The Deacon’s Role in Seeking Biblical Justice

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“Our Judaic and Christian heritage neither denies nor overlooks the flaws of humankind…but in the face of all the empirical evidence, it nonetheless declares that all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being made in the image of God and being loved redemptively by God. It adds that God holds us accountable for how we treat each other and for how we treat God. It is that framework of conviction that gave rise to our moral subculture of rights. If this framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we slide back into our tribalisms.”

This is how Nicholas Wolterstorff concludes his 2008 book Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

Justice respects the image of God in us, in each other, and in His creation.

Deacons are called to prevent the church from sliding into the tribalism that Wolterstorff describes. Often today using the term “justice” begs that it be defined in order to avoid partisanship. As deacons, charged with a mandate that includes, “be prophetic critics of the waste, injustice, and selfishness in our society, and be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evils,” how do we treat with sensitivity the calling to do justice? The Network has a host of resources that will help (search "justice" to get started).

When wrestling with defining “justice” for our context, a diaconate might consider watching this webinar presentation called, Atonement Confusion: How A Wider View of Atonement Can Lead To A Deeper Sense Of Mission. It places our justice role in that wider context of our mission.

It concludes with this quote from Daniel Bell, “Justice for Christians is not a strict rendering of what is due. Justice is that which restores and renews communion. Its name is Jesus….We are stuck in our sin, and the good news is that Jesus is the justice of God—Jesus reconciles, Jesus restores communion, Jesus restores creation. Therefore doing justice, if it is true justice, must confess Jesus. Similarly to be ‘in Christ’ is to be justified which is to make just and to be just is to seek and do justice.”

Another helpful definition comes from a Network pdf file called “Biblical Justice,” developed in response to the 2017 Synod request that churches annually have a service focusing on the role justice plays in all aspects of living out our faith.

It defines justice as follows, “We understand biblical justice best when we see it in context of the biblical story. We know from the Creation account that God’s intention for the whole Creation was (is) to experience shalom, that rich Hebrew idea of well-being and flourishing. Imprinted with God’s wisdom (Proverbs 8), the creation was formed with the potential to unfold and develop in ways that would promote life, offering glory to God, and joy, beauty, and prosperity to all. 

“Made in God’s image (Genesis 1, 2; Psalm 8), human beings were given responsibility to preside over the subsequent unfolding of creation in history, to use their powers of knowledge and will to enable all the various dimensions of creation to unfold according to their calling. Human beings were created to be in right relationships to God, to one another (in the multiple dimensions of governance, marriage, economy and more), and to the whole of non-human creation as stewards of creational treasures. Their God-given powers were to be bent toward loving service of “the other.” The human calling is to be faithful toward that task. The blessing of God on such faithful service is shalom.”

The Reformed tradition has long called for our justice focus to be linked to that of the Old Testament concept of shalom. In his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace (71-72), Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it as follows, “I said that justice, the enjoyment of one’s rights, is indispensable to shalom. That is because shalom is an ethical community. If individuals are not granted what is due them, if their claim on others is not acknowledged by those others, if others do not carry out their obligations to them, then shalom is wounded. That is so even if there are no feelings of hostility between them and the others. Shalom cannot be secured in an unjust situation by managing to get all concerned to feel content with their lot in life."

“But the right relationships that lie at the basis of shalom involve more than right relationships to other human beings. They involve right relationships to God, to nature, and to oneself as well. Hence, shalom is more than an ethical community. Shalom is the responsible community in which God’s laws for the multifaceted existence of his creatures are obeyed."

“Shalom goes beyond even the responsible community. We may all have acted responsibly and yet shalom may be wounded, for delight may be missing...Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives has a dimension of a divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for.”

If as deacons we accept our justice role as one of ushering in the shalom of God in ever increasing levels, how then do we implement this task?

Some churches have not yet considered, or have avoided altogether, considering how to carry out this calling to do justice. Others have responded with advocacy approaches that resonate with some or most of their membership. Regardless of what point your church finds itself, deacons are called to introduce or to further encourage congregations in this work—to bring the church into dialogue about justice and to challenge members to live out the implications of the reconciliation work that justice and shalom calls for. 

In a related post, we will look a practical ways that congregations who are at various levels of engagement can begin to more deeply live into their justice calling. 

Here are some additional resources;

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This article over defines "justice" in a way that pours the content of the word "mercy" into justice, leaving no differentiation.  In other words, it conflates the two words (and their proper meanings).

The article cites Nicholas Wolterstorff.  I've read the book cited in this article as well as others written by Wolterstorff on the same topic (justice).  Frankly, I believe Wolterstorff also conflates justice and mercy, as does Daniel Bell (also cited in this article).  

This is a relatively new movement in the Church, including the CRC.  Ultimately, in my thinking, it's progression results in a rerun of past era of "liberation theology," a movement in which the politics supposedly emanating from the theology eventually overwhelmed the theology.

The article also links to the CRC's admonitions to its incoming deacons.  That admonition (unlike the entirety of this article) does refer to "mercy" as well as "justice."  (Micah 6:8 refers to both words as well.)  That is, "justice" and "mercy" remain as separate concepts, unconflated.  That is the historic CRC (Reformed) perspective.

I have no argument with this article's suggestion that deacons (all Christians even) should seek, even DO, justice.  Indeed, that is demanded by Micah 6:8.  But "mercy" is something different and must be regarded as that, and not be subsumed into "justice" as if the two words are perfect synonyms referring to the same content.  They are not, and the failure to acknowledge the separate concepts leads to a repeat of history: "liberation theology," which slowly morphed into political Marxism which eventually discarded theology in exchange for "what was really important," that being the political fight of course.

 

Well said, Doug.  One need look no further than the application of justice or mercy to oneself to understand that the two terms are not interchangeable.  Justice for me would be eternal damnation.  Mercy for me is being pardoned. 

In Psalm 51, David pleads for God's mercy, distinct from his justice, since God's justice has just been announced to him.  Likewise, the tax collector in Luke 18:13 says "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"  The tax collector also rightly does not plead for God's justice for himself.

In II Samuel 12 David pleads for God not to carry out the justice that he had decreed.  God had said through the prophet that because of David's sin, "the child who is born to you shall die."  Yet David is said to have fasted and "sought God on behalf of the child."  God decreed justice.  David pleaded for mercy.  The two cannot be the same. 

Besides the dangers of liberation theology and the associated political ramifications, rolling mercy into justice runs the real risk of making mercy something that I am due or owed. Theologically speaking, this leads to a whole host of wrong understandings of our standing before and relationship with God.

 

Good post! I am looking forward to the rest! I agree on your use of justice in the context you describe,good job!