Monday, March 1, 2010

William K. McElvaney: Lenten Meditation

Lent 2010

Justice is “in season” for all the seasons of the Christian Year beginning with Advent and concluding through Pentecost. Why? Because the God of both Hebrew and Christian scripture is passionate about justice as indicated in numerous texts in both testaments.

That said, justice and the season of Lent have a special connection. As Christians we identify Lent with Jesus’ suffering, usually referred to as his passion. Yet as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, it was Jesus’ first passion or dedication to justice that led to the second passion narrated in the suffering accounts in the New Testament gospels (Preface, p. viii). Furthermore, Lent reminds us that our faith is not about a smooth talking God who glosses over suffering; not a happy-go-lucky God who sells cheap prosperity with a preferential option for the slick and the easy way out. The God of Lent is a God of pathos who knows all about the suffering and injustice of the world and who initiates restorative justice on behalf of true community.

The Source and Priority of Christian Justice Vocation

Some Christians mistakenly believe that justice is simply no more than the agenda of liberal or progressive folk in the church. On the contrary, the church’s justice agenda is clearly the agenda of God and Jesus IF we take scripture seriously. Any spirituality or piety claiming to be Christian must be grounded in a vocation or commitment to justice. Biblical passages in Amos (5:21-24) and Micah (6:6-8) and Isaiah (58:3-12) make it clear that God insists on justice-related worship. God turns a silent ear to worship not based on justice but never the opposite. In other words, in scripture God never says, “You’re spending too much time doing justice and not enough time praising me.” It’s as though God is saying, “If your worship is detached from justice, don’t even bother me with it.” Can the church hear this?

Connecting Biblical Forms of Justice with Today

From the Torah, the prophets of social justice, and the New Testament, justice takes a number of forms. What better time than Lent to take a fresh look at our justice legacy and inheritance! When we scan the terrain of the 8th to 6th century B.C.E. Hebrew prophets, two very specific forms of justice become apparent. I like to call these the “brand names” of biblically inspired social justice. One has to do with a transparent legal framework, unbiased courts, rule of law, honest elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to vote. Frequently this form of justice is referred to as legal or procedural justice. For an example, check out Amos 5:7-12, a message addressed to Israel. Included in the passage are these words: “Woe to you who turn judgment into bitterness and do no justice in the land. You hate him who reproves in court; you despise him who speaks the truth. You persecute the just and take bribes.” These procedural concerns are expressed in the Torah and elsewhere among the prophets of social justice.

Amos 5 also provides a description of a second form of justice required by God: “You have trampled on the poor man and extorted levies on his grain . . . and have turned away the needy at the gates.” Here Amos calls for economic justice, often called distributive justice. What is a just division of a society’s goods, money, health care, and educational opportunities? Thus in this one brief passage Amos speaks to both procedural and distributive injustice, calling forth God’s judgment on greed and corruption.

I invite you to read Isaiah 58:3-12, one of my favorite passages. This text, like Amos, provides a narrative of both procedural and distributive justice in which God radically redefines Israel’s fast or worship. What strikes me about this Isaiah text is the remarkable range of concerns connecting with our society today just as it did in Israel some 2,500 years ago:

Workers’ rights and, by implication, fair wages and safe working conditions;
Justice for the poor, that is, the hungry, the homeless, and those without adequate clothing;
Indirectly, concern for adequate health care that is inevitably connected with working conditions, hunger, and homelessness;
Implications for a peaceful society based on just societal structures.

These themes of justice are also plentiful in the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament is a breeding ground for justice: the Magnificat in Luke 1; the Kingdom or Reign of God proclaimed throughout Jesus’ ministry; Jesus’ Mission Manifesto declared in Luke 4; the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and in Luke 6; Matthew 23:23 where Jesus upbraids the religious leadership for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, namely, justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus’ familiarity with the Hebrew prophets suggests that when he uses the term justice or points towards it in his parables, he likely has in mind their emphasis on procedural and distributive or economic justice.

Taking on Justice for Lent

When I first became acquainted years ago with the season of Lent, observance was considered to be a choice of what one might “give up” for Lent. For some this meant at least a temporary change in eating habits or perhaps a kind of short term forty day resolution to give up a long held grudge or some debilitating personal habit. Lent is also known as a time of reflection centering on Jesus’ final days leading to the crucifixion and perhaps a deeper insight into suffering and God’s healing presence. The latter has moved some Christians from giving up something for Lent to meditation that leads to action, namely, giving oneself to others in a new and challenging direction in the footsteps of the Vulnerable/Victorious One. How then, if we so choose, might we take on a fresh justice vocation for Lent, and hopefully, beyond?

To ask the question a little differently, how might the church go about the pursuit of justice, especially on the local level? In my experience the quest originates with questions like these: Where is God leading and prompting us towards justice? Where do we see Jesus at work in our community or area on behalf of justice? What injustice draws the strongest sense of passion and conviction from you and your justice group? Combining these questions, the composite might be – Where and how does our passion meet the need of the community or world as prompted by our perception of God’s initiative through Jesus Christ?

Gospel idealism invites and challenges us to step up and pray, focus, study, analyze, and begin sizing up nonviolent means for addressing a specific injustice to which we feel called. Local church realism means that only a very small percentage of a congregation’s membership will take on active and persistent justice seeking and doing.

Any group or congregation on the path of justice will need to make strategic choices to address a particular issue. The possible nonviolent strategies are many and include the following non-exhaustive list: prayers, letters and phone calls, dialogue and moral persuasion, petitions and silent vigils, newspaper ads, justice based social analysis, community organization, rallies and marches, lobbying, picketing, civil disobedience, personal influence, and legal action. Above all, seek out those who bear the brunt of the injustice you are hoping to correct. Ask them to be your mentors and guides as you act in solidarity for agreed upon strategies and goals.

These strategies can be exercised in a variety of ways. Choices can include local church action, ecumenical and/or interfaith cooperation, support of justice based organizations, programs, and government agencies. Learning on the job to discern and decide which of these means or combination thereof seems best in a particular situation is part of the ongoing learning and challenge of justice vocation. I have found it important to strive for a thoughtful blending of idealism and realism. When one overwhelms the other, naivete or despair is waiting to call your name.

Some of us, through the grace of God and the wisdom of many mentors, have come to think of seeking and doing justice as among our deepest experiences of God, a coming home to God and to our truest and deepest selves for others. The season of Lent invites us deep into the heart of a justice passionate God.

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