Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Jesus and Justice

Some thoughts...

Noel Castellanos’ “5 Elements of Kingdom Ministry”:

1) Incarnation: We must not only have the same message as Jesus but the same method. You really reach people when you enter their world, their hurt and pain. If you’ve incarnated God’s love into the community of a homosexual, for instance, he’ll realize, Oh, this guy is willing to enter my life. He doesn’t just condemn me. The he’s more capable of hearing our message.

2) Proclamation: We’re told to proclaim the Good News, so this is clearly an essential. Proclaiming the truth in love, and in the context of incarnation, is not forcing it down people’s throats. Proclamation is also about formation, describing the kind of people God shapes us into.

3) Compassion: The Good News is authenticated by our caring (Luke 4). And when we are truly incarnate among the poor, these folks are more than just statistics. They’re your neighbors. They’re your friends. And if you meet a person with a need, compassion leads you to do what you can to meet that need.

4) Restoration/Development: When you live in a neighborhood where the same needs emerge over and over again, then you have to look at the larger picture and begin to fix what’s broken. In Baltimore, a little church took over a struggling public elementary school and revolutionized that neighborhood. They’re not just doing compassion, handing out backpacks to kids. Instead, they saw these kids getting a poor education and said, “We’ve got to be about restoration and development.”

5) Confrontation: The best way to do justice work is to be incarnate in a community. As you work to meet people’s needs through compassion and restoration, you eventually come up against systems and institutions that are keeping people in those conditions, beyond their own irresponsibility or sinfulness. This is when you must identify and confront injustice. We might discover this injustice in our government or schools or police forces or even churches – no institution is immune to injustice.

Zacchaeus - Luke 19:1-10 (NIV)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'" But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."

With Noel’s 5th Element in mind, I want to suggest going a step beyond identifying and confronting the systems and institutions that keep people in positions of poverty and hopelessness. While it is true that we must look underneath the immediate circumstances of the poor and the oppressed in order to identify what beyond their own sinful choices is keeping them oppressed, I want to suggest looking even further. The institutions and entities that exploit people are themselves run and staffed by people. While some systems are inherently oppressive, many are only so by virtue of the posture and philosophy of the people sustaining them. We must ask ourselves if confronting the system or institution is the best and first and most biblical response, or whether addressing the lostness and darkness of the people in charge might be more in order.

Perhaps there is no dichotomy. Perhaps doing both simultaneously is a perfectly reasonable strategy, but I’m increasingly convinced that at the bottom of all of our problems, from the failure of institutions to interpersonal conflict, is simple human depravity. This, I believe, is why Jesus dealt with the injustice of the Roman-dispatched Jewish mercenaries known as Tax Collectors by winning the individuals guilty of the oppression. I am aware of no record of Jesus confronting the oppressive system. This is not to say we shouldn’t. There are other places in Scripture where people speak prophetically against corrupt systems. But the way Jesus dealt specifically with both Matthew and Zacchaeus, and particularly Zacchaeus’ response once he was converted, needs to inform our thinking of how to approach justice issues. Are we really getting to the root of the problems we see among the poor when we confront the systems holding them down, or are we not going far enough? If the system was reformed and laws were changed, would that bring transformation or merely relief? I agree that if relief is all we can get in the short term, then it’s worth working for, but if transformation is never addressed, and it can only be addressed by the Cross, are we not fooling ourselves?

An example of what I’m trying to say is the ending of the slave trade. Clearly, it is a good and great thing that Wilberforce worked to abolish it. He brought relief in the name of Jesus to a desperately unjust situation that was causing enormous suffering, and the hemorrhaging simply needed to stop. But the deep wound of racism still festers and bleeds to this day, because until the racist heart is changed by the Gospel, laws can only ameliorate the suffering and relieve the circumstances.

More examples could be cited. My point is that the way that justice and evangelism are connected is illustrated perfectly in the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus won the heart and soul of Zacchaeus. He “came to seek and save the lost”, and Zacchaeus was a very lost oppressor who became redeemed and showed it. When the lost are truly found (supernaturally brought to spiritual life from death and reconciled with their Creator through Christ), they think differently. They have repented of their mindset of death, whatever form it took, and have entered into the life that is truly life (John 17:3). I have a great deal of thinking left to do about this, but I believe I have discovered the core of where my thinking needs to spring from.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's late, I'm tired, and I need to be direct with my question? Why does it seem like the gospel is being directed primarily toward "poor" people? It seems like there is this sense that "poor" people who can't read, who don't have jobs, and who don't have access to education are somehow more in need of the gospel than the average well-to-do, suburban business guy. It's a growing beef that I have with the whole justice movement. It seems a bit patronizing. It's as if I can look out my window here on the West side and say "these poor black dudes REALLY need the gospel, but the people over there in comfortable Oak Park (atheistic/pantheistic/whatever-god-you-want) are lost but not as bad off as THESE guys over here in the ghetto." Please hear me that working toward rectifying the wrongs of the past and present can be a significant contribution of what we as Christ-followers should do. It's just that I feel this creeping sense of socialistic paternalism that seems to be the undercurrent of this movement. Besides all of that, I could proof-text almost ANY particular ministry aim if I wanted to by lifting out select portions of the gospels to posit my particular point of view. I could take the example of the Samaritan woman in John 4 and make the case that all ministry should be cross-cultural. I could lift out the text of John 3 and suggest that we must make every effort to confront the religious "seekers." I'll stop ranting for now. When you get a chance, I would like to talk with you about it more.

Up Way Too Late,

September 9, 2010 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think you nailed it, Nate

This whole “intersection” between the gospel and justice has been on my mind for some time. My purpose in creating the post was not to simply think out loud, but to probe a very soft spot in the thinking and theology of the justice movement. Much of the movement is moderate to liberal theologically, and as such they are much more comfortable talking about institutional sin than individual sin. This of course plays out one way with the poor, focusing the cause of their pain more on the institutional sin committed against them than their personal sin, but in my mind it also plays out to the “oppressors”. Rather than looking at the fact that the people who run the oppressive institutions need a savior, they go after the institution as a faceless entity. The gospel says that all of us, rich or poor, are wretched and have the same problem of enmity with our creator, and ALL of us need a gracious savior.

Indeed we gotta hang out!

September 9, 2010 at 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Steve Martin said...

The gospel (Jesus) is for all.

The down and out'ers and the up and out'ers.

And yes, Jesus does change the lives in those whom He calls. But Christ ought be the focus, and not the 'doing' that results. The Holy Spirit is more than capable of completeing in us the good work that He has begun.

Thanks, Steve.

September 17, 2010 at 9:41 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Good to hear from you Steve!

September 18, 2010 at 1:43 PM  

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