In the debilitating sphere of American politics, the word justice sometimes gets tossed back and forth in a political sense — to the degree that some pastors and theologians want to avoid it altogether.
There is some validity to the angst and discontent many evangelicals feel with evangelical political life. We’ve turned off not only the outside world, but also our brothers and sisters in Christ with our often rigid and unyielding political involvement in recent decades, and yet somehow continue to imagine we are victims, too.
Yet, when we tiptoe over and around justice, because we want to avoid controversies, does the church lose out on something more beautiful? Even if we want to avoid it to concentrate on more important “spiritual matters”?
Justice — when worked out in practice — will meet opposition and upset those on the wrong side of history, sometimes even those who claim to be “friends” of our cause. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. answered friendly critics — those he felt were acting in good faith — who called the Birmingham campaign “unwise and untimely.” Indeed, this was mild opposition compared to the church and home bombings, arrests, dogs, beatings and hoses that those opposed to the American civil rights movement inflicted on activists.
Whether “friendly fire” or attacks from enemies, the solution of the American civil rights movement wasn’t to avoid justice or to tiptoe around the subject to avoid being labeled controversial. The solution was the type of perseverance that leads to character and hope. This is the same type of perseverance encouraged by the apostle Paul in the face of persecutions when he wrote in Romans 5:3-4, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (NIV).
As for the spiritual question, that was answered by God crushing into the physical body of a baby we call Emmanuel or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23) and of whom Scripture described in the words of the baby’s mother: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53, NIV). The question was answered by this baby growing into an adult who taught that caring for people’s physical needs (i.e., meeting a basic level of human rights) was the same as caring for God (Matt. 25:35-36) and who commended those who “hunger and thirst for justice” (often translated righteousness) in Matthew 5:6.
God cares about our physical circumstances. Justice is a tool for working out this care and showing that God is “with us” as a way of entering into the real, physical circumstances of those who hurt, not just a concept abused by the culture wars.
Justice is God’s way of looking at a young person, crushed by a parent’s violent rage and answering it, not with a super-spiritual command that “you must forgive him” in a way that further perpetuates the abuse and places a moral burden on the victim, but in a truly “God with us” way that recognizes the child’s pain and lifts that child out of the circumstances.
Justice is God’s way of looking at a woman abused and raped by her spouse or partner and saying, “God with us” in a way that rescues her and protects her, rather than simply telling her to “pray harder.”
Justice is God’s way of looking at black lives regularly stopped short by police violence in the United States and saying, “God with us” in a way that keeps young, innocent men and women from ever again having to be afraid of those sworn to protect them, rather than donning a spiritual mask and simply saying, “God loves all of us” or “the church is what truly matters.”
Justice is God’s way of looking at those who lack health care, or shelter, or food, and saying, “God with us” while restoring them to community with care and provision, rather than telling the poor that they should seek to be “rich spiritually.”
As long as God cares about the physical well-being of embodied souls, justice is not something the church can tiptoe around to avoid controversy or being “too political.” It is not something we can sidestep in order to emphasize other theological concepts like “calling” or “evangelism” or “forgiveness,” as important as those concepts may be. Justice is a way of continuing to proclaim that God indeed cares about us now, that God is Emmanuel — “God with us” — far beyond the Advent season and Christmas celebrations.
May we lift that understanding of “Emmanuel” from the pages of Scripture and carry it into 2018, where an understanding of justice as a working out of God’s presence in the midst of truly adverse circumstances will still be desperately needed.