From Charity to Justice: What Is Justice?
Last week, we gathered in the evening to hear from some of our church family who had been involved in mission and outreach trips over the past several months. Don and Glenda shared about their trip to Cambodia on a medical mission. We looked at pictures from the group that traveled for an overnight to Syracuse to serve lunches to people on the street, and we heard from Marthalyn Sweet, who went on a trip with some other young adults in our Conference to visit the General Board of Church and Society and learn about poverty issues.
The General Board of Church and Society holds a special place in my heart. It is one of our denominations General Agencies, and this one focuses on public policy advocacy and education. It is located in Washington, DC, right on Capitol Hill. When I was starting seminary, I was elected to serve on the board of directors for Church and Society. I didn’t really know much about what the agency did before I was elected, to be honest, and I quickly learned a lot as part of my role on the board. The work of Church and Society is to educate, advocate, and help implement our Social Principles, our denomination’s statement of beliefs about a number of social issues. I’ll be talking a little bit more about that next week. But at the core of this work of Church and Society is a general aim: to help people of faith connect mercy with justice. During my time with Church and Society, I grew passionate about working for a more just world.
I struggled, though, once I became a pastor, with how to help my congregations be part of working for justice. I found that many congregations’ outreach work was mostly focused on mercy ministries, charitable giving projects like gathering supplies to send to people in need, collecting food for the local pantry, raising funds to respond to a natural disaster. Being merciful is certainly a biblical call and a desirable, compassionate quality. But I wanted us to think about questions of justice too: why are people hungry and poor, and what can we do to change the system, addresses the causes of poverty, instead of just addressing the results? Eventually, this very question turned into the driving question of my doctoral work and the follow up research I completed: How can a congregation shift its focus from doing charity to working for justice? This is the question we’ll be thinking about together in worship for the next few weeks.
I believe that the work of justice is actually part of our very mission as followers of Jesus Christ. Our mission is our purpose, our reason for existing. As United Methodists, our purpose is actually laid out in the Book of Discipline, which is our rule book, our organizational guide. In the Discipline, we find this statement of purpose: “The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world. The fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world is the vision Scripture holds before us.” The statement continues to say that our mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.” Phew! Our mission is to be and make disciples, to change the world, to share the good news, and to love God and neighbor believing that when we do so, we’ll experience the reign of God, God’s kin-dom, right here, right now, on earth as in heaven! That probably sounds like a big mission – and it is! But I hope it also sounds like a mission that is worth our heart and soul.
So how does the work of justice fit in to this mission we have? Our scripture focus today from Isaiah is from the third part of the book, which biblical scholars think was written after the Israelites returned home from exile. The Israelites had been through a long, tumultuous period of war and upheaval that resulted in many being forced to live in exile in Babylon, but finally, they’re allowed to come home. The last chapters of Isaiah reflect this period of homecoming. Despite the blessings of coming home, God is still calling the people to accountability.
Our passage opens with God commanding Isaiah to announce the sin of the house of Jacob, the Israelites. God says that the Israelites have been behaving as if they practiced righteousness and followed God’s ordinances, God’s commands. They’ve been calling on God, saying, “God, we are fasting and humbling ourselves – don’t you see how good and holy we’re being?” But, God says, “you serve your own interest … and oppress all your workers.” You quarrel and fight. Fasting and acting holy, putting on sackcloth and ashes and acting devout on the Sabbath is not going to make me hear your voice.
Instead, says God, “Is this not that fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” When we devote ourselves to God in that way, fasting from injustice and oppression, then says God, then our light will shine, we experience healing, God will be with us, God will hear us when we cry for help and answer “Here I am.” When we “remove the yoke” of oppression we place on others and start serving the hungry and afflicted, then our light will conquer the darkness. Then Israel, broken and brought low for so long, will be rebuilt. We will be “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets.” I love those images – they seem so timely to me. In a world that is so broken, imagine if we lived out our call to be repairers of the breach, repairers of the brokenness of the world!
But what exactly does Isaiah mean when he talks about justice and righteousness? Pastor and Old Testament scholar Tim Keller writes, “The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, [in] its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably … Mishpat … is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.” Throughout the scriptures, we find certain groups of people being lifted up again and again as needing particular care, and being a particular focus of God’s loving attention: widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.” These groups have sometimes been called together “the quartet of the vulnerable,” which we’ve talked about before. These groups of people – widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor people, would have had very little power in ancient times, and have been incredibly susceptible to mistreatment by others. These people would have been one catastrophe, one famine, one war, one crisis away from death most of the time. And again and again, the law, the writings of the prophets, and the words of God in the scriptures call for justice, for mishpat, for these groups of people. These are the “oppressed” of whom God speaks in our reading from Isaiah – the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the poor. Are these still the most vulnerable groups in our society today? I suspect that with some adjustments, we’d find that this quartet still represents some of the most at-risk people in our communities. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible,” Keller writes, “is evaluated by how it treats [the quartet of the vulnerable.]” If that’s the case, how are we doing as a society? How just are we as a people? A nation? A community? A congregation?
A second word in the Bible is often translated as righteousness, which might have even less personal meaning for us than the word justice. After all, we’re most likely to use the phrase “self-righteous,” by which we mean that someone is pretty boastful about themselves, patting themselves on the back. We don’t mean it as a compliment. So what does it mean to be righteous? The Hebrew word is tzadeqah, meaning justice or righteousness. Mishpat, which we’ve talked about already, is sometimes called “rectifying justice.” That means it is justice that works to right wrongs. But tzadeqah, righteousness, is actually primary justice. Righteousness is when we are in right relationship with God and one another. In fact, if we were all righteous, if we all were living in right relationship with God and one another, we wouldn’t need rectifying justice, because everything would be right already. Primary justice, righteousness, tzadeqah, when we are in right relationship with God and one another is God’s hope and vision for the world. And, it is part of what we talk about as the very purpose of The United Methodist Church. Remember, we said that the mission of the church was to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world as our way of “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world,” loving God and neighbor. That’s a vision of righteousness, of primary justice realized in the world. The work of justice and carrying out our very purpose as disciples of Jesus are inseparable. To fulfill our purpose, we must be seek justice and righteousness.
So how do we do it? How will we seek after justice and righteousness? How will we be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street? I hope that we, as a congregation, and in our own lives, can think very concretely about those questions. They aren’t rhetorical; they are calls to action! What will we do? I believe that our work begins by imagining how we might restore right relationships with God and neighbor. Here’s the thing though: to be in a right relationship with someone you have to have a relationship with them to begin with. Too often, I think that I make it too easy for myself to feel “right” in my relationships by overlooking some people altogether. I spend so much of my time with people who are already part of this community of faith, or people who are in my family, or are also pastors, people who are in my same socio-economic class, people who already share my values. How hard is it to be in right relationship with people just like me? One of our tasks it to challenge ourselves to build relationships – real relationships, where we really know, care about, and share in the lives of all of our neighbors.
So, we work on building our relationships. And we also look out for those places where we need to rectify harm, repair the breach, restore the streets. I’m sure most of us could point out places where our community is hurting. But what will we do about it? What will we do that moves beyond acts of mercy to the work of justice? Since moving to Gouverneur, I’ve talked to so many families who are struggling with the impact of drug and alcohol addiction on their lives. This week, a few of us will meet for an initial conversation about what we can do, how we can be a small part of repairing the breach. If that’s a ministry in which you’re interested, please let me know. But there may be something else that God has put in your heart, something else crying out for justice. I want to hear about that too. I think we together, we can learn to do the holy, worshipful work of justice. Of all the ways we could honor God, God asks us for justice and righteousness. Friends, as we take up this work, may our light break forth like the dawn, as God goes before us and behind us, reminding us: Here I Am. Amen.