Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reflections on Urbana 2015 (Part 2: Ethical and Theological)

In my last post oUrbana 2015, I shared my personal and pastoral reflections on the messages and seminars I heard at the conference. Then as I started this post, I realized that I needed to preface my comments with a primer on the relationship between justice and missions (part 1 and part 2) otherwise whatever I say here will appear random. Now we are back full circle as I share some ethical and theological notes on #Urbana15 held in St. Louis this past December 27-January 1. 
In front of the America's Convention Center in St. Louis
where most of the Urbana 15 plenary sessions and seminars were held
    Ethically, there was much ado raised over InterVarsity's support of #blacklivesmatter at the Urbana 15 conference. Before I comment on the challenging messages by Michelle Higgins and Christena Cleveland, I simply want to say: how could InterVarsity not address #blacklivesmatter and especially in the context of what happened in the city of #Ferguson and the tragic death of 18-year-old #MichaelBrown? My son is 18... my heart just hurts for the family of Michael. Take a look at the map below.
Ferguson is only 12 1/2 miles away from where #Urbana15 was
meeting (a 20min drive)... how could IV not address #blacklivesmatter
when its missions conference was so nearby?!
Ferguson is located in the suburbs just 12 1/2 miles northwest of where Urbana15 was being held. It would have been apathetic at best (and hypocritical at worst) for InterVarsity to hold a missions conference in St. Louis and not address the mission and suffering that was taking place in its immediate vicinity. I would even say it was InterVarsity's moral imperative not to ignore what was happening in a locale only a 20-minute drive away.
     I simply want to say here: Thank you InterVarsity for your courage, moral resolve, and prophetic commitment to engage in missions, including justice for the marginalized and persecuted, not just in hard-t0-reach nations worldwide but also here within our own North American borders and local neighborhoods. If not addressed, InterVarsity would have been like the priest and Levite who walked passed their beaten brother in Jesus' famous parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Thank God they stopped and they challenged all of us to consider what we can do help our fallen neighbor. 
    Secondly, I wanted to name the evangelical angst around #blacklivesmatter, that is, "guilt by association." Since there are a diverse number of groups that participate in the #blacklivesmatter marches, sit-in's, and demonstrations, and some evangelicals are wary about being associated with the activities and message of said groups, there is a general reluctance by evangelicals to support and join in the protests. And while I understand the angst, I also think there is a lost opportunity. Let me illustrate.
   My son recently participated in the Polar Peace March on a very frigid Chicago day to protest the growing violence happening in our city. The march took place over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. According to Zach, there were so many diverse groups, and he doubts that anyone thinks each of them held the same belief system or shared the same identity. They were united around a common cause, but among them were concerned neighbors, mainline denominational churches (especially the UCC), some evangelical Christians like my son, community leaders, and even high schoolers who came just to get their community hours checked off their graduation requirements (not the best reason, but just being honest here).  
    People who attend protests often understand that their fellow participants come from all walks of life, and that we all do not necessarily share the same identity as those around us. It is the cause that is rallying us together. And if evangelical Christians in large enough numbers join African American churches who march to end urban violence, our participation can win us some influence with the organizers on how we want things done to keep the demonstration both peaceful and prophetic. Would we not want our presence to have a sanctifying effect on the movement? Don't we want to learn from our fellow participants and let God use them to bring us to a holy and sacred moment of repentance, transformation, and commitment?
   Again I understand the angst around not wanting the gospel message to be misrepresented, but if we stay on the sidelines, won't our inaction also misrepresent the gospel?
    Finally, I want to offer some challenges to both the listeners (including myself) and the speakers (also including myself, but I obviously did not speak at Urbana though often I preach or teach in varied settings). To the listeners first, I would plead: let's be thoughtful, compassionate, and self-critical when we hear something we don't like from whomever God has annointed at the time to speak, always ready to hear the message, and slow to fault the messenger for not saying things perfectly. God help us if every prophet or preacher of the gospel has to use perfect words of eloquence and wisdom instead of depending on the Spirit's power (1 Cor. 2:4). 
    Many people were offended by Michelle Higgin's apparent slight of the anti-abortion movement among evangelical Christians. I myself am against abortion and support the church's non-violent efforts to end its practice (barring exceptional circumstances). But the context of Michelle's remarks was her spirited challenge to evangelical Christianity that there are approximately 300,000 Protestant churches in the United States, and if just a third of these churches would adopt one of 100,000 children who are in foster homes, Christians could wipe out the need for a foster-care system altogether
    It is an understatement to say that this was a good word from Michelle. I think her point, but not articulated clearly in the cadence of her quick admonitions to the church, was that Christians ought to campaign for the lives of foster-care kids as much as they picket the abortion clinics. Let's do both. These are not competing missions. 
    It is therefore troubling for me to see how some listeners let one point (Michelle's criticism of anti-abortion activism), probably articulated too succinctly and therefore prone to misunderstanding, derail them from heeding an otherwise powerful message about ministering to those who are in our proverbial backyard, neighborhoods, and local communities. Call it an ethics of listening to God's word, but I never let the mistakes of the messenger stumble me from hearing the truth of the message. 
    But now to the speakers, and this is not exclusively directed to the speakers of Urbana15 but to anyone who identifies him or herself as an evangelical Christian and preaches on the pulpit, in the classroom, at a conference, or elsewhere. To them, I would also say: let's be careful to watch both our words and our theologyso we don't unnecessarily generate misunderstanding and leave ourselves vulnerable to the hurtful label "liberal." Okay. I admit I just opened a can of worms. Let me see if I can reel them in one by one with the next couple of paragraphs.
    Here, I will share anecdotally. When I was listening to Christena Cleveland talk about the study done by social psychologist Keith Payne, I lamented at hearing how Payne's experiment showed: black men are far more likely to be identified as holding a gun (even though they were actuallying carrying a tool) during a split-second decision because people are generally socially conditioned to think of African American men as "dangerous" in a North American context. I thought: Really? No way? That is unjust. I would hate living in a country where instinctively, just because I was Asian, people thought I was dangerous and assumed the worst of me.
     But as Christena continued and shared the message that the gospel means there is no longer 'us' and 'them' but just one family who does the will of God (Amen to that!), she also used the social trinity or the doctrine of perichoresis as a model for the unity of church. In my head, my mind was going: "yes! yes! yes!" and as soon as she mentioned the social trinity, I went "oooh... that's not going to sit well with some." 
     The social trinity - or pointing to the triune relationship of the Father, divine Son, and the Holy Spirit as a model for how the church can be united - is controversial to say the least. Many theologians in the Reformed tradition, for example, would argue against it and say that God is simply not One in the same way the members of the church can be one. To be honest, I would agree with the Reformed camp on this one, but that is a different story. My point would be that there are so many other biblical texts and doctrines on which a person could argue for the breaking down of barriers between people (e.g., Ephesians 2:14-16), why pick the doctrine that would push away many theologically-trained evangelical leaders who would see the social trinity as a red flag to... dare I say it... a "liberal" theology? 
    In one sense, this should not be an issue if the listener gave the speaker a greater charity. I, for example, thought: "Well, I'm not a fan of the social trinity, but I hear you Christena! Preach on! I'll just think about Galatians 3:28-29 instead of turning to the social trinity as the basis for being one within the church." But the reality is: evangelicals often shut out the message if they think the messenger is not orthodox or conservative enough. 
    As one who is academically trained, I get frustrated by this predilection to shut down and not give the speaker a greater benefit of the doubt. As a scholar of color, I get even more frustrated that orthodoxy is often defined by a Euro-American majority within evangelicalism. But I also feel the duty as a theological educator (still committed to American evangelicalism) not to let my frustration get the best of me
    I have to labor hard to create a safe space for those whose cultural location is different from mine so they can hear my story and consider my justice concerns. To do this, I have to anchor my message within an exegetical and theological framework appreciated by my dialogue partners. It's much work and call me naive, but I still believe that most God-fearing Christians, if they can see the biblical basis for taking action, they will. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Paul’s Theology on Justice, Righteousness and Reconciliation (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 2)

In my last post (Framing Justice Theologically), I posited the following thesis:

 “Justice–fairness, though important to God and to God’s people, is nevertheless incomplete. God’s justice is larger than simply fairness or equity. God’s justice is inseparable from his saving activity for a fallen world. In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation.”

Here in this post, I give the exegetical basis for making this claim.

Paul’s Theology on Justice, Righteousness and Reconciliation (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 2) *

            To a certain degree, the principle of justice as fairness (or “distributive justice” as some call it)1 is affirmed by both the Old and New Testaments. The psalmist, for example, recognizes God’s role as an impartial judge and executor of justice over the affairs of Israel when he says of God:

“Mighty king, lover of justice (םשׁפט mishpat), you have established equity, you have executed justice (םשׁפט mishpat) and righteousness (צדקה tsedeqah) in Jacob. Praise the Lord our God! Worship at his feet! Holy is he!” (Ps. 99:4-5; cf. Pss. 9:1–20; 89:5–14; 97:1–12; 103:6; Jer. 9:23–24).2 

Jim Bruckner has called God’s mishpat and tsedeqah a “ferocious justice” whose goal is restoration but nevertheless confronts the oppressor, the arrogant, and evil-doers with the demand of repentance.3
            Not only does God judge impartially, God expects his covenant people to act justly as well and be executors of his justice:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you? But to do justice (םשׁפט mishpat), and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!” (Micah 6:8; cf. Ps. 72:1–3; Jer. 22:3).4

[Hang onto your linguistic seatbelts, folks, we are about to go from 0 to 60 mph in one paragraph!]
            As we look at how the New Testament quotes Old Testament verses in Greek (e.g., Hab. 2:4 in Rom. 1:17), or how the Greek Septuagint translates Hebrew passages on justice such as Ps. 99:4–5 and Micah 6:8 above, we observe that the Hebrew word mishpat (sometimes translated as “justice” but more often meaning a strict “judgment” where each person is given his or her due) is precisely rendered in Greek as κρίμα krima or κρίσις krisis (that is, “judgment” as in legal proceedings). The term tsedeq (“righteousness” or “uprightness” that defends, rescues, and delivers both communities and individuals) or tsedeqah (“righteous act”) is translated as δικαιοσύνη dikaiosynē, that is, “righteousness” as in one’s intrinsic just character or how one relates rightly with others. But dikaiosynē is also used singly to translate both mishpat (“judging–justice”) and tsedeq (“restorative–righteousness”). In this case, δικαιοσύνη means mainly “righteousness,” or God’s saving righteousness but depending on the context can also denote distributive justice (see, e.g., Ps. 72:1–3; 98:1–3).5
            If you got lost in the above discussion, here’s a chart mapping simply (but not comprehensively) how some Hebrew words for justice and righteousness are translated into Greek by the Septuagint and New Testament:

Fig. 1: How the LXX and NT translates םשׁפט and צדק

Main Point: If the Old Testament concepts of mishpat and tsedeq bear any influence on the New Testament understanding of dikaiosynē (and the consensus is that they do!), then I argue here that dikaiosynē mainly means “righteousness,” or God’s saving righteousness but at times can be translated as distributive justice, or even denote righteousness with some sense of distributive justice subsumed within it (see, e.g., Ps. 72:1–3; 98:1–3 par. Rom. 1.16–17).6
            Paul can even set up both senses of dikaiosynē – i.e., God’s saving righteousness and God’s distributive justice – in tandem with each other in the same passage. Let’s look at Romans 3:21–26 as an example and observe that the same word dikaiosynē and its cognates have been translated more than one way (in bold):

But now the saving (cosmic) righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; or God’s saving activity), apart from the Torah, has been made known, to which the Torah and the Prophets testify. 22 that is, the righteousness that comes from God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified as a gift (δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν) by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as an atonement (ἱλαστήριον) through faith in his blood. He did this as a demonstration of his distributive justice (εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ) because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteous character (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ; that is, to be true to himself) at the present time, so as to be just (δίκαιον; in character) and the one who justifies (δικαιοῦντα; forensically and actually) those who have faith in Jesus.

In the passage quoted just above, Paul shares how the saving righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; the subjective genitive; v. 21)7 took a particular form: a righteousness that comes from God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ; the genitive of origin; v. 22) which can be received through faith in Christ. God could have meted out justice–fairness (δικαιοσύνη) with a vengeance for sins committed beforehand, but God chose not to (v. 25a)! Instead God demonstrated distributed justice (εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ; v. 25b) and just character (δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ / δίκαιον; v. 26) not by condemning sinners but by presenting Christ as an atoning sacrifice. He paved the way for sinful humanity to be declared justified and in right relations with himself (δικαιούμενοι / δικαιοῦντα; 3:24, 26).
            So here is the theological and exegetical punchline: Given Paul’s understanding of how distributive justice relates to the saving righteousness of God, what does Paul mean when he says that God did all of this (= presented Christ Jesus as an atonement) for one reason: that we might become the righteousness of God and preach the message of reconciliation? Here is the full text of 2 Corinthians 5:17-21:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new!
18 And all this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ (τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ διὰ Χριστοῦ) and who gave to us the ministry of reconciliation (καὶ δόντος ἡμῖν τὴν διακονίαν τῆς καταλλαγῆς)
19ab – that is (ὡς ὅτι), God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ), not reckoning their transgressions against them (μὴ λογιζόμενος αὐτοῖς τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν)
19c and [who] placed upon us the message of reconciliation (καὶ θέμενος ἐν ἡμῖν τὸν λόγον τῆς καταλλαγῆς).
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors (πρεσβεύομεν) for Christ, as though God was making his appeal through us (παρακαλοῦντος δι᾽ ἡμῶν). We beseech you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God! (δεόμεθα ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάγητε τῷ θεῷ)
21 He made the one who knew no sin to be sin for us (τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν) in order that we might become in him the righteousness of God (ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ).

The Greek words “reconcile” (καταλλάσσω) and “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή) find their historical context in the peace-treaty process whereby two parties, who are estranged from another because one has wronged the other, are attempting to re-establish diplomatic and personal relations.8  Whereas in Judaism, God is often described as being reconciled to Israel once he has vented his wrath,9 Paul, on the other hand, never claims that God reconciles himself to the sinner, but rather God reconciled us to himself (ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ; 5:18; cf. 5:19ab κόσμον ἑαυτῷ). In sending Christ “who knew no sin to be sin for us” (5:21), God took the initiative to provide atonement and forgiveness for the estranged sinner. Even though it was humanity who wronged God, not God who wronged humanity, through Christ’s death and resurrection God nevertheless opened the way for sinners to have renewed relations with him.
            So themes in Romans 3:21-26 (God demonstrating his justice by the atonement of Christ) are re-presented in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (God reconciling the world to himself by Christ becoming sin for us) but with an important advancement: the goal of this saving act in Christ is to make us the righteousness of God and to send us as ambassadors of Christ.
            The person who is a new creation in Christ, that is, the believer and the church corporate, becomes “the righteousness of God” (ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ). In other words, the righteousness of God is on display for the outside world to see through us, Christ’s ambassadors, as we participate in the ministry of reconciliation, suffer as Christ did, and appeal to sinners with the message of reconciliation: “Be reconciled to God” (5:20b).
            What is more, God’s modus operandi becomes the method of the church. How did God use distributive justice? To this end: that we might be justified before God (Rom 3) and become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17). In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation. Justice serves to make reconciliation complete. The former is the means to the latter as an end.
            What, then, are the ethical implications of Romans 3 and 2 Cor. 5 which define God’s sense of justice in the theological framework of justification and reconciliation? 
            First, we realize that justice–fairness, as important as it is, cannot become an end in itself. Acts of mercy, compassion and justice are only means to a greater work: the reconciliation of the sinner to God and sinners with one another. Therefore, the church participates in the task of justice out of compassion for those who are disenfranchised, but the community of faith does this so that eventually (and here wise discernment has its place) the powerless can feel safe enough to avail themselves of God’s grace. We model God’s compassion so they can feel unafraid of a God whom they might feel has abandoned them.
            In the previous post, I used Weborg’s example of how justice mutes the volume of suffering so the sinner can hear God’s call to reconciliation. So, justice, like evangelism and missions, are means by which human beings can encounter the risen Lord.
            Secondly, if justice as fairness is a subcomponent of the larger task of righteousness as reconciliation, then any brand of justice which hinders a person from becoming reconciled with God, even if that person is our enemy, is no longer truly just and righteous. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, thought that any violent act against a person was evil because violence closed more doors and created more barriers for wounded parties to renew broken relationships.11 If our so called “just” actions creates a situation where it is impossible for persons to heal, forgive, and receive forgiveness, then such actions must be suspended in the interim for the sake of the greater mission of seeing all human beings experience God’s reconciling grace.
            Thus Christians paradoxically have a two-fold ethic: we seek justice as fairness for others so that it creates a safe space for them to meet and be reconciled to God. At the same time, we are willing to suspend justice and vindication for ourselves so that the greater work of reconciling our enemies to Christ can become a reality.
            If it feels like burning the candle at both ends (justice for others, suspension of justice for myself) then yes, burn brightly. We are called to follow Jesus into those dark places where human dignity stands in jeopardy, sin rules, and misery is rampant. We are called to do what it takes to get even our enemies reconciled with God. Let Jesus the Light of the world shine through our ministry and message.

End Notes
* I felt it stylistically cumbersome to include the full and original notes to this article and therefore have reduced them to the bare essentials since the medium for this essay is no longer a published work but this blog. Still the notes are substantial as you see below.
1) Chris Marshall, The Little Book of Biblical Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005), 6–9.
2) Unless otherwise noted, all OT Scriptural quotations are from the NRSV with some slight modifications. I will offer my own English translation of the Greek text from the NT.
3) James Bruckner, “Justice in Scripture,” Ex Auditu 22 (2006), 22 [17–25].
4) For further discussion on the OT concept of distributive justice, see Bruckner, “Justice in Scripture,” 17–22; Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism (vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism; ed. by D.A. Carson, et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 415–442; Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology (vol. 1 of 2; trans. by Leo G. Perdue; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 171–94.
5) The definitions for the lexemes should not be surprising. Consult the standard lexicons (BDB, BDAG, LSJ or Louw-Nida) and dictionaries (TDOT, TDNT). But if you want something even more technical, I invite you to read my essays "Greek Words and Roman Meanings," parts 1-2 published in the Festschrift for Seyoon Kim.
6) In his discussion of Ps. 98:1-3 as an OT parallel to Rom. 1:16–17a, Laato, while arguing for the forensic character of δικ– word group, nevertheless acknowledges that “the concepts ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ overlap here. They are synonymous.” See Timo Laato, “‘God’s Righteousness’ – Once Again,” in The Nordic Paul: Finnish Approaches to Pauline Theology (ed. by Lars Aejmelaeus and Antti Mustakallio; LNTS 374; New York/London: T&T Clark, 2008), 47 [40–73].
7) By the subjective genitive, I am following more Käsemann’s reading of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ  as the saving activity of God as it relates to the entire creational order including humanity rather than the narrower reading by Wright as God’s covenantal activity; see respectively: Ernst semann, trans. by Wilfred F. Bunge, “God’s Righteousness in Paul,” in The Bultmann School of Biblical Interpretation: New Directions? (ed. by SaJames Robinson, et al.; Journal for Theology and Church 1; New York: Harper&Row, 1965), 100–10; N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 101-103. Some scholars like Moo in his NICNT commentary on Romans translate δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ as the possessive genitive (“God’s righteous character”) but for the purposes of this paper, it makes no real difference in the arguments I am making.
8) Disclaimer: New Testament scholars, since James Barr’s book The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), always get nervous about what Barr calls “illegitimate totality transfer.” I want to assure the reader that this is not what I am doing here. Given the possible options for how to translate dikaiosynē, in the entire discourse unit of Rom. 3:21-26, I have chosen what I think is the best in-context translation for each appearance of the word. I do make the distinction between word and concept, where the former cannot possibly encapsulate all of the latter. Instead, based on reading the entire discourse unit of Rom 3:21-26, I assert the following about Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness and justice.
8) On the linguistic background to the terms for reconciliation, see Seyoon Kim, “God Reconciled His Enemy to Himself: The Origin of Paul’s Concept of Reconciliation,” in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on his Life, Thought, and Ministry (ed. by R.N. Longenecker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 104-107 [102–24].
9) See 2 Maccabees 1:5; 5:20; 7:32–33; Philo, On the Life of Moses 2.166; Josephus, Antiquities 7.153. For further discussion of these texts, see Kim, “God Reconciled His Enemy to Himself,” 104–105.
10) For more on how justification frames distributive justice, or on how reconciliation structures justice–fairness, see George Hunsinger, “Justification and Justice: Toward an Evangelical Social Ethic,” in What Is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (ed. by M. Weinwich and J.P. Burgess; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 207–30; and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 193–231.
11) On the theology of the cross which drove the ethics of Martin Luther King Jr., see James McClendon, Biography as Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1974; repr. 1990), 50–59.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Framing Justice Theologically (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 1)

About half way into my ethical and theological reflections on Urbana 15, I realized that I needed to preface my response to the challenging messages by Michelle Higgins and Christena Cleveland and InterVarsity's courageous choice to address #blacklivesmatters at a mission conference attended by 16,000+ college students, pastoral leaders, missionaries, and staff, myself included. With all the discussion that is going on (see, for example, these editorials by Ed Stetzer and Sean Watkins, or click the #blacklivesmatter hashtag), I wanted to begin my reflections with a primer on the relationship between justice and missions.
King's "I have a dream speech" given in front of the Lincoln Memorial (1963)
Photo credit by Wikimedia Commons
   On this day commemorating the ministry and movement begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am posting part 1 of A Primer on Justice and Missions, then part 2 which gives the technical exegetical basis for what I say here, and then go back to my final post on Urbana 15. I do this because if I don't explain first where I think justice work fits in the mission of the church, especially within an American evangelical context (with which I do identify myself and to whom I am writing), I will just talk passed people rather than with them. At the very least, I hope that this post will help my seminary students to think theologically about the Evangelical Covenant Church's mission to do justice and evangelism hand-in-hand.

Framing Justice Theologically (A Primer on Justice and Missions, Part 1) *

            No doubt, from the birth of Christianity in the first century A.D. and throughout the centuries until today, the church has been engaged in acts of mercy and compassion to the disenfranchised. Because Jesus himself identifies with those who are suffering in this world (Matt. 25:34-40), those who follow Christ are called into conformity with his compassion. Karl Barth explains that “in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison... Jesus himself is waiting.” (Church Dogmatics III/2, 507-508 rev.).1 Jesus is waiting for his disciples to act and invites the church to join Him in his redemptive work for the lost and needy. The church is concerned for the powerless, because it is the powerless who especially represent the world for whom Christ died (Rom. 5:6-8).
            The early Christian church took up this mandate with such courage and conviction, that their acts of mercy began to shake the very fiber of the Roman Empire. When Roman officials in the second century complained that Christians “do not go to our shows,” nor “take part in our processions,” nor “are present at our public banquets,” and “shrink in horror from our sacred games” (Minucius Felix, Octavius 12),2 Tertullian gave the best rebuttal to this charge when he said that the church was too busy caring for people to waste time and money on the festivals. He states: “For they [the funds or resources of the church] are not taken and then spent on feasts, drinking binges, taverns or restaurants, but to support and bury the poor, to supply the needs of children destitute of means and parents and of the elderly confined to their homes... and [to do all such] deeds of love...” (Apology 39).3 From the community of faith in the first century (Acts 2:44–47; 6:1; 2 Cor. 8:3–9) and the second, to such inspiring figures as Brother Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whenever there was suffering in the world, the church was there to bear witness to Christ’s love for ‘the least of these’ (Matt. 25:40).
            But does the church participate in acts of compassion which bring equity and fairness for their own sake? Or are acts of mercy and justice part of a larger work which God is doing in human history? What, then, makes justice thoroughly Christian and keeps it from turning into something that can take a life and meaning of its own apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ? The question is important because non-believers can “do justice,” serve the poor, and labor diligently to restore human dignity for the disenfranchised as much as believers do. Without ever having read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,4 many people in the United States hold to some basic definition of justice as fairness. They may not subscribe fully to Rawls’ vision of a society composed of free citizens who cooperate with each other to distribute power and resources equitably; however, like Rawls, they champion certain inalienable human rights and see justice as an exercise of power which ensures that these natural rights are upheld.
           The Bible has so much more to say about what justice is and how it is to be practiced than the fair distribution of benefits and penalties. God’s justice is larger than simply fairness or equity. God’s justice is inseparable from his saving activity for a fallen world. In an exegetical study of Romans 3 and 2 Corinthians 5 (which I will post in part 2 of A Primer on Justice and Missions), I argue that while justice–fairness is important to God and to God’s people, it is also incomplete. In the grander scheme of God’s economy of salvation, distributive justice acts as one component to a much larger process called reconciliation. Justice serves to make reconciliation complete. The former is the means to the latter as an end.
            Let me give this illustration taken from a sermon of a colleague and emeritus professor at North Park Theological Seminary, Dr. John Weborg. Imagine a person who is in so much pain and hurt, that the suffering drowns out the voice of Jesus. The person cannot hear God speaking to him or her, because the voices of hurt, lament, despair, fear, anger at the violence and frustration over powerlessness are so loud that the voice of Jesus is drowned out by the deafening bombastic cacophony of human suffering, and the rage at that suffering. The role of justice and works of mercy is to meet the needs of the sufferer, to subdue the cacophony by providing for, and enabling, the poor, bringing help to the sick, and dismantling the structures of violence that oppress so that the person can begin to hear God speak to them since our justice work has started to mute the volume of suffering. Justice is important because to turns down the volume of suffering so that the voice of Jesus can be heard more clearly and loudly through the mission of the church. As the voice of Jesus is heard, the church knows that the Holy Spirit is doing its work to lead people to experience the grace of God, repent, and turn to Christ. Evangelism and justice work are not competing. Justice, like evangelism and missions, are means by which human beings can encounter the risen Lord. The Christian activist who fights for justice and the evangelist who preaches the gospel work together, hand in hand, to share the message of reconciliation to a dying world.
            Wherever there is suffering and despair, Jesus is waiting for the church to interfere. Though the world might ignore hurting people on the margins, such places become for us the center of the universe. The love of Christ compels us to enter the fray as ambassadors of the just and reconciling God (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). He is on mission to save fallen humanity. What an undeserved honor to participate in this glorious ministry of reconciliation, and what a tragedy if we do not.

End Notes
* A few years ago, I was asked to co-write an essay on this topic. When I was almost done, to my chagrin, the editors of the book project to which this essay belonged later apologized that they decided to publish the co-authored piece without my contribution to the essay. Subsequently, my work was left on the proverbial editing floor. I'm glad however, I could revise and publish some of this essay here on the blog in the form of a two-part series.
1) Quoted from George Hunsinger, “Justification and Justice: Toward an Evangelical Social Ethic,” in What Is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme (ed. by M. Weinwich and J.P. Burgess; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 222–23.
4) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Rev. ed.; Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reflections on Urbana 2015 (Part 1: Personal and Pastoral)

I've been a way from blogging because I had to make an emergency trip to Los Angeles and attend the funeral services of a dear friend whom my wife and I knew since our college days at U.C. Berkeley. The news of her passing came soon after my return from Urbana 2015.
   I feel that so much has happened in the interim that my memories of Urbana are not as fresh as they once were. But I do want to journal here some pastoral reflections in an effort to catalogue for myself the challenges I heard then and want to practice now in 2016.
   As I shared in my last post, I and a pastor friend took five high schoolers (four seniors, one junior) to Urbana 2015. The seniors especially wanted to start the new year with the conference (which ended in a dynamite New Year's Eve worship service) and commit their next four years of undergraduate studies toward seeking out God's will and being open to the possibility of missions abroad. 
One professor, one pastor, and five high schoolers at Urbana 2015
Urbana turned out to be a greater blessing and challenge than I expected. God answered my prayer about sending me a fresh wind and fire to revive my spirit and call to ministry. There were too many sessions to discuss in detail here, but let me offer a personal, pastoral, ethical, and theological note from the messages that I heard. The first two notes (personal and pastoral) here in this post, and the next two notes (ethical and theological) in a follow up post.
   Personally, this was the first time hearing Francis Chan speak. Francis' message was on the faith of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and living under the full authority of Jesus. I think the question that unnerved me in a good way was when Francis said: "If God had total control of me, what would my life look like?" I paused. Of course I was a committed Christ follower who began his Christian walk in college when I first surrendered my entire life to the Lord as a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley. Since then, following my Lord lead me to give up medical school, pursue the pastorate, go on short-term missions in Japan for over a year, serve as a college minister for over two decades, as well as become a youth pastor, later associate pastor, and now a professor of New Testament at a seminary. But at that very moment, I asked: If God had total control of me, would it look like the life I'm living right now? I could not help but feel my life should look quite different than it does at this present moment. I felt the call to repentance as I rededicated my life to living fully and wholly for Christ and be obedient to His call. 
   Related to Francis' challenge of seeing God's authority not as something oppressive but the most free and safe place to be was David Platt's message on the woman who poured out expensive perfume to annoint Jesus in Matthew 26:6-13. David's unnerving (again in a good way) challenge was to warn students about activism that is not rooted in a prior commitment to Christ. People burn out in the field because they try to manufacture a heart for missions while missing a heart for Christ. It was a powerful sight to witness 681 college students become disciples of Jesus for the first time, who had come to Urbana to do missions or justice work but realizing they never gave their love or allegiance to Christ first. 
   For me, pastorally, I cannot tell you how many times I felt so burnt out serving the church in the front lines of congregational ministry, or in the classroom as a theological educator training the next generation of Christian leaders, and my response was to manufacture my own unction and energy to preach, teach, mentor, and pastor. David's message was a timely reminder to come to the throne of grace, let the Holy Spirit sweep in and take full control, and in response to His flooding my life with His power and presence, worship Him with everything I got. Then, missions and ministry can be a natural overflow of a heart devoted completely to Jesus. 
   I have more to share, but I'll save my ethical and theological reflections for the next post. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Blessings this 2016

I'll be driving up today from St. Louis to Chicago, now that Urbana 2015 is over. It was a very amazing conference where God's grace shined through over and over again. I'm a bit overwhelmed, and I'm actually grateful for the five-hour drive that will allow me to process and reflect on messages I heard over the course of this past week. I tweeted out succinct summaries and excerpts from Urbana here
   I'll post further my pastoral reflections on the conference (or was it a revival service? retreat?) when I get back to Chicago. Let me just say that there were some powerful testimonies and preaching going on throughout these four jam-packed days. The witness of the persecuted church worldwide reminded me of Paul's devotion in Philippians 1:20b: ὡς πάντοτε καὶ νῦν μεγαλυνθήσεται Χριστὸς ἐν τῷ σώματί μου, εἴτε διὰ ζωῆς εἴτε διὰ θανάτου ("Now and as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether through life or by death").
   So until my next post, I want to send my New Years greetings to all readers of this blog: May the Lord Jesus keep your light burning bright through 2016!

PS: FYI, 2016 happens to be the Year of the Monkey! My wife and I were both born in the year of the monkey way back in (secret!). I hope it will be a great year of experiencing God for both of us and all of you