Several months ago, probably closer to a year ago, I began putting together a post but had some problems working it out in my mind. I thought up until this week that I had eventually posted it, but I can find it nowhere, so I’m guessing that I didn’t. In that case, it’s a nice thing that I didn’t, because I think I’ve now remedied the problem I was having (best as I can recall) with feeling good about posting it in the first place.
The post was supposed to be the first of three concerning “dirty little secrets” of Christian faith (note, please, that I’m referring to specific traditions in modern Christian faith; not Christian faith in general). Well, so I didn’t publish the first, I forgot the second, and I ended up posting the third as “Faith, Belief, Reality etc. Part III.” Now that I recently posted some ideas on judgment, I think I’m ready to publish the first post now, in a slightly edited form without some introductory materials concerning dirty little secrets. I’ll include the post here and now, and append a comment or two related to the judgment post:
A lot of us, Christian or not, spend a fair amount of time talking about “justice.” Oftentimes, perhaps usually, we talk about how justice was or was not carried out in a particular criminal or civil case. Sometimes we talk about justice in terms of our Christian faith, generally when we talk about Heaven and Hell and who will or should go to either place. In the majority of all these cases we like to say we “cry out” for justice to be served, which is in itself a borrowing of language inherited from religious tradition. We believe, for whatever reasons, that crying out for justice is a good, moral, Godly thing for us to do. And so it is. But now we have to get a little closer to the dirty little secret, and to inch toward it I’ll start with Micah, who is credited with saying:
He has told you, O mortal, 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, NRSV)
Some English translations of the Old Testament give us “mercy” instead of kindness in this verse, and I’m not sure which, if either, is closer to the Hebrew. I’m going to go with mercy, since it’s what I’ve heard most often and because, admittedly, it goes better with my point. To love mercy implies that we will extend mercy, and extending mercy necessitates that beforehand a wrong must have been committed. (After all, if none had been committed, there would be no need for mercy.) In short, it seems to me that if we accept that the three things Micah admonishes us to pursue are not mutually exclusive—and there is no reason to think they are so—then mercy is dealing with gracious forgiveness toward wrong-doing and if so, then the justice we are supposed to “do” is not about dispensing an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. It is not about people “getting what they deserve.” Justice here cannot be about punishing wrong, nor about giving another person their just desserts. So here’s the beginning of the dirty little secret: The justice we typically seek in mainstream Christianity is not the justice God asks of us, but is a purposeful misinterpretation on our parts; one which allows us to ignore what Micah says the LORD really requires of us: that we be socially just.
I have long believed and often said that every problem of man comes down to his frighteningly insidious and clever pride. In the case of ourselves vis-à-vis Micah, what we have is a pride that tells us we should be able to possess whatever we want in life no matter what the cost to those who can’t seem to get what they need in life. It is pride that tells us that we deserve spoils and they don’t, because, simply, we are good and they are not (in a sort of incestuous reasoning , we have previously concluded, via our poor theology, that they are not good because they do not have). Once this pride convinces us that justice is about punishment and vengeance rather than social welfare and fairness, then we can tell—which is to say, lie to—ourselves that we cry out for justice, while we commit all manner of crimes against social justice. Furthermore, because this twisted view of life necessitates that we relegate the justice for which we “must” cry out to the realm of punishment and just desserts, we throw mercy out the window, saving it as well for those whom we judge to be deserving—which we read as those who haven’t really done anything wrong other than what we ourselves may have already done or are currently doing. In short, we somehow manage to make sure that justice and mercy are defined in such a way that each affords us personally the most benefit possible. Whatever that psychological, intellectual “somehow” may be, it is allowed to succeed because it is approved by our pride.
What the secret comes down to, the dirty little secret too dirty for our minds to allow to bubble up to the surface of our consciences, is that we rich, Bible-thumping Christians are not leading the lives God asks us to live. In spite of all our rhetoric, in spite of all our crying out, in spite of all our so-called morality, we are missing the basic, essential facts of Godliness. And dirtiest of all, when it comes down to it and the rubber meets the road, we aren’t really willing to face the facts. Plain and simple, we don’t want to be in line with God’s program. We don’t want to be, because we are too selfish. We don’t want to be, because we don’t want to share. We don’t want to be, because we would rather believe that we deserve life’s extravagant spoils and others deserve comparatively nothing. We don’t want to be, because in the end we care about ourselves far more than we care about others. We don’t want to be, because we like it this way. We don’t want to be, because it’s a lot more fun to wheel our SUV through the drive-thru than it is to be like much of the rest of the world: hungry, sick and suffering from exposure to the elements. Besides, what thinking person can’t see the truth that some of us are blessed because of who we are, some are cursed because of who they are, and this is the way life always will and should be? (Well and of course, notwithstanding that Micah, the other prophets and Jesus disagree.)
Many of us, and I fear myself included, are hypocrites in the realm of justice. It’s a secret that only we don’t know.
As best as I can recall (and believe me, my memory is not so great anymore), the problem I had with this post was questioning myself on my interpretation of the word justice. I seem to recall going a few rounds in my head about whether or not I was being sufficiently open to the form of justice that I was rejecting. But, after reviewing Jesus’ invective in Matthew, where (it seems clear to me, anyway) that Jesus is quoting the prophets regarding justice, mercy and humility, I have to side with my original thoughts. Jesus was far more interested in social justice (or, more correctly, the lack thereof) in his time than about “legal” justice. What is significant here is that I can find no evidence that the Pharisees, scribes and such were short on the “legal” justice. To the point, given that these men were more than willing to deny, cast out and punish those whom they considered to fall short, and given that in such an environment Jesus would say they had neglected justice, I really must conclude that Jesus’ take on the prophet was that the reference is to social justice.
Do I feel better? Yes, in that I think the original post stands on firm footing. And no, in that I think the post stands on firm footing.