The second week of advent turns the focus on John the Baptist, and his cry to make the way straight, confess our sin, produce fruit in keeping with righteousness. (Matthew 3).
Accompanying readings shine the light on injustice, and the promise of a time of when the hungry will be fed, the oppressor crushed, the afflicted ones restored. (Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72, Romans 15:4-13).
As I’ve been thinking and praying about these passages, I’ve also been listening to the stories of the death of Nelson Mandela, his struggle against apartheid, his 27 years in prison.
I first read Cry the Beloved Country when I was twelve or thirteen. The words of that book illuminated scripture, illuminated my own challenging childhood, resonated with the troubled times – the riots in the
far from where I lived, the tension in the halls of my racially divided high
school. And formed in me a deep interest in South Africa, and a longing for
justice there, and in my own sharply polarized culture.
In church we read: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy;” As a child of the needy, my heart cried “Yes!”
And in Patton’s compelling novel about a black Anglican priest seeking his missing son in Johannesburg, my heart cried “yes!” again.
After Cry, the Beloved Country, I read Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope, then Tales from a
. I still have all three: battered paperbacks
with yellow pages. Troubled Land
What drew me was the tragedy of a Christian people – the Afrikaaners – so locked in their systems of power and privilege they went deeper and deeper into oppression and fear. In the pages of Paton’s books, I found myself wrestling with a question that faced me in my own school hallways, in my own dusty church: is it possible to be a Christian and NOT thirst for justice? Is it possible to be truly baptized and NOT producefruit in keeping with righteousness?
In a manuscript attributed to murdered character Arthur Jarvis, sometimes described as a Christ-figure in Cry the Beloved Country, Paton offered this indictment:
The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in
South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply.
We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement. We go so far as to credit Almighty God with having created black men to hew wood and draw water for white
men. We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them.
. . . The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.” (p. 155)
I don’t remember how old I was when I first started hearing of Nelson Mandela. I do know I followed the news of
We’ve since had other South African friends and house guests, others involved with the Scripture Union movement, who trained young leaders of different races side by side during those same long years that Mandela waited in prison. I’m thankful for those Christians I know who have lived faithfully what they believe Christ calls them to. I’m still saddened by others who live in troubling contradiction to the justice and righteousness that are described, again and again, as twin aspects of God, of Jesus Christ, and those who claim to serve them.
Andy Crouch, in Playing God:Redeeming the Gift of Power, talks about idolatry and injustice as two sides of the same coin: “God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing.” (71) They are misrepresentations of God’s good intent, and as Paton made clear to me, so many years ago, they require misrepresentation of humans as well: “we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions.”
Andy Crouch describes the conflicted result:
“effacing or even eradication of the image-bearing capacities of the poor who cease to believe that they bear any image at all. . . . Their unique contributions as image bearers, the individual dignity they each bear as an irreplaceable refraction of the true image, are lost to the world, eclipsed by the strutting false images” (p. 72)
Just as the Afrikaaners struggled to hold power and privilege at great cost to their own integrity, their Christian faith, and the Africans around them, the Pharisees of John the Baptist’s day clung to power and privilege, barricading themselves behind convoluted rules and self-congratulatory explanations about who God loves, and why. John called them “a brood of vipers,” and challenged them to repentance, baptism, and fruit in keeping with righteousness.
As Crouch puts it, “Idolatry = Injustice.”
And as Isaiah and others make clear: “Righteousness = Justice.”
Is it possible to be a follower of Christ and not hunger and thirst for justice?
Is it possible to claim the name of Christian and not do battle with the hidden idols of our day, the systems of injustice that hold us all hostage?
Even these questions, I’ve come to see, are subtle steps toward misuse of power, and attendant idolatry and injustice. The Pharisees believed their constructs gave them the right to determine who was in or out, who deserved God’s favor. They considered themselves adequate arbiters of God’s intent, and found themselves judging and condemning God himself.
“Do not judge!” Jesus said. Not for his followers to judge. Not even, he insisted, for himself: “I come not to judge the world, but to save it."
On this grey December morning, I find myself wondering: Who are the people I judge? And who are the people I see as “less than”? What beliefs do I assemble to justify this lie?
What privileges do I treasure? What systems confer those privileges? At whose expense do I enjoy them?
How can I demonstrate more fully that those we so easily dismiss – the sick, the slow, the strange, the stranger – all are worthy of love and welcome?
How can I more faithfully stand in opposition to idolatrous values that affirm and applaud the beautiful, powerful, and wealthy?
How can I live more boldly as one who thirsts for justice?
Advent One: How Do I Know? Dec. 2, 2012Advent Two: Outsiders In Dec. 9, 2012Advent Three: Question. Fruit. Dec. 16, 2012Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011Metanoia, Dec 4, 2011Voice in the Wilderness, Dec. 11, 2011Common Miracles, Dec. 18, 2011The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011Advent Two: John the Baptist, Dec. 12, 2010Marys' Song, Dec. 19, 2010Christmas Hope, Dec. 24, 2010