taking the words of Jesus seriously

Today is a turning of the tide. Last night, Doug Jones won the Senate race in the state of Alabama. “The people of Alabama have more in common than that divides us. We have shown not just Alabama, but America the way that we can be unified,” proclaimed Senator-elect Jones in his victory speech. As children of God, we hold enfleshed humanity in common. It is vital that we embody a politics of love and life that respects the humanity of all people, regardless of their race or religion.

“Seek ye first the Kingdom, and God’s righteousness!” proclaims Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:33). What is God’s “righteousness”?

In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, writes: “Biblical righteousness is inevitably ‘social,’ because it is about relationships. When most modern people see the word ‘righteousness’ in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. It is not surprising then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.”

God’s righteousness and justice (tzadeqah and mishpat) are the most common word pairing throughout the Bible (e.g., Jer 22:3-5; Isa 28:17-18). Keller continues: “When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is ‘social justice.’ It is an illuminating exercise to find texts where the words are paired and to then translate the text using the term ‘social justice.’ Here are just two: The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love (Psalm 33:5). And this is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD (Jeremiah 9:23-24).”

An insightful exegete, Keller is right — the Bible calls us to live lives committed to social justice. When read through the lens of the Torah and the Prophet’s call to social justice, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the Moral Movement for faith-rooted justice and revolutionary love.

Since racism is America’s original and ongoing sin, an evangelical theology of social justice today must begin with the task of dismantling institutional racism. It is vital that evangelical Christians today confess the sin of racism and begin the process of public repentance, financial reparations, and deep solidarity, so we can build a better and more compassionate tomorrow.

“Liberty to the Captives!” was Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto as he inaugurated his prophetic ministry (Luke 4: 18). Throughout his ministry, Jesus continually identifies with those on the underside of the Roman Empire — the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the naked (Matt 25:40). Change is not always easy. It was the faith of a Canaanite woman who inspired him to exorcize his own ethnocentrism, as he opened up the covenant of redemption that God had made with the Jews to all humans, even Gentiles like me. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, white evangelicals need to identity with and be led by African Americans and the poor, joining them in the faith-rooted fight for social justice.

Since the election of President Donald J. Trump, we have witnessed an escalation in racialized violence and hate crimes. While racism is deeply rooted in Alabama, there is also a prophetic anti-racist prophetic tradition of faith-rooted organizing that has deep roots and spiritual power. Doug Jones’ victory last night did not just happen, but was a product of a long tradition of faith-rooted organizing from Alabama that includes the likes of legendary organizers like Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Eleanor Moody Shepherd, Carolyn McKinstry, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Congressman John Lewis. These prophets of deep faith and moral courage show us what prophetic resistance looks like in lives committed to faith-rooted justice and revolutionary love.

While white evangelicals voted to support Roy Moore’s “Alabama values,” Black Baptists, AME, and Disciples of Christ came out in strength. It was the Black vote that was the decisive factor in Doug Jones’ political victory. While Roy Moore calls for a recount, we need a revolution of love.

On November 20th at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Boston, I joined over 300 Christian theologians who signed the Boston Declaration in renouncing the demons of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia. As an anti-racist, white, Red Letter Christian from Mississippi, I call on my fellow white evangelicals to join me in the anti-racist, pro-reconciliation struggle for a more just and equitable future. We know that Alabama and America at its best is a diverse community committed to “freedom and justice for all.”

It’s time for revolution! As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his “A Time to Break Silence” address at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967:

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

King calls for a “radical revolution of values” as a pathway to a more humane, equitable and sustainable future.

In contrast to the violence of racial hate, Dr. King calls us to build the Beloved Community through nonviolent love.  King wrote, “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.” The path of nonviolence marked King’s prophetic Baptist theology and his faith-rooted organizing practice of nonviolent love which is the only path we can truly follow to realize Beloved Community.

Red Letter Christians, we cannot build Beloved Community on our own. As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, “We must shift the moral narrative in this nation from abortion & sexuality — issues used to manipulate people of faith — to the Bible’s overwhelming concern for love, justice and the poor.” Let’s join Brother Jonathan, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris, and Rev. William Barber II as we turn the tide in American politics through becoming leaders in the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Now is the time to turn the tide and break the yoke of racial oppression and build the Beloved Community that Dr. King, Jr., spoke about. Let’s turn the tide for love and justice! Let’s turn the tide for a prophetic intercultural future. Let’s turn the tide for a better and more compassionate tomorrow! As they say in Alabama, “Roll tide, roll!”

About The Author


Rev. Peter Heltzel, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is the Director of the Micah Institute and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at New York Theological Seminary. He also serves as Assistant Pastor of Evangelism at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. Rev. Heltzel holds a B.A. from Wheaton College, a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. He also completed course work at the University of Mississippi in Southern fiction and creative writing. These courses, combined with his childhood years in Mississippi, inform his work with a deep commitment to the power of words and music, to social justice and to a global movement of radical change and collective activism. A gifted writer, Rev. Heltzel has contributed to seven books as author or editor. He has published numerous articles in journals, such as Books & Culture, Science & Theology News, Sojourners, Political Theology, Princeton Theological Review and the Scottish Journal of Theology. An Auburn Senior Fellow, Heltzel is a founding member of the Red Letter Christian movement.

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