Monday, October 22, 2007

Delineate mercy and justice, but connect both to essential covenant faith

READ: Isaiah 58

JUSTICE IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS. Biblically, Isaiah 58 goes a long way to contextually define "doing justice." Here, as in most other Old Testament references, justice is about fairness for the oppressed, right relationships in the marketplace, remuneration for inequitable treatment, and opportunity to stand on common ground. While the later Greek terms of justice are more legally defined, earlier Hebrew understandings of justice are more about relationships between people. Most often, the poor and powerless were treated unjustly by those who held power and controlled the marketplace; Isaiah makes clear this is an afront to God's character and covenant terms.

TWISTING JUSTICE INTO LEGALEZE. I am convinced that one challenge in "doing justice" today are the overwhelmingly Greco-Roman interpretations of justice that dominate the Western worldview. But the words and imagery in Isaiah 58 are neither legal nor punitive. These images are unmistakable: slaves’ chains are to be loosed and slaves emancipated; people treated like oxen under a tightly-tied yoke are to be released and every instrument of control, manipulation, and abuse broken.

DO AWAY WITH THE YOKE OF OPPRESSION. Message: “do away with the yoke of oppression.” Application: slavery, human trafficking, permanent economic subjection, and advantage-taking of laborers is unjust and must cease. Isaiah’s concern is that the people of God, if they are to be a people who reflect who God is and if they are to be blessed by God, will do business in radical distinction from what other people try to get by with.

MERCY RELIEVES; JUSTICE RECTIFIES. Isaiah 58 also helps us delineate justice from mercy. Verse 6 calls for actions that permanently change social norms and reform economic practices. Verse 7 calls more for mercy and hospitality: “share your food with the hungry,” “provide the poor wanderer with shelter,” and clothe the naked. Acts of mercy are needed to relieve immediate crises and human indignities. Acts of justice are needed to prevent or rectify the crises and indignities that tend to be repeatedly visited upon vulnerable individuals and groups.

SOLIDARITY & TRANSFORMATION. Mercy and hospitality bring us into a relieving relationship with neighbors in distress, while seeking justice brings us into solidarity with oppressed neighbors and into a transformation of policies, practices, and structures that once directly harmed them and simultaneously forfeited the spiritual integrity of people called to reflect God’s character.

INSEPARABLE FROM SALVATION. There is a tendency to lump justice and mercy together and separate both from the message of salvation and call to kingdom living. Isaiah 58 is one of several Old and New Testament passages that will neither allow us to merge justice and mercy nor disconnect justice and mercy from salvation and faithfulness as a covenant people. Faith in God is connected to faithfulness to neighbors in our daily personal and marketplace practices. Personal salvation is linked to corporate, community, and international policies, with the bottom-line question being: “what does it do to the poor?”

THE "FREE" IN "FREE METHODISM". The Bible’s collective witness to "doing justice" and the call to give attention to it were certainly on the minds, in the hearts, and evidenced in the actions of those who founded the Free Methodist Church. In 1860, biblical references to justice were not something for academic debate and genteel discussion and then left for optional or occasional action. When read with an immediate awareness of the poor, oppressed, distressed, denied, marginalized, and disregarded, the Bible’s many passages calling for justice in response to the poor, laborers, aliens, slaves, women, and prisoners became a prophetic testimony against the dominant culture and careless practices of the church.

LITERAL AND URGENT. The biblical witness to "do justice" was read, proclaimed, and applied with a literalness and urgency that animated John Wesley in the 1700's and B. T. Roberts and others in the late 1800's. In the face of glaring injustices, early Methodist and early Free Methodist leaders saw God’s Word being just as scandalized as were the poor. To ignore issues of social justice where they were clearly declared and previously judged in the Word of God was tantamount to rebellion against God.

SO, WHY DON'T WE "JUST DO JUSTICE?" If we read Isaiah 58 with such literalness and urgency today, what applications are we making? What actions are we taking? Or, what excuses are we making? What exceptions are we taking? "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," MLK used to say. Where do you see it being played out? What can you do within your own sphere of influence to challenge and change a practice, an assumption, a policy, a procedure so that justice breaks forth?

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