NO JUSTICE, NO PEACEFExploring the Connection — and Often Disconnection — Between Faith and Justice
The Hebrew Bible — what many Christians refer to as the Old Testament — outlines the complicated story of Israel’s relationship with their covenant God, Yahweh. From the Bible’s opening pages, we see this God shaping people from the dust of the earth. This God gives them not only life, but also a mission: to live and act like him. They, of course, don’t do so. They pursue patterns of living that they deem best for themselves — no matter how destructive those patterns prove to be for themselves or others. After several such cycles of rebellion, we hear the story of the Exodus. God’s people find themselves as slaves in a foreign land. But Yahweh liberates them from their oppressors. As they are freed from slavery and towards a new land to call their own, they are given instructions on how they are supposed to live. Many of these instructions are laws about what they are supposed to eat or not eat, wear or not wear, do or not do. But one of the most important things they were instructed to do was to remember. Remember you were slaves. Remember you were liberated. Remember where you came from so you don’t become that which you left behind. And, of course, they forget. And in the process they become the same evil from which they’ve been freed. By the time we meet a man named Amos, the nation is feeling comfortable and conceited behind their king. The people, after all, are expected to fall in line behind their king. The cultural elite go along with this ordering of the world because they benefit from the system. The religious leaders also go along with this, either profiting themselves or not wanting to mix politics with religion. As long as they kept up their religious performances, they’ll be good with God. Because being good religious folks is enough, right? The royalty, the elites, and the religious leaders are all on board with keeping things as they were — no matter who they run over in the process. But who does that leave? The nobodies, the commoners, the everyday people trying to let their faith actually shape their practices of everyday life. Among this group of nobodies we find the prophets — public truth tellers who announce “Not so fast.” Amos was one such public truth teller. A shepherd living in the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos made his way to the northern kingdom of Israel to confront the powerful men and the systems behind which they hid. Here’s one of Amos’ more jarring messages. Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel: “The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again. She is abandoned on her own land with no one to help her get up.” The sovereign LORD says this: “The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left; the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.” The LORD says this to the family of Israel: “Seek me so you can live! Do not seek Bethel! Do not visit Gilgal! Do not journey down to Beer Sheba! For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile; and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.” Seek the LORD so you can live! Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family; the fire will consume and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel. The Israelites turn justice into bitterness; they throw what is fair and right to the ground. (But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion; he can turn the darkness into morning and daylight into night. He summons the water of the seas and pours it out on the earth’s surface. The LORD is his name! He flashes destruction down upon the strong so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.) The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate; they despise anyone who speaks honestly. Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops and exact a grain tax from them, you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone, nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted. Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts and your numerous sins. You torment the innocent, you take bribes, and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate. For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil so you can live! Then the LORD, the God who commands armies, just might be with you, as you claim he is. Hate what is wrong, love what is right! Promote justice at the city gate! Maybe the LORD, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph. Because of Israel’s sins this is what the LORD, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says: “In all the squares there will be wailing, in all the streets they will mourn the dead. They will tell the field workers to lament and the professional mourners to wail. In all the vineyards there will be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the LORD. Woe to those who wish for the day of the LORD! Why do you want the LORD’s day of judgment to come? It will bring darkness, not light. Disaster will be inescapable, as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake. Don’t you realize the LORD’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light — gloomy blackness, not bright light? “I absolutely despise your festivals! I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies! Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied; I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves. Take away from me your noisy songs; I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments. Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up. You did not bring me sacrifices and grain offerings during the forty years you spent in the wilderness, family of Israel. You will pick up your images of Sikkuth, your king, and Kiyyun, your star god, which you made for yourselves, and I will drive you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD. He is called the God who commands armies!” – Amos 5.1 — 27 Amos — and by extension Yahweh, whose words Amos delivers — is not impressed with performative religion. Instead he suggests that without justice, our words are not only worthless and empty. They are nothing more than noise. Justice is not tangential. It isn’t a nice but unnecessary addition. It isn’t liberal propaganda. It isn’t something that we must strive to keep separate from religion. Justice is *central* to the life of faith. Justice is love of God and love of neighbor in action. Justice is the confrontation of the systems that stymie that love. So when Amos witnesses the poor having to pay excess taxes on their crops, when he sees violence committed against innocent people, when he witnesses the powerful taking bribes, and when we sees a complete lack of disregard for justice, he has NO TIME for “good religions folks.” Faith divorced from justice is some of the worst that religion has to offer. And yet we’ve seen this divorce time and again in the nearly three thousand years since Amos delivered these words. The powerful taking from the poor. Violence committed against innocent people. Religious leaders refusing to get “political.” And the results of all this are damning. Perhaps literally. In the New Testament, we hear Jesus say that religious people who deny justice — who refuse to care for the poor and oppressed — will be deserving of the fires of hell. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, standing at the precipice of the Civil War said, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Mahatma Gandhi, the non-violent Indian activist, said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” There was James Baldwin, the black civil rights essayist who said, “I was not a member of any Christian congregation because I knew that they had not heard and did not live by the commandment, ‘Love one another as I love you.’” Even Martin Luther King Jr. — a reverend himself — called out white moderate Christians and clergy who refused to speak out on issues of injustice. Said King, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Three thousand years after Amos, justice remains central to the life of faith. And a lack of concern for justice remains damning. Religion at its worst is that which performs rituals without pursuing justice. BUT it doesn’t have to be that way. At one point in Luke’s Gospel account, Jesus crosses paths with a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a Jew notorious for collecting excess taxes from the poor in order to both give to the empire and to line his own pockets. But after his interaction with Jesus, Zacchaeus does something peculiar and extraordinary. He doesn’t say, “Now I believe all the right things about you. Now I accept you into my heart.” Instead, he chooses to make REPARATIONS — to give back not only everything he has stolen from the poor, but in fact four times as much. In response, Jesus also does something peculiar and extraordinary. Jesus doesn’t say, “You missed the point. It’s not about your works. Don’t mix economics and politics with religion.” Instead he says, “Today SALVATION has come to this house.” In other words, to integrate justice and faith is to find salvation and liberation. You see, something beautiful can grow in the void left by the death of bad religion. That’s precisely the type of beauty we’re trying to promote through CCR. Justice is hard. And it’s complicated. And it’s costly. And it often requires us to take a good hard look at ourselves. But may we be open to the hard, complicated, costly work. And in the process, may justice flow down in and through us in ways that cleanse and liberate us and all of us.