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Monday, January 26, 2015

God Expects Justice

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Isaiah 45:8 (CEV)
Tell the heavens to send down justice
    like showers of rain.
Prepare the earth for my saving power
to sprout and produce justice
    that I, the Lord, create.[a]

Isaiah 45:8 (NRSV)
Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,[
    and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
    I the Lord have created it.

          God created the world, the universe, you, me.  A few atheists have sold a lot of books rejecting the existence of God.  By far most scientists, even those who aren’t at all religious would not claim science does away with God or the idea of creation.  That’s not territory covered by scientific research.  Church goers agree that God created everything.  We may debate the mechanisms by which God created, but we can agree God is the creator.
          Anyone who studies the Bible knows God creates intentionally.  God had a vision in Eden.  The culmination of God’s work came in creating one in his image, the human, the woman and the man. 
          God creates.  God creates with a plan.  God sees humans as His greatest creation and the center of his plan.  We know God as Father, Son, and Spirit, three in one.  The trinity exists in relationship as God is relational.  Human to God, human to creation (nature), human to human, and human to society; we live as God intended when we construct our lives around relationships.  We do our everyday work with relationships in mind.  When we live in humility, peace, and most importantly in love, then things are the way God wants them to be. 
          Look around the world.  Are things the way God wants them to be?  In some cases, yes.  Overall, no.  So what does God do?
According to Isaiah in the exile, God makes it rain. 
Tell the heavens to send down justice like showers of rain.”
“Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness.”
Prolific writer and preeminent scholar Walter Breuggemann cites Isaiah 40-55 as the foundational word of God that comes out of the exile.[i]  Any people utterly defeated in battle on their homeland and then dragged to slavery 1000’s of miles away would be overwhelmed and disoriented.  In 586 BC Israel was. 
Israel had, prior to the fall at the hands of Babylon, been guilty of systemic idolatry and systemic injustice.  The wealthy few prospered while the most vulnerable of society suffered.  The prophet Amos and the earlier chapters of Isaiah both take up this point. God’s response to his own people’s generational, systemic disregard of his way was to allow Babylon to rise in power and crush Israel.  The prophet interpreted Israel’s pain as coming not from Babylonian cruelty, but from God’s punishing hand.  Babylon was God’s instrument.
The exiles perceived themselves to be defeated and by extension, their God, the God Abraham had been defeated by Babylon’s gods.  No, Isaiah said.  All the horrors are a result of turning from God.  And, now, the punishment is over.  As bad as things look, God is bringing a new day.
This is Isaiah of the exile.  This is the word from the exile on which all other words from that time stand.  Isaiah comes onto a scene of depression, despair and rage, and into that he speaks hope that transforms and praise that recognizes who God is.
          Brueggemann calls Isaiah’s prophetic poetry ‘invitational.’[ii]  Isaiah calls Israel to a new hope, a hope for a new reality.  The Holy Spirit animates Isaiah’s message as we read it.  In Isaiah we are invited to be washed in the rain God sends.  But what is it exactly that falls on us when we are the rain God sends?
          In two English versions of Isaiah 45:8, we see a word in the original language translated in two different ways, once as ‘righteousness’ and once as ‘justice.’  Which is it?  Is this a matter of one translation being correct and the other wrong?
          Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance says this Hebrew word, ‘tsedeq’ means righteousness.  However, The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance in a more expanded definition says the word can mean ‘righteousness’ or ‘rightness,’ and it belongs to a family of meanings that includes ‘fairly,’ ‘just cause,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘vindication’ in addition to the definitions already noted. 
          Just as the best way to construct our reality is in terms of relationships – to others, to God, to creation, to human society – the best way to take in these Hebrew words and concepts is in how they relate to other concepts and in how they are lived out.  It is not a matter of a precise definition so much as in the idea lived out relationally in the world as God created it and intends it to be.
          I offer a few other Hebrew terms.  First ‘mishpat.’  This term is used three times in Isaiah 42 and is translated ‘justice.’ One commentator describes is as God’s absolute divine right, true religion as lived out in everyday life.[iii]  Next, ‘Hesed,’ which is God’s loving kindness.  Throughout the Old Testament, God is known by ‘hesed.’  It is this loving kindness that drives God to rescue his people from exile even though their sins of inequality and ill-treatment of the poor, widow and orphan are what got them in trouble in the first place.  And finally, ‘shalom.’  This can mean peace but a fuller meaning is life in which all is in harmony and all is well.  This is life that prospers. 
‘Tsedeq,’ ‘mishpat,’ ‘hesed,’ and ‘shalom;’ in the way these terms play off each other in describing God and God’s expectations for human life, we see justice, mercy, love, peace, and hope. 
Please note, whatever this means for our activity, justice does not come because we work for it.  We should.  We should be advocates for justice.  But it originates with God.  God brings justice.  In Isaiah’ terms, God rains justice down.  Also note, in Isaiah’s day, God did this through human agency, not by way of miracles.  The agent of God’s justice was the Persian emperor, Cyrus.  He led the defeat of Babylon and he freed the exiles to return home.
Some Israelite did not appreciate that God would accomplish God’s purposes with a gentile pagan.  God responded, “Woe to you who strive with your maker, earthen vessels with the potter.  … I made the earth and created humankind upon it; I stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness and I will make all his paths straight” (45:9, 12-13).  How awful!  Will God do this by way of some Persian who doesn’t even pray?
Today, are we ever opposed to works of justice because we don’t like the people at the microphone?  I don’t know how you feel about Al Sharpton.  As the story of unarmed Michael Brown being shot by Officer Wilson unfolded, the dominant theme was the horrific trend of African Americans being killed by police instead of protected by those commissioned to protect and serve.  Add to that the alarming reality that African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for crimes where whites are likely to get off with no prison time for the same crime.  We have injustice – systemic injustice. 
But, I hear many Christians I talk to say they don’t like Al Sharpton.  I don’t know why he’s the voice at the microphone.  I am not hear to defend or criticize him.  But when a white guy gets community service for a crime and a black guy gets 6 months to a year for the same crime and it happens all the time, that’s injustice.  When there is a trend of unarmed young black males getting shot by white policeme, we have a problem.  When one of those killed is the same age as my 12-year-old white son and he was shot doing the kinds of things my boys does, I get scared.  I have a black son who will be 12 soon.  We who follow the God that insists upon human beings living in peaceful and loving relationships with each other cannot bicker about our distaste for the voice at the microphone. 
This is not about Al Sharpton or Bill O’Reilly or whomever.  Nor is it about recent tension in the United States.  That is one of our current signs of rampant worldwide injustice.  Racial inequality is an example but not the only one.  And it is not even about injustice.  This is about God.  God demands justice as a norm among the people He created. 
In describing the concept of justice in the Old Testament, Brueggemann says that it recognizes that “the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have too much for the sake of those who have not enough.”[iv]  The very first Christians did this in sharing resources so everyone in the church could flourish (Acts 2:44-45). 
A core New Testament value is generosity.  The book Philemon takes this to an extreme where the Apostle Paul subverts an accepted first century practice, slavery.  He tells the slaveholder, Philemon, ‘Your man, Onesimus, is no longer your man.  He is God’s.  He was a slave, but now, you, he, and I are all in one family, brothers in Christ.’  Paul did not condemn slavery as an institution in and of itself.  He envisioned something grander.  In Paul’s view everything in life is re-imagined in light of Christ.  When we are in Christ, racism, slavery, poverty – these are all unthinkable.  The God who rains down justice and righteousness, peace and harmony has no place for suffering and hunger and inequality.
So, if we say justice is from God, not a result our works, then where is it and what are we to do?  Where was God when Michael Brown was shot, when Eric Garner strangled?  I read this that the richest 10% of the world’s population owns 87% of the world’s wealth.  Maybe that doesn’t bother you.  When I think of the Old Testament concept of distributive justice and when I think of the core value of generosity in the New Testament and when I hear Jesus saying that when we share with the poorest of these his children we are sharing with him, I am deeply troubled by this reality.  A few people are ridiculously rich and seemingly without concern for the billions who struggle with malnutrition, lack of educational opportunities, and inadequate housing.  Where is God?  Where is the God who rains down justice?
And if justice comes from God, what do we do? 
First remember that our understanding of ideas like justice is in terms of relationship.  We are connected to the orphans in Ethiopia, to the immigrants lacking documentation who are expelled from America, to Michael Brown’s mother.  In God’s view, human beings are connected to one another in relationship.  So, our first action is to see how one person’s pain is an injury to God’s creation. 
Second, as we read Isaiah, and imagine his words of hope as words for us, we remember that God is present in the world today in Spirit – the Holy, and in body – the body of Christ which is the church.  So, yes, justice is a work of God, and God does His work through the people who make up his church.  Our prayer life has to be one that moves from silence before to the action of love and compassion given to women and men. 
This becomes specific when a disciple’s life is full of relationships of compassion that are based in volunteer efforts.  We don’t just sponsor an orphan in Ethiopia.  We write letters.  We send pictures.  We pray for the child by name.  As much as we can we enter the child’s life relationally.  We don’t just volunteer to help build a ramp on someone’s home who cannot afford to hire contractors.  When we go, we talk to that person.  We hear her story.  We are blessed by sitting with her.  We don’t just enter protest movements, walk in marches, or sign petitions.  We befriend people whose lives are different than ours.  We enter their stories and take them into ours. 
We think about injustice relationally, and this includes the complete elimination of “us” and “them” language.
We follow God from prayer to action.  In this our action is always based on relationship more than project completion.
Third, we think of justice with an eye toward human flourishing.  A few years ago, the youth group was in Atlanta helping underprivileged inner city kids improve their reading.  Our partnership with the CBF missionaries there helped a multiple levels but one persistent theme is that if these kids master literacy and comprehension, they will be able to succeed in school.  If they succeed in school, they might be able to get good jobs that enable them to shed the label “underprivileged.”  Instead of surviving, these kids, today called “poor,” having learned love and developed academic skill may be able to thrive professionally and relationally.  The justice and compassion works that fill our lives and connect us to people are carried out with an eye toward human flourishing. 
 We won’t bring justice to world, not even as the body of Christ doing the work of God.  When Jesus was present, the world did not change.  But those around him did.  The world continued to sink in sin, but he was present, offering a new hope, just as Isaiah offered a new hope.  Now, we lived between the resurrection and the final day when God will set everything right.  Now, we are the voice that points the world to God.  We who believe in the resurrection God and the glorified future he promises are “unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
Justice will always be a dominant theme in the prophet’s words and a defining characteristic of the church.

[i] Brueggemann (1978), The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.70.
[ii] Brueggemann (1997), Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p. 46
[iii] K. Keil (1890) in Commontary on the Old Testament in 10 Volumes, translated by James Martin (reprinted 1973), William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.175.
[iv] Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.737.

[i] Brueggemann (1978), The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.70.
[ii] Brueggemann (1997), Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p. 46
[iii] K. Keil (1890) in Commontary on the Old Testament in 10 Volumes, translated by James Martin (reprinted 1973), William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.175.
[iv] Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.737.

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