Electing to Follow Jesus: Prophets of Justice and Mercy
Disillusioned and losing sleep over the election? Randy Harris has some thoughts that may help you sleep, but also wake up. This post is the fifth and final part in a series that was developed to help us stay sane leading up to and following the election. Find find the rest of the series here.
In this series, we’ve been looking at Christian stances or postures during an election year, or anytime. In this final post, let me pose this question: Is it possible to take a prophetic stance and to also be self-critical? We’ll take a look at the gap between perception and reality, the difference between the state’s job and the church’s, and how justice and mercy shape Christians’ prophetic stance.
Mind the Gap!
Politicians are a lot like you and me: we have difficulty being self-critical. People often wonder how a preacher or teacher feels about pushback. The answer is, great! Pushback allows us to clarify, to help, to discipline each other's thinking. Now, there's a kind of pushback that is unpleasant and unhelpful, but on most topics, it is possible for reasonable people not to view something in exactly the same way. We need to see through somebody else's eyes.
One reason diversity is so important in the church is that when we see from only one perspective, we don’t know what we’re missing. I spend very little time reading commentaries written from a point of view that I hold. I already hold my prejudices very deeply. I really don't need them reinforced. Rather, I try to read stuff from points of view that I do not particularly agree with because they've turned the camera angle in a way that I haven't, which helps me to ask different questions and to see things differently. Granted, it's not like I always think they're right. I usually don't! But sometimes I don't even know to ask the questions that they're asking.
So sometimes there’s a gap between our perception of the world, and the world as it is.
Reinhold Niebuhr on the Role of the State
Next let’s talk about statecraft and listen to what Reinhold Niebuhr has to say about it. Niebuhr was a very influential theologian of the mid-twentieth century and even appeared on Time Magazine. The list of theologians who've done that is very short! He was very influential on public policy--and in fact had enormous influence on people like President Obama and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. At one point, Neibuhr was a pacifist, but it’s fascinating to watch his position change, during the Hitler era, from pacifism to the belief that sometimes powers of darkness are such a threat that the children of light must take up arms against it.
Now, I have a great mistrust for power (it’s no accident that I’m not your president!), but the state does have to exercise some power. It has certain obligations that it must engage as the state. In my relationships with you, we can aspire toward love. But when it comes to governments (or collectives of any kind), they are, from Niebuhr's point of view, incapable of love. The best you can hope from them is justice. Justice comes not because people aspire to justice; justice comes from the balancing of power. Justice emerges from this balance of power, but love does not necessarily emerge.
I'm not particularly trying to sell you on Neibuhr, but I want us to think about how the state ought to function. I will leave as an open question how Christians who are in the government should function as Christians in the government. It’s an interesting question, but I’m not going to fry that fish today. If you're really interested in that, maybe you could come to ACU, pay lots of money, take my ethics class, and we'll talk about it.
So far I’ve laid out two premises for the prophetic stance. First, there is always a gap between our perception of the world and the world as it is. Second, the state is going to be the state and function differently from the church or Christians. So, in a world where those two things are true, I want to argue for a prophetic stance that grows out of the imagination of Hebrew prophets, and I’ll quote Isaiah in particular.
Do Justice, Love Mercy
I want us to notice two big concepts: justice and mercy. I argue that Christians and the church need to occupy the stance of always appealing for greater justice because there's never perfect justice in the state, and we also appeal for greater mercy because that's the gospel.
In my opinion, Martin Luther talks about grace more compellingly than any Christian since Paul. You’ve got to be a bit of a rock to not be moved by the way he talks about grace. As strongly as he talks about grace, however, when it comes to the state, Luther says, "This is not about grace. This is about law. What the state ought to do when somebody breaks the law is lower the boom on them."
For example, Luther says that if you are a judge and the boy who lives behind your house breaks in and is stealing your lawnmower--or, in my case is looking for the lawnmower that doesn't exist--and you catch him and he apologizes, then as a Christian judge in a personal case, you should forgive him. But if that same boy is brought before you in court as a judge, then you’re going to throw the book at him. There's a basic dualism there. I'm not entirely comfortable with that. I'm not entirely uncomfortable with it either.
Loving your enemies is excellent personal relations but it is highly questionable foreign policy. Luther sort of gets that.
In Isaiah 58:3, the people ask, “Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Here’s how God responds:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen, to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer, you will cry for help, and he will say, “Here am I.” If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always. He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. (Isa 58:3-11)
Fasting is a pretty serious expression of devotion. I mean, it's so serious most of us have given it up forever. The prophet says that even extreme devotion to God doesn't count much with God, apart from a passionate concern for justice. Be concerned about your workers who are oppressed. Worry about those who are hungry and those who don't have clothes to wear. I'm taking it as axiomatic that if God cares about it, I ought to care about it. In every society, justice is a constant problem, and ancient Israel is no exception.
For instance, I'm going to very rapidly take you through an Old Testament story about Naboth's vineyard. Poor Naboth, he's got a vineyard. Wicked King Ahab wants it. Looks outside (it was nearby the palace) and decides, "I want that." He goes and offers a good business deal to Naboth and says, "I'll buy that vineyard off of you," and Naboth says, "No, it's really all I've got. It's my family heritage." He won't sell it to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab goes back to the palace and pouts. Queen Jezebel comes in and in a rough translation of the Hebrew says, "What's the matter big boy?" He says something like, "I want Naboth's vineyard. He won't sell it to me, and I'm pouting." She says, "Aren't you the king of Israel?"
You see, Jezebel is a foreigner and she doesn't get this. What is the point of being king or queen if you cannot have anything you want? Ahab is nobody's idea of a nice guy, but it doesn't occur to him to just take it because, even as wicked as Ahab is, he knows Israel’s king also lives under the covenant. So Jezebel has Naboth killed and takes the vineyard. Later Ahab gets killed. That's the end of the story.
I think this tension is interesting. You see lots of passages in the Old Testament that insist that the poor have to get a fair day in court too. Guess what? That’s not only a twenty-first-century problem. That's a persistent problem of every age. Justice is always a problem, always has been. I argue that it is the church's job--Christians’ job--to keep advocating justice for those who are the least likely to get it. That's what we do. We are engaged in the world. It really is important that you hear this because of what I said about being strangers. The fact that I do not choose to be involved in politics or vote for major party candidate doesn't mean I'm disengaged from the world. There are hungry people to be fed. There are people who are in need of justice. As Christians, we are persistent in saying that the kingdom of God says everybody has got to be treated fairly. God cares about that. We care about that.
So the church needs to advocate for justice. But the church is also persistently a word of mercy, because the whole world constantly stands in sin. Even so, there is a sense in which the church cannot judge the world’s ethics, because people without the crucified Savior don’t live under the Messiah’s ethics. It’s a hard teaching, but there’s a kind of generosity in realizing we can’t judge the world’s ethics but must pay attention to the church’s ethics.
This comes down to the church taking responsibility for whether or not we are acting justly and mercifully. When I'm teaching philosophy to my 18- to 22-year-olds, one of the people we study is Jean-Paul Sartre, who’s a weird French atheist existentialist sort of communist. One of the things I admire about Sartre is that he thinks you have to take absolute responsibility for every decision you make.
On the day we study Sartre, I ask my students, “If you were on time for class today or if you were late for class today, why was that?” According to Sartre, the only correct answer is, “That's what I chose to do.” That's important with my 18- to 22-year-olds because they like to make bad choices and then make them my responsibility, as evidenced in conversations like this one:
"Mr. Harris, I have this chance to go on a mission trip to Haiti."
"Great. I think you ought to go."
"But I'm going to miss a couple of days of your class."
"Okay, you're allowed to do that."
"But I've already missed the maximum number of absences."
"Can I go?"
"You won't lower my grade?"
"Yeah, I'm going to lower your grade."
"I cannot have you lower my grade."
"Then don't go."
"But the children in Haiti."
"Then go. 100 years from now, nobody is going to care what grade you made in my class. You make whatever choice you want to, and I will show nothing but respect for it, but this choice is entirely on you. This is not my problem."
Most of us know that people make bad choices, but we also know that Sartre is not quite right. It's not quite that simple. People make the choices they make for a variety of reasons. I don't want to take away anything to do with personal responsibility. We need more of that, not less. But the world is going to need enormous mercy. The church must be the place that speaks the word of mercy. And we're going to have to do it pretty indiscriminately. Mercy comes from realizing that Luther is right in a sense and we are all dead in sin and desperately in need of God’s grace.
Now, if I was talking about statecraft, I wouldn't presume to tell judges what sentences they ought to impose. But as part of the church of God, I want to show unusual mercy and compassion to the world. I want to insist on justice, and I want to keep speaking the word of mercy, because I think that's what the church does.
The church must take a prophetic stance toward the world … and toward the church. It's absolutely crucial that the church be constantly turning the critical eye to itself so that we don't wind up in positions that we will find appalling. Now, if you know any church history at all, you know that the church has occupied positions that it later regrets. We like to think that would never happen to us, but if we knew what positions we were later going to regret, we wouldn't hold them at the moment!
So there has to be this kind of constant self-criticism, or self-subversion, in which the church must engage. I get extraordinarily nervous when Christians take the prophetic stance toward justice and mercy but are not constantly vigilant to look back on themselves and see what it is that they're missing. The church, too, is in desperate need of the gracious intervention of God.
Finally, the way the church stays in this prophetic yet humble stance is to do something very countercultural, and it always has been: silence.
Here’s what I mean. Theologians and philosophers seem to be very susceptible to totalitarianism, on both the left and the right. Preachers are pretty vulnerable to that. Mystics aren't very vulnerable at all. Why? Because the people who are least likely to be led along and enticed and lured are the people of the desert, the people of prayer, because in the crucible of silence and prayer, arrogance and certainty cannot survive. What you constantly find out is that you are a sinner and God loves you just the way you are. The church needs to be deeply embedded in contemplation and prayer.
One last story about this connection of contemplation with this prophetic stance in the world. My colleague Jerry Taylor has done enormously wonderful work in recent years on racial reconciliation. It's very hard work. Of all the things I admire about Dr. Taylor, the thing I admire most is this: he is first of all a contemplative. The work he does comes out of a deep life of prayer. He intends to be a word of justice and mercy in the world and does not intend to live his life angry. That's possible. It's possible to passionately work for justice and mercy in the world and not be angry and to be constantly raising questions about our own lives and decisions because they're always somewhat short of the kingdom of God.
When I look at my friend Dr. Taylor, I see a man of God embodying this prophetic stance that emerges out of a life of contemplation, and it leads him to do justice and mercy in our world.
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