Adapted from All God’s Children by Terence Lester
Adapted from Chapter 3, “God is Justice”
The word justice appears hundreds of times in the Bible.
At its core, biblical justice is about making wrongs right. It’s looking at something that has been shattered and offering solutions to piece it back together. God’s justice is supreme. God looks at a broken world where there is so much wrong and promises to make it right in the new earth and new heaven. Part of bringing heaven to earth is initiating this justice and ensuring that those who have been wronged by injustice get a chance to experience life-giving justice when things are made right for them. No, this does not mean replacing God or forming our own version of heaven on earth, but it also does not mean that we should allow those who are marginalized by injustice to suffer. God is the ultimate judge, and there are some wrongs that will only be made right after this life is over, but part of having a strong theology of justice is recognizing that our lives play a small part in bringing God’s justice to earth.
During my undergraduate studies, the hardest class for me to grasp was systematic theology, as I struggled to understand how a benevolent God could allow evil in the world. I learned there are various forms of natural evil, such as earthquakes and diseases. And then there is general evil, which is generated by a sinful person making horrible decisions that affect the lives of others.
A quick scan of history reveals that the evil and unjust intentions of one individual can bring untold devastation to the world. Genghis Khan was responsible for the death of over forty million people in the Mongol Empire. Joseph Stalin murdered twenty million Russians. Mao Zedong instigated the death of nearly fifty million Chinese people. Adolf Hitler ordered the death of millions of Jews. European slave traders were responsible for the death of nearly two million slaves during the transatlantic slave trade. Currently Vladimir Putin is killing innocent families, children, and anyone else in Ukraine who resists the Russian army. Some evangelical communities struggle to grasp the racial injustice happening right in their backyards or in their neighborhoods.
During my time as a pastor in this predominantly White congregation, there seemed to be a disconnect between the messages preached on Sundays and the injustice that plagued communities in our front and backyard throughout the week. We would sing about the goodness of God, but I would see people in the congregation drive past neighborhoods that were in dire need of help. It’s like the meme that says sometimes evangelicals fly overseas to take pictures with Black and Brown people and miss opportunities to right the wrongs that Black people face right around them. Instead of talking about the neighborhoods in a way that moved us to show up with God’s love and stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, there was often a disdain for poor folks. This stemmed from a weak public theology of justice.
For example, when there was an instance of police brutality in our community, the common response from those in our church was to speak up and say things like “Blue Lives Matter,” or “All Lives Matter.” I remember a Black police officer in the church stating that once he took off his uniform and drove in predominately White areas, he was still Black and afraid for his life, and when he was pulled over a few times by law enforcement himself, he still had the same shock and chills that all Black men face. As for the homelessness crisis, little was said about politicians who backed laws that made it more difficult for the unhoused population to survive.
A public theology of social justice is therefore critical. It affirms what we believe God says about any crisis we face and about what plagues the live of Black and Brown people every single day. Our gospel is not a social gospel, but it is social because it involves people. It has the power to affect people in their social contexts, offering good news for their social problems. What does God say about putting people in cages? What does he say about gun violence? War? The death penalty? What does he say about systemic injustice? A public theology asks, What does God have to say about the evil, injustice, and oppression that is happening in our world in real time? It is exegeting the cultural climate and giving understanding of what God has to say about what we find there.
Unfortunately, when it comes to systemic social injustice against Black people in America, the common response among some Christian leaders is to navigate their way through the crisis as quickly as possible while never addressing the root causes of the problem. Some fear the potential personal consequences of speaking out against the issues, and others don’t concern themselves with such issues at all. They make the decision to remove themselves from the weight this injustice carries, which has its own consequences. As Henri Nouwen writes in Turning My Morning into Dancing, “Our efforts to disconnect ourselves from our own suffering end up disconnecting our suffering from God’s suffering for us.”
At the historically Black church where I served as the pastor of social justice and witness, I was given the space to lament, share my frustrations, and talk about what it meant to embody racial justice and take a stand against the evils of poverty, militarism, and anything that oppresses God’s children. At the predominately White church, we went straight to talking about forgiveness and racial reconciliation. But as Jemar Tisby rightly asks in How to Fight Racism, “If different races of people have never had conciliation how can they have re-conciliation?”
Only after we are committed to solidarity and justice can we take a hard look at some of the lies from the past and the misconceptions we harbor. Seeking justice takes us on a journey in search of the truth. And the first step along this journey is to uncover buried history and stand with those who have been unjustly treated.
Adapted from the forthcoming title All God’s Children: How Confronting Buried History Can Build Racial Solidarity by Terence Lester. ©2023 by Terence Brandon Lester Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.