What Does the Lord Require?

An Introduction to Justice Ministry

Scripture References:
Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23; and Nehemiah Chapter 5

Micah 6:8 provides a clear list of requirements for God’s people: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. A similar list is found in the Christian gospel of Matthew 23: 23, where Jesus declares the “weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Comparing the activities of our congregations to these requirements often reveal some important insights.

We consider faithfulness ministry to include those things that encourage our members to be faithful to God such as worship, studies, prayer, etc. Upon reflection, most clergy feel as though they are doing a pretty good job in this area. Our congregations gather at least 52 times a year for worship and provide many other opportunities for prayer and study. We consider mercy ministries to include those ways in which we help individuals with immediate needs in our community. Most clergy feel we are doing a fair job of fulfilling God’s mercy requirement through programs like tutoring, food pantries, counseling, etc.

Justice Ministry addresses the systems, not the victims in our community. It is not the same as mercy ministries and the distinction is important. For example, a mercy response to homelessness involves food programs and shelters. A justice response takes action to address the underlying questions: Why are there so many homeless people in our community? Why are many families unable to afford a decent place to live? Why are so many people with mental health problems ending up on the streets? Both mercy and justice are required by God, but they are very different. Mercy helps individuals, justice holds systems accountable. When this distinction is understood, the failure to do justice appears obvious.

There is a good reason for this: none of our congregations on our own have enough power to do it successfully. In our communities power comes from two sources: organized people and organized money. Our congregations don’t have the same money that major economic and political systems possess. So we must organize large numbers of people if we wish to be successful in doing justice.

The fifth chapter of Nehemiah is a great example of God’s people organizing in large numbers to do justice. Nehemiah, Cupbearer to the King of Persia, goes to Jerusalem to restore its identity by rebuilding the wall around the city. During construction, there is an outcry among the people. There has been a drought in the land and the people of Jerusalem were forced to take out loans to buy food and pay taxes. The drought continued and the moneylenders took everything: their fields, vineyards, orchards, and even forced people to sell their children into slavery to repay their debts. We read in verse six that Nehemiah was angry when he heard their cries and stopped to think about what to do. Nehemiah had a choice. He could choose to do mercy ministry by opening a food pantry or credit counseling program. Or he could do justice by changing the lending system. Scripture tells us he chose the latter. But even though he possessed status as the Cup Bearer to the King of Persia, Nehemiah didn’t have enough power to do it alone. Verse seven of chapter five tells us, he organized a “Great Assembly” of people and brought forth the money lenders to be held accountable. During this assembly, the money lenders agreed to restore everything they had taken from the people, and they followed-through on their promises.

This is a basic introduction to the imperative to do justice, the distinction between justice and mercy, and the importance of power. For further study on the ideas presented in this introduction, we encourage clergy to attend any of DART’s trainings sessions where we explore these basic concepts more thoroughly.

The City of God

Scripture References:
Deut 6; 7:7-11; 10:12-11:28; 15:1-17; 16:18-20; 17:14-20; and 18:15-19

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides the Hebrew people with a vision for God’s kingdom that extends far beyond religious observance in the narrow sense. Here we discover a detailed and challenging vision for political and economic affairs that clearly agitates us as we contrast God’s vision to the world as it is today.

Particularly, we encourage clergy to reflect on God’s challenge to political leaders to ensure that justice be impartially administered for all:

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice ; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice and only justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16: 18-20

We also encourage clergy to reflect on the profound implications of the economic system presented in Deuteronomy for the City of God, which commands the remittance of debts and sets a clear expectation that all will be cared for:

“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed… There will however be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.”

For further study on the theme of the City of God, we encourage you to attend a local DART “Rethinking Justice Workshop” and reading Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community by Rev. Robert Linthicum.

The Prophetic Call to Do Justice

Scripture References:
Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Ezekiel 22; Amos 5: 21-24; 8: 4-8; Isaiah 61; Jeremiah: 22:13-17

Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expected faithful action from the church on the issues of injustice facing the world, and he lovingly criticized the church when it failed to fulfill this obligation. In his book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

Dr. King challenged people of faith to hold unjust systems accountable and not to be seduced into complacency or collusion. His challenge is grounded clearly in prophetic truth telling found in the Hebrew Bible. To understand the depth of this theme, we encourage clergy to look to the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos. These prophets were fierce champions of justice.

Under close observation of these texts, we see Ezekiel condemning the princes, priests, and officials for practicing extortion, oppressing the poor and the needy, and denying justice. We also see Amos who turns to religious leaders and pleads for greater attention to justice. In Amos, Chapter 5 verses 23-24, we hear God’s yearning for action: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In short, we find time after time in the Hebrew Bible, a litany of stories and testimonies about prophets who are clearly critical of the political, religious, and economic leaders for failing to live up to God’s vision for fairness and justice. Today DART Clergy answer the prophetic call to do justice by organizing their people to powerfully call the systems back to what God created them to be.

For further study on the theme of the Prophetic Call to Do Justice, we encourage you to attend a local DART “Rethinking Justice Workshop”, and to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and “The City: A Work in Progress” an article by Dr. Walter Brueggemann.

Redeeming the Systems

Scripture References
Colossians 1:16-17; Acts 3:21

DART’s local congregation-based community organizations include congregations from a wide range of faith traditions including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others.

Many valuable lessons can be learned about justice and God’s concern for the world when studying the Christian Bible. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, confrontations with the Scribes and Pharisees over their hypocritical ways, and lessons on money and the seduction of wealth all point to a persistent love and concern for all of God‘s creation. The New Testament offers great understanding about creation, human failings, and redemption.

During Bible Study, Christians learn that Jesus’ life was not simply a collection of valuable lessons and deeds, as important as these instructions are for our day-to-day living. Christians learn that Jesus was sacrificed for the redemption of a world that has fallen away from its holy creation. Conventional Christian teachings often view this sacrifice solely in terms of one’s individual salvation, so that Jesus’ sacrifice is limited to forgiveness for our personal transgressions. Many Biblical scholars would question this limitation and assert that Jesus’ death and resurrection promises redemption and transformation of the world including the political and economic systems we relate to every day (e.g., schools, healthcare industries, corporations, governments.).

Dr. Walter Wink, a Christian theologian and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, discusses this topic in his books on the “Powers and Principalities.” He writes in Engaging the Powers, “The Powers are the necessary social structures of human life, and it is not a matter of indifference to God that they exist. God made them… The Jesus who died at the hands of the Powers died every bit as much for the Powers as he died for people… Nothing is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God. The Powers are not intrinsically evil; they are only fallen. What sinks can be made to rise again… We can love our nation or church or school, not blindly, but critically, recalling it to its own highest self-professed ideals and identities. We can challenge these institutions to live up to the vocation that is theirs by virtue of their sheer createdness.”

Christian leaders working with DART find that organizing together with other congregations provides a vehicle to pursue redemption for all God’s creation.

For further study on Redeeming the Individual and the Systems we encourage you to read Dr. Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and The Powers That Be.

Acts of Justice and Mercy – Moses and the Good Samaritan

Scripture References
Entire book of Exodus with particular emphasis on the following: 1:8-16; 5:1; 6:1; 12:41; Luke 10:25-37

We often find agreement among clergy on one thing: we are called as people of faith to have an impact on society. We settle on this common understanding because our traditions provide ample stories, examples, parables, and commandments that repeatedly express an obligation to ensure God’s love, mercy, and justice. Where confusion often sets in is when we begin to discuss how we are to make an impact. Two well known Bible stories provide insight into the difference between doing justice and loving mercy.

In Luke, Chapter 10 Jesus describes the parable of the Good Samaritan. This story gives us some clues about assisting individuals in need. First, we notice that it is the unlikely Samaritan – not a religious leader – who stops and helps out the beaten man left for dead. Second, we learn the Samaritan does not hesitate and is quite generous toward the man in his time of need. He not only bandages the man’s wounds, but also pays his expenses while he recuperates at a nearby inn.

In the Hebrew Bible, we see a different form of action taken by Moses. In this example, we see extreme hardship placed on an entire nation – not solely an individual. We learn that Pharaoh has turned the Israelites into slave laborers and ordered midwives to kill every male infant at birth. In response, God calls upon another unlikely champion, Moses, to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. We watch Moses powerfully confront Pharaoh, demanding freedom for his people, bringing God’s powers to bear on Pharaoh, and ultimately winning justice for the Hebrew people.

These stories have contrasting elements that are helpful when evaluating the needs of our community today, and the responses we may choose to take. First, Moses does not deal with the individual victims of Pharaoh’s rule – he confronts the perpetrator of the injustice. The Samaritan does not attempt to survey the causes of highway banditry. Instead, he provides much needed immediate relief. Second, the scale of the problem and the ultimate solution in both examples are completely different. The Samaritan limited his work to the beaten man, and simply resolved the problem with good deeds, although the underlying problem of banditry still remains. Moses does not have this luxury because the problem is institutional, and therefore, he is required to take public action to bring about justice. In short, the Samaritan’s action was one of mercy, and Moses’ was an act to secure justice for the many.

This distinction may seem elementary on the surface but is often overlooked within congregational life. A classic contrast can be found in our response to the public education system. The basic ability to read and write has proven to be directly related to one’s quality of life. Yet, public schools throughout the country are failing to produce quality education for all. In the spirit of the Samaritan, the church may decide to respond to this crisis by establishing a tutoring program through the generosity of its members. As a result, twenty-five kids show remarkable improvement in their test scores. Meanwhile, the school system stumbles along and hundreds of other children fail to achieve basic reading and writing abilities. Another church may decide to act similarly to Moses by recognizing the failure of the school system and organize with other congregations to publicly call for needed changes to make all schools more effective. These two responses are clearly different choices.

The choice between justice and mercy can be seen time and time again when looking at various responses to crises in community, no matter what the issue. Housing, healthcare, increased pressures on the family due to rising costs of living, unemployment, access to transportation – all of these can be addressed through mercy and/or justice.

We highlight the distinction to demonstrate the clear differences in types of ministry. We also understand that we are required to do both – to help the victim and fix the system. But DART seeks one thing: to build a vehicle for congregations to come together and to fulfill the requirement to do justice.