Dawning Justice


Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20b,21 NRSV)

So, it’s a blessing to be poor, hungry, or grief-stricken? No, that absurdity misses the message completely because it ignores context, and in biblical theology (and all theology) context always matters. Jesus has announced the coming of the kingdom or reign of God, and these blessings upon the presently downtrodden belong to his announcement. The way of the world will be reversed. Here are the corresponding woes:

Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24,25 NRSV)

What, it’s a sin to be rich, well nourished, or happy? No, the question is the system or order of life to which we are attached. Do we favor and defend the status quo in which relatively few prosper and even fewer prosper exorbitantly, or will we welcome a change that brings about a new set of conditions in which abundance is shared, in which cooperation replaces competition for life’s benefits and from which privilege and dominion are gone?

All Jesus’ teachings come attached to and dependent upon his announcement of the in-breaking of the reign of God, and the promise of that coming reign continues to guide his followers as the vanishing point that gives perspective to all of life, the “north” pole which draws all individual and social compass needles toward itself. Blessed are those whose hopes and values align with that promise, who want for this world and its people what Jesus declares God wants for them. Blessed are those who welcome the kingdom wherever and whenever it pushes its way into life and disrupts the status quo of injustices and gross inequities.

Here’s a flaw in our understanding of Christianity’s newer Testament. In two of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, this in-breaking reign of justice and compassion is called the kingdom of God, but Matthew follows Jewish piety by not naming God directly. When in my former pastorate we prepared the bulletin for the interfaith Thanksgiving service, the rabbi would put in the Jewish parts of the service the word God as G-d to avoid even that much of a graven image and show special reverence for the name. So, in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is rendered in Jesus’ teachings as the “kingdom of heaven,” but the teachings are still for this world and not some other. The word heaven simply stands in for the word God; it does not direct our attention away from this world’s people or its systems and structures, either.

Much of Christianity has made the goal of faith to be getting us into heaven when we die, but the goal of the gospel, the good news, is to get heaven (God) into our lives and our world. The transformation is to occur here and now. Justice must come upon us on the ground these days, not up in the clouds some day. I am not denying our resurrection hope, but that’s another matter. Justice postponed is justice denied here and now. If our lives are oriented in faith, hope, and love toward God’s reign on earth, our beyond-death hopes will be taken care of, but the time for change toward justice is now.

It is an enormous perversion of the Bible and the gospel to tell the poor to be content with their lot in life, the cheated to “count it all joy,” the shamed and outcast to humble themselves, and the enslaved to obey their masters – all as we enjoy the benefits of the present systemic injustices they suffer. We tell hungry school children they need more rigor. We tell children in pain from lack of dental care they have no excuses for doing poorly on standardized tests that confront them with questions drawn from contexts they have never experienced. We produce metrics to drive workers harder and harder until we have broken and then replaced them, casting them aside like junk. We tell woman in various ways that they are bodies that exist for the pleasure of men. We tell the cheated to “get over it.” We tell people who are seeing their hopes stolen from them, “Suck it up, snowflake.” We divide people who are supposed to be our sisters and brothers in life into “winners” and “losers.”

Jesus declares of the in-breaking reign of God, “Many who are now first will be last, and the last first.” In other words:

Blessed are you who are losers in this world’s systems,
for you will be given victory.

Woe to you proud winners,
for you are losing and don’t know it.

Or as in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, Jesus’ mother, and drawn from Hannah of long ago:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
. . .
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and set the rich away empty. (from Luke 1:46 ff NRSV)

The kingdom of God comes to heal and restore but also to bring forth justice on earth. To it belong both restorative justice and distributive justice.

Disruptive Justice


Retributive justice seeks for each what each deserves, reward or punishment, according to a system of judgment by some set of standards. In practice, it seeks in human courts to convict and punish the guilty. A great strength of our justice system in the United States is that it is based upon evidence rather than presumption. Our criminal justice system is not entirely retributive; it has additional motives of protecting the public and, perhaps, rehabilitating offenders where possible.

So, it is not my purpose in this series of blog posts to attack our criminal justice system. Neither is it my purpose to suggest we suspend all sense of guilt or innocence, fairness or unfairness, right or wrong. It is my purpose to elevate people above standards, not by eliminating all standards but by supporting restorative justice which strives, not to excuse wrongdoing, but to recognize and heal the harm done.

There is yet another form of justice which Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann insists is biblical also: distributive justice. The Bible does not offer a model of distributive justice that could be implemented in a modern society. It does provide insight into God’s passionate concern for justice on earth and, more particularly, God’s hatred of the injustices inflicted upon people who cry out in their suffering. And their cries need not be prayers. To Cain, the archetypal murderer, God does not say, “I see that you have committed a serious crime,” but rather, “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10b NRSV).

Ask responsible, loving parents which of their several children they love most. The theoretical answer is, “We love them all the same,” but in practice, love reaches out most strongly to the one presently in distress. Here we have the human parallel to God’s declaration to Moses:

I have observed [seen, not just observed] the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . . (Exodus3:7,8 NRSV).

I objected to the translation “observed” because to us observation is neutral, whereas the Hebrew word ties perception to caring and caring to active response. In this Hebraic way of thinking, if I observe but fail to respond, I have not seen. If someone’s distress reaches my ears, but I do not respond, I have not heard. So, Exodus is telling us something much more than merely that God has good ears. Along the same lines, “I know their suffering,” does not mean that God is aware of the suffering but that God feels it and shares it. It is a declaration of empathy and compassion, not mere omniscience. This way of speaking is relational rather than detached and indifferent. The God by whom we are encountered in the various witnesses of the Bible is never indifferent to us.

Distributive justice deals with a problem much broader than an individual’s criminal or otherwise harmful behavior. It challenges injustices within our systems upheld by law and order and so disrupts the hierarchies and workings of our social, economic, and political systems considered right and proper by those positioned to benefit from them.

Biblical justice can clash with “law and order.” That clash begins in the biblical story when Moses and Aaron go to the king of Egypt (the pharaoh) with God’s demand, “Let my people go!” But to comprehend what is happening in the making of that demand, we must use this God’s name: YHWH, reconstructed by scholars as Yahweh. Why the name, as though there were more than one God? In ancient Egypt, there was more than one god, and distinguishing this one is imperative because Yahweh is so different and so disruptive.

In what Brueggemann labels “the Mosaic revolution,” Yahweh enters the stage of human history as the self-designated God of slaves. Because gods shared the glory of their worshipers, Yahweh appears ingloriously as a slave god, and the pharaoh (a son of the high gods) is unimpressed. Predictably, the pharaoh responds by telling Moses and Aaron, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV amended by replacing the conventional substitute for YHWH, “the LORD,” with the name Yahweh so this particular God is identified. Pharaoh would not call YHWH “the Lord”).

The Mosaic revolution disrupted the system of law and order, certainly not by overthrowing the pharaoh or the system itself, but by challenging it and, in a movement from slavery to freedom, delivering Israel into a new way of social, political, and economic life. To be sure, the progress of this new way was neither steady nor consistent, but it was carried forward in Israel with continual struggles, championed by the great prophets, and revitalized in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, for Christianity this disruptive justice is epitomized in the crucifixion of Jesus by the imperial forces of law and order (with encouragement from the religious champions of reward and punishment) and, for believers, vindicated by his resurrection. Brueggemann writes:

It is fair to say that given its subsequent exposition through time, the Exodus event and the Sinai structure do indeed witness to Yahweh’s preferential option for the poor, weak, and marginated. Or said another way, Yahweh is here known to be a resilient and relentless advocate of and agent for justice, which entails the complete reordering of power arrangements in the earth. (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 736)

The intention of Mosaic justice is to redistribute social goods and social powers; thus it is distributive justice. This justice recognizes that social goods and social power are unequally and destructively distributed in Israel’s world (and derivatively in any social context), and 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 do not have enough. (736, 737)

Next: The newer Testament’s call for distributive justice.