Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Social Justice Tradition – 4 of 6

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream” –Amos 5:24 (NASB)

When this verse above is quoted we immediately think of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. His spine-tingling speeches and landmark action that sparked the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s were synonymous with the Social Justice tradition of compassion.

Indeed, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are modern examples too of the First Century deacons of Acts 6 convention, being “full of the Spirit and wisdom,” who were charged with the oversight of food distribution and the rights of widows, among other things.

No book of the Bible is more complete regarding this tradition than Amos, with the possible exception of the Gospel according to Luke. Living in the desert, the Israelites knew the preciousness of a streaming wadi. Justice rolling like a freshly fed wadi would’ve been a vivid image for the Israelites to fix their focus upon. Unfortunately, Amos’ message is no more popular today than it was for the original hearers.[1]

The Compassionate Life picks up on three great Hebrew concepts: Mishpat (justice); Hesed (steadfast love); and Shalom (peace). Mishpat is even more expansive than legal justice, travels into and envelopes moral justice too. It’s the life of actually doing the works that are discussed in the Bible, and not merely believing, in true James’ style.

Interestingly, this word also engages the “wisdom to bring equitable, harmonious relationships between people,”[2] and when Solomon prayed for wisdom in 1 Kings 3, God replied using this word linked with righteousness in granting his request--indeed, justice and righteousness are heavily linked together in the Bible.

Hesed reeks compassion as it is the ‘loving kindness’ of God himself that remains eternally i.e. it is with us always, “from everlasting to everlasting.” (Ps. 103:17) Graciousness, courtesy and compassion all partially alone, but collectively more fully, describe hesed.

“Harmonious unity in the natural order” describes Shalom. Harmony with God, our neighbours and nature in general, purposes a world where “peace and unity reign.”[3] Certainly Jeremiah lamented a lack of shalom--all was not well.[4] With shalom, all is well.

These three concepts meet in Psalm 85:10—“Mercy and loving-kindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Amplified version)

The great challenge today is to destroy structures that perpetuate poverty, whilst working hard to support “institutions that enhance art and beauty.”[5] These issues today are more numerously complex than ever, but we must not relent.

Embracing a social and cultural diversity that challenges our conceptions of belief is part of the tension involved in this tradition.

We are called to a life of social justice whether we like it or not. It celebrates a ‘perpetual Jubilee’ and the Beatitudes create a ‘Jubilee inversion’ where the Old Testament principle of Jubilee is overturned in favour of a way for even (and especially) the unblessed or ‘unblessable’ persons to enjoy peace with God.

The social justice tradition is about a “life committed to compassion and justice for all people.” It’s important because “through it God develops in us the compassion to love... freely,” and it’s where the values of justice and righteousness reign.[6]
[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (London, England: HarperCollinsReligious, 1998), p. 151. The author provides a relatively detailed commentary on Amos.
[2] Foster, Ibid, p. 167-68. God’s mishpat is for his people to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.” –Isaiah 58:7 (TNIV).
[3] Foster, Ibid, p. 171. The following passage out of Isaiah describes quite eloquently what Shalom (harmony in the natural order) is like: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” –Isaiah 11:6 (TNIV).
[4] Foster, Ibid, p. 172. See Jeremiah 6:14b.
[5] Foster, Ibid, p. 175. This is capturing the essence of the three word concepts, mishpat, hesed and shalom.
[6] Foster, Ibid, p. 182.

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