Author Archives: lewinkler

About lewinkler

I am a professor of theology and ethics at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore.

Jesus, Justice, and the Social Gospel

There’s a lot of talk these days about social justice.  Caring about and correcting injustice has suddenly become fashionable and trendy in popular culture.  Many in the Church have jumped on board the social justice bandwagon.  Who, after all, is more concerned about societal justice than Jesus?

There’s nothing wrong with following a cultural trend that moves society in the right direction, of course. Who can seriously argue against the need to eradicate racism, abolish sex-trafficking, and advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions for the underprivileged?  Still, I as argued in previous posts, Christians must avoid being misled by false or inadequate definitions of justice.  They also need to discern what are the means and ways used to rectify such wrongs, unmasking and repudiating any use of ungodly and unhelpful methods masquerading as “social justice.”

But what about Jesus?  Was He a “social justice warrior,” or has the contemporary movement simply used His name and made Him into a caricature of the biblical portrait?  One of the primary passages cited to prove that Jesus was all about social justice is Luke 4:16-21.  Used by Jesus to formally inaugurate His earthly ministry, the passage mentions proclaiming “good news to the poor,” providing “liberty for the captives,” “sight for the blind,” and freedom “for those who are oppressed.”

Another popular passage is Matthew 25:31-46, which comes at the end of His earthly ministry.  Here Jesus lists the activities and criteria He will use to judge between the righteous and the wicked.  He puts it this way to the righteous: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

On the face of it, this looks like a program of social justice at its finest, and it would hardly be appropriate to question the value and importance of Christians caring for people in the situations Jesus mentions.  Christians certainly should be actively caring for the poor, needy, and disenfranchised!  This is inherent to God’s kingdom work on earth and should not be relegated to some sort of second or third-class concern.

Having said that, however, when Jesus begins His earthly ministry of social care and service, one looks in vain for any significant political activism, commentary, or critique.  This is not due to a dearth of potential material, of course.  The moral atrocities, slave system, oppressive racism, and socially sectarian Roman policies of Jesus’ time are well-documented.  In addition, Jesus’ followers fully expected and hoped for Jesus to be, as Messianic King, an expressly political figure (see, for example, Acts 1:6).  Despite many clear opportunities, Jesus unveils no formal political activist program to rectify the systemic evils of His time and place.  In fact, it is remarkable how utterly apolitical Jesus’ ministry of social justice actually is.

I highlight this to make a critically important point: Jesus did and does care about those who are oppressed, disadvantaged, and damaged by a sinful system and society.  But the solutions He offers, while endowed with supernatural power, are not especially political or external in nature.  Instead, they are mainly invitational, educational, and especially spiritual and moral.  And while many are manifest in clearly material ways, those solutions point beyond the material toward our need to first and foremost be reconciled to God.

In contrast, many contemporary Christians advocating for social justice tend to couch it almost entirely in political and systemic terms.  In their minds, social justice means the political reformation of societal systems and norms so that marginalized people can be empowered, heard, and taken seriously.  The unjust social systems are assumed to be the primary (if not sole) reason these people are marginalized.  What is often ignored or discounted is the individual problem of sin.  In this sense, marginalization is real, but the reasons for it are not merely political and systemic, grounded primarily in the sins of others.  There are intensely personal moral and spiritual problems here as well, and the means to providing genuine solutions must also account for our individual need to repent and be reconciled to God as well as to others.

I say this to demonstrate that when talking about Jesus’ brand of social justice and the gospel, the kinds of priorities and programs promoted by those passionate about social justice today often miss the primary problem of personal depravity.  If you disagree, consider the book of Acts.  Granted, in Acts 2:42-47, they “had all things in common.”  The picture presented sounds very socialistic and just, but it was an entirely voluntary kind of sharing and not governmentally mandated or coerced.  In addition, the rest of book says virtually nothing about these types of arrangements among Christians.  It’s not that they had or didn’t have them.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.  That’s beside the point.  What’s important to notice is that they prioritized sharing the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples.  They pursued virtually no formal program for rectifying the overtly racist and unjust social systems of their time.

Instead, they directly ministered to the spiritually poor and blind as well to those who were materially afflicted in various ways.  As Matthew 15:14 and Revelation 3:17 make clear, the problems highlighted by Jesus in Luke 4 were not simply material, they were also deeply spiritual.  They had material manifestations, of course, but every physical solution He provides points beyond itself to the spiritual significance of His miracles.

In this way, the need for physical healing ultimately points beyond itself to the need for spiritual help and healing.  As Jesus points out in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Beyond a normal doctor, we need the Great Physician to spiritually heal us.  Our need for physical sustenance points beyond itself to our spiritual need for heavenly bread.  Thus, Jesus is our real physician as well as our “true bread” (John 6:32).  While we need healing from physical blindness, our deeper need is for spiritual light and guidance.  Thus, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

In light of this, the ministry accounts of Jesus’ early followers show that they were largely disinterested in much of what many today consider “social justice.”  Instead, they primarily focused on proclaiming the simple message of the gospel concerning our need to trust in the crucified and gloriously risen Christ for the forgiveness of sin and helping those who believed to grow together in their new-found faith.  But again, this does not mean that Jesus and His followers were unconcerned about people’s physical problems and needs.  After all, when there was a famine in Jerusalem, many churches took up a collection to help the poor and needy there (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), and Paul speaks about his eagerness to “remember the poor” in Galatians 2:10.  Not only this, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 25:31-46 that Christians are supposed to feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, welcome strangers, cloth the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

We cannot and must not ignore our Christian obligations to care for people in need.  There is no dichotomy between sharing the good news that Jesus Christ came and died to save sinners and meeting the social and physical needs of people made in God’s image.  But the ministry of the early church reveals that their primary mission was concerned about helping people be reconciled to God.  They met physical and social and educational and economic needs, but not through political action committees or any educational, economic, and social initiatives enforced by local, state, and federal governments.

Instead, while proclaiming this divine message of healing and hope, they also fed the hungry, gave drinks to the thirsty, healed the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, parented orphans, educated the illiterate, prayed for their leaders, loved their enemies, and cared for one another.  And they did all of this at great personal and communal cost, placing no demands or expectations upon the governments of their time to rectify these widespread and on-going social injustices.  They understood that before Christ’s second coming, the “kingdom of God” was not, first and foremost, a political and material kingdom, but a spiritually powerful kingdom that in Jesus’ own words was “not of this world” (John 18:36).  As a result of this kind of ministry, they radically change the course of history and “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I close with an acknowledgment and a warning.  First, I acknowledge that in democratic societies, Christians still have genuine opportunities to influence and encourage good governance, and they should take full advantage of that.  I also agree that political, educational, economic, and social institutions have an important place in helping to bring about a more just society for everyone, so long as they are willing to hear wise counsel and enact genuinely just policies.

My warning, however, is this: When something (like social justice) becomes vogue in the broader culture, the church should be wary of uncritically jumping on board the populist bandwagon.  Given many of the openly hostile and anti-biblical assumptions of contemporary culture, it is no accident that some brands of “social justice” openly embrace things like abortion (touted as “women’s healthcare and reproductive rights”) and the LGBT+ lobby (touted as “justice for the marginalized and oppressed”).  In this vein, you can no longer be anti-abortion, question the wisdom of sex-change operations, or consider sexual intimacy outside the context of heterosexual marriage immoral and still be “standing on the right side of history” or an advocate for genuine justice.

I am reminded of the dire reprimand in Isaiah 5:20-21: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”

Only when Jesus returns as the conquering King will social injustice and sin be completely eradicated and everything rectified.  It is to that eschatological political vision that Christians must continuously look while seeking to bring the healing and hope of Jesus into the midst of a crooked and perverse generation where we are to “shine like stars” in the face of so much moral injustice and spiritual darkness.

What is true justice? Part Three: Need Justice and the Applications of Justice

In the first part of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice.  In part two, we examined the controversial notion of egalitarian justice.  In this concluding part, we will consider need justice and then look at the inherently concrete nature of applying justice correctly in any given situation.

Need Justice

For Christians, need justice is illustrated in passages like Ephesians 4:28 which says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

This kind of justice seeks to discern things like to whom and when and how much and what kind of help and for how long should be given to those who are needy.  Scripturally speaking, the mere presence of need does not necessarily constitute an obligation (as a matter of justice) for that need to be met by others.  This is true because the Bible speaks about at least two basic kinds of poverty: “guiltless” and “guilty.”

With respect to the former, Jeremiah 2:34 says, “Also on your skirts is found

the lifeblood of the guiltless poor.”  From the context we can see that these are people who are poor not due to their own sin but because of the exploitative and selfish sins of others.

With respect to those poor who are poor or disadvantaged because of their own sin, Isaiah 9:17 says, “Therefore the Lord does not rejoice over their young men and has no compassion on their fatherless and widows; for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly.”  In short, these people may have been “fatherless and widows,” but they were still godless evildoers.  As hard as it is to say, some people actually deserve their misfortune because they make foolish and ungodly choices.  Part of the reason contemporary people have such a hard time admitting this is that our strongly Rousseau-influenced thinking tends see people as victims of external familial and social structures rather than the recipients of the just consequences their own decisions.

Of course, it’s not a simple either/or distinction.  Some of us have come from more damaging and dysfunctional settings than others.  That much is a given.  But even within those contexts, we can still decide how we will respond to any injustices inflicted upon us.  And some of us have come from relatively functional situations and have still chosen to make a mess of things on our own.  If Adam and Eve teach us nothing else, we must admit that a perfect environment and a simple and clear prohibition will not prevent human beings from making bad choices if they so desire.

Because we live in a society that tends to see the poor and downtrodden as being almost completely victimized, we seldom have the interest or discernment to see who are needy because of injustice and who are needy due to their own unwise decisions.

Thus, fulfilling need justice has the complex but important task of discerning who is genuinely needy because of injustice and how they can be helped accordingly.  We should not ignore those who have “made their own bed and now have to lie in it,” but real justice demands that first priority be given to those who are needy for reasons beyond their own control.  And their needs should be met in holistic ways that give them an empowering hand up rather than just a conscience-easing but ultimately dehumanizing hand out.

Once again, the multilayered factors that lead to poverty and need are seldom easy to sort out from a distance, and there is a tendency for large governmental agencies to make things easier in the short-run by making simple designations based on obvious factors like race and socioeconomic incomes.  Genuinely understanding the specific reasons why this person or this family or this community is stuck in a cycle of poverty is seldom so straightforward or easily solved.  And many of the reasons are not strictly physical and socioeconomic in nature, even if they express themselves as such.  In other words, these problems are most often deeply spiritual and require more than educational, material, and political solutions alone.  These can help, but they are insufficient to explain and address some of the deepest reasons why people find themselves in significant need.

This is where the Church has a critical role to play in getting our hands messy and finding out the reasons why people in our immediate our vicinities are struggling.  We can then provide spiritual and material resources to help get them on their feet and become healthy and contributing members of society.

Having looked very briefly at four aspects of justice—retributive, meritorious, egalitarian, and need justice—let’s conclude by asking one of the most important questions of all: How can we best and most justly apply each of these forms of justice?

Concrete Applications of Justice

There are countless directions this discussion could go, but this statement from Tim Keller’s article, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” is a helpful place to start: “Biblically speaking, every one of these types of justice are applied and condoned in Scripture, but contrary to some theological views, no one aspect is obviously elevated or overwhelms any of the other aspects.  In different times and situations, all [four] types—[retributive, meritorious, egalitarian, and need justice]—are observed and identified as reflecting the character and purposes of a good and righteous God.”

In short, the application of justice is multifaceted and intimately connected not only to God’s character but also to the concrete and specific situations in which it is carried out.  It requires a significant level of discernment to know what kind of justice best applies, and even if justice (versus mercy, for example) is the best course of action to take in the first place.  Unfortunately, in contemporary discussions, there is a strong tendency to take a single form of justice that is appropriately applied in some situations and demand that it is the only legitimate form of justice for all situations.  Failing to understand and appreciate the contextual and concrete nature of justice and its different types and applications ends up creating greater, rather than lesser, injustice in society.  Thus, elevating one type of justice above all others ironically and ultimately leads to greater social injustice.

In addition, demanding pure justice alone, detached from other crucial values and virtues, especially love and mercy, tends to make justice harsh and unsympathetic.  Thus, there are tensions over when it’s best to show mercy and when it’s best to execute justice.  In addition, love, properly defined, knows when to allow consequences to befall foolish and ungodly behavior and when to step in to try and prevent (or at least temper) the impact of bad choices.  But true love also moves us to care for and alleviate suffering, especially when that suffering is undeserved.

The ideas of love and mercy are easier to see when applied to issues of retributive and punitive justice.  This kind of justice must be tempered with love and mercy, or it becomes completely retaliatory and inevitably descends into nothing more than angry calls for payback and revenge.  In other words, reprisal detached from redemptive love and merciful forgiveness tend to lead to harsh and destructive retribution.

The deeply ironic result is that pursuing justice without love and mercy results in a punitive state where grace is considered a weakness and an expression of injustice instead of a source of redemptive hope and life transformation.  But again, knowing when to be merciful and kind versus merely fair and just takes significant wisdom and discernment, something impersonal governmental programs and authorities far-removed from the concrete realities of those situations are often ill-equipped and ill-suited to determine.

I would love to offer simple solutions to complex social problems, but the reality of life in a fallen world means that these issues are inherently convoluted and require sacrificial love, divine discernment, and spiritual transformations that are not found in the ideologies and resources of mere materialism.  This is why we, as the Church in our concrete locations, are so central to providing real and lasting solutions to the problems of injustice in our time.  And to succeed in this great endeavor, we must rely upon the Spirit’s strength and wisdom to fulfill our calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  He alone demonstrates the perfect balance of how holiness and justice are coupled with patient mercy and redeeming love through the ministry of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the fellowship of His Holy Spirit.

What is true justice? Part Two: Egalitarian Justice

In part one of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice. In part two, we will consider the increasingly contested notion of egalitarian justice.

Egalitarian Justice

Before looking directly at the idea of egalitarian justice, the meaning of the word “equality” must be further elucidated since its very definition has become one of the great controversies of our time.

Traditionally, equality primarily referred to the notion that all are (or at least should be) “equal under the law.” This phrase is inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Thus, laws should be applied fairly from the top to the bottom of society, for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the male and the female, the black and the white, and everyone in between. The statue of Lady Justice holding a scale while wearing a blindfold depicts this kind of egalitarian ideal. To fulfill her responsibilities justly, she must not allow race, nationality, social status, or material wealth (for example) to bias her application of justice to anyone or any group.

More recently, a second aspect of egalitarian justice has come to the fore of social concern, namely the question of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity helps ensure that the playing field of life is as level as possible. There’s no doubt this is a valid and important aspect of promoting justice and equality in society, but for many today, any unequal outcomes in society constitute incontestable evidence of social injustice and inequality. As racism guru Ibram X. Kendi declared, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” The assumption here is that if one (racial) group of people end up better educated, richer, and more powerful than others, there must have been some (racially systemic) unjust advantages and inequalities both at the outset of and throughout their lives producing those unequal outcomes.

The problem with thinking this way is that this (wrongly) assumes all human beings are equally situated, motivated, and talented from the very beginning of life. However, for whatever reasons, God has created everyone unique. Some are better athletes, some are better thinkers, some are better artists, engineers, teachers, singers, musicians, craftsmen, salespersons, etc. Thus, if inequity equals (racial) injustice, then God is unjust because we are not all created equal in terms of our backgrounds, intelligence, capacities, talents, abilities, socio-economic location, etc.

On the contrary, this is not evidence of racism or sin but evidence of uniqueness. And since every human being is made in God’s image, every human being is of eternal worth to God. But that does not mean we are exactly the same. Just as there is distinctness and yet equality within the Godhead, so there is distinctness and equality within the human race. Consequently, different outcomes don’t necessarily mean there is systemic injustice or racial inequality.

Justice in this light does not seek equal outcomes so much as it tries to create systems that are genuinely fair and do not give undue advantages to others. The idea is to level the playing field of life by somehow empowering those who clearly start at a disadvantage, enabling them to better succeed alongside others who begin life and certain endeavors (like education, for example) with greater advantages.

Unfortunately, what these systems should look like and how they can be maintained are very difficult questions to answer. In theory, at least, they are possible to create, implement, and maintain, even when, because of different talents, abilities, motivations, etc., social stratification inevitably occurs over time. Such stratification is not, as it stands, invariably or inherently evil, although in the light of human selfishness and sin, it very often does become a means to express injustice, especially against the weak and marginalized. In short, people with roughly equal abilities and starting points often end up in very different socioeconomic situations.

To be sure, this certainly is sometimes the fault of unjust social structures and systems that wrongly discriminate against others on some sort of illegitimate basis like race or gender. This might manifest itself as a lack of equality under the law and/or inappropriate discriminatory social and cultural attitudes and traditions. But it is also sometimes the result of several other factors like (to name a few) difficult family life, personality, bad luck, laziness, ignorance, trauma, lack of motivation, or even such things like the voluntary decision to live a life of simplicity and poverty.

Too often, as economist Thomas Sowell points out, too few (or even the wrong) factors and not enough concrete nuances are considered when egalitarian concerns are brought to bear on specific real-life situations. For example, the goals of programs like “affirmative action” are clearly directed at rectifying inequities in educational opportunities for certain minorities. The idea is to make it possible for those who started out behind others to make up lost ground.

This is noble and good. But determining exactly who starts out disadvantaged, why, and to what extent, becomes exceptionally difficult to determine without discerning the very specific situations of individuals and groups on a case-by-case basis. It is far easier and more efficient to create clearly delineated groups and classes of people to be the recipients of these leveling programs, especially when large organizations and entities like governments and corporations are involved. You can simply draw a racial and/or economic line and set a standard amount of aid to be given without dealing with the concrete nuances and root issues of people’s lives on the ground.

Admittedly, heroic efforts have been made to create fair and more specific means for deciding these matters, but the greater the distance between the disseminators of these benefits and the recipients, the more likely bureaucratic waste and corruption will arise. But again, on an even more basic level, the assumption that in a properly structured and justly administrated society, all people from every subgroup will have similar life outcomes is fundamentally flawed.

Thomas Sowell says it well in The Quest for Cosmic Justice: “A society that puts equality [at the fore]—in the sense of equality of outcome—will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” In short, the quest for equality without recognition of other crucially important factors of justice will result in an unjust society where coercion is used to bring about equal distribution instead of finding a balance between different and equally valid and important forms of justice. As a result, one vision of egalitarian justice (equal outcomes for all) gets set in opposition to other forms like meritorious justice. The inevitable (and deeply ironic) result is injustice in the name of a justice. In the last century, places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and Russia (to name a few) give ample evidence off the murderous and tragic results of this kind of forced execution of “egalitarian justice” in an attempt to bring about the (not so) “great society.”

The essential confusion here is assuming that equality equals sameness and equal outcomes when in fact God does not advocate sameness as the goal of life. He advocates harmonious integration, interdependence, and mutual appreciation, something that assumes the presence of unique and interwoven parts, but also requires difference as inherent to the very fabric of existence. Romans 15:1-3, 5-7 puts the vision this way: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

To say, however, that all people must be treated equally under the law is very different from saying all people must have the same endowments, possessions, talents, skills, and capacities and in order to achieve the same basic life outcomes. In addition, what you don’t want to end up doing is punishing people for being exceptional and using their gifts and abilities to excel. Yes, they can use those talents and abilities for selfish ends, but they can also use them for the greater benefit of all. The issue is not so much with exceptionalism as it is with how that exceptionalism is used in reference to others. Do I use my gifts, talents, and resources to care for and empower others or do I use them to enrich my own life to the exclusion, detriment, and diminishment of others?

Much more could be said here, but I have said little about the issues surrounding fair distribution of goods and services (a matter of equitable and egalitarian justice) versus fair distribution of overall resources within a society. This aspect, often called “need” justice, pertains to those in society who, for various reasons, find themselves in dire circumstances and need immediate (and often ongoing) assistance to live and survive. It is to this expression of justice we will now turn our attention in the third and concluding part in this series on true justice.

What is true justice? Part One: Retributive and Meritorious Justice

Vice President Kamala Harris recently said “justice” means that everyone gets an equal share of goods and services.  If there are any inequities, those inequities must be rectified using a fair method of redistribution.  Is this true justice or not?  What does justice look like, and how does the Bible help us in understanding, defining, and applying it?

A large part of the problem is that few people today (Christians included) have a clear picture of what justice actually is and involves.  As Thomas Sowell reminds us in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, “We are only talking in a circle when we say we advocate justice, unless we specify what conception of justice we have in mind.”  And in reaction to some aspects of the social justice movement, there are even those who claim, “Justice needs no modifier.”  There is only justice or injustice.  Types of justice (like “social” justice, for instance) are really deceptive distractions from the pursuit of “justice” in general.

In contrast to this latter claim, there are several types of justice, and these types pertain to the appropriate application of justice in concrete life settings.  Thus, while not a comprehensive list, we can speak of things like “retributive justice,” “meritorious justice,” “egalitarian justice,” and “need justice.”  Presumably, Kamala Harris (whether she realizes it or not) is referring to the third and fourth aspects of justice, whereas most opponents of her view seek to promote features primarily related to meritorious justice.  What, then, are these types of justice, where are they exhibited in Scripture, and how and when should each type be applied?

In this three-part series we will briefly examine all four types of justice, beginning with “retributive” and “meritorious” justice.

Retributive Justice

Retributive justice pertains to the system of justice that seeks to fairly “repay” or punish those found guilty of wrongdoing.  A biblical passage that illustrates this idea of justice from God’s perspective comes from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9: “The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

In general, as Romans 13:1-7 suggests, besides God, governments and other properly constituted officials (versus individuals and vigilante groups) are the ones best suited to carrying out this kind of justice.  In addition, there are other aspects to the retributive justice system like encouraging reformation and rehabilitation of the criminal.  But despite their great importance, we will not explore these facets here.

The main biblical principle to be applied in retributive justice is found in passages like Leviticus 24:17-22: “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. . . .  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”

Typically, people speak about this kind of justice as “an eye for an eye” justice.  And it’s significant that there should be no difference in the application of this justice between the Israelite and the foreigner (verse 22).  This is a good example of what is often called “egalitarian” justice, which we will explore more in part two of this series.

What many people fail to appreciate is that the essence of this principle is “punishment fit for the crime.”  That is to say, the kind of punishment should not exceed the nature of the offense committed.  It should be fair and commensurate.

Because this principle is easily misunderstood and misapplied, Jesus highlights it in Matthew 5:38-39 when He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  While many pacifists take this to mean that all retributive justice has been abolished by Jesus, it is probably better to see this as a warning against individuals and groups who are not properly authorized to execute this kind of justice by taking the law into their own hands.  As I noted above in Romans 13:1-7, properly constituted government authorities are accredited to carry out this kind of justice: “[The governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4).  Self-motivated and effected “vigilante justice,” on the other hand, is an oxymoron and not God’s intention for fulfilling true retributive justice.

These are controversial matters and much more that could be said, but let’s move on to consider at another aspect of justice that has become increasingly contested in the contemporary context, namely meritorious justice.

Meritorious Justice

Meritorious justice is the kind of justice that fairly rewards those who perform well and fulfill expectations.  It also includes accolades and benefits for those who are exceptional and use their gifts for the benefit of others.  Finally, it includes praise and appreciation for those who go above and beyond what is required and expected of them.  Scripturally-speaking, this kind of justice is evinced in passages like Matthew 25:21 where the servants who have been faithful stewards of the master’s money are accordingly praised and rewarded.

The majority of educational systems are largely grounded in this system of justice where students who meet certain standards and perform well academically receive certain rewards, including good grades, a diploma, certificates of commendation, scholarships, etc.  In short, both hard work and well-utilized ability deserve praise and affirmation, and it would be unjust to punish or discourage people simply because they are smart and hard-working.

Like all forms of justice, this type of justice is subject to abuses and showing favoritism where it is not deserved, but if so, it is no longer a form of justice but has become a form of injustice.

In recent years, the idea of merit and reward in institutions like schools has come increasingly under fire for being inherently biased and unfairly titled toward certain races and places.  In some places and situations this may well be a problem, but injustice here is not inherently grounded in the idea of giving fair merit and recognition to those who deserve it.  Rather, injustice lies in giving unfair advantages and accolades to those who don’t.

What complicates matters is when structures and systems develop (whether unconsciously or intentionally) that give unfair advantages to some while simultaneously disadvantaging others.  In addition, and perhaps even more significantly, tensions arise when we are confronted with the fact that while all people as divine image-bearers are equally important and deserve equal treatment under the law (egalitarian justice), people are not equally gifted and, for various reasons, do not always utilize or develop their talents in equal ways.

This highlights that in the midst of applying meritorious justice, other forms of justice must also operate, including what is often referred to as “egalitarian” justice.  It is to this type of justice we turn our attention in part two of this series on true justice.

Is God a moral Monster? The Conquest of Canaan

Is God a moral monster?  How, for example, should we assess the moral status of the Old Testament account when the Israelites came into the land of Canaan and were commanded by God to completely wipe out the inhabitants?  Deuteronomy 20:16-17 puts it this way: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded” (emphasis added).

This command to annihilate everything that breathes presumably included women, children, and infants; from the very old to the very young, and everyone in between.  To contemporary ears, this sounds deeply distressing and offensive.  What kind of God would give such a comprehensively genocidal command?

There are several ways to respond to such a charge.  Many contemporary scholars suggest that some of the language describing the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan could well be conventional and intentionally exaggerated (that is, “hyperbole”), a common literary device used by other nations at that time to advocate for their military and moral superiority.  Perhaps there is some merit to these claims.  For those who are interested, consider, for example, the thoughts of Joshua Ryan Butler in the portion of his book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet addressing the issue of Israel’s “holy wars.”

Regardless, we know for certain from the text itself that contrary to this overt command of God, not all the Canaanites were killed—not even close.  This was something that later became part of the problem and a profound source of temptation for the Israelites to turn away from Yahweh and serve the gods of the Canaanites instead.  They were to wipe out the inhabitants so that “they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:18).

But let’s just assume for the moment that God really did command the Israelites to obliterate these Canaanite people—men, women, and children—from the face of the earth.  What then?  There are at least two important things to highlight here.

First, we need to appreciate the godlessness of the Canaanite peoples of that time.  They were not kind and peaceful city dwellers just “minding their own business.”  The gods of the Canaanites were ruthless and immoral, and the people of the land reflected that.  For example, they advocated child sacrifice, and the enslavement and brutal treatment (including rape and torture) of those that they conquered.  They also openly practiced sorcery and forced ritual sex in religious ceremonies to encourage fertility.

So, we are not talking about nice and kindly moral neighbors here.  They were polytheists who were deeply rebellious toward God and deserving of judgment.  Israel was God’s chosen instrument of judgment at this time in history, just as Assyria and Babylon would later become God’s instruments to judge the Israelites for their appalling unfaithfulness to Him.

The second aspect that should be mentioned regarding the conquest is that it is a very unique historical event with a very specific set of circumstances and purposes.  Yes, the Israelites were God’s instrument of judgment for the sins of the Canaanites, but God’s purposes for Israel’s conquest and possession of the land went far beyond the punitive.

Israel was to take the land first and foremost because God had promised it to them as part of a unilateral covenant made hundreds of years before.  Why?  So that they could be a nation of witnesses to the fact that Yahweh was the one and only true God over and against all other so-called national “gods.”  Conquest was one of the primary ways that one nation’s god proved its superiority over other gods.  If Yahweh was going to demonstrate His supremacy over all other gods, conquest of the land was a major means of demonstrating that in a way that the surrounding nations would understand very well.

The elimination of the Canaanites was a safety measure intended to help Israel maintain their undivided devotion to Yahweh so that they might reveal His greatness and goodness to all the nations of the earth.  As we know from the rest of the story, their failure to drive out and destroy the inhabitants became their downfall in the end.  Rather than exhibiting the character of God to those around them, they wound up forsaking Yahweh and going after and being led astray by the gods of the Canaanites.

Thus, God’s somewhat shocking command here was hardly arbitrary or unrelated to the context and timing of the conquest itself.  Failing to appreciate this can result in a failure to understand the character of God, as well as the importance, necessity, and means of divine judgment.

But there is another concern here that bears mentioning and additional reflection, namely the notion of “holy wars.”  Some have suggested that on the basis of passages like these, “holy wars” might be justified in our time, just as they have been in later history.  It is no secret, for example, that the Christian Crusades against Islam for access to the Holy Land were similarly seen as “holy” and commanded by God.

However, the theocracy that Israel was living under when the Canaanite conquest took place and the kinds of secularist and pluralist (non-religious) governments that we now have in most places are vastly different.  While I understand there is a movement in some Christian circles to restore a kind of theocratic rule of Christians over the nations today—sometimes called theonomy or “dominion” theology—I believe this is ill-conceived and poorly supported biblically.

The point is this: governments and their militias today do not have the same covenantal relationship to God that Israel had in that time and are therefore not in a position to legitimately claim divine prerogative to go to war in the same way that Israel was sometimes commanded by God to do in the Old Testament.

There is a long history of just war theories, starting from at least the time of Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th century that can be referred to regarding when a nation can and cannot go to war, how that war should be waged, and whether or not Christians should ever fight in war, and if so, in what capacities.  But they all recognize the crucial differences between theocratic Israel at the time of the conquest and the God-ordained governments—both secular and religiously influenced—since that time.

Is God a moral monster?  No.  But we sometimes arrogantly think we know better than Him in terms of how He should have handled and how He should now be handling national, international, and especially our personal affairs.  This merely reveals that just like Adam and Eve, we do not adequately understand or affirm the wisdom and goodness of His ways, the holiness of His character, and the loving nature of His purposes and plans for us and our sin-infested world.  Perhaps we (not He) are the moral monsters of our time.

Giving Up and Giving Out: Reflections on Lent

I grew up in what many call a “low” church tradition.  Besides Christmas and Easter, we did not follow the rhythms of any traditional annual liturgical calendar.  I thought that sacred seasons like Lent were only practiced by more “rigid” and “ritualistic” denominations.  For my classmates attending such churches, Lent was a time to complain about all the things they wanted but couldn’t have because they had to “give it up for Lent.”  Consequently, the practice held little attraction for me.  I enjoyed the spiritual freedom of eating, drinking, and doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. 

It was only after moving to Singapore that I began to hear and think more seriously about the meaning, practices, and significance of Lent.  I learned that because Easter is celebrated toward the beginning of spring, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word that means to “lengthen,” referring to the time when the days getting longer in the northern hemisphere.  In addition, I realized that Lent is linked not only to the Easter event, but also to the 40 days of fasting Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the onset of His active earthly ministry.

I also began to appreciate how Lent was really a privilege and gracious invitation to grow nearer to Jesus Christ through acts of identification and participation in His sacrifice and sufferings on my behalf.  Jesus willingly left His heavenly position of power and prestige to live the humiliating life of every man (Phil 2:5-8; Heb 2:14-18), endure hardship, temptation, and weakness (Luke 4:1-13), and ultimately give His life as a faultless and sufficient sacrifice for sin (2 Cor 5:21).

In giving up His life, Jesus simultaneously gave us His moral righteousness, divine position, and eternal life, by forgiving us, raising us from the dead, and seating us with Him in the heavenly places the moment we placed our faith in Him (Eph 2:4-9).  As we think deeply upon this unwarranted kindness and grace of God in Christ, we should be overwhelmed by His undeserved, sacrificial, and immeasurable love.  It should compel us to ask, “How can I thank you, Lord, and how can I more deeply appreciate all that Christ has done for me?”

Leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter, Lent calls us to a time of voluntary hardship, reflection, and thanksgiving to help us to enter more fully into His sacrificial life, humiliating death, and glorious resurrection.  We do this in two primary ways: giving up and giving out.  By giving up, we willingly sacrifice something important and pleasurable to us; a beloved food, a favorite TV show, a special drink, an entertaining activity like being on social media.  This “What?” must be decided upon between you and the Lord, but the idea is to suffer the loss of something you love and enjoy as a concrete reminder of all that Christ lovingly sacrificed for you.

But Lent is not meant to be merely a call to give up.  Just as Christ gave up many things, He also gave out—offering us forgiveness, holiness, honor, hope, and eternal life through His giving up.  Thus, Lent also calls us to give out in our giving up.  As we sacrifice something for the season of Lent, we are also encouraged to think of it as a time to give to others what we don’t typically or easily give.  It might be the offer kindness and forgiveness to someone you would rather remain angry with.  It might be the gift of food or drink or money or time or service.  Again, the “What?” is something to discern from the Lord.  But as you live in sacrifice through Lent, you are also called to live in generosity and joyful thanksgiving for all that God has given you by sharing those gracious blessings with others.

In the end, there is a certain mystery to Lent.  When done for the wrong reasons, it can become prideful, misdirected, and nothing more than a dead or legalistic ritual, devoid of any real meaning or benefit.  But when done with the right attitude through the power and love of His Holy Spirit, profound spiritual growth and Christian maturity results, and God is both pleased and glorified.

Should I follow the truth wherever it leads?

I often hear this phrase in academic circles: “You must follow the truth wherever it leads.” In a thoroughly post-enlightenment rationalist age where the life of the mind is considered the highest form of human activity, this statement makes perfect sense. From a thoroughly biblical perspective, however, it can be quite dangerous. The key question is what is meant by, “truth.”

The unstated assumption is that pursuing “truth” will always lead toward reality. But if postmodernity has taught us anything, it’s the fact that the idea of truth is value-laden. And I have watched far too many scholars, in the name of “pursuing the truth,” follow paths that clearly led them away from Jesus Christ, the One who declares Himself the truth (John 14:6) and reminds us that God’s word is truth (John 17:17).

In fact, our finitude greatly limits us, and sin infects every aspect of our being, including our intellectual capacity to find and discern truth. As a result, the pursuit of truth is never a neutral enterprise. We have unrecognized assumptions, vested interests, prior propensities, limited perspectives, and underlying commitments that skew our ability and desire to perceive, acquire, and properly apply truth. As James Spiegel puts it in The Making of an Atheist, “Sin corrupts cognition, which leads to more sin, which brings about a further corruption of the mind and so on. The overarching point [of Romans 1] is clear: immoral behavior undermines one’s ability to think straight, at least about certain issues.” As such, genuine truth-seeking requires more than intellectual capacity and curiosity. It also demands virtues of courage, rectitude, humility, and submission.

I have met some truly brilliant thinkers who think at a completely different intellectual level and with a far greater capacity than the rest of us. But the more I see truly brilliant people, the more grateful I am that God did not make me one of them. For all of its benefits and greatness, brilliance is also exceptionally dangerous. When you become convinced that you’re smarter than everyone else (even if it’s true), it’s a relatively small step to believe you are also smarter than God, or at least smart enough not to need or trust Him. Brilliance makes it easier to forget that you are not comparing yourself to other mere mortals but challenging the wisdom and knowledge of the omnipotent Maker, Sustainer, Lover, and Redeemer of the universe.

There comes a time in the life of every honest person when the ability to know is obviously outstripped by our sin-distorted perceptions of reality, our limited capacities of the mind, and the inherently complex and mysterious nature of a finite universe created by an infinite God. At this point, we would do well to demonstrate a certain level of humility and surrender to the incapacity of our finitude and the obfuscating influences of sin.

But like all other noble pursuits, we can make the pursuit of what we want to be true an end in itself, another idolatrous absolute detached from the One and only true source of truth: God made known through Jesus Christ. This detaches truth from its source, giving it an ambiguous independence that is grounded in nothing more than our perceptions of and desires about the way things really are. It essentially denies that truth is embodied in Jesus (Ephesians 4:21) and ignores the exceptionally distorting power of sin and the profoundly limited nature of our knowing. Instead, we desperately need the corrective aid of the incarnate Christ, God’s authoritative word, and His Holy Spirit who says He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

Enlightenment rationalism made an idol of human intellect. Postmodernism has made an idol of personal perceptions and desires. But this is nothing new. Back in the time of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminded us in Romans 1:18ff that we create idols whenever we suppress the truth in unrighteousness and refuse to give God the thanks and honor He warrants and deserves. We may deceive ourselves into believing we are following the truth wherever it leads when we are really only seeking after the things that we hope and want to be true.

As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel once (in a refreshingly honest way) confessed in The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

In contrast, for Christians, “following the truth wherever it leads,” takes on an entirely new significance and meaning. It entails becoming a Spirit-empowered disciple of Jesus Christ, a faithful and diligent student and doer of God’s word, and a person who loves, thanks, and worships God in spirit and in truth. That’s the only journey worth taking no matter where it may lead and what it might cost.

Leaving Behind a Lasting Legacy

Now that I am a grandfather twice over, I’ve been thinking more about the Christian legacy I will leave behind when my life is finally over. Who will carry the torch of Christ’s salvation to the generations that follow? What will the children of my children’s children care about and contribute to society? What kind of people will they be? Will they come to know, love, and serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Sadly, many people in our world today question the value of children. Perhaps they are only consumers who will produce a larger carbon footprint, an inconvenient and expensive drain upon the earth and our personal time and resources; or maybe they are just the unfortunate and unintended “product” of an erotic sexual act. In beautiful contrast, Solomon rightly calls children a precious gift and a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3).

Against the growing contemporary resistance in some parts of the world to having children, the push for progeny in many parts of Asia is so strong it can even overshadow the significance of God’s greater purpose for our lives. Part of this push is the ancient social security system ensuring that parents are cared for in their old age. But it is much deeper than mere pragmatics. The passion to pass on one’s bloodline and family name suggests that I can somehow live forever vicariously through my physical progeny. This assumption and drive can eclipse other much more important factors for determining whether or not one’s life is well-spent.

I’m grateful that my parents gave me physical life, but infinitely more grateful that they imparted spiritual and eternal life by sharing and living out before me the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as grateful and delighted as I am that God blessed us with children and now grandchildren, they did not come into the world to justify my significance or pass on my DNA and family name. Nor did they arrive to ensure I am cared for when I’m old. In fact, their purpose is far greater.

Like my parents before me, my highest hope and prayer is to leave behind a legacy that runs deeper and longer than mere flesh and blood, a legacy recognizing that the family of God transcends material genetics and has an unbreakable bond that holds fast for all eternity. Our adoption into God’s family demonstrates that spiritual offspring are infinitely more important than merely physical ones.

The lasting legacy I want to leave behind is one where people come to know, love, and serve God well because I knew, loved, and served Him well. Thus, while physical progeny are glorious gifts from God, leaving behind an everlasting heritage of passionate followers of Jesus Christ is by far the greater privilege, higher calling, and deeper desire. May He use us powerfully for this much loftier and lasting legacy.

The True Measure of Human Flourishing

It is sometimes said that no one can tell anyone else what they can and cannot do.  There’s significant self-referential irony in the statement, given that the claimant is telling the hearer what they cannot do.

Of course, the real assumption here is that claiming some choices are morally better than others is arrogant and judgmental.  In short, it’s immoral to tell others that some things are immoral.  No one has the right to deny someone else the freedom to pursue personal fulfillment, self-determination, and happiness in any way they want.  This is especially true for those seeking the opportunity to marry and have sexual relations with whomever they wish, whether male or female.

One of the problems (there are many) with this argument is that you cannot measure human flourishing with the yardstick of present and momentary feelings.  Nor can you measure it through the limited categories of individual (or even communal) human perspectives.  From a purely sociological point of view, human flourishing has to be measured by at least three things: the demonstrated character of the person, the ongoing interpersonal engagement of that person with other persons, and the ultimate well-being of all those impacted by such practices over the course of a significant period time.

In general, people with reliable and loving character are better off and more beneficent than those who consistently make poor and selfish choices.  You can always find exceptions, of course—someone who has bucked the general system by (for example) chain-smoking and drinking heavily for 60 years, but is still able to make lots of friends, hold down a job, never get lung cancer, or have a DWI conviction.  But this is an exception precisely because it is rare and unusual.

The rapidity with which our society has flung open the doors to same-sex marriage, widespread drug use, overt sexual experimentation, celebration of transgenderism, and government-funded medical and chemical sex-change procedures, even performed on adolescents and children, doesn’t just sadden me; it greatly alarms me.

Bald internalist expressions of self-generated ideas of what it means to flourish are deeply problematic because they cut themselves off from the corrective and collective wisdom shared in and with other humans (not to mentioned God Himself) long before any of us came onto the social scene.

I fear we are only just beginning to see the long-term damage and fallout of a contemporary society that has embraced individualistically (im)moral positions that will lead to lasting and long-term psychological dysfunction and societal destruction—ironically, all in the name of greater psychological health and human flourishing!

In the past, people had these same thoughts and did many of these same things, but they entertained and did them in the face of a social consensus which considered them abnormal, harmful, immoral, and anti-social.  Even these people often considered them to be self-destructive and wrong but felt like they just couldn’t stop themselves.  Now, such expressions are celebrated and promoted as the best and greatest means to human flourishing.  As a result, we live in a society that is more suicidal, unhappy, dysfunctional, and drug-addled than at any other time in its history.

But far worse and more dangerous than this, these lifestyles also drive people away from the One who made them for a better and more meaningful purpose in this life.  It also endangers any opportunity they might have to enjoy intimate fellowship with Him for all eternity.  Against the pursuit of happiness in this life, God beckons to us to surrender to and be reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus Christ, and then follow hard after the arduous but deeply rewarding pursuit of His holiness instead.

Jeremiah 6:16 puts it this way: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

God has given us paths to take and yokes to shoulder so that we might genuinely flourish in this life as well as in the life that is to come.  But at the same time, the second part of Jeremiah 6:16 is tragically telling: “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”  As a result, the nation of Israel, and all who were part of it, suffered significantly.

God’s offer for true flourishing remains, but the choice to surrender to Him and pursue it is still ours to make.  Above all the din and clamor for a more “progressive,” “open,” and “free” society, God calls to and beckons us back into the safe confines of an eternal love relationship with Him.  He offers His biblically-revealed ancient paths and ways to genuine and everlasting human flourishing, and He shows us that we were created to embody and reflect His holiness, experiencing and enjoying His sweet fellowship in the midst a world deeply distorted, marred, and broken by sin.

Do you want to truly flourish?  Take up the yoke of Jesus and walk in God’s ancient paths by the power of His Spirit and you will experience His ultimate and enduring rest in this life as well as eternal life in the one that is to come.

Regarding Reparations (Part Four): Is giving reparations helpful?

Injuries

In the first part of this four-part series on reparations, we explored some of the biblical foundations for why reparations might be an important part of bringing hope and healing to the racial issues of our time.  In the second part we raised the questions of rightness as well as who should receive reparations for the injustices of the past and why.

Part three explored questions surrounding the practical application and fulfillment of any program of reparations.  In this fourth and final post, the question of whether or not giving reparations is actually helpful will be examined.

Is giving reparations helpful?

Are reparations truly helpful for rectifying injustices and facilitating genuine restorative change?  Does it actually help rid society of injustice?  Does it create new injustices?  Do the costs incurred offset the benefits rendered?  And how does the idea of “helpful” get determined in the first place and adequately assessed in the aftermath?

In short, is it genuinely helpful for society as a whole, especially for those receiving the reparations, or does it merely perpetuate dehumanizing dependency, creating another generation and class of state wards?  Are reparations truly empowering or are they little more than peace offerings to ease the uneasy consciences of those in positions of power and privilege?

Given this, I think at least two critical additional question arise.  First, why do we want to give reparations?  The question of motivation matters because if we claim to be acting from moral obligation and a genuine concern for others, when in reality we are only trying to assuage a guilty conscience and/or create another voting block of financial and emotional dependents, our dangerous and devious duplicity should be exposed for what it is.

Second, and more practically, how, exactly, do we give reparations?  For example, how much is appropriate and what form (or forms) should reparations take?  Vouchers?  Training institutes?  Tuition reductions?  Tax breaks?  Advancement incentives?  Affirmative action?  Quotas?  Goods and services?  Cold, hard cash?  All of the above?  Some of the above?  None of the above?

Most advocates agree that whatever form reparations take, they should include some way to empower the recipients as well as provide a fair and workable system of accountability.  People are not ennobled if they simply receive something without any expectations to take what they are given and use it to rise up, grow, develop, and give back to others.  When we give people something without really expecting anything of them in return, we encourage dependency and ultimately belittle them as creative and productive persons who are made in God’s image and meant to contribute constructively to society.

Many current discussions about reparations revolve around questions of payments and affordability.  In short, most people are asking: How much?  Who gets it?  How will it be distributed?  How are we going to pay for it?  Those are important questions, but they do not hit at the heart of the issue in terms of lifting descendants of oppression and racism out of the cycles of dependency and poverty that continue to plague them and their progeny.  Reparations without long-lasting social changes remain part of the problem rather than a road to resolution.

In many ways, these are problems of the heart, attitude, and mindset.  This is why these issues will never be solved by materially political, educational, and economic solutions alone.  These God-ordained social and political institutions can certainly help (or, unfortunately, also hinder) the process, but the problems are deeply spiritual in nature and require wholesale reorientations of entire communities, from top to bottom, as well as everywhere in between.

Only God through the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring about those kinds of radical and enduring transformations.  But I suspect it will require a radical reordering and fundamental change in the values and practices of the Church as well as each and every Christian to bring about such change.  It may sound cynical, but I honestly wonder if we as the Church are really willing.  We may not want to openly admit it, but perhaps we prefer it the way it is because it keeps us relatively comfortable, safe, and unscathed.  We do not have to face the messiness and inconvenience inherent in being directly involved in the generational sins (and their consequences) of others.  Neither do we have to come face to face with or confront the insidious sins of our own greed, indifference, self-reliance, and self-satisfaction.

In Conclusion

To sum up and conclude, contrary to the claims of some, we are not directly guilty of past wrongs, even those committed by our immediate ancestors.  But simply affirming we are not guilty of past evils in this way does not mean we have nothing to grieve over or confess to God and others on their behalf.  Neither does it mean we are innocent (even through ignorance) of personally benefitting from such systems at the cost of the well-being of others.  Through mere inaction and indifference alone we may have helped perpetuate injustice in our society.  Consequently, we are certainly not absolved of a biblical responsibility to try and rectify all contemporary wrongs and work toward a more just society in our time.

As such, it seems like some form of reparations (even if we do not call them that) are an appropriate means to this end.  Ultimately, we must recognize wrongs, past and present, for what they are—wrongs—and seek to set them right as much as we are able, even at the cost of our own comfort and safety.  Anything less is an abdication of our Christian calling and a perpetuation of sin.

For far too long, the Church has looked to the government to solve social problems we are better suited, situated, and solicited by God, through the power of His holy Spirit, to solve.  As Dennis Hollinger reminds us in Choosing the Good, “To make justice the domain of government alone is to negate personal responsibility and to expect too much of this necessary but fallen institution.”  Our calling and strength come from God, and we must not shrink from the obligation and opportunity to show Christ’s love and concern for the poor and oppressed in our time.  As Proverbs 14:9 powerfully reminds us, “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.”