Getting Unconfused About Justice, and Grace

Clean up, clean up,
Everybody, everywhere!
Clean up, clean up
Everybody do your share!

Daycare song

Any three year old knows the difference between justice and injustice. We have to get older, better educated, more experienced, and more deeply invested in the profit sharing program, to get to the place where we think chronic, obvious injustice in the world we live in is “just the way things are.” And to stop fussing about it. And to aid and abet it from time to time. Or even, to enforce it.

Church, if it is doing its job, is supposed to prevent that particular sclerosis, and help reverse it where it’s already set in. It is supposed to dispel the befuddlements about justice that accumulate when we are constantly exposed to discourse about justice that is designed to get us to rationalize or resign ourselves to its opposite. It is supposed to remind us what “justice” means to people who have actually read the Bible, or listened to Jesus, or been three years old.

Church does not always do its job, as most people know. But sometimes it does. Sometimes people show up, some real-life saints or prophets. They remind us of all the things we actually already know, and have known since we were three, but have learned to suppress because we just want to change the subject already. [People like our pastor, for instance, talking about that tough, tough question for thinking faith, what we are supposed to do about racism.]  

For instance, sometimes people like to change the subject away from justice talk by saying things like “I am a Christian, I believe in grace.” Church is supposed to remind us that justice is not the opposite of grace, or love. At least, not the Biblical kind of justice, not the kind the prophet Amos is talking about in Amos 5:24. The kind that needs to roll down like waters before there is any point in singing a bunch of praise choruses.

Saying “I am a Christian, so I am not a social justice warrior, I’m for grace” is at least confused. Although I daresay somewhere down the line of transmission of that idea we would find willful misunderstanding. Because that statement implies that justice is a synonym for punishment, is only about things like the death penalty or holding out for some pound of flesh. It misses, and obscures, how justice, the Biblical kind, is about ensuring that everyone reaps the benefits of their common humanity – even widows, and orphans, and “strangers.”

So justice is not the opposite of grace. Justice is the opposite of trampling on the poor and of human trafficking, of every kind, the legal as well as the illegal. Justice is the opposite of selling the poor for silver or the needy for a pair of sandals – or a $5 t-shirt, or a cheaper restaurant tab, or whatever it is these days. According to the prophet Amos, who presumably has it on good authority.

Admittedly, it is hard to listen to the prophet Amos. It’s like he actually thinks the people he is talking to are supposed to stop being OK with “just the way things are.” That they can and should notice that they themselves have made things be that way. Or if not “them,” technically – “we didn’t start the fire” and all that – then they have let them stay that way, have gone along. Especially if “the way things are” hasn’t actually been hurting them too bad, personally. It is as if Amos is insisting people need to change, to clean up the mess they’ve made, to fix what’s broken, and set things right.

But is it really any harder to listen to the prophet Amos than to listen to Jesus? Jesus seems to have sided with Amos and the other prophets. And he certainly called on people to do hard things. Like stop fleecing the poor.

Like it or not, church, if it is doing is job, is supposed to help us hear the echo of that call in our own situation.

Jesus, of course, was never the beneficiary of a political economic system that got a lot of support early on from a lucrative form of human trafficking, and then compounded that initial injustice by rigorously denying it, and by resisting and suppressing as much systemic reform as was humanly and institutionally and militarily possible for as long as historically possible, becoming habituated to a number of interrelated forms of human suffering in the process. But what if he had been?

Wouldn’t Jesus have done what he could to demonstrate the injustice of injustice, and to bring about justice – the Biblical kind, the “let my people go” kind? Wouldn’t Jesus have used whatever standing and status and skills he had to change the situation for the better? Wouldn’t he have actively brought good news to the poor and release to the captives and restoration of sight to the blind? Done something to transform the rotten “way things are” into something more wholesome and more universally life-giving?

If church is doing its job, it ought to remind us that’s a description of “working for justice.”

And that it’s exactly what we mean by grace.
red line embellished

Image: “Tabakfeld bei Ketsch” [Tobacco field in Ketsch, Germany, in June], public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (I think this is about how tobacco looks around here in June, too.); “Taking Burley tobacco in from the fields, after it has been cut, to dry and cure in the barn, Russell Spears’ farm, vicinity of Lexington, Ky.,” 1939, Library of Congress, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. (Cutting will happen much later in the summer.) Tobacco is complicated. Like everything.

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