Everything will be Alright

This is Ann “Roughhouse Annie” Atwater’s backyard. She was a fierce and tireless civil rights leader and community organizer who worked for fair housing, desegregation, and equitable education in the Walton community of Durham NC. Her house was a “movement house.” Civil rights leaders traveling through gathered there to plan, practice, and rest.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Ann lately. I only spent a day with her (along with four others), but her presence shaped me in big ways. I have hours of recorded conversations dripping with faith and wisdom. 

In Ms. Ann’s most active years she was despised by White folks and questioned by moderate leaders in the Black community. White folks wanted her to stop while moderate Black leaders wanted her to keep the peace. The KKK couldn’t stand her and the moderates couldn’t stop her. 

Ms. Ann believed God knew better than everyone else. She figured since God made Black folks in His image too, He’d want them to be treated equal with White Christians. Her work was messy, dangerous, and disrupted Durham’s preferred way of life. She let go of comfort, safety, and reputation. She pressed on, following Jesus into loving her neighbors through the freedom struggle. 

She eventually befriended her enemy, the former Exalted Cyclops of the local KKK chapter, C.P. Ellis. Together they advocated for equitable education (watch the movie “Best of Enemies” or the documentary). C.P. came to be despised by many, especially White folks. 

When confronted and accused by local religious and political leaders Jesus reminded them that wisdom is vindicated by its deeds (Matthew 11:19). 

Here’s what we know now: Ms. Ann and her co-workers were right and everyone else was wrong. Durham’s fair housing policies and significant advances toward equitable education vindicate her wisdom. All the White neighbors that opposed her or told her to wait or choose a different way, were wrong. All the local Black leaders that told her to slow down and keep the peace were wrong wrong. Generations of children live different lives because Ms. Ann, C.P., and others carried on.

It brings me to this. What I hear from White folks today is the same rhetoric Ms. Ann put up with from White folks then. And what I read from folks like Candace Owens is the same rhetoric she dealt with from some of the local Black leaders then.

When will we learn?

Given all Ms. Ann lived through and the battles she fought, the greatest words she said she had to give was this: “You gotta be a disciple of Jesus and follow him. You gotta follow him, and everything will be alright.”

She was right.

Ann “Roughhouse Annie” Atwater, born July 1, 1935, and finally rested from all her labor on June 20, 2016, but the fruit of her labor still nourishes her neighbors.

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Words Have Limitations

In a society of words—social media, newscasts, news publications, the radio— words matter. In a faith steeped in words—the Scriptures, sermons, prayers, and songs—words matter.

But words have limitations.

Words can’t feed the hungry, only hands can do that. Words can’t offer a hope that sustains abandoned and lonely, only presence can do that. As powerful a force words may be, they bring lasting change only when they’re embodied.

Love has to look like something. To say I am a Christian is just words. Anyone can say that. To embody those words by how we love our neighbors, especially our vulnerable neighbors, well, that is something else all together. That is following Jesus.

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Justice in the Scriptures, Part 1 of 1,297

Just kidding. I will only write about 4-6 posts on this. Consider this an introduction we will revisit throughout the series.

The Poor/Needy, the Widow, the Foreigner, the Orphan/Fatherless in the Hebrew Tradition

Yahweh is very specific about the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and the orphan/fatherless. It isn’t because he values them more than others. It is because their state of being makes them the most vulnerable in their society. 

In ancient near eastern societies poverty happened for many reasons. One primary reason is that governing systems of a nation most often worked better for some groups of people than others. In many cases these systems could work against other people. This group of people were defined as those who were “made poor”.

Let’s talk about that language of “made poor” for a moment.

In the gospel accounts there are two greek words for the English word poor. There are the penés, understood as the person who serves their own needs with their own hands. It describes the working person, the peasants who have nothing to brag about as they are neither rich or landowners, but they are not destitute or excluded from the social order. Though they lived on the edge of existence and their status lowly, they still had status. But it is important to not that this isn’t the word Jesus chooses in His sermon in Luke 4:18-19. It is the ptóchos, which describes absolute and abject poverty. In Jesus’ world (the Mediterranean region) one’s status in society was not located solely in economic realities, but was dependent upon a number of conditions, including gender, education, family heritage, vocation, religious standing, economics and so on. This was a word reserved for those of nominal status and spoke to those excluded based upon the social categories of status and honor bound up in any number of conditions mentioned above, also known as structural and systemic realities.

Back to the prophets. Those “made poor” are vulnerable to the wealthy people of privilege and power. In Israel the powerful and privileged often exploited the poor. But they didn’t stop there.

Widows, orphans and foreigners were also vulnerable. The widow and orphan had no one to protect them, especially if they were female. The same is true of the foreigner who would be at a natural disadvantage due to ethnicity and pagan religious commitments.

Justice & Righteousness

In Hebrew Scripture the two words for justice and righteousness are often connected to these four specific groupings of people.

Mishpat is understood as justice in legal and governmental spheres of civic life, and is often translated “justice,” depending on the context of the Scripture. It is used in its various Hebrew forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. You can call this legal justice.

The other word is Tsedeqa, understood as justice in social and human-to-human spheres of civic life on social levels, dealing with how one treat his/her neighbor and fellow human. It is sometimes translated “justice,” but most often translated “righteousness,” which could literally be called social right-ness (justice), or doing right (justly) by your neighbor. It is used in its various forms over 399 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, it is overwhelmingly concentrated in the Torah in directing God’s people to do right by their fellow human (Genesis, 16 times; Deuteronomy, 18 times; Exodus 4 times; Leviticus 5 times). You can call this social justice (if you want people to throw stuff at you).

Mishpat and tsedeqa are paired together over 50 times, mostly in the ministry of the Hebrew prophets. God sent these prophets to be truth-tellers that would remind his people of what it means to faithfully love God and do right by one another, especially the vulnerable. 

The heart of God has not changed. We see it in the ministry of Jesus. We see it in the life and teachings of the apostles. We see it as a part of God’s summons for His Church, if we are to faithfully to participate in his redemptive work in the world by the Spirit.

So, the concept of social justice is as biblical as tsedeqa and mishpat. It is biblical because Jesus, when he is deemed King and Lord, has something to say about how his people live and interpret life in society as a colony of heaven in the midst of the nations. Or in Peter’s words, a “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” in Babylon.

Conclusion

When the Church fails to teach justice in accordance with the biblical tradition and settles for reacting/responding to party-political notions of justice, or when the Church declares a gospel that fails to speak to justice, let’s not be surprised when Christians fall for other definitions, understandings or theories of justice. Maybe this is why I am consistently hearing christians, pastors, and theologians going off on what they call ‘social justice,’ but doing so generally without dealing with the whole of the biblical tradition first. Instead, social justice becomes defined by or compared to ideological terms like Critical Race Theory or Marxism, or discussed primarily in terms of what has become party-political issues. Consequently, the biblical tradition becomes (unknowingly) a secondary source (I will attempt to speak to this in other posts).

In the meantime, if someone speaks out against social justice and fails to deal with justice in the Hebrew tradition or the Hebrew language house, please be discerning. Quoting the Christian Scriptures here and there, or even the Hebrew Scriptures here and there, isn’t sufficient. The entire biblical discourse needs to be considered. The Christian tradition holds that the Lord gave us one collection of books as a Sacred text. Let’s spend our lives well learning it and do our best to resist cherry-picking or proof-texting.

In the next post I will address the critiques of ‘social justice’ and touch on Critical Race Theory and Marxism, only because they use these theories as a basis for critique. But before I post it I need to move to an undisclosed location. 😉


Some resources that inform this post:

Social Critique by Israel’s Eighth-Century Prophets: Justice and Righteousness in Context by Hemchand Gossai

Wrestling with God and the World: The Struggle for Justice in the Biblical Tradition by Robert L. Foster

The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets Then and Now by Nahum Ward-Lev

In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible by Michael Walzer

Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament by Joseph Grassi

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Separation and Division, Part 2

Remember the moments when King Jesus uses strong words? They could be interpreted as lacking compassion, un-Christ-like (oddly), and perhaps even dehumanizing.

Jesus uses rhetoric like ‘white washed walls’ and ‘hypocrisy’ (Matt. 23:27-28), ‘children of snakes’ (Matt. 12:34; 23:33), and ‘you are of your father the devil’ (Jn. 8:44-47). He calls false prophets and false teachers ‘ravaging wolves’ in ‘sheep’s clothing’ (Matt. 7:15, 10:16). He warns that everyday worshippers that refuse to offer concrete expressions of care for the poor, imprisoned, stranger, and sick will be a community of ‘goats.’ And of course there’s everyone’s fav when he turns over the Temple tables of greed and power (Jn. 2:13-16). As far as I can tell Jesus speaks these words to either religious leaders, everyday worshippers or both.

Jesus eventually offers an invitation to repentance and forgiveness to those on the receiving end of these words. I am especially glad because I have been (and will be) on the receiving end! The hard truth is that the threads of faith sewn together with the reign of sin and death must be pulled. Words can do that. They disrupt and disorient, sometimes in candor, sometimes in hyperbole and satire (read some of Jesus’ words closely in addition to the Hebrew prophets). Words can also heal, but only after we are awakened to what is making us sick.

What I see in King Jesus is that love is not sentimentality. Love does what is right, not what is easy. It is a relational expression of truth, compassion, and justice modeled after the holy heart of the God who knows us best and loves us most. Love has to look and sound like something more than sentimentality, especially when it speaks to those standing in the majority or in the social center of influence and power. And not everyone will like it (Matt. 10:34-39, Jn. 6:60-64).

When we call for ‘compassion’ and ‘Christ-likeness,’ let’s remember the whole narrative of Scripture and deal honestly with the prophetic moments of Jesus’ priestly and kingly ministry. He can teach us how to hold the tension of the priestly and prophetic in place. I, like many of you, am still learning how. It’s the most compassionate, Christ-like, and truly human thing we can do.

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Separation and Division, Part 1

“Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge me before others, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever denies me before others, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven. 34 Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.35 For I came to turn

a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and a man’s enemies will be
the members of his household.[k]

37 The one who loves a father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; the one who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Anyone who finds his life will lose it, and anyone who loses his life because of me will find it.

Matthew 10:32-39

These are Jesus’ words as he prepares his disciples for heartache.

Any of us can baptize our beliefs in Christianity but it doesn’t make our beliefs “christian.” Eventually the life and teaching of Jesus will confront our beliefs. What is true and faithful will be separated from what is not.

Followers will begin separating from fans. Sheep will begin separating from goats.

Love for the vulnerable, powerless, weak, and marginalized will reveal what is true and become the basis of separation and division.

This is where prophetic speech comes in to boldly and disruptively invite us to awareness and repentance, where love must move from sentimentality and belief to truth-telling and action. This is how love becomes a form of power that can drive out fear. This is how we are liberated from the bonds of death and all our violent death-dealing ways. But division will come, and so will heartache.

(See Matthew 25:31-46, 1 John 4:7-21, Hebrews 2:14-15)

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