Since President Obama took office in 2009, questions of biblical justice have come to the forefront for Western Christians to consider. Plenty of these questions were issues even before President Obama took office, of course, but the tides of history seemed to change and themes of justice took on a new light and gained new invigoration as the first black President of the United States took oath. For many Christians, the central role of justice in the political sphere has similarly led the church to address the role of justice in the Christian faith, these issues were and continue to be important for the church to think about.
The Western church is at a point in history when the call for biblical justice is great. Some issue or aspect of biblical justice will affect you no matter who you are, where you live, or what interests you have your life. Obamacare, gun owners rights, immigration reforms, abortion laws, gay marriage, terrorism, unemployment, environmental laws and labor and sex trafficking are just a very few of the issues calling for the Church’s attention. The problem is the Western church cannot agree what biblical justice looks like in any of these situations.
Even the major voices guiding the church today cannot seem to agree. At a conference last year, Mark Driscoll, lead pastor of a mega church in Seattle, said that because the world would eventually burn up, he drives an SUV, implying that we have no need to care for the environment (this may or may not have been said tongue-in-cheek – but he said it and many were confused by the statement). Theologians such as Tony Jones and blogger Rachel Held Evans rose to the bait and defended the need to care for creation and take seriously the effects of global warming and the damages taking place to our environment. Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, defended the rights of homosexual couples to marry attending rally’s and being present on the steps of the state senate to voice his opinion as political leaders were going in to make their vote on the marriage amendment. John Piper, a mega church pastor in the same city, argued that God has and will send his judgment for the church and humanity having fallen so far from the gospel.
With so many of the church’s major voices being in disagreement on what it means to follow Jesus in these issues of justice, it is difficult for the church to know what to do, how to act and what to believe. Biblical justice begins to look very confusing.
One of the main problems is that although we place the term “biblical” before the word justice that word has lost a significant amount of meaning for many Christians who look to the Bible for guidance. The church has long been endangered by its proclivity for embedded theology. Stone and Duke, in their book How to Think Theologically, talk about the danger of embedded theology which they describe as “what we learn about God, the church, and the Christian life from our earliest exposures to faith.” They continue writing that “we absorb this theology from the continuous living in and among the church and her people. We could call this blind faith…Our embedded theology may seem so natural and feel so comfortable that we carry it within us for years, unquestioned and perhaps even unspoken except where we join in the words of others at worship” (p. 11-25. Too often, our embedded theologies teach us that our way is correct, all others are heretical and we need to defend our theologies even when we do not understand why.
In my own upbringing, I was taught that abortion was wrong, no matter what the circumstances were. While there were some really sad and unfortunate situations, there was never a reason to consider abortion an appropriate moral choice. When I first started exploring this as an embedded theology, those I grew up with called me a baby murderer. Studying Scripture and culture, I discovered that abortion laws were more complex than my embedded theology had raised me to believe. There are varying opinions of when life actually begins and, for many, pregnancy can continue a cycle of poverty and injustice. This is true of many of the women I meet on the streets through After Hours Ministry, the non-profit organization I work with. After Hours reaches out to men and women who are prostituted and, for these women, pregnancy can be a permanent sentence to poverty and, as a slave to a pimp, a terrifying reality knowing that your child may also one day be trafficked.
Despite the complexity of abortion and unexpected pregnancies, much of the pro-life movement resonates with me – particularly the desire to protect life even at its earlier moments and the ability to imagine a better life for a child even when the parents cannot. Yet, we all must realize that we have embedded theologies and we do the Church a disservice when we fail to have a heart and mind open to other perspectives. This openness must also allow the possibility that viewpoints other than ours might be “biblical.”
Underneath much of the harsh political commentary, hateful accusations and divisive theological discourse is fear. Fear that I might be wrong about the stance I am taking or the ramifications of Obamacare and what it might mean for my personal finances and my family’s stability. Fear of affirming gun rights and having to experience situations where someone who did not deserve those rights violates them. Fear that the world is becoming a more dangerous and unpredictable place that we cannot control.
Despite all these fears, the theological question that persists is our call to help the poor. Helping the poor will deplete our resources, crowd our boarders, and tire our volunteers. Helping the poor requires recognition that our faith is not just about us. The gospel has become an individualized message that we spend time cultivating in our own personal hearts and minds rather than using to transform the world outwardly. This individual view of salvation takes away from salvation’s communal nature thus removing the responsibility we have for the other and laying an immense burden upon individuals who feels they must carry their burdens alone. Chris Heuertz writes, “the Western church…has mistaken God’s financial blessings as individual provision rather than resources with potential for kingdom development.” (Simple Spirituality, p. 67). To truly live out biblical justice we must overcome the fear that entangles us, that makes us feeling isolated and on our own, and care for the poor.
And we’ve got to come up with a better definition of “biblical” justice. I’ve got some ideas that we’ll discuss in future posts. Anyone want to get the discussion started?