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On Jesus and Justice
Can a troubled conscience become the soil from which justice-seeking comes? In my experience, yes.
Dr. Obery Hendricks commanded my full attention with the first sentence of The Politics of Jesus:
All my life I have been on a quest to understand Jesus.
Me too! I’ve been a lifelong student of Jesus, joyful at any new discovery, stimulated with each fresh, revelatory experience. My seeking, prayer, worship and study was born of enthusiastic love. I’ve been like a kid who can’t put his guitar down to get ready for dinner.
But looking back, my study and worship did not lead to much mature thinking about justice-seeking that was livable, actionable. I feel some guilt and shame about this. I am also aware that White Guilt and White Fragility impede justice-seeking and racial healing. But these feelings, while they can lead to inaction, aren’t all bad. If Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Howard Thurman and other Black luminaries are right—there is a crucial and central moral aspect to justice-seeking and anti-racism—then isn’t it right and good that my moral conscience is troubled? Can troubled become the soil from which justice-seeking comes? In my experience, yes.
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Similar to Hendricks’ description of his upbringing, I thought of Jesus as having to do with sin and heaven. I gave “little thought to matters of this world, matters like social justice, racial and gender inequities, or to the systematic oppression of the poor,” as he puts it. But, for the last few years—and sadly, much later in my life than Hendricks—I have been wondering, “If [Jesus] loves his people so much…wouldn’t he stand against their oppression…[wouldn’t he want] liberation from fear, and oppression and exploitation for us on earth as he promised awaits us in heaven?”
I have come to see that the comprehensive saving plan of God heals the whole person and the whole cosmos. As Paul said, the whole creation is groaning…subjected to frustration, it waits in eager expectation [to be] liberated from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:19-22, my paraphrase). Jesus blesses peacemakers—those, as Hendricks describes, “who actively strive to cleanse the world of oppression and exploitation in order to make a reality where true peace can reign for all.” If God is the Creator and ruler of the universe, wouldn’t he care about the pinnacle of his creation, human beings, being dehumanized because of the color of their skin, being slaughtered in war, starving, needing clean water and a place to live—and the ability to work with dignity in order to provide that dwelling for them and their loved ones?
The biblical prophets called these things out. Hendricks writes, “They were so moved by the plight of the poor among them that they risked conflict and ostracism from members of their own socioeconomic class by standing up for the needier brothers and sisters…they took their stand against abuses of power.”
Jesus Was Moved…Am I?
On multiple occasions in the Gospels, Jesus is described as moved with compassion. For instance:
When he saw the crowds, he was deeply moved with compassion for them, because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Matthew 9:36, ISV
Am I so moved? How does one become able-to-be-moved? Is there something I am willing to stand for? Or is there some unwillingness in me that leads me to betray aspects of my calling as a follower of Jesus? These questions animate my current seeking of Jesus.
Over the last four decades, I’ve thought and taught a lot about the kingdom of God. I’ve seen and explained how in the person and work of Jesus we see signs and receive foretastes of the perfections to come in the consummated kingdom. I’ve reflected on what this means for our personal salvation. But rarely have I held clearly in my mind what Hendricks and my other Black teachers plainly see: that the kingdom of God is “a new world order of transformed human relationships; it is the social, economic, and political relationships in this world made holy.”
So yes, feeling unwise and naïve, I’ve been quietly, internally embarrassed. But I have also discovered that the unmoved parts of my being can learn to be moved to action through compassion. I become moved to action by being present to and curious about the reality of others. This feels vulnerable to me, and I must seek new levels of courage. Curiosity leads to listening, to perceiving anew, which in turn leads to empathy, to fellow feeling as MLK put it. Once I am there, I can then muster the nerve to engage in obedience to God.
This is challenging, but when done in an overall relationship with Jesus, it is invigorating. It works because this promise from the compassionate Jesus is true for justice seekers:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-29, NIV