Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Justice is Social

"And in His name all oppression shall cease…"

The Column of Justice by Tadda stands in 
Piazza Santa Trìnita in Florence, Italy. This 
granite column from Rome's Baths of 
Caracalla  was the gift of Pope Pius IV in 1560 
to the first Grand Duke of Florence. 

My friend Célestin lost six family members, including his brother, in the Rwandan genocide. One day a man came to Célestin to be baptized wearing a shirt my friend recognized as having belonged to his deceased brother. When Célestin asked about it, the man said his relative killed the guy who wore it. Célestin wanted to drown this person instead of baptizing him. But he remembered that Jesus had died for them both.

Today Célestin and that man he baptized—the brother of his own brother’s murderer—serve together as ministry partners. Célestin went on to write his doctoral dissertation on forgiveness, coauthoring the book Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace, and to found ALARM—African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry.

People often take social justice to mean the social gospel, which for many evokes connotations of all good works and no God. Certainly we can add nothing to the work done for us on the cross by Jesus Christ. But the good news from on high actually does have social ramifications. When we follow God, it should make us different, not so we can earn his favor (one who knows Christ already has that) but to reflect that the Spirit has set us free and controls us.

Through the prophet Malachi, God told the ancient Israelites that their righteousness needed to have certain characteristics. He wanted his people to be faithful to him, faithful to spouses, faithful to keep promises, fair to their workers, merciful to widows and orphans, and committed to helping immigrants (Mal. 3:5).

In the Old Testament, righteousness and justice are often the same word. And the sort of justice connected with righteousness is not about simply doling out a punishment someone deserves. It’s about making right the wrong, which goes far beyond making the punishment fit the crime. It has an element of restoration.

That is why the term I prefer for this sort of whole-person approach is "restorative justice." It requires more than punitive action such as a jail sentence. It requires restitution and reconciliation—a genuine demonstration of remorse with an apology and attempts to right wrongs.

Each of us should be living out such justice, as it sets free both oppressed and oppressor. As I once heard author Shane Claiborne say, in addition to loving the poor, God also “loves the 1 percent rich who are suffering, though not suffering in the same ways as the poor, but they have high rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide.” We are to emulate the one who preached “good news to the poor; set free the captives” (Luke 4:18), which by implication also includes the oppressors, who live in bondage to self. The Spirit frees both oppressed and oppressor.

Have you been completely faithful to God? Have you always affirmed marriage? Have you kept all your promises? Been completely unbiased with workers? Shown mercy to widows and orphans? Reached out to help immigrants? If not, repent and receive his grace. With his power you can be the kind of person who models the kind of righteousness God desires.

Have you suffered from injustice? Has someone broken promises to you? Has your spouse failed to uphold his vows? Has an employer mistreated you? Are you a widow or orphan or immigrant, lacking social power? Have you had to watch as someone you love endured a great injustice? If so, know that the just God, the one who rules over all, will someday right every wrong you’ve endured and make all things new.

© Sandra Glahn, 2013. Adapted from Chai with Malachi. Thanks to Ed Cyzewski for running this post on his blog this month. You can read responses there. Merry Christmas!

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