February 23, 2020: An unarmed 25-year-old man in Georgia ran past a house in the middle of the day, catching the attention of two men on the front porch. Suspecting he might be connected to local robberies, the men grabbed guns and chased the man down the road in their truck. Pulling ahead of him, the driver stopped the car, jumped out, and confronted him, shotgun in hand. Things escalated, and in moments the driver fired the gun twice into the runner’s chest at point-blank range. It took months and a national campaign on the part of the family’s lawyers before the shooters were arrested, despite the fact that police had a video of the incident and prosecutors knew the killers by name.
March 13, 2020: An unarmed 26-year-old woman in Kentucky lay sleeping in bed with her boyfriend, exhausted from working as an EMT. Around 2:00 a.m., police executed a no-knock warrant, breaking down the door with weapons drawn. Her boyfriend, startled by the sound, pulled a licensed handgun from his night stand and exchanged fire with the officers through a wall in the home, resulting in his death and that of the young woman. The warrant being executed was for a person who had been taken into custody across town shortly before the raid. Months passed before any substantive efforts were made to address this tragic loss of life or the police procedures that instigated it.
May 25, 2020,: A teenage store clerk in Minnesota called police, suspecting a customer had given him a counterfeit $20 bill. In response, officers detained the unarmed 47-year-old man, handcuffing and laying him face down in the street. With onlookers filming on cell phones, the arresting officer placed his knee on the back of his neck and held the man to the ground for nearly nine minutes. The man repeatedly begged to be let up, saying he could not breath and calling for his mother. He lost consciousness. When the paramedics arrived and the officer finally took his knee off of his neck, it was too late to save his life.
Senseless. Tragic. Horrific. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were all black Americans killed by white Americans. It is the latest chapter of a four hundred-plus-year history of slavery, oppression, discrimination, and injustice perpetrated against blacks in the United States by a government that claims the ideals of liberty and justice for all and a citizenship in which three out of four people claim to be Christian.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic and natural disasters, wars, political unrest, violence, disease, and dysfunction, the injustice highlighted in these three deaths has caught the attention of people around the US and the world protesting racism and police brutality. Yet many US American Christians turn away in disinterest and find a way to blame the victims for their oppressors’ crimes. The oppression and exploitation still at work in the world today — even among God’s people as we go about our religious rituals — are reminiscent of the dark days of the minor prophets. These men cried out against injustice in God’s name, and their cry is as relevant today as it ever was: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
In the deeply divided partisan politics of the US today, the word justice is often wielded as a weapon by Democrats and scoffed at by Republicans. Social justice is a banner under which liberals attempt to impose their own secular morality on American culture, while conservatives reject social justice even when it echoes the wisdom and words of God.
The word just and its cognates occur over five hundred times in English translations of the Bible in words as seemingly varied as justly, justice, and justification. But these words all have something central in common. In contrast to some modern concepts of justice and judgment relating to punishment for crimes, God’s vision of justice is far broader and deeper. Justice captures an entire vision of things being the way they ought to be: love, equality, community, and peace. The just word family expresses a concept in biblical thought that flows from the very heart and character of God.
God is a just God, holy, righteous, merciful, and loving. The opposite of these things, injustice, is the work of people who are unholy, unrighteous, unmerciful, and unloving. Before we imagine someone we believe meets this description, let us all pause and confess Romans 3:10-12:
“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”
Injustice covers the earth because people cover the earth. And injustice breaks the earth and all its peoples, creeping into every nation, city, community, home, and heart. Humanity is broken by injustice. It comes in many forms — too many to count. Oppression and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Hatred of the stranger and of the immigrant, the refugee, and the poor. Racism and pride, sloth and envy, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Anger and war; selfish ambition and greed; envy and inequality. Injustice is any form of unrighteousness — any way in which things are not as they ought to be in God’s eyes.
Isaiah 59 paints a bleak picture of injustice running rampant, but God does not leave us in despair with justice trampled underfoot. God’s final word to injustice in Isaiah 59 is
“A Redeemer will come to Zion, And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,” declares the Lord. “As for Me, this is My covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring’ . . . says the Lord, “from now and forever.”
God promised a Redeemer and a covenant that would restore His justice to the world, a Spirit that would come upon His people and words of righteousness that would be theirs forever. Centuries later, Jesus would stand up in a synagogue in Nazareth and announce His identity as this Redeemer with the words of another prophecy from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18, 19).
In the ministry and message of Jesus, this promise began to be fulfilled as He brought justice to the earth in the redemptive rule of His kingdom. Spirit-anointed preaching and practicing the good news brought hope to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, forgiveness to the sinful, life to the dead. Justice triumphed over injustice as the Prince of life died and rose from the grave, conquering sin, death, and every injustice caused by them. As promised in Isaiah 59 (and Joel 2), God then poured His Spirit out on the world, indwelling and empowering Jesus’ disciples to become His witnesses (Acts 1:1; 2:1-36).
Paul calls upon the Spirit-empowered witnesses of Jesus to be love-motivated ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). God has entrusted us with the message and the ministry of reconciliation. In a world broken by sin and death in all their forms, Christians are commissioned to speak the words and do the actions that bring reconciliation with God and with one another. Christians are justified by a God of justice and commanded to be people of justice. As Christians we say “Yes and amen,” but all too often we fail to embrace our identity and calling as messengers and ministers of reconciling justice.
Like God’s people of old, we too often take on the unjust words and works of our culture, and need to be reminded of God’s heart. Micah described it as doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (6:8). Jesus highlighted the same things as the weightiest matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). Both spoke to religious people who claimed God’s name but abandoned His heart.
Injustice covers the world today, but the injustice of racism is one that must be faced head-on by Christians who have all too often been complicit in it. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to white clergymen in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Today, if you’ll hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts. Don’t allow politics and pride and power and privilege to prevent you from doing justice as ambassadors for Christ, with a message and ministry of reconciliation. Be the heart and hands and holy voice of Christ in our world. Bring reconciliation to the brokenness of racism that holds tight in our nation, communities, churches, homes, and hearts.
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- Let Justice Roll - October 23, 2020