Summer blockbuster movies, like Age of Ultron, which came out last weekend, can reveal a little bit about our own desire for justice. We know the world is full of evil and wickedness. Turning on the news station exposes that kind of evil—and not just because the reporters are telling us about it, but major media conglomerates are profiting off us in exploitation, sometimes making situations even worse by their reporting. So, we see the wickedness upon wickedness. It really is entertaining then to witness a band of benevolent heroes conquer evil. We root for them because we want love to prevail, goodness to prevail, truth to prevail, justice to prevail. I think God gives us a hunger for saving the world because he has that same desire.
In fact, God loves salvation so much, that he sent his son to die and resurrect and save the whole world. He fulfilled his own desire to save humanity and gave us a little bit of that too. I think that’s why we love superhero movies. God loves saving the world, and so do we.
For Christians, though, that love of salvation is not always what we are known for. We are known for being judgmental, hypocritical, and even anti-gay. Those are the three words that millennials use to describe the church. One of the reasons we have such a bad reputation is because when we consider wickedness we can ignore the big issues of our day: income inequality, systemic racism and sexism, massive incarceration, militarization. We ignore the weightier matters of the law, as Jesus would say, justice, mercy, and faith, and we focus on the little stuff. Clearly, in Matthew 23, Jesus tells us to focus on one without neglecting the other. I think if we ended up focusing on those weighty matters, we might even get a better reputation among the next generation.
In Circle of Hope we think that “Generating justice and hope in our neighborhood must be at the heart of us.” It’s one of the main things that people know about Circle of Hope. I am honored and proud to have that reputation. We attract any justice-loving people to our congregations and we often have people with strong prophetic voices. In fact, we hope compassion is among the first things people notice about us. It is a welcome departure from the typical reception that Christians receive.
In fact, it even seems like Jesus may only recognize us if we recognize the least among us, if we are advocates of justice. I’m drawing that basic idea from Matthew just a few chapters after the famous seven woes (in Matthew 23, where we just quoted) where Jesus speaks about separating the sheep and goats at the end of the age. There are many other examples of justice in the Bible, but my purpose today isn’t to do a survey of the Bible for this subject, but just to offer us a starting point: Matthew 25.
What’s the call of Jesus here? What’s he saying? After he demonstrates his frustration with the Jewish leaders who have not followed him in chapter 23, he proceeds to engage in an eschatological discourse that predicts the end times—or for his Jewish audience, the end times as they know them, the destruction of the Second Temple. He continues his eschatological discourse in chapter 25 and he is talking about something of a final judgment for people, and in this case he is referring to how much they advocate for the “least of these.” It’s clear as day in the text: Jesus is in all of us and he is notably in the least among us, and so our inclusion of them and our advocacy for them is inclusion and advocacy for Christ himself. Jesus says we don’t even know him if we aren’t caring for the least of these. In a sense, at least to Matthew’s Jewish audience, this fundamentalizes the importance of including people and advocating for them.
I don’t think Christians disagree about Jesus’ call here. It’s hard to think of such an explicit commandment being theoretical, metaphorical, to be applied to “back then” and not now. Certainly some scriptures should be treated as such, and usually we treat scriptures that convict us to do something uncomfortable that way, but I think most of us actually read a passage like this and we get the gist and we want to do our part.
But it’s so easy to let contemporary thought cloud our vision. Maybe your mind immediately jumps to the discussion of who the agent of change is. For most of us, whether we think the government should get smaller or bigger, we think of the government as the main agent of change—rarely do we think of the church, or even ourselves, beyond an act of philanthropy. This might be getting too philosophical, but I am compelled to share with you a quotation from a book that has inspired me, The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell.
“When you ponder the ‘big problems’ that confront humanity and society, like poverty or disease or environmental degradation or even the economic crisis, inevitably where does your thinking turn? To the state and the proper policies it should enact. You do not think first and foremost, ‘What should the church do?’ or ‘What should General Motors do?’ Instead, you think about governmental policies and action. It is a habit of mind that is deeply ingrained. We are used to thinking of the state as the chief social actor. Even those who espouse the currently popular view that the state should have a smaller economic footprint do not really relinquish politics as statecraft insofar as they do not really want the state to surrender its supervisory control of society; rather, they want it to enforce policies that protect and preserve the market.” (p. 39)
The government is still how we think we accomplish our notion of justice. Put another way, the government and the laws it creates and enforces, are the way we may even think Matthew 25 is followed. We may even think that legislation is as good as Christian action. The government can certainly cause a lot of harm. In Circle of Hope we say that we are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.
The government may not be the liberator that Jesus wants Christians and the church to be, but it can certainly oppose our efforts or make them easier. With that in mind, engaging in a policy discussion is a little banal and I would consider that to be a weak application, really void of Christ, of Matthew 25. We can’t just talk about justice, we have to act.
I think the architects of the civil religion would love us to consider the state our God, and the laws that they create our Bible. But we have an alternative, a different kingdom. Unfortunately, the state and its laws won’t cause the revolution that I think the Kingdom of God is. And we can endlessly debate until the state issues out human rights to us, the rights that God has already assured us, and the rights that the state seemingly will never give us. I’m not interested in that. I think that is like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
I may be very cynical, even though legislation can sometimes make scenarios better, I don’t think it causes that kind of revolution that Jesus had in mind. But I think some of the reasons why we think this is because of the indoctrination we have received. For one, I think the church has done a bad job, practically, of developing a holistic salvation. So often we have personalized it and individualized the Gospel into little consumable packages, that we’ve lost sight about how the Gospel is seen in the least among us and our service to them.
We’ve removed salvation from justice. Social justice is about equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in society. A nice notion, but it may never happen. Even if it does, are we really following Matthew 25? Jesus is making an intrinsic connection between salvation at the end of the age and service of people who Jesus is in, in whom he is embodied. It isn’t just about equal distribution of rights, it’s about creating an alternative community and kingdom.
We aren’t just saving the world from a menacing villain. This isn’t a superhero movie where if the wickedness is removed, then the world can prosper. There is a sin in the world and the world needs to repent of that sin. We may need to bring a prophetic spirit in order to cause such repentance. But a big evil distraction—something like ISIS or police brutality in Baltimore—can blind us from the more sinister, menacing, and less-obvious sins that change how we see the world. We may not be killing black teens, but what kinds of racism are we perpetuating? How does Jesus need to transform us today?
Truly, repenting ourselves of our sins and transforming with Jesus is a challenge. Combatting a system that needs reform is equally challenging. It is easy to get discouraged. To feel like we’ll never progress against the powers that be. But I believe God is with us and with him we can do impossible things. Moreover, I think our perception of success can change too. Just because we aren’t perfectly changing the world, doesn’t mean we aren’t following Jesus, it doesn’t mean we aren’t committed to justice. In the passage from Matthew 25, the people who serve the needs of the least of these, who repent of their own prejudices, are received by Jesus.
I think the love we share with others when we are engaging in the work of justice means that we are representing Jesus well. Certainly, Jesus says he is in the least of these, but he is as much in us, especially when our humble service precedes. Jesus wants to save the whole world, and a world that sees that salvation acted out in an incarnational way is more likely to receive him as their savior. God’s ultimate act of justice is the incarnation of Christ, sending Jesus in human form to earth to redeem the world. Jesus acts for justice not only to redeem the least among us, the castaways that he so willingly and readily included into his mission, but to model such generosity to his people. The mark of a follower of Jesus, then, is their ability to include, the ability to advocate for justice.
For Jesus’ sake, I think it is best if we sometimes let our actions do the talking. I think Jesus should proudly be on our sleeves and even in our words, but I think the world, just like Christ himself, will know that we follow him by our deeds too.