See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
infants who live but a few days,
or older people who do not live out their years;
those who die at a hundred
will be thought mere youths;
those who fail to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD. Isaiah 65:17-25
Point by Point
- Jesus came to save not just souls but to liberate the whole creation from bondage
- Jesus established the kingdom of God on the earth, first in the hearts and then in the lives and societies of his people
- Jesus now reigns in heaven in order that his people might destroy the old imperial ways of bondage
- We are called to live in the tension between the already present kingdom and the not yet fully revealed kingdom
- We are called to transform the world through personal and corporate holiness
- Holiness is revealed through, among other things, justice/righteousness
- Christians are always and everywhere called to practice and promote, among other things, social justice
- To not be involved in movements for social justice is to endorse and condone social injustice
- A relatively recent example of a Christian social justice movement is the Clapham Sect of 19th century England
Jesus came in history and today reigns at the right hand of his Father in heaven in order to redeem and transform all creation.  When Jesus came, he claimed to be not just setting the situation in Israel right, but to settle the bigger, older account of the creation’s bondage to sin and death. By Jesus’ time, many empires – organizational expressions of wretched and oppressive life – had come and gone, yet the core problem of rebellious human hearts, always at the center of all imperial designs, remained unchallenged. So Jesus came to earth to redeem all creation by removing from sin its power to cripple the connection humans once had with God, first among those who believe.  And now Jesus the King reigns in order to finish what he started, to abolish through his people all vestiges of imperial idolatry. Having changed the hearts of his people, he now seeks to heal their attitudes and viewpoints (their souls) and to transform their ways of doing everything (their might). Those who have begun to experience salvation do not automatically have healed world views and attitudes, nor transformed actions. The old patterns of sin and death are stubborn and must be driven out through love, truth, forgiveness and grace over time.
Jesus came to bring an answer to sin and to combat its effects at the root by raising up a different kind of world regime: what he called the kingdom of God. And how is Jesus’ rule different? Jesus’ kingdom is unlike the world’s systems not in being a-political nor by being divorced from creaturely existence but because it is full of holiness. To be holy in the Bible, among other things, is to practice justice/righteousness. Certainly, to fail to practice justice/righteousness is to be un-holy, is to be unclean. An unholy attitude means a lack of integrity, which means to have no congruence, to have insides and outsides which do not match. Unholiness also means to have no concern for the plight or peril of others, no ability to see beneath anger and confusion, to act with compassion in the face of hostility or indifference. For example, to be unholy is to justify as frugality and thrift the withholding of help from those in need. Further, to be unholy is to fold in the face of opposition, indifference or hostility, to fail to do for oneself or for others what needs to be done to make things whole. Unholiness also fails to care for the larger community; it closes down its definition of “neighbor” far short of what God requires of his people. Friends love at all times. Unholiness does not. Finally, to be unholy is to fail to place ultimate allegiance in Jesus. It is to split life between two or more competing answers to life’s thorny problems as though some issues were spiritual things which God cares about and others were secular things about which God does not care.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians, who seek to practice wholeness, i.e., holiness, know there is a tension in this world between good and evil. What many of us fail to see is that rather than this tension being between a spiritual part of life and a secular part of life, the true tension is between “the already” and “the not yet.” We are already citizens of Christ’s kingdom, but we do not yet see that kingdom fully expressed throughout our world. We are now, already, citizens of nations and members of families, employees and employers of businesses, partners in marriages, etc. We know that these good, created relationships within God’s good, Spirit-formed creation are not yet fully redeemed. We also know all people as well as all relationships are already invited to find fulfillment in Jesus’ already present but not yet fully revealed kingdom. We confess that everything in creation was created by God and is to be redeemed by God. We just do not often think about how every that “everything” is. As Christians, we are called to be practitioners of justice/righteousness in every anyplace we find ourselves: home, work, city square, ball field, court room, union hall, school room, board room, party caucus meeting, etc. We are to oppose ‘powers and principalities,’ the oppressive edifices and systems of empire, wherever we find them. We are to be the ones who practice justice/righteousness both close to home and in the world at large. And when, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming kingdom, we seek to make the society around us a better place, we are, by definition, working and advocating for social justice.
Both years ago and again quite recently, there have been secular and Christian voices alike which have condemned the very idea of Christians being involved in social justice. One Mormon entertainer recently went so far on television as to say that Christians should flee churches which claim to be involved in “social justice” or “economic justice.” (He wildly claimed these phrases are code words for communism.) For Christians to attempt to live apart from efforts to bring about social justice/righteousness is to stunt what it means to be faithful to Jesus. It is to fail to understand that Christianity is not a religion in the traditional sense of the word; it is a way of life. As Jim Wallis has said and written repeatedly, the Christian God “is personal but God is not private.” Christianity is about all of life, which includes religion, politics, economics, ethics, and all the many other areas of life, all of which were created and are now being redeemed by Jesus, our King.
If you think about it a minute you will realize it is impossible to abstain from social action. Christians will be active in society each and every day, either justly or unjustly; to not be involved in social justice is to be implicitly accept and condone social injustice. To not decide is to decide; there is no neutral ground.
There is much more to say on this subject but I will finish this post with a single example of Christians advocating for social justice in recent western history: The Clapham Sect. The following quote, excerpted from the first two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on the group is apt:
The Clapham Sect or Clapham Saints were a group of influential like-minded Church of England social reformers based in Clapham, London at the beginning of the nineteenth century (active c. 1790 – 1830). They are described by the historian Stephen Tomkins as “a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its centre of gravity, who were powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage”
…Its members were chiefly prominent and wealthy evangelical Anglicans who shared common political views concerning the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of the penal system.
This one small group of men was responsible for the end of the slave trade and slavery in England, for prison reform, educational reform and the beginning of what we know as worker safety laws and for other social reforms which led to the eventual end of child labor in England. We take for granted a better life which we enjoy but for which the Clapham Christian legislators struggled against great odds for many years. Their social/political action has blessed all people, at least in the western nations, for the past 180 years. We are blessed many times over because those men worked for social change in the face of ridicule and opposition from those who favored the dark ways of the old creation over the new. Social justice, which frequently finds itself expressed as economic justice, is a central part of the calling of every Christian. We are called to come together to bring about what is still “not yet.”
If you are interested in this discussion, then leave me a comment and we will have a good one. Some books which might help us learn more about a biblical perspective on social justice:
The Justice Project, Brian McLaren, editor; Everyday Justice, by Julie Clawson; The Transforming Vision, by Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middeton and Creation Regained, by Al Wolters.
Lord, you promised Abraham you could save him from his plight and you did. The result was a mighty nation, too numerous to count, which you lifted up in order to bless all the nations of the world. When that nation, Israel, was trapped in bondage in imperial Egypt, you promised to rescue their small and beaten society from oppression and you did. When that nation, though freed from Egypt, balked at the plans you had made for them, you promised to give them a land they could never gain in their own strength and you did. When their neighbors began to lean on them and again force them into servitude, you promised to raise up one who would set the nations back and give Israel room to grow strong and you did. When Israel forgot all about you again and just mouthed words to you so that they lost their way completely, you declared you would bring them back to their land, give them hope and a future and you did. When Israel found itself in an impossible compromise with the latest and strongest empire, Rome, you promised to send them a redeemer king and you did.
That king is still our redeemer, Lord. He reigns at your right hand in heaven. And we know, God, King Jesus hates now all the things he hated way back when: human power differentials, the oppression of one by another, poverty and wealth, the pollution of the earth and violence. Lord, forgive us, we pray, for being on the wrong side of history as often as we are not. Empower us, we pray, to see by grace, the things you see in this world. Draw us together, Lord and send us out again to change the world. We recall the words of St. Peter. He said Jesus was planning to stay in heaven until you were ready to complete all you had promised through the prophets, the redemption of all things (Acts 3:21). We know that day is coming, Lord but that it is not yet here. As surely as you have kept every promise to your people throughout the ages, you will return and wipe every tear from every eye. Please gather us and set us to the work you have given us that we may actively wait with confidence for that great day. We look to you to finish what we begin. You have promised and you will. We pray in the name of the king himself, Lord Jesus. Amen
1 Back to Post To say that Jesus reigns to redeem suggests a story of loss, that creation needed to be bought back after a time when it had been lost. Indeed, the Bible tells exactly that story. Because of human rebellion, creation and all life within it was lost to its creator-God and thus to its own understanding of its own purpose.
2 Back to Post In recent Christian re-tellings of the Good Friday/Easter story, we have focused on the individual reality of redemption for each saved sinner, each one rescued from the bondage to sin and perpetual evil. We have not recently focused our attention on the corporate and world-wide nature of Jesus’ work. Yet the Scriptures show us, time and again, that what begins in the heart flows out of and embodies itself in (and either twists and distorts or blesses and renews) every aspect of human life, including social, economic and political life.
3 Back to Post Sin truly can be defined as living separate from God and God’s wise and generous ways. And the more powerful, wealthy and intelligent a sinner is, the more his or her life-choices which inevitably lead to evil, lead to powerful and oppressive evil. Evil especially flourishes where power is concentrated. Where a very few have all power, wealth and authority over many, there is empire. Empire is the organized assault of those far from God against chaos. St. Paul, writing to Christians in the capital city of the evil empire of his day, wrote, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2). Even an evil empire which enslaved 80% of its subjects was better than chaos. Yet, like every other, the Roman Empire made about five percent of its people extremely rich and powerful, fifteen per cent well-off and eighty per cent enthralled, destitute and enslaved. Looking at the world today, those percentages hold up pretty well for the unjust world empire in which we live. We too, like the people of the church at Corinth to whom Paul wrote, are to bring to nothing those evil things which are (I Corinthians 1:26-28).
4 Back to Post Like many Bible words, “holiness” is a word which needs to be rescued from “religious” categories. To boil it down in just a few words, holiness means integrity, empathy, generosity, cleanliness, assertiveness, friendliness, wholesomeness and faithfulness. To be holy in Israel was to do what was right even if it cost you; it was to refuse to take advantage of another even when no one was looking. In the Old Testament, we have many examples of wicked behavior, even on the part of those who were people of God, but we have very few examples of holy people. Boaz, in the book of Ruth is one of those rare examples. If you read over the list of attributes above and then read about Boaz, you will see in Boaz most of the just/righteous behaviors and attitudes which I have listed. We are to be like Boaz because we have new hearts, because we have been loved.
5 Back to Post We cannot really talk about biblical justice separately from righteousness since the two English words translate the same Hebrew word. To be just was to be righteous and vice-versa. Putting these two words back together is a part of our witness today in a world which tears such things apart.
6 Back to Post In Deuteronomy (15:7-11), the holy rich uncles of Israel are warned not to be unholy by having an evil thought and thus choosing not to lend to those from whom they have little hope of being repaid. It is the Lord God to whom they are truly lending, they are told and it will be the Lord who will prosper them and thus pay them back. By contrast, those who are habitually unholy would never extend themselves in any venture where they are not reasonably certain of a return. To be holy is to trust God for your present situation and for your future.
7 Back to Post Clearly, if you have read the law, you know the role which hygiene, etc., plays, so no list of unholy attitudes and behaviors would be complete without reference to a lack of caring concern for not only ones’ own body but also concern for the surrounding world. Unholiness makes messes which it does not bother to clean up, both locally and globally.
8 Back to Post Just as Yahweh liberated Israel from Egypt and in the wilderness and in the land, Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross cancels sin and builds what is good from what was evil. Jesus’ kingdom conquers to liberate; he rules in order to empower his subjects to live fruitful, abundant lives. And like the Old Testament prophets called upon the people of Israel, so Jesus calls upon the subjects of his new, now kingdom to be faithful in every aspect of their lives. To live in some part of my life apart from Jesus and his gentle ways of redemption is to go off on my own like the lost sheep of Jesus’ parable.