Friday, February 02, 2007

How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election, Part 3

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

In these posts, I don't intend to push a particular political agenda. Instead, I want to present a series of windows through which Christians might look at 2008 Presidential election.

In the first post, I suggested that the first lens through which Christians might look at the election is the Bibical call to care about what happens in government, as a practical way of enacting the Christian's call to love God and neighbor.

In the second post, I talked about as second lens, the Christian belief in upholding the rule of law for the sake of the neighbor.

Now we come to Lens #3: God's call for justice and for believers to pursue it.

These days, the Bible's emphasis on justice is often overlooked. To some extent this may be understandable: Much of what might be appropriated directly from the Scriptures on the subject shows up in the Old Testament, coming from a time when Israel, God's people, were part of a theocratic nation. No nation in the world today is a Biblical theocracy, making the mandates for Israel's judges and kings found on the Old Testament's pages difficult to apply, especially in religiously-diverse Western democracies.

Complicating our view through the Bible's "justice window" is that in the New Testament Greek, the word for justice never appears. Its Hebrew equivalent shows up only infrequently in the Old Testament.

But, the variations of a word related to justice appear frequently in the Bible: righteousness (diakaiosune). It has the notion of rightness in our relationships with God and one another. (In fact, when the New Testament speaks of repentant sinners being justified by Jesus Christ, it uses a form of this word.)

But the relative absence of the word justice doesn't denote an absence of concern for it on God's part. The concept of just treatment of others permeates much of the Old Testament law and prophecy, addressing not only the actions of kings, but also interpersonal relationships. And a commitment to justice is certainly apparent in Jesus' teaching, even in His voluntary death and resurrection for a human race weighed down by the curses of sin and death.

To understand the Biblical mandate for justice, we need to study another key Biblical concept.

When asked what the greatest of God's commandments are, Jesus responded that there were two of equal importance: to love God completely and to love one's neighbor as one loves one's self.

In this response, Jesus was summarizing what the reformer Martin Luther described as "the two tables" of the Ten Commandments. By the traditional reckoning of the commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, the first table is composed of the first three commandments:
  • You shall have no other gods.
  • You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Each of these commandments deals with our relationships with God.

The second table is made up of the remaining seven commandments, as traditionally reckoned:
  • You shall honor your father and your mother.
  • You shall not kill.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.
As this second table deals with our relationships with others, the two tables, you can see, correspond with the two components of Jesus' great commandment. (The verbiage of which come from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, by the way.)

Love, in the Biblical understanding of the term, has a lot in common with what we mean today when we talk about justice. For the Biblical writers, love has little to do with what we feel and a lot with what we do. Love, from the standpoint of God's Word, relates to the way we live out our relationships with others. Specifically, it has to do with whether they're marked by a commitment to do for others what we would like others to do for us.

In addition to not seeing love as primarily an emotion, contrary to our usual contemporary view, the Biblical writers would also be uncomfortable with our post-Enlightenment notions of justice, which are rooted in ideas about rights and entitlements. They would prefer to speak of the mutual responsibilities each of us have to share the undeserved blessings of God with others and to treat others with respect.

In fact, at the outset of Paul's famous commendation of servanthood rooted in the example of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:4-11), he encourages believers by saying, "let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

Christians are called to do this and empowered by God's Holy Spirit to do this, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Gratitude for God's grace and a commitment to love others as Christ has loved us is at the center of the Christian value system, no matter how our lives may be going at a particular time. Through Jesus Christ, Christians live in the confidence that they have a place in eternity. We have the assurance that a God Who, when He came to earth, didn't shirk the cross and then rose from death to give us life, will always be by our sides (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 8:31-39; Acts 2).

The reality of God's grace operating in the lives of people who follow Christ is an objective truth, irrespective of the circumstances of our lives. It's a solid foundation that frees Christians to risk loving their neighbor. In practical terms, that means enacting God's love and justice in the ways in which we live, vote, buy and sell, trade, hire and fire, and so on. In elective political terms, it means that Christians should vote less on the bases of self-interest and more on the bases of the interests of our neighbors, far and near.

Of course, no Christian ever embodies love of neighbor completely in his or her life. The siren call of inborn sin keeps on wailing in even the most saintly of Christians. (see here) The awareness that every Christian has that she or he is a sinner saved from death because of the gracious intervention of Christ on their behalf only gives us added incentive to love our neighbor and to press for justice. Saved by grace, we express our gratitude by loving others. (See here, here, and here)

The Old Testament prophet says that God finds worship which is composed of words alone tiresome. He wants people to worship Him also by the way in which they love their neighbors:
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.(Amos 5:23-24)
So, what is Biblical justice? Father Walter Burghardt, a venerable Roman Catholic priest whose ministry has centered on justice for decades, is helpful on this point:
...the philosopher can tell you what his mistress, naked reason, demands: Give to each what is due to each, what each can claim as a human right. The jurist can tell you what his blindfolded Lady Justice demands: impartiality, no favoritism, simply the law on the books. Neither--neither philosopher nor jurist--can command that we love. Only God can demand love. Only the Jesus of Bethlehem's cave and Calvary's cross can demand that we love as he loved. Such is the justice that rises above the ethical and the legal, the justice that is divine, the justice of God.
Christians may not demand that a pluralistic society see things their ways. But as they live their everyday lives, including the responsible exercise of their vote, they can and should make Biblical justice, loving neighbors in substantive, unsentimental ways, should be a major consideration. (See here.)

[In the next installment, which I hope to post on Monday, I'll delve into a Christian perspective on how campaigns are waged.]

1 comment:

Grizzly said...

I've been following your comments on the presidential elections and wonder if you can comment on something that I've been considering for several years.

The US was formed by men who believed that sovereignty rested with the people. I am 1/300 millionth king of the US.

As a Christian I certainty have responsibilities but as a sovereign don't I have even more?