Friday, February 11, 2005


The guys in Jars of Clay are doing a good thing called the Blood:Water Mission. Jars' frontman, poet, singer, activist, Dan Haseltine, asked me how I would answer the question, "Why should a Christian be involved in social justice?" My answer…

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I come from a long line of people who think we’re supposed to care more than we do about justice and other guilt-inducing ideals.

We trace our roots back to Moses whose Law, while not exactly concise was certainly thorough. Moses took five books, more or less, to get his arms around how people who say they know something about God had better behave in order to make their claim credible to neighbors, hirelings, relatives and farm animals. His writings remain relevant to this day. A (air quotes) Christian publishing house recently sent me a contract so hostile I suggested they should get themselves a good Jewish lawyer, by which I meant someone familiar enough with the Pentateuch to know there are some things one simply does not do in business dealings.

The Decalogue—I like to think of it as The Big Ten—rendered the commands in a manner suitable for framing (or chiseling in stone and hauling up the interstate on a flatbed). There is also, I believe, a collegiate athletic conference named to honor The Big Ten, though I don’t profess to understand the sports connection.

Some time around the 8th century B.C.E. the prophet Micah laid down the law with such precision it made those who came before him look like they were paid by the word. Micah distilled the substance of pretty much everything that matters into a tiny catechism with one question and three responses.

Q: What does the LORD require of you?
A: To act justly
A: To love mercy
A: To walk humbly with my God

I find Micah’s concision the tiniest bit menacing, like Do the right thing. This is almost no help at all for people used to being told what is the right thing and how to get forgiven for having failed to do it. It’s the sort of simplicity that creates way more problems than it solves. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. These are hard sayings.

But, speaking as a word guy, I certainly admire his elegance.

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If you don’t count the Sermon on the Mount—and I know hardly any Christians who do—Jesus refined the Law to two directives:

1. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”
2. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is, if anything, worse than Micah. I was just beginning to sway with the whole water to wine vibe and now he comes out with this? Not the least of my problems is the ringing clarity of the thing. I don’t need a priest or professor to tell me what all means.

Where does my energy go? What about my money?
When do I feel most alive? What do I crave?
What is it I can’t get enough of?
Love God with all that.

…and my neighbor as myself…

I feel I have had no choice but to pursue my lifelong interest in loopholes; exclusions that might justify loving God with some of my heart, some of my soul, mind and strength—and, of course, keeping lists to document why loving my neighbor is entirely out of the question.

Between us, I am not proud of my record on this. I take no comfort from knowing I am not alone. And, of course, I’m not.

From the top of my little hill, it appears the people who claim they know something about God have found a comfort zone where saying the right things substitutes for doing…anything, really. Orthopraxy—doing the right thing—means nothing, give or take. Orthodoxy—believing the right stuff from some sort of biblical framework—is presently all that matters, as long as we get to skip the Minor Prophets, the letter from James, all but chapter one of First John and much of what we call the four Gospels—other than that and maybe a couple of other things, we take the Bible to be authoritative in sum and substance.

How else to explain a drug addled talk radio celebrity who gets to keep his position of honor with people who believe drug addicts are criminals—unless they say the right things.

How else to explain sex junkies of various proclivities who are quickly restored to honor by people who believe sex junkies are perverts—unless they say the right things.

How else to explain the free pass for a candidate who called a New York Times reporter an asshole extended by people who believe that kind of language is a sin—unless it’s used by someone who says the right things (in which case it’s a sign of…what?).

And how else to explain myriad unkept promises to the poor and powerless by church and state, willingly excused by people who believe yes should mean yes, no should mean no (and anything else is sin)—unless…you know.

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All that to say this: I think people like me, who say we may know something about God, ought to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God because the gospel Jesus preached—don’t listen to your hometown evangelist, go read it for yourself—was the gospel of the kingdom of heaven where justice, mercy and humility are the rules. And because Jesus, if he can be trusted, represented that God intends to have everything his way—on earth as it is in heaven. And because the only people Jesus was hard on were self-important fools (like me)—to whom he said, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” And because there is no shalom for anyone unless there is shalom for everyone.

Why care about social justice? Well geez…what other kind is there? Loving God and loving my neighbor have inevitably public consequences—unless I’m content to just keep saying the right things. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to live that way any longer.

I hope that’s not just me.

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Of course it's not just me. Visit Blood:Water Mission.


Mike Todd said...

Brilliant - thanks.

Jenni said...

Great post. I am currently reading a book called, "Good News About Injustice" that I highly recommend on the issue of justice and the christian's respnsibility.