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Posts Tagged ‘justice’

A Challenging Peace

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

The season of Christmas is identified as one of peace. Unfortunately, our world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is violence across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named the Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with Jesus’ own words in Matthew? I believe the answer is in our understanding of peace and what it requires. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace – a non-violent peace built upon justice that we seldom see modeled or taught.

In war, “peace” comes when one side is beaten into submission and reluctantly surrenders to the other as a last resort. In business dealings between competitors, “peace” sometimes comes through acquisition, often as a hostile takeover. Peace gained by force is not peace, but only a delay in the conflict. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, when your only tools are knifes and forks, you have to cut something. In other words, when getting our way by force is the only way we know, the violence cannot end. The only peace we know is but a temporary reprieve, as the defeated attempt to rebuild themselves to a level of strength sufficient to strike back at their oppressors.

A lasting peace comes by willing surrender and carefully crafted consensus, and the peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Christ. The consensus required is one that respects, values, and includes all of creation in all of its wonderful diversity. It strives for unity of being, not uniformity. When all are recognized as being created in the image of God, none can be left behind or excluded. When we consciously submit to the higher knowledge and power of God, we willingly take our place as equals with our brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no longer a need for anyone to forcibly take, nor withhold, anything from anyone else. We understand our blessings are not ours to hoard; rather, our blessings are gifts from God and are multiplied in their sharing (see John 6:1-14). We live in an abundant universe, and there is plenty for everyone when no one stockpiles beyond their need.

In Matthew 10, Jesus uses the language of violence to clarify his purpose, saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. The context of the verse and the entire life of Jesus, however, indicate no violent intention on his part. Jesus’ words are a call to war, but to a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. These are the underlying causes of violence in our world. We have the capability to eliminate much of what keeps large swaths of humanity in bondage and desperate need. Do we have the will to do so, however? The perpetual habit of reacting to the violence instead of identifying and resolving the underlying causes gets in our way. I think it is to us – those with more than enough – that Jesus points his sword. Until we commit to eliminating the sources of violence, there can be no peace. True peace cannot come to any until it comes to all. And peace cannot come to all until everyone has their most basic needs met. Unless we follow Jesus’ command to love one another our reality will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

We cannot attain peace by physical or emotional violence, nor is peace possible in the absence of justice. There can be no peace until everyone has adequate shelter, enough to eat, and recognition as a child of God. This is the different sort of peace of which Jesus speaks. We wonder why others attack us, steal and beg from us, and in our wondering we answer our own question. We are why there is no peace on earth. Serendipitously, we hold the key to attaining peace on earth, uncomfortable and challenging though it may be.

 

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 34: Mercy Trumps Justice

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

If a starving person is offered a meal or a job, and they can only choose one, which will he or she accept? Would we judge them as lazy if they took the meal over the job? Would we judge them as less hungry than they claimed if they took the job? My guess is that a truly hungry person would always choose the meal – not because they are lazy and do not want a job, but because they are hungry, and satisfying their hunger is their most immediate need.

In this example, providing a meal is an act of mercy; providing a job is an act of justice. Mercy addresses an immediate physical, emotional, or spiritual need, where justice works toward a longer-term solution to the need. The cruelty of this example, and all too common in reality, is that a person in need is forced to choose between two important blessings, both of which are necessary. The challenge for us as individuals and as a society is how best to provide both. Time management professionals suggest separating our daily tasks into those that are important and those that are urgent. Urgent tasks must be done first because they are, well, urgent. Important tasks must be completed, but not necessarily today. Important tasks that are not addressed within a reasonable time, however, become urgent. It is easy for us to become so consumed with urgent tasks, including those that are not important, that we leave insufficient time for the important but non-urgent issues. In this time management context, mercy is urgent and justice is important.

In his bestselling and insightful book, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes, “There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy…The main message of Jesus, I believe, is that mercy trumps justice every time” (p. 171). When there is an urgent need, mercy is required. For this reason, we quickly send many resources to the sites of natural and man-made disasters. Although mercy may trump justice in the immediate future, justice cannot be ignored if one is to be freed from the ongoing need for mercy. This is our dilemma in helping the needy. There are many immediate needs for mercy: food, clothing, and shelter; but there are equally important needs for justice: good jobs, quality healthcare, affordable housing, accessible childcare, and legal protection from discrimination. Of course, works of mercy and justice both require funding, and those funds are increasingly difficult to generate.

Jesus recognized that mercy comes first. A hungry crowd cannot hear even the most brilliant sermon, so he made sure his followers had something to eat in addition to something to learn. We can model Jesus’ example. When a person is not receiving a blessing we are trying to impart, perhaps we should ask what is standing between him or her and the blessing. Are they hungry? Are they addicted to something that draws their attention away? Are they safe? Are they in physical or emotional distress? It is possible for our best, most sincere efforts at establishing justice to fail when we do not first recognize and attend to the more immediate needs for mercy. Likewise, it is possible for our lack of focus on justice to result in our resources being consumed by a never-ending cycle of need for mercy. There is a delicate balance to establish between the two. Our challenge is to find that balance, beginning with mercy.

Mercy trumps justice. How did I miss that?

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Weightier Matters

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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Life Notes

A Reverse Mission

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.” He refers to the common realization that those whom we believe need our help – our mission field – often have more to offer us than we have for them. Nouwen continues, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.”

I first heard about reverse missions on a mission trip to Honduras. While my church sends mission teams to Central America every year, I was surprised to learn that Central American churches send missionary teams to the United States, too. This was an easier idea to process once I spent time with some of the people of Honduras. Were they poor? Certainly. Did they lack some fundamental needs like clean water? Yes, they did. Did I return home feeling I had done God’s work in Honduras? No, I did not. I came home feeling like God’s work had been done to me in Honduras.

When we feed the hungry or house the homeless, we perform acts of mercy – meeting a need that another cannot meet on his or her own. Jesus says those who are merciful – those who give mercy – will receive mercy. This is exactly what Nouwen writes. And it fits perfectly with what I experienced in Honduras. What I gave, what I accomplished on behalf of those I went to serve paled in comparison to what I received. My first hint of a reverse mission occurred at the church services I attended the day after I arrived. There was energy and joy beyond anything I had experienced in church before. Congregants praised God with abandon, and reached out in loving fellowship to others (including our mission team) as if we were long-lost members of their own family. I was perplexed that people lacking in so many basic necessities could be filled with such joy. But they were.

I went to Honduras on a mission – to give some of what I have in the United States to the people of Honduras. I left Honduras with the knowledge that much of what we value in the United States is of little or no lasting value, and much more valued here than it should be. We are distracted from our true blessings of love, relationship, and fellowship, by the sheer abundance of our dominating distractions, like perpetual internet access and cell reception. Our relationships become shallow and impersonal. Deep, loving, and healing connections happen face-to-face, not text-to-text.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing; be blessed.

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Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

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Life Notes

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 1

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21

As I prepared for my recent mission trip to Honduras, I checked the State Department’s website for information. There were 3 countries with travel warnings for U.S. citizens: Chad, Syria, and Honduras. Robbery, kidnapping, and murder rates of U.S. citizens are particularly high in those countries. I had not thought of Honduras as a particularly violent country, but there were hints of the violence visible immediately on our arrival. There were armed guards at the airport – military personnel grouped in twos or threes, all carrying machine guns, patrolling the corridors. In addition, most housing and business areas looked like fortresses. Concrete walls, razor wire, barbed wire, and electric wire surrounded most of the homes and housing areas we saw. Doors were metal and windows barred. Many businesses had armed guards standing at the door. As we drove to and from a church service on Sunday, we were warned to keep the tinted windows of our van closed so locals could not see the van was full of white people. Beggars and panhandlers populated worksitethe street corners, walking into traffic seeking money. The church where we worked during the week was locked down tight, and at least one worker (and two dogs) were there 24/7 to discourage looting of the tools. You get the picture – crime is rampant, and the measures taken to keep violence out also kept people like me locked inside. Honestly, one of my initial thoughts was whether I was being protected from the people of Honduras, or if they were being protected from me. Perhaps the truth was some combination of both, and I found that sad.

The parts of Honduras I became most familiar with – the work site and the mission house – were hardly filled with anything likely to be stolen in the United States. They were, however, valuable in Honduras – basic as they were by our standards. For a hungry person with few options, even a worn-out shovel could be traded for a meal. Our landfills are full of items that would have much utility in third-world countries. No doubt, many U.S. families throw out more food in a week than some Honduran families consume.

The poverty I witnessed in Honduras led to various types of desperation. People went to great lengths to protect what little they possessed. Large numbers of people sought tips for providing various unsolicited “services” – pumping gas, carrying luggage, helping guide cars into parking spots, selling cookies or pirated CDs at restaurants. What I witnessed was the desperation of poverty, and it was a side of humanity largely foreign to me, at least to this degree. I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” I think I observed the conditions that breed criminals and terrorists. I witnessed hard realities in one small area of one small, third-world country among the dozens that populate so much of our planet. I do not know the solution to poverty or the desperation it brings. I only know that having witnessed it, I can no longer not see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Pray for those caught in the desperation of poverty.

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A Disturbing Intruder

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  –James 2:14-17

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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