Sunday, July 27, 2014

Justice for All

Gaza Boys Fenced In, Dale Spencer, Gaza, 2009

Heavens above,

rain down justice;

let the clouds pour it down.

Let the earth open,

so that salvation springs up,

and justice sprouts with it.

                 (Isaiah 45:8)

This week I’ve been carrying the word “justice” with me like a prayer.

Stories of downed airplanes, shelling of refugee shelters in Gaza, frightened children held at the US border: my heart whispers “let justice rain – and reign.”

Justice is one of those words encompassing a rich mix of multiple meanings, illuminated by interchangeable translations between the Hebrew words mishpat and tzedaqah and the English words justice, righteousness, equity, mercy, victory, salvation, “doing all that’s good and right.”

Mishpat has been described as “rectifying justice” – giving people their due, as when an offended  victim cries “I want justice!”

But track mishpat through Hebrew scripture and it takes on new dimensions. First is the insistence that courts and judges view all offenders or complainants as equal regardless of wealth or status. That alone is a goal still poorly realized, when our prisons are full of poor kids serving time for trivial offences while white collar criminals responsible for the theft of billions continue unimpeded

But mishpat went far beyond to work of the courts to insist on rectifying inequity, insisting that the most marginalized (widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor) receive their fair share of the community’s goods and blessings.

As Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author of Generous Justiceexplains:
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.” 
But mishpat is only one of the words that is sometimes translated “justice.” Tzedeqah is the other, even more expansive than mishpat: 
Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.
From what I can tell, primary justice, tzadeqah, is both goal and action, end and means. Passages in Psalms suggest that God’s justice, righteousness, and love are so inextricably linked that we can’t know one without seeking, receiving, and sharing all three: 
The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5)
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.  (Psalm 89:14)
There are Christians, like Keller, and churches, like Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian, that are deeply committed to both seeking and sharing justice. But for far too many who claim to follow Christ, justice is considered optional, or even objectionable. I grieve at the many times I’ve heard thoughtful voices dismissed with “oh, he’s one of those social justice Christians.”

If God is a God of justice as well as love, I’d argue that justice should be part of every Christians’ DNA – and I’d argue, as well, that the church’s lack of credibility and effective witness is in direct proportion to its lack of interest in seeking and maintaining justice. 

In a short video introduction to the 2011 Justice Conference, Walter Brueggeman invited the listener to rethink the connections between love of God, love of neighbor, and a life of justice and righteousness: 
One of the misfortunes in the long history of the church is that we have mistakenly separated love of God from love of neighbor and always they are held together in prophetic poetry. Covenant members who practice justice and righteousness are to be active advocates for the vulnerable and the marginalized and people without resources. And that then becomes the way to act out and exhibit one’s love of God.
 So love of God gets translated into love of vulnerable neighbors. And the doing of justice is the prophetic invitation to do what needs to be done to enable the poor and the disadvantaged and the neglected to participate in the resources and wealth of the community.
 And injustice is the outcome of having skewed neighborly processes so some are put at an unbearable disadvantage. And the Gospel invitation is that people intervene in that to correct those mistaken arrangements. 
We are surrounded by vulnerable neighbors. How do we intervene?

A friend, responding to my post last week about liberty and constraint, wrote of the injustice of a legal system that provides nothing for poor families seeking justice for their murdered daughters: 
In an 8 month trial, families learn to constrain themselves, and to expect very little from the system that cares so deeply about principles and the accused, while the poor and vulnerable struggle in the land of plenty.
 I find, it does not matter what language is spoken, liberty is a construct defined by the educated elite that has no real bearing on the working poor.
I hear in her lament the “mistaken arrangements” that ignore the needs of grieving families and pay little attention to the underlying inequities that spill over into violence and despair. 

No need to look far for other examples: another friend told me this week of the urban school where her children struggle in crowded classes with no extra aides or special programs, while just miles away the classes are smaller, with extra attention for children with learning difficulties, a choice of after school activities, plentiful resources. She is deeply aware of the “unbearable disadvantage,” and struggling to move her children to a better school.

Another conversation this week called attention to local companies that make life hard for older workers, hoping those workers will resign (without severence) so younger employees can be hired at lower wages. One member of the conversation had just lost his job after weathering months of attempts to make him quit; all the others had suffered layoffs of their own.

“So how is that supposed to work?” one woman asked. “I mean, for the company, they save money, right? But where are all those older workers supposed to go?”

The Gospel invitation to intervene points us back to the need for wisdom. We may see ways to offer care to individuals affected by injustice, but it's far harder to see ways to address root causes or call for change in entrenched systems that benefit the privileged and powerful. 

I’ve been reading Deepening the Soul for Justice, a little book (just 44 pages) by Bethany Hoang of International Justice Mission. She talks about the danger of burn-out, or of feeling so overwhelmed by injustice we do nothing, and ties effective involvement in injustice to ever deepening spiritual practice. I’m impressed by her description of the way IJM staff begin each day in “stillness,” spending time in prayer before facing into the horrors of human trafficking and the abuse and violence confronting poor women and children. 

I’m also impressed with the way Hoang ties justice to worship: 
Justice is always connected to worship. consider Proverbs 14:31 and the inextricable relationship between how we treat the poor and our worship of God: "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker; but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.'
The entirety of Scripture emphasizes that true worship, by definition, must always have us thinking about our neighbors in need, just as loving our neighbor should always flow out of our worship. 
Justice is always connected to worship, because both worship and justice are about the right ordering of the world. Both worship and justice proclaim and declare God’s lordship over all–including evil, including oppression. (36-37) 
Hoang points out that most of us will not be first on the scene in situations of human trafficking or domestic abuse.

But we can still make seeking justice part of our every day engagement with the world around us.

Here are some practical steps. Please feel free to share you own.

1. Learn to notice and acknowledge injustice and spend time in prayer about ways to engage. 

2. Think carefully about how we use our influence to include or exclude, to oppress or restore, and take time to treat those around us (cashiers? servers? colleagues? children?) with equal respect and care.    

3. Make purposeful choices that prioritize justice: pay more for fair trade products, buy goods and services from companies that treat their workers well.

4. Review our own privileges and look for ways to share them. Education? Cars? Homes? Vacations? Books? Clothes? Contacts? Energy? Time? 

5. Look for ways to encourage and support others in understanding and pursuing justice.

This is the third in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Other, earlier posts on justice: 
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places? October 20, 2013
How Much Does Justice Cost? September 1, 2013
Seeking Justice, January 20, 2013
Justice, Mercy Parasites? August 19, 2012
Power.Money.Justice.Love? January 15, 2012

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.