Social Justice?

Last week we looked at how Jesus interacted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Jesus defended her from people who wanted to kill her — and she was guilty of a capital crime.

If we’re going to be like Jesus, we have to be ready to do the same.

This means that sometimes, we will protect people from the rightful consequences of their sinful actions.

Is that right?

No. No, it isn’t.

But there was nothing right about Jesus bearing our sins on the cross either, was there?


Earlier this week, I was reading the discussion between Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile on southern slavery and Wilson’s highly controversial writings on same. (That discussion, by the way, is how adults ought to interact, and I commend it to your attention.) In the course of the discussion, Anyabwile said something that caught my attention:

Notice how Paul keeps rattling his own chains of imprisonment in Philemon’s ears. Paul identifies himself repeatedly as the prisoner, the bound man, the one without freedom. He could have identified himself as the man of authority, the apostle, the one with right to exert himself over others. He nowhere does. That, I think, is instructive for how Christians should engage discussions involving oppressors and the oppressed. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice. [Emphasis added]

While I am not sure that I agree with every nuance of Anyabwile’s meaning in the context of that particular discussion, consider the statement as a broad generalization for a moment. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice.

We have framed these discussions in terms of “social justice,” and tactically, that was a good move. Who could be against justice?

Jesus could, and that ought to give us pause.

The debtor cries out under the weight of a crushing, debilitating debt. If only he could get some relief, he might be able to make a life for himself. A Christian takes up his cause, and cries out against the creditors, demanding social justice.
The creditors, in response, demand the justice of the debtor paying the debts he freely agreed to undertake. “Let your yes be yes,” they say. “Honor your word,” they say. Isn’t that just too?

“This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act! Moses taught us that such a person should be stoned to death. What do you say?”
Note that by “Moses” they mean “Yahweh, speaking from the glory cloud on Mount Sinai to Moses, who passed it on to us.” And don’t forget that they are right. Isn’t that just?

Of course it is.

But what does Jesus do?

He stands between her and her accusers, backs them down, and sets her free. Then He goes to the cross and dies for her sin. Justice is served, but mercy reigns.

We ought to spend less time talking about social justice, and more time investing our own resources in social mercy. May a creditor insist that the debt due him be paid, and be a good Christian? Sure. What would Jesus do? He would step in between the debtor and the creditor, and pay the debt Himself, thereby doing justly and loving mercy at the same time.

If you’re reading the Anyabwile/Wilson discussion, you’ll have noticed that Philemon figures heavily in it. Both parties agree that Paul effectively manumits Onesimus, and does so without coercing Philemon, but so far I don’t think anybody has paid much attention to the mechanism that allows Paul to achieve that end. “But if he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account.”

Whether Philemon ever insisted on Paul settling up is, of course, another question. As Paul notes, Philemon did owe Paul his very life. However, Paul puts himself on the hook for it, writing with his own hand, “I will repay.”

Paul learned from Jesus, and it shows. We ought to do the same.


4 Responses to Social Justice?

  1. Stephen K. says:

    Wow, Okay.

    I’ve wondered something like this: Let’s say a Christian brother murders a Christian brother within a Christian community that mostly functions like God desires us to function as a community (I will say less western). Also, let’s assume that the state government is willing to stay out of it, expecting that we can decide among ourselves and our God what is Justice. The question is: how would we decide as a church community what to do in this situation?

    (And yah, this makes a far-fetched scenario. But I would like to think that given a crime within the church, a resolution within the church is desirable.)

    Three, no… four things I know for sure:

    (1) To act like Jesus, You shouldn’t just implement the death penalty or similar punishment, although that is justice.

    (2) you should as a group directly ask God what to do? and expect God to give some kind of answer. (I’m surprised in myself that my journey has led to making a point like this.)

    and (3) there is definitely some chance that this murderer is even restored to fellowship, and that would be desirable, if possible.

    and (4) I have also opened a can which I am led to believe the Church should possess authority to severely punish, and to forgive.

    Okay, there are a whole bunch of foreign concepts in here. And I might be thinking a little out there from you Tim or a reader. But I am simply compelled to explore the arena of such foreign concepts. . . even at such an early hour as this…

  2. Jim Reitman says:

    This is a deceptively “peripheral” issue. In truth, it strikes at the very core of the calling of the Body of Christ to be a true “contrast society” which thereby mimics Israel’s own calling. In truth, this is exactly the kind of higher level of true righteousness of the Law taught in the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, Paul did learn well from Jesus.

    Stephen says “far-fetched.” I say, it only appears that way because typical Western evangelical churches have already marginalized and dismissed the many Onesimus among us. We never see them because they were never allowed “in” to begin with.

    Please try not to focus on me per se as I give the following case in point; the danger here is that we end up looking for a recipe to follow rather than the voice of the Spirit. Here is what we as a local body have “heard” and it may or may not apply to the specifics of other bodies. My point is to look at the way we process justice challenges within the Body. In my own fairly small church’s somewhat sordid history, we have a case of a Christian who murdered another Christian over a marriage issue. I wasn’t there at the time, but I have not heard of anyone who has reached out to him since he was locked up. I don’t even know if he’s done his time. No one ever talks about it. Forgive the length of the following account. The sequence is important to illustrate Tim’s point above.

    I am an elder at our church and have led the men’s ministry for eight years. For some strange reason, one of our former associate pastors decided to get involved in a local, state-sanctioned halfway house for felons who have been released on parole, and out of this grew an opportunity, several years later, to mentor sex offenders. This was about three years ago. Among other things, I now mentor sex offenders on parole or those who have actually completed their time (“killed their ‘number'”) but are still anathematized in our state as Registered “SO’s.” They rarely if ever obtain permission from the state Sex Offender Management Board to be removed from the registry for good behavior. We now have two RSO’s in rising informal positions of church leadership who were embraced by the men’s ministry, two others who have attended for some time, and one who was never reported but admitted his own sex offense in personal mentoring time over a period of about a year.

    This started a chain of events I could never have predicted. After about 2 years into the SO mentoring program, a homeless Christian Biker with a rap sheet showed up at our men’s ministry and was all twisted about having been informally anathematized by another local Bible church. He was looking for some healing and had a pressure of speech that was uncomfortable. As God would have it, we were smack dab in the middle of Matthew 18. I saw his heart and discovered he had a street ministry to other homeless in our city. I soon accepted his invitation to attend a Saturday morning homeless outreach (“feeding”) at a local park. Several months later he accepted my wife and my invitation to live in our home where he has been for the last 14 months. We are his taxi service. It has changed my life and my wife’s, as you might well imagine. He soon “acquired” two motorcycles (one of which I actually paid for, after asking my wife’s permission—jury’s still out as to whether that was a good decision, but it’s not so clearly stupid). His bikes are now taking up valuable space in our garage. He’s only gradually becoming “socialized” in his new community, with lots of “opportunities for growth,” shall we say. But he’s got a heart of gold and loves Jesus to death. His name is Michael. Chain smoker to boot, but he’s serious now about quitting.

    Enter “Snake.” I met Snake at the homeless feeding on a Saturday morning, after another Christian Biker who attended our men’s ministry pointed him out to me. Snake was a notorious local pimp, drug dealing, pot-smoking alcoholic who carried a meat cleaver in his back pocket just to brandish for additional “effect” when he was drunk and not feeling particularly significant. But he was an “educated” pimp who had even written some poetry and was soon drawn to me and asked for a copy of my book on Job and Ecclesiastes. Around this time, for no obvious reason, he received Jesus. I didn’t openly evangelize him. And then he continued to deal drugs and pimp over the next year or so.

    Soon after he received Jesus he came up to me one Saturday morning at the feeding and informed me that there would soon be a warrant out for his arrest because he had stolen some cigars from a local liquor store for one of his “clients.” He had been caught on camera, and the proprietor was demanding that he “settle up” for the $32 he owed. For some reason, I love ridiculous situations like this, but I asked him for the details, took Michael with me to the liquor store, and we paid Snake’s “bill.” I grabbed Snake by the lapels, pulled him very close, and spoke very deliberately into his drunk face: “You are a child of God, now start looking like one. No one in this city has been placed among the ‘least of these’ like you, and God has called you to set an example for them, that they might follow you. If Jesus could happen to you, He could happen to anyone.”

    Snake only got worse over the next year. Showed up less frequently at the feedings but was always drunk when he did, “talking smack” about “all those churches” (that were actually providing him with regular meals). I told him to acquire and read an abridged version of Les Miserables but I don’t think he ever did. Those of you who know the story line will understand where I was coming from, and I think Snake got the point, drunk as he was, though he never openly acknowledged it.

    About two months ago, for some inscrutable reason, Snake showed up to the Biker Church he had heard about from us and joined the “program.” He is now clean and sober and upwardly mobile within the program, to the point that he now talks Jesus constantly and has been given increasing responsibility. “It just keeps getting better and better,” he has told me at least five times. Yet he still has occasions of frustration and often “talks smack” about others in the program. Go figure. But he comes to me like a moth to the flame whenever I show up at Biker Church to share all that Jesus has been doing in his life.

    Michael is street smart and reassures me that Snake has truly changed and may well be a leader in no time. I’m still trying to process all that’s going on—not so much with Snake as with the larger Body of Christ. But here’s my point in response to Tim’s post: What starts out as small acts of redemptive grace in unpredictable situations is destined to suck others in the Body into the same kinds of Sermon behavior. The question is, how will we handle the fear and most certain disruption of our lives?

  3. Stephen K says:

    Jim, I greatly appreciate your post. We should be so willing to go out on that limb. I almost want to say I’m “waiting” for these theories bouncing around in my head and new perspectives to reach deep into my heart and permeate through my body to my fingers and toes. But then I am revealing that its more of a hesitancy on my part. Anyways, I should up my faith: I need to acknowledge that God is able to reveal that real contrast community in my life… to live out.

    It gets dirty, scary, and political pretty quick, huh?

    I might be too caught up on the political, oh and the dirty and scary part too.

    But I can’t deny what God is showing me and how He’s getting the attention of many of our people from various backgrounds to focus on issues of unity, community, and more of a reliance On Him and His Church and less on my own abilities, and the economy, and the society at large…

  4. Jim Reitman says:

    I applaud you, Stephen, for even asking the questions. I’m 63 years old, and this kind of stuff has only been on my radar for the last several years. As for the “waiting” you mentioned, I think Tim would agree with me (at least in part) that the “permeation” depends as much on the particular community you gather to yourself and claim as your own, as it does on reaching your heart. Maybe the two are mutually dependent. Maybe we just choose our community (even if mostly still in our “head”), simply because Jesus said “Follow Me,” and then the Spirit works as we allow Him increasing privilege to disrupt our lives.

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