Justice

This is another churchy blogpost. I haven’t been on here in a while, and a LOT of stuff has gone down since the last time I posted. The biggest things are the sudden, unexpected, heart-wrenching and world-changing loss of my wife to metastatic breast cancer on September 26 and then the Category 4/5 Hurricane Ian that slammed into our town two days later. Most of everything I’ve been doing since that time has been related to the aftermath of one or both of those things. But I’m trying to find a way forward through this mess.

One of the paths that I’m taking through the mess is work. Our church building is still in disarray, so it’s not really convenient to be in the office most of the time. Plus, I have a lot of extra running around to do on account of being a single dad. So I’m really just not in the office much. But I’m still working, just in different ways. Including returning to our weekly Bible/Book Study and, now, launching a twice-monthly cross-generational faith formation “event” following the Faith5 model.

In both the book study and the Faith5 event, the issue of justice came up, albeit in slightly different contexts. We’re studying Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life, which is all about discovering the non-violent, non-retributive God whom Jesus called Abba. In chapters 5 and 6, we’re talking about … well, we’re talking about a LOT of things, but the issue of justice came up in our discussion as an aspect of “shalom.” Normally we translate that word as “peace,” but that translation fails to capture the holistic character of God’s peace, which is about wholeness and restoration, not just of an individual, but of entire communities and the whole creation.

So, in that discussion, we turned to Matthew 5 and the sermon on the mount, where Jesus radicalizes his own scriptural tradition when he tells his listeners, “You have heard it said by men of old, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the left.” You know the passage. Walter Wink famously pointed out that, in order for someone to strike me on the right cheek, unless they are using their (forbidden) left hand, the only way to strike that cheek is to do so with a backhand, colloquially named “a bitch slap.” I’m not shying from that term because the rawness of it captures the degradation and humiliation that phrase implies. As Wink points out, it’s violence done by a supposed superior against a supposed inferior. When Jesus says, “offer him the other, as well,” it’s a way to suggest that the slap-ee demands to be met as an equal, not as an inferior. It shames the aggressor and brings the possibility of justice, equality, wholeness.

In the Faith5 context, we were discussing our preaching text from the Narrative Lectionary, which included the famous line from Micah 6: “You know, O Mortal, what the LORD requires of you: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

When I preached on that text, I pointed out the thing that all the prophets made clear: authentic worship, whether here in Jerusalem or there on Mount Gerazim, or in our building, or in the park, or wherever… it all amounts to nothing and is an offense to God if it isn’t accompanied by DOING – not just talking about, but actually DOING justice.

As an aside, but a relevant one, I also talked about how doing justice is a natural outcome of walking with God, because to know God through relationship is precisely what teaches us God’s will and directs our doing of justice. That “love kindness” bit again fails to capture the fullness of the word “chesed,” which is the kind of “steadfast love” (how we normally translated that) of God, which is self-emptying, co-suffering, and radically forgiving. (Shout-out to Brad Jersak and Vladika Lazar Pohalo for those phrases!)

The same person who had asked me in the book study to define what I meant by “justice” asked me again to define it in this Micah context. I began to give an answer, and someone else had something to say, so I stopped myself. I’m now glad I did, because the whole point was this: justice flows naturally, organically, from that co-suffering, radically forgiving, self-emptying love of God, which one can ONLY know by a humble walk with the divine. One of the ways Jesus phrased this in John’s Gospel was by using the vine and branches metaphor. You can’t really separate the branches from the vine. When they are connected – or mutually abiding, if you will – the line between the one and the other is blurred. And there you have it. Walk with Jesus, who EXUDES chesed, who EMBODIES shalom, who calls on us to IMITATE him as he imitates the Father.

We don’t need to DEFINE justice when we are ABIDING in justice. Don’t ask ME to say what justice is or isn’t. Look to Jesus. Because my suspicion is, “you know what is required of you.” Jesus already told you.

Galatians Bible Study

I just wanted to drop a little note here in recognition of the winding up of our weeks-long study of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. For those of you who missed it, and for those who might be interested in joining a future study, either in person or online, here’s a brief recap of what we did in this study.

We’ve been walking through St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, pretty much line-by-line, but we haven’t been following the standard “Lutheran” reading. The Lutheran reading has quite a bit to do with the individual and his/her “faith,” his/her “justification by faith” versus “justification by works” or that phrase, “works righteousness” of which we Protestants are so fond. We’re not calling that outlook wrong, because it’s not about “right” and “wrong.” However, we are willing to say that it’s anachronistic. Luther’s discovery of a gracious and merciful God in the letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, in particular, were a huge leap forward in light of Luther’s own experiences with late-Medieval Roman Catholicism. But Luther’s concerns were not Paul’s First Century concerns, and they were not the cause for him writing these letters to the churches he had planted in Galatia or the ones he was planning to visit in Rome.

So, rather than approaching Galatians through that standard, Protestant, Lutheran lens, our approach in this class has been informed by more recent scholarship, including the movement that came out of the 1970s and is known as “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), headed by EP Sanders and others. While we didn’t use Sanders in our study, we did rely heavily on J. Louis Martyn’s seminal work on Galatians in the Anchor Yale Bible.

We also dug in quite a bit to a movement that some are already calling “The Post-New Perspectives on Paul” movement, led by scholars like Dr. Douglas Campbell from Duke University. We also drew a bit from Martin Hengel & Anna Maria Schwenger’s research in Paul Between Damascus and Antioch and Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People.

Thanks to this kind of scholarship and the discoveries that it stands upon, we have learned more about Second Temple Judaism (the Judaisms of both Jesus and Paul) in the last 80 years or so than Christians have known in the previous 1900+ years. This helps us when we look at Paul’s writing to see that he is not struggling as Luther did with late Medieval concerns, but rather with God’s invasive (apocalyptic) mission into the world, wherein God in Christ breaks down barriers that humans have always constructed between themselves. And as a result of that in-breaking, we can view God working to bring humanity together as a species.

This is the Bible’s project from beginning to end, though there are a number of roadblocks and redirections along the way. But the library we call the Bible addresses humanity as a species, in contrast to the Lutheran, individualized interpretations and the modern North American Protestant/Evangelical/Charismatic hyper-individualistic focus on the texts’ meaning.

Teacher Michael Hardin reminds us that we humans are living copy machines who mimic one another’s desires, and that we do so mostly non-consciously. Along with Hardin, we brought in hints and glimmers of the Anthropological insights of the late French sociologist Rene Girard and his Mimetic Realism. Even though Paul never studied Anthropology, it is clear that he understands the human condition, and so he speaks in both Galatians and Romans about our human inability to discern our intentionality. Paul writes in terms of an “evil impulse” (the concept of the yetzer ha-ra) and about the “structures of the universe” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) that keep us in bondage, and from which Christ comes to liberate us.

Paul’s context for writing the letter comes from his having broken off with the Jerusalem church headed by James the brother of Jesus and Peter/Cephas the Apostle, who had previously given Paul the “all clear” to preach his understanding of the gospel to Gentiles, but who had also – at the same meeting – sneaked in “false brothers” “to spy on our freedom in Christ.” It is these False Brothers who are coming into Paul’s church plants, spreading slanderous lies about Paul, and convincing his church members that Paul was wrong to teach that God’s grace erases all differences, including the cultural identification markers of Judaism, namely male circumcision, keeping a kosher table, and keeping holy the Sabbath day.

These three things belong to a holiness code (“works of the Law,” interpretations of Torah used to identify who is holy and who is profane), which Paul claims is mixing the yoke of bondage to religious observance back into the gospel of freedom that Christ won on the cross. The argument isn’t about whether the content of the holiness code is either right or wrong, but about how holiness codes themselves and things like them serve as barriers that people use to re-erect boundaries that Christ has torn down. The task and the end product of all such religion, for Paul, is humans deciding for themselves who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s preferred group. This is the distinction between religion and revelation.

So, that was the crux of the course. We weren’t overly academic in our approach, even though it kind of sounds from this description like we were. But in any case, I think our study really opened up this letter from Paul for folks in exciting ways, and may actually have helped “redeem” Paul from some misunderstandings that have accumulated over the years, cutting his writing off from revealing anything that sounds like Good News. And our Bible Studies are all about Good News! So if that sounds appealing, please consider joining us one of these days.

We’re wrapping up Galatians today, and I’m not sure where we’re heading next. Because the summer is almost upon us, we’re beginning to see our seasonal folks departing for more reasonable climes, and lots of our year-round folks will be traveling in the next months. Because of this, we’ll probably stick to smaller, one-off or two-and-done sessions, which will continue to meet in person, but also via Zoom. If you have a particular interest area you would like us to study together, feel free to drop a comment here. And as always, you’re welcome to join us! Bring a friend, if you want. The table’s plenty big.