Justice and Advent
We trust and believe in the most important things and people in our lives.
But what they mean to us might be quite different from what they mean to others, even our closest friends.
Video of the teaching is here.
Advent is about hope. It is expecting and longing for a society that is full of freedom and justice and love. I love the Bible because it is full of that hope. The Bible itself teaches us that our greatest longing often keeps us a step away from fulfillment. Note the passage in Psalm 42 that is very familiar, “As the deer pants for the edge of the water,” the deer the psalmist is comparing herself to is a step away from the stream-- at the edge, but not actually getting the drink.
Even so, that which we use to obtain hope could be the very thing that causes another to fear. A friend of mine this week was in an underground parking lot and two men were looking at rifles, exchanging them and aiming them. She freaked out and called 911. The operator said, “Ma’am, this is Clackamas County, not Portland. And if people are holding guns and talking about them, there’s nothing wrong with that.” She said that she could hear the operating rolling her eyes over the phone. But what is normal recreation for some caused fear in her.
In the same way, I had a difficult conversation with a friend this week. She posted a passage from the book of Acts and spoke of the early church as a violent cult. I was offended by this and stepped in to correct her perception.
But I had to pause and consider my response carefully. She grew up in a very religious society that denied that she was black, that denied her basic freedoms all because, they said, they held the Bible literally. She blames her father for some of this, she blames the religion and she blames the patriarchal society. But she also blames the Bible. She has done her reading and found history books that describe the early church in the terms as she described-- violent, brutal, even murderous.
Mind you, the Bible has been used to support the very society that brutally destroyed huge numbers of people. As a canon, much suffering and oppression and evil was done in support of the Bible. And I need to recognize that I cannot just defend a book that could be used that way.
However, I understand the Bible to be about hope. At its heart, the teaching of Jesus is about the enacting of mercy, that the book was written primarily by the poor trying to survive and looking to God to fulfill their hopes. Sometimes these hopes aren’t worth having. But usually they are. The Bible isn’t for everyone. But it has offered hope for the oppressed for millennia. And it is being used today by the suffering. For every person who used this book to oppress others, it is used by two to deliver out of oppression.
This month, I want to look at a few passages from the book of Isaiah, and discuss their promises that the NT says that applies to Jesus, the Son of God. Let me read a bit.
There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness and righteousness will abide in the fertile field and the word of righteousness will be peace and the servant of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.
And he will delight in the fear of the Lord and he will not judge by what his eyes see nor make a decision by what his ears hear; but with justice he will judge the poor and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth
All three of these passages see that hope is related to justice and righteousness. In Hebrew, these two words are very close to the same meaning and they are often used interchangably. When we discuss “justice” we can be talking about a lot of things. Like my friend seeing guns being handled or the Bible, “justice” could be a message of hope or a message of despair.
You can ask a person whose family member was murdered about what “justice” means. Or we can ask the prisoner who was wrongly declared a murderer and is about to be sentenced.
You can ask the officer who is trying to make an orderly society what “justice” means. Or we can ask the homeless individual who has been forced to move every week for a month.
We can ask the people who see that immigrants are stealing their jobs. Or we can ask the people on the border who are trying to reach safety and are being tear-gassed.
The most ancient notion of “justice” is the idea of equality of action, otherwise known as reciprocity. For every action, there is an equal reaction. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. We reap what we sow. For every good deed there must be an equal reward. For every evil deed, there must be an equal revenge. This is where the idea of reincarnation originates from. Since perfect balance doesn’t happen in life, it must happen in the next life.
But an interesting thing happened on the way to the eternal stream of life. People realized that perfect balance wasn’t a good thing. Because we are human and we screw up and we need something beyond a perfect balance. So the concept of an ending point to the eternal cycle of life, nirvana, was born. Because perfect balance perpetuates suffering-- it never leads to peace.
For those of us in the human condition, we often see justice as being an equal punishment for suffering given-- equal plus a little bit more. When we were young, our brother would scream in our ear. We might hit them back. And they might hit us back, just a little bit harder. And so it goes. In our heart of hearts, we want things to be fair, but a bit more fair to us and our family. We want things to be equal for all, but only if we actually get everything we need, even if others get a little less. We want security for us, even if that means others don’t get as much security as we do.
Justice requires more than perfect equality. It also needs mercy, it needs compassion, it needs second chances. Justice will not create balance without mercy.
Isaiah teaches us one more thing. Note in chapter 11, Isaiah says that the true hope is justice for the poor. Not that the wealthy or the well-off don’t also need justice. It’s just that the well-off can usually create their own justice. The poor can’t. They are dependent. They are relying on others to create justice for them, because they can’t make it for themselves.
So the deep longing of Isaiah is a justice with mercy. A justice that offers more mercy to those who have had to struggle against the world every day in their lives.
What about my friend, the one who suffered under a patriarchal society and had her heritage and freedom taken away? The one who has to take down the Bible because it was the tool of her oppression, the whip that tortured her? I wish I could take away her rage. But my main tool is the very tool that harmed her. I don’t have much else.
I think that I can use the Bible for myself to learn the tools that might give her hope. I can pray for her deliverance. I can look to offer her mercy that others think she does not deserve. I can listen to her and not quote the Bible at her. The Bible is for me, not for her. She deserves compassion and hope from my lips. I pray that God can give me the right words to say. That Jesus can give her the deliverance she seeks, even if I never mention Jesus’ name.