22 Nov 2009

Justice

Submitted by Paul Brown

Although my work has calmed down quite a bit since the last time I wrote, life continues to be busy, mostly because Holly's work is still very stressful and busy. That means that I help out more around the house and we take as much time as we can to relax and go to bed early.

Earlier this month we spent two weeks discussing human trafficking at our Sunday evening Regeneration gatherings. The subject has put me to thinking about this and other issues of social injustice where instead of merely isolated acts of evil there are whole systems that engage in and perpetuate oppression of people. How should I think about this theologically? What is the root of the problem? What is the solution? How should I respond?

On the root of the problem, I think the Christian consensus is clear: The problem is sin. Since human beings first rebelled against their creator (Gen 3), the world has been fallen and broken. We see the tragic results of sin in everything from broken families and destructive relationships to war and corrupt governments to natural disasters to my own selfishness and pride. Since God created the world good (Gen 1:31), anything we see or experience that is not good is the result of sin—my sin, someone else's sin, or sin in general as consequence of
the broken relationship between mankind and God.

The solution, from a Christian perspective, is that the world needs Christ (the Messiah) to return and consummate the victory over sin and death that he won on the cross. The Revelation of John gives us striking images of the struggle of the people of God against sin and the systems of this world and then their participation in the ultimate victory of Jesus over all wickedness and the re-creation or restoration of the world to what it ought to be in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

How that victory is worked out, however, is perhaps up for some debate. I am not well enough studied to even outline well the issues being debated, so I refer you to a blog post by Kevin DeYoung on Two-Kingdom Theology and Neu-Kuyperians (including the discussion and some references in the comment thread). The question as I see it (possibly not having anything to do with what Kevin and others are talking about on this issue) is whether the church should engage against the injustice of the world, representing Christ in the world and acting as his means to conquer these systems, or whether the church should be primarily oriented toward exercising the ordinary means of grace to win people over to the gospel and display a redeemed counter-culture of justice within the church.

I think that part of the difficulty in sorting out a biblical answer to this question lies in the difference between the community of Israel, to whom the Old Testament Scriptures were originally directed, and the church, to whom the New Testament Scriptures are directed. Israel was to be both a religious community (like the church) and a theocratic society and nation (unlike the church). If we go too far in equating the church and the nation of Israel, we may conclude that we ought to convert our society (albeit largely unbelieving) to biblical ethics. After all, much of the prophets' criticism of Israel was that she did not care for the poor and the powerless the way that she was supposed to.

The problem with doing so is that Israel was not just a society or a nation; it was also a religious community, and the commands to act justly presume covenant commitment. Israel owes allegiance and obedience to the Lord on account of her covenant relationship with the Lord. Further, despite her covenant obligations, Israel was largely unbelieving and failed to carry out the commands of the Lord, whether that be with regard to worship or whether it be in relationship to caring for the poor and powerless. If Israel was unable to obey commands for justice, why should we expect the United States or any other contemporary society to fare any better? A new covenant, mediated through Christ and sealed in his blood shed on the cross, was needed because the old one could not really take away sin or bring Spirit-wrought obedience.

On the one hand you have those for whom addressing the world's problems is #1 on the list of Christian responsibilities. On the other are those who are not really concerned with the world's problems and would rather focus on growing in holiness, reaching friends and neighbors with the gospel (substitutionary atonement, etc), and living rightly in their everyday activities. I confess to being basically in the second category—to a fault. We may have read the passages that reveal God's concern for the poor and powerless, but when it comes to taking action, we tend to say, "Not my job."

The idea that I think may be helpful in finding the balance between these two extremes is considering believers' dual citizenship in both the world and society in which we live and in the heavenly kingdom through Christ (Phil 3:20). If I embrace both citizenships, then I avoid trying to force the kingdom of heaven upon society at large, as if the two kingdoms were supposed to converge before Jesus returns. But because love is a driving ethic for the Christian, I can't ignore the real problems of my neighbors (downstairs or around the world) when there may be things I can do to ameliorate their suffering (Luke 10:25-37). Love compels us to care, even if ultimately we cannot solve the problem.

Does that make sense?

P.S. Check out my friend Chris' thoughts about social justice and the gospel.

Comments

Great link and comments by Kevin DeYoung. Now that I read his it does remind that Luther argued for a two kingdoms approach. Also, I believe some in the founding of our country based separation of church and state on this concept. Just some interesting things to think about.