Tag Archives: social justice

stuck between gospel escapism and humanistic justice

pictures-of-crosses-jesus

in the wake of our election season, american christianity is being revealed for what it is, for better or worse.   

i am finding in myself, and in our faith communities, two tendencies that are overly represented and NEITHER of which i feel are true representations of our hope for how we ought to live in God according to the full counsel of scripture (as opposed to picking and choosing what we like).  this goes beyond the labels of conservative/liberal and republican/democrat.   

church family, please hear me out.  i’m not saying i have all the answers.  i do know that i am troubled by our division (and even the attitudes and anger rising up in me) – how we’re treating one another, let alone people outside the church – and i don’t think i’m alone in this.  we do ourselves, our witness, and ultimately the desire of Jesus no good by being so entrenched in our divisions.  Jesus knows, some hills are worth dying on…and some are not.  let us make every effort at peace.  i want to start by addressing our two root tendencies or the opposing sides that we often find ourselves in.  then i would like to propose a way forward that overlaps the strengths of both sides.  let’s not be so quick to point out the speck in our siblings eye and miss the log that may be in ours.  let us be the first to admit where we fall short before we insist on change from the other.     

1) on one hand i see the tendency of gospel escapism (in me and the church in general).

what i mean by gospel escapism is…

a faith that focuses on loving God at the expense of loving our neighbors where they’re at (not expecting them to have it together before we love them).  a belief in the good news of God that neglects the engagement of this world, where this good news of God unfolds (the gospel is not just that he forgiveness us but that he unites himself with us to walk in this world). a theology that accepts salvation now but waits for the kingdom of God later and somewhere else (otherwise we fall prey to the lawlessness that we can go on sinning so that grace abounds all the more….we need to remember Jesus tells us to daily pray for His kingdom to come HERE on earth).   a Jesus without justice (a pursuit of a Jesus that is sterilized from his cries for justice).

2) on the other hand i see the tendency of humanistic justice (in me and the church in general)

what i mean by humanistic justice is…

a faith that focuses on loving our neighbors at the expense of loving God directly (the one who is our daily source of life).  a belief in humanity that neglects the engagement of the God of humanity on His terms (He does have standards that we must not compromise to the world and will make us quite unpopular).  a theology that accepts the kingdom of God as expanding now but waits to work out salvation later (not only does this lead to burnout but puts us in danger of being legalists of a different kind).  a justice without Jesus – a pursuit of justice that is fine to use Jesus as a rallying point but that asks him step aside when it’s time to do the work (yes, Jesus is for the marginalized but it is not at the expense of his reign nor his spiritual power).   

church family, my dear brothers and sisters whom Jesus has died for, i long to see a third way of Gospel Justice.  

what i mean by gospel justice is…

a gospel that has it’s face turned to God but feet planted on the ground.  a gospel that doesn’t forget Jesus’ inaugural address was good news for the poor, prisoner, blind, and oppressed.

a faith that is informed by the epistles AND the gospels.  Truth AND Grace.  conviction AND compassion.  a Jesus that will call out sin but sups with sinners.  orthodoxy AND orthopraxy.  conversion AND discipleship.  justification AND sanctification (Romans 1-5 AND Romans 6-16).  loving God AND loving our neighbor.  that we are not saved by good works but rather we are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-9 AND 10).   

 

let us not be gospel escapists who throw in the towel, disengaging from spheres outside of our own and policy that affects our most vulnerable neighbors from the womb to the tomb.  let us not be humanistic justice seekers who put our ultimate faith in human systems of governance, as if there is no God sovereign over all and whose kingdom is the only one that will stand.  

will you join me in seeking His Kingdom and His Righteousness to break through here on this earth, not our kingdoms and our righteousness?   

what is biblical justice (and why does it even matter)?

for most of my life when I heard the word “justice” i thought of people getting what they deserved…and by that I mean punishment. and what did justice have to do with social justice? at best my understanding was fuzy and at worst they were on completely different planes. i suspect i’m not the only one. in so much of popular media and movies when a protagonist metes out “justice” it usually means some shady villainous character is in for some pummeling.

but is that the flavor of the word in God’s mouth? is that what the bible has to say about justice? and why does it matter?

let’s ACTUALLY take a look at what the bible has to say about justice.

FIRST, let’s see how much the word actually comes up and presumably how important the subject is to God:

in the old testament* (*i refer to the hebrew bible or the protestant old testament, as other groups add texts that are not in the canon of either traditions)

  • in hebrew (the original language of the old testament) the word that is translated in English as justice is the word: “mishpat
  • the word mishpat is used 426 times (according to the hebrew concordance of the nasb translation) in 403 verses.
  • the word for love (as in the word used concerning how abraham loved his son Isaac, how Isaac loved rebekah, how we are commanded to love the Lord your God from deut 6:5) used in hebrew is “ahab
  • the word ahab is used 220 times in 202 verses

the word “justice” is used about twice as much as the word love.

in the new testament

  • in greek (the original language of the new testament) the word that is translated in English as justice is the world: “krisis” (we know this is the equivalent word for the hebrew word mishpat as krisis is used in the greek when matthew quotes from the old testament book of isaiah 42:3)
  • the word krisis is used 47 times in 46 verses
  • the word for cross (you know, what Jesus was hung on to die slowly of suffocation) used in greek is “stauros
  • the word stauros is used 27 times in 27 verses

the word justice is used nearly twice as much as the word for the cross (what christians use as a symbol to identify their faith).

needless to say, even from a cursory reading of bible, it is fair to say that justice is a big deal to God.

in fact, the prophet micah sums up a God honoring life in this oft quoted verse:

“he has told you, o man, 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

how then do we “do justice”?  what is justice in the eyes of God?

NOW THEN, let’s look again to the scripture to see how the word justice is used:

in the old testament

often times the word “mishpat” is translated in english as other words such as “judgment”, “manner”, “right”, “cause”, or “ordinance.”   if we look at just the words that are translated as the english word “justice”, what was most shocking to me was how it was actually used and to whom it was most often applied. the word is not used, mainly, toward sinister abusive people…it is used more for the most needy and vulnerable in society (just for starters see exodus 23:6, deuteronomy 10:18, psalm 82:3, ecclesiastes 5:8, isaiah 1:17. there are so many more…if you don’t believe me do a word search on justice in any bible app/website and actually read the verses in context)

wait…so we’re supposed to punish the needy, the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, the widow (which it seems is the tact that too many are actually taking in america)?

NO! it is the definition of justice as mainly having to do with punishment that is not reliable. let’s take a closer look at a passage that talks about what God means by justice in more depth.

27 “‘Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit;
therefore they have become great and rich;
28 they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bounds in deeds of evil;
they judge not with justice
the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

29 Shall I not punish them for these things?’ declares the Lord,
‘and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?’”

– jeremiah 5:27-29

in verse 28 justice is equated with making the cause of the fatherless prosper and defending the rights of the needy.

yes, those who do not do that, especially those who maintain power by neglecting those in need, will be punished. But justice is not just punishment of evil (which, in context, is neglecting those in need) but it is the doing of good (acting on the interest of those in need). we tend to focus on the former and neglect the latter.

in fact, whenever the word justice is used in the old testament, more often in the same breath it is linked to caring for and acting on the interest of those in need.

in the new testament

speaking of former and latter things, we see this same vein of the usage of the word justice carry into the new testament as even Jesus weighs in on the issue of justice in case it wasn’t clear.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

– matthew 23:23

in this passage Jesus underscores the importance of justice. he even ties justice together with mercy and faithfulness (and in the parallel passage of luke 11:42, to the love of God). the luke 11 passage calls to mind the greatest commandment which are to love God and to love others. justice, then, is paralleled with loving of others.

the reason why the term “social justice” is not used in the bible is because, to God, justice and social justice are inextricably linked.

 

IN SUMMARY then, what is biblical justice and why does it matter?

Q: what is biblical justice?

A: biblical justice ≠ mere punishment

biblical justice = social justice = taking action to uplift those in need

Q: why does biblical justice matter?

A: it is the weight of the heart of God, so heavy that it encompasses love and takes Him to death on a cross

or to put it differently

The exercise of justice is joy for the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity.

– proverbs 21:15

So are we living justly?

to my dear 24-year-old david (from 36-year-old david),

i know you’re in the midst of the hardest year of your life thus far.  it’s your first year of teaching…in the hood of south los angeles.  you probably don’t have much time to spare, so let’s just get right down to it.  

none of your friends or family, well meaning as they are, understand what you’re experiencing right now.  i do. because i’m you 12 years later.  your world is being turned upside down.  you’ve come from a quiet asian american middle class life.  and let’s be honest, nothing has really prepared you for this.  you are experiencing the brokenness of what poverty does to young hearts and minds on a daily basis; poverty that you didn’t even acknowledge existed right in your backyard.  you can’t escape it because it’s your job to face it and try to teach in the midst of it every day.  you are being smacked in the face with the reality that public education in the u.s. is neither equal nor fair…and most of society has turned it’s back on this corner of l.a. because it’s easier to ignore than to deal with.  you’ve never seen this sort of institutionalized dysfunction.  you’ve never experienced so much hate thrown at you.  you’ve never had to work to the point of exhaustion…not just physically but emotionally.

press in.

don’t escape.  i know it’s hard.  i know it’s hell.  but don’t give up.  these very years will be what builds in you a character of perseverance.  these very youth will be the ones that break your heart in the best kind of way to get you to really consider what matters to the heart of God.  but most of all these very experiences will be what opens your eyes to the fact that you desperately need God every day.    

press in.

yes, some of these students will ignore you, some of them will curse at you, some of them will even push you. consider that it’s not so much that they hate you personally but that they will project upon you all the pain and confusion they have experienced at the hands of adults that were supposed to care for them.  if you are going to follow your role model, Jesus, remember He loved those that didn’t love Him back well…and remember that is you, that is us.  

press in.

yes, i know you’re lonely and REALLY wish you had a girlfriend.  but think about it, is that really going to solve your problems?  if anything you’re either gonna escape HARD into this girl or you’re gonna treat her like crap because you’ve got nothing left to give or both.  no woman, no matter how awesome, is going to be in the classroom with you and give you what you need to stand in love and power in the midst of this.  only an infinite God can do that.  yes, a girlfriend’s nice (and yes she will come to you and you’ll marry her and she’ll be pretty rad) but now is not the time…there’s some inner growth in your relationship with Jesus that needs to happen before that or else you’re gonna wreck two people in the process.  and Lord knows we don’t need any more brokenness.

press in.

the work you’re doing now will prepare you for the work i’m doing now (aka the work you will be doing in the future).  this work you’re in now is going to lay the groundwork for and open doors that you’ve never even considered of God’s vision for justice; it will help you see the Word of God in a whole new light…even if i tried to explain it to you now i don’t think you’d understand or appreciate it without what you’re going to experience in the next couple of years.  with that said, i think there are a couple of things you could understand at this time.  

1) david, if you’re serious about disciple-making and leadership development you can’t do it remotely.  at least not effectively. Jesus spent TIME with his disciples and you can’t expect to walk with those you are leading if you don’t even live in the same neighborhood with them.  and that’s how leaders are developed…not just through teaching…it’s through living.  

2) lastly, you need a mentor if you’re going to mentor.  not just a mentor that reflects your experience.  have some humility to recognize you don’t know it all and you can’t do it by yourself.  you need a mentor who has experience loving and walking amongst the least of these, because that’s where you will find Jesus (Matthew 25:40).  sadly, there aren’t that many asian american men that are doing this work, so it’s not like you have a lot of choice…you’re gonna have to be mentored cross-race.  it’ll be awkward at first but don’t let your pride get in the way of your growth to learn from someone different than you.          

press in.  because Jesus did for you.  

where my wife and i will be for the next two years (or more)…

So, I have been working in the inner city of LA for 8 years now, as a high school teacher. What has brought me here and kept me here for this long is the conviction to serve the under-served in life – that there are unjust things in this world and as far as I am given the grace to do so, it is my duty as a human being to do something about that. It has been quite a journey…it has not been easy. In fact it has been consuming.

Nevertheless, especially this year, I have felt the limits of my work. There are still too many students who are fighting me and cursing me out as I try to help them in the classroom. I have talked with my co-workers about it too. We are pouring out so much of our time and lives, but are we really making a difference…an impact in the inner city? Of course people can say we are doing something (my school has undergone major transformation and has made great gains in test scores) and that the fruit of a teacher’s work is not seen until years later. But we are still so far behind. We are still losing students to the cycle of despair, drugs, violence, and the life of the streets.  Our young dads are still making children and leaving them unfathered. Our young students are still getting in trouble with the law. Our students’ families are still experiencing such brokenness and instabilty. I feel like we’re just putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Our young students need so much more. I want to do more. Yet, I still live in a different community and I still go to church in yet another community. About two years ago I also got married.  I want to start a family…which will have its own set of needs.

With all this brewing in my mind and heart I was seeking out something different, I just didn’t know what. Then a friend of ours studying educational leadership laid out a crazy idea: for inner-city schools to be changed, the middle class needs to move back into the inner city (not to gentrify but to share resources).  Sounded good…but insane. Would we send our own children to an inner-city school?  What is most important?  We started sharing this idea to our other friends.  It got us thinking.

Before we knew it, we were actually considering it, and praying about it. But we felt alone…and totally unprepared. Around February a friend of ours, who knew we were interested in urban service, invited us out to spot in LA’s Eastside where some one would be sharing about the work that he was a part of in that community.

We went. We saw. We heard. There was a team of people living, working, and serving…all in the same neighborhood. People in the community were being empowered and stepping up to make a difference…in ways that were not someone else’s agenda but were their very own convictions. Everything we were talking about was coming together right in front of us.

Now several months later, we have already found a new place to live in this community, we have let our church know that we are moving to a different church in this community, I have already put in my notice that I will not be returning next year to my school, and must now look for a new job near this community.

Here’s where we’re headed and why:

WHAT: I will begin a two-year unpaid internship which will basically be like a 2 year mission trip where my wife and I will have jobs in the community. The internship starts with a 3 week trip to an urban slum in the Philippines.

WHO: Servant Partners – a mission ministry with a focus on the urban poor of the world

WHERE: Lincoln Heights, in LA’s Eastside

– near where the 10 and 5 freeways meet, right behind the LA County / USC hospital

– it is among the lowest in median household incomes in LA city and county ($31,000)

– it is among the lowest in % of residents with a 4 yr degree in LA city and county (6%)

HOW:

1) we will be living in Lincoln Heights, with a team of at least 3 other interns

2) we will be attending a church in Lincoln Heights (a church plant of Servant Partners and Epicentre Pasadena called Epicentre Community Church *New Life Community Church as of fall of 2014)

3) we will be working in LA’s Eastside  (my wife will continue to work at Cal State LA as a professor / I need to find a job, one with a little less hours <would appreciate prayers, in this regard especially>, as I will also be taking classes twice a week to learn about urban poor ministry)

WHEN: Starting August 19th, 2011 (Philippines from 8/24-9/12) to Summer 2013

WHY (for the 2 years): We are hoping through this process, amongst many things, to

a) see if urban poor ministry is something for us

b) see if full time ministry is something for me

WHY (what God has been laying on our hearts through His Word):

1) Christ has led us to love the city: Loving Los Angeles (Jer 29:4-7)

2) Christ has led us to care for those in need: Social Justice (Isaiah 58, James 2:5-8)

3) Christ has led us to share our lives: Incarnation for understanding and discipleship (Heb 13:11-14)

HOW WE CAN PARTNER TOGETHER:

– my wife and I need to raise about $5600 (for the 3 week mission trip to the Philippines for my wife and I, as well as for my ministry education for the next 2 years)

if you’re led to give financially please make checks payable to “Servant Partners” with “Intern: Kitani” written in the memo line and send the check to: Servant Partners P.O. Box 3144, Pomona, CA 91769

– We need your prayers!! Also let us know how to pray for you!!

– Let’s keep in touch (updates, encouragements, and prayer requests)!

Email: dkitani at gmail dot com

Blog: (subscribe to this one!)

*updated 16.12.07