereas they spent less time arbitrating peace among others, every one of them was called to give up their own self-serving way of life and follow God in a way that blessed others.
Paul articulates personal involvement in social justice in this way: We are not debtors to the flesh, but to the Spirit of God. He describes the suffering we are called to not because of our own wrongdoing, but on behalf of others. It is precisely how we follow Jesus.
Where do you notice and experience injustice in your life today?
How is God calling you to respond?