New Title from JPS: Justice for All

 

Readers of this blog (yes, it’s alive!) may recall my immense appreciation for commentaries and other works published by The Jewish Publication Society. You can find a host of JPS reviews and book notes I’ve written here.

JPS has just released Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, by Jeremiah Unterman.

Biblical justice has been a recurring theme in our congregation this past school year–both in my preaching and in our adult Sunday school classes. I’m eager to dig in to this volume.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Justice for All demonstrates that the Jewish Bible, by radically changing the course of ethical thought, came to exercise enormous influence on Jewish thought and law and also laid the basis for Christian ethics and the broader development of modern Western civilization.

Jeremiah Unterman shows us persuasively that the ethics of the Jewish Bible represent a significant moral advance over Ancient Near East cultures. Moreover, he elucidates how the Bible’s unique conception of ethical monotheism, innovative understanding of covenantal law, and revolutionary messages from the prophets form the foundation of many Western civilization ideals. Justice for All connects these timeless biblical texts to the persistent themes of our times: immigration policy, forgiveness and reconciliation, care for the less privileged, and attaining hope for the future despite destruction and exile in this world.

You can read a .pdf excerpt here. The book’s product page is here, and is also available through Amazon.

Resist Injustice, Reshape the World (My Article at Sojourners)

abram-sojo-article

 

Yesterday Sojourners online published my article, “Resist Injustice, Reshape the World.”

In it I reflect on the challenges a Trump presidency presents and say:

Being honest about reality is a primary role Christians can play in society.

And:

The prophetic task of all believers is not just to react to reality rightly named, but to reframe it in the light of a grander vision of the future.

Read the whole thing here.

Let the Church be a Thermostat, not a Thermometer

mlk-in-jail

 

Tomorrow our church’s adult Sunday school class will discuss white privilege and Martin Luther King’s compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think I’ve marked up at least 50% of the words in his moving piece of writing. Here’s one section that stood out:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

King continues:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Reading and preaching through the Old Testament lectionary (prophets!) has been reminding me of the dual proclamation of the prophets: both God’s hope (which I prefer to think about and preach on) and God’s judgment on those who practice injustice and sin (not as easy to talk about; no less true). Rev. Dr. King was a prophet in the tradition of Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the rest. Of course the church today is not immune from God’s judgment for too easily capitulating to a non-Christlike status quo.

Also intriguing is the idea, as Joel has it in tomorrow’s reading, that all believers have not only the Holy Spirit, but also the charge of prophesying and proclaiming the truth of the God who judges with justice, in whom we can put our hope. All of God’s people are called to the prophetic office!

Remembering MLK

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the path from darkness to light:

Seek justice, encouraged the oppressed…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday commemorating the great preacher and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Were he still living, Dr. King would have been 86 this weekend.

MLK bookIn a world where any black person on a bus was expected to give up his or her seat to any white person who asked, a world where peaceful civil rights protestors suffered unprovoked police brutality, and a world where blacks were often prevented from basic rights like voting simply because they were black, Martin Luther King, Jr., knew what it was to suffer injustice.

And he knew that his particular experience of injustice had universal implications. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In response to his fellow clergyman who called for him to slow down, he said that when we say “wait” to righting the wrongs around us, “wait” often turns into “never.” “Justice too long delayed,” he wrote, “is justice denied.”

One thing I want to do more of in 2015 is to stop saying “wait” in my own efforts to speak up and act in response to injustice—whether it’s racial injustice, poverty, homelessness, sexism, violence, or systemic oppression. I’m spending some time prayerfully discerning what this will look like. I am challenged by Isaiah’s call to “seek justice” and “encourage the oppressed,” an essential part of every Christian’s vocation.

I and we need to hear Isaiah’s urgent call and King’s impassioned words just as much today as their first hearers did.

May we open ourselves to God and listen to how he leads us to act on the words of the prophet.

The above is adapted from a short letter I sent to my congregation.

Got a Theology of Justice?

Justice ScaleI had a seminary professor who rightly noted the lack of ministers and churchgoers with a fully developed theology of justice.

“What’s your theology of justice?” he asked at the beginning of the class, which was met with blank but curious stares.

Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, more than any other book besides the Bible, has shaped my theological understanding of justice. Authors Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice develop a Christ-centered, Scripture-shaped, journey-oriented theology of justice reconciliation.

The authors urge that we slow down and take the time that is needed for true reconciliation—as a journey—to take hold. A question that permeates the book is, “Reconciliation toward what?” Katongole and Rice are aware that “reconciliation” calls to mind various “prevailing visions,” many of which lack theological rootedness in the Biblical story of God saving his people.

Reconciliation is, they suggest, a God-given gift to the world and the ultimate goal of the “journey with God from old toward new.” They write,

The journey of reconciliation hangs or falls on seeing Jesus. …For Christians, the compass for the journey of reconciliation is always pointing toward Jesus Christ.

Katongole and Rice make heavy use of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  (II Corinthians 5:18-20, TNIV)

Seen as a gift, then, reconciliation becomes something that is “not for experts only,” but something that God calls all his children to. To equip us for the journey God gives us gifts: a cloud of witnesses, communion, peace and harmony, Sabbath, and the gift of Scripture, which is to shape us as God’s story in the world.

Midway through the book the authors arrive at a biblically understood definition of justice:

Justice is an aspect of God’s shalom, a notion that carries with it the idea of completeness, soundness, well-being and prosperity, and includes every aspect of life—personal, relational and national.

Justice, they say, is to include the interpersonal, relational aspect; yet it must also attend to structural considerations. To speak about justice so holistically, against dichotomies that might otherwise render our work ineffective, is wise and instructive for our journey toward reconciliation.

Reconciling All ThingsAlthough written by a black, Catholic, African academician and a white, Protestant, American practitioner, the book does not specify what issues in reconciliation may occur between any two specific groups and how those groups (or individuals) might think about moving forward. The authors do give helpful anecdotal evidence of reconciliation that bridges and heals divides of race, class, and ethnicity. But the reader wanting, for example, to mend and redress the brokenness in black-white relations in the United States may have to look to supplemental reading for more practical hints.

However, in its development of a fairly robust theology of reconciliation and justice, Reconciling All Things lays the important groundwork on top of which such future work can be built. Its chapters on lament (“The Discipline of Lament”) and leadership (“The Heart, Spirit, and Life of Leadership”) are profound in their call for Christians to slow down, locate themselves (emotionally and physically) among the broken places of the world, and to mourn and lament in those places, together with those who mourn and lament.

The one who would lead, then, is less concerned with specific techniques, tools, and strategies, and more concerned with seeing a gap, being deeply moved in response, and belonging to the gap, long before she or he would make proposals to initiate change and issue directives. In laying this groundwork, Katongole and Rice actually leave the work of developing techniques and specific reconciliation “skills” to the reader.

In the end, “You find that God has surprised you and your companions over and over with all that you needed to go on….” The assurance of this ongoing gift of God’s provision gives the Christian who would practice reconciliation all she needs to begin discerning her role in practicing reconciliation in everyday life.

I bought this book. You should, too, or check it out from your local library. Here at Amazon; here at IVP.

A Poem I Wrote in Spanish After Reading Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Some 12 years ago I wrote the following poem-prayer after reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and some of his other writing on the church. I found it again the other day so am posting it here:

Hasta que haya la paz, no descansaré.
Hasta que las guerras cesen, no abandonaré la lucha.
Hasta que la justicia reine, seguiré leyendo, predicando, y gritando.
Hasta que haya una verdadera liberación humana, no dormiré.
Que vengas, Jesucristo. Que venga tu voluntad y tu reino,
como en el cielo, así también en la tierra.