I confess that one of the most difficult part of my Christian journey to address within myself is God’s desire for us to be a people of justice. All too often in our western society, justice is confused with political agenda. At times that agenda is from the right, and at times it is from the left. Even within our own Episcopal tradition, that tension is lived out by both sides, some “the Republican party at prayer” and others, who “eat, sleep, and dream on their left side.” I am a self-professed centrist or moderate. It is far easier for me to talk of issues of mission or evangelism. Perhaps that is because these are usually places where the thrust is from a united front. We want people to love God, be cared for, and fed. Thus, if we are to care for our neighbor, we are automatically people who must seek justice.
Recently, I got into a rather heated ‘discussion’ regarding the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In previous versions of the prayer book, the covenant is implied, even if not overtly proclaimed. The last question is one that causes some to cringe, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? (BCP p. 305). Perhaps my defense of this question is rooted in my love for a book that I think is the finest piece of liturgical scholarship in nearly five hundred years. The Baptismal Covenant is my framework for understanding myself in relationship to a God who loves me to the uttermost. So why the issue? This, and other perils in our faith journeys, might have a tendency to point to self and not to God. I wholeheartedly want my life to witness to God’s justice and God’s peace. How are we to reconcile the confusing messages of justice and righteousness? How are we to choose from what is God’s and not a reflection of our own understanding given our culture and upbringing?
First, let me point out that so many of our struggles can be classified as “right” or “left”. In times of great social and moral turmoil, there are “new lights” and “old lights”. In fact, Diana Butler Bass does a phenomenal job of clarifying the whole basis of the movement we are currently experiencing in her work Christianity after Religion. In every age there are those who resist the move of the age and those who radically embrace it. It was true in both the first and second Great Awakenings, it was true in the Charismatic movement of the 20th Century, and it is true now.
I think we are finally getting to be a place where more and more people are being accepted as part of the human family. Don’t get me wrong, the work is far from finished, but more and more people are finding a voice in the church. That is a good, healthy, and holy thing. In fact, when we take the verses of the Bible that speak of justice to our neighbors, or purity of life out of the Bible, there really is not much left. Oddly enough, when the church ought to be living into the issues that bring the most people into the fold, we still are arguing about the barriers that drive us apart.
Author William Herzog tells us in his book Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: a Ministry of Liberation, that if we remove the texts from the Bible concerning debts and purity in the Old Testament, we have little else. On one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with justice references concerning debts. What is left are verses describing purity. The church has been an old pro at enforcing these boundaries for a long time. What we have failed to realize is that Jesus essentially challenged all of those teachings while emphasizing justice. The unthinkable under the Old Covenant is commonplace – and expected – in Jesus. The un-clean are made clean; the Sabbath is given for the betterment of humankind, and not humankind just to live into a rule. Even taboos of food and drink, established for a time, are now no longer necessary. They established a chosen people’s boundaries for a season, but after it was established, no longer were those confines needed.
At a time when the church is fighting itself, perhaps we can be the better people and get out of our own boundaries and parameters and get back to the part of the scriptures that Jesus said was important. Can we find a united front in recognizing that the church is the one institution or movement that has the ability to work with the power of God? I think we can.
Think of it this way:
-If you have ample food, you should care that others are fed as well. That is justice!
-If you have a job that helps you earn what you need to survive, you should care that another has the same chance at that pay, however different they are from you. That is justice!
-If you have been fortunate enough to be in a clean, safe house, you ought to care that others have clean, safe homes too. That is justice!
-If you live in freedom, we cannot be blind to those who live in modern slavery (human trafficking). That is justice!
-If you received an education, then you should care that others can get a good education too. That is justice!
And the list goes on…
I think at the end of life, when we stand before God, he will not ask us how well we separated ourselves from others in an attempt to be pure. Perhaps just as our righteousness is imputed, so also our purity will be. After all, Scripture tells us we will be as a chaste virgin…without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27, Col. 1:22, Jude 1:24). God cares deeply about his people – all of them. God wants us to be perfect as God is perfect, therefore we must learn to be just as God is just.
This has been a difficult post to write, challenging to me in so many ways and I hope you that read it find it just as challenging. If you are like me and need to work on this part of your Baptismal Covenant, take comfort. God is working in us to accomplish all that is good and pleasing in his sight (Eph. 2:20, 2 Cor. 6:7).
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help!