My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 3: The Social Justice Heritage of the Jewish People

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:8

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” -Amos 6:24

I don’t know a progressive Christian who doesn’t love these two verses. (Or one who passes up a chance to write them on a protest poster or quote them in a meeting of community organizers.)

I’m no different. These verses played a big role in my return to the Christian faith after my early-20s disillusionment. To discover that there was a social justice strain in Christianity, and that it could be found explicitly in the Bible – in the Hebrew Scriptures, no less! – was huge for me.

img_4572But I don’t want to just talk about them like they are the opening lines of some kind of Social Justice Handbook for Christian Activists©. Instead, to reflect on the role they play as favorites of mine, I want them to inspire gratitude in Christians, directed towards the Jewish prophetic tradition in which Jesus existed, and out of which our own faith tradition grew.

Here’s what I mean: we Christians didn’t invent religious social justice awareness. In fact, we haven’t even been the ones who perfected it, or practiced it in its “best” form. That distinction goes to the Jewish tradition, the progenitors of the prophetic critique and social justice-minded faith.

The words of the Jewish prophets, which we are so used to reading today that seem rather typical, were radically new at the time of their writing. No other religious system of the ancient world had used faith as a critique of power. In fact, religions had long been used as props to the governing elites, confirming them in their exercise of power and rule over the vast majority of people. But the prophets of ancient Israel were a new force. They disrupted the power structures by declaring that God was not merely a rubber stamp for the ruling elite, but instead, had great requirements and expectations, rooted in justice for the people and mercy for the oppressed.

Thomas Cahill highlights this in The Gifts of the Jews, speaking of the Law that the the prophets defended and called the kings of Israel and Judah back to:

“…in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people. even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy…The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole of human history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Thus, these words of the prophets have context. They aren’t just something lefty Christians can appropriate in making the case for our preferred political candidate or policy. Instead, we must remember: these are words about God, and God’s grand design for Creation. They are words that aren’t just about holding the correct political positions; they are words about the very nature of the Universe, about how things should be. They are, in short, holy, inspired words, not to be used and discarded, but internalized and held as holy. For they reveal to us the nature of God.

So yes, these words can inspire us to action, to become followers of Christ in deed, and not just word. They can provide the moral underpinnings of our convictions about the work we feel called to do in the world. But, when we invoke them, we should always do so with a sense of reverence, and an attitude of gratitude, for the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, who have birth to the notion of a socially-conscious faith, and who shared that notion that comes down to us today.

My Favorite Bible Stories: Series Introduction

Part 1

Part 2

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My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 2: The God of my Enemies

jonahvtI don’t have a specific verse or set of verses today. Instead, I commend to you the entire book of Jonah.

Jonah is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. We all know it, heard it growing up. I am particularly fond of the Veggie Tales film Jonah. Those are some catchy songs.

But it’s what comes at the end of Jonah that I love. After being called by God and running, after being thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish and spit out on dry land, after a long and arduous journey across the desert of Syria to the enemy city of Nineveh, Jonah delivers his message to the Assyrians: repent, or perish at the hand of Israel’s God.

Message successfully delivered, Jonah leaves Nineveh, and camps out on a nearby hill to watch God rain down holy fire on the unrepentant barbarians. Why shouldn’t he enjoy a good show and well-deserved comeuppance for his enemies after everything he’s been through? And what a satisfying show it will be! Nineveh, after all, is the capitol of Assyria, Israel’s worst enemy, who had threatened them and attacked them and made their lives generally miserable. Finally, Jonah thought, justice will be served! God will save God’s people, by killing these others!

Only, it never happens. The king of Nineveh repents, and decrees a fast in the whole city, in order to appease God and avert destruction. God relents. The people of Nineveh, God’s very own children, are saved.

Jonah is pissed. Not only because Nineveh was saved, but because he knew this would happen. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah knew God would spare Israel’s greatest enemy, and he can’t stand it. He wanted justice. He wanted the very people who plagued Israel, who destroyed their land, to be wiped from the earth.

And instead, he got a God of mercy, and compassion, and love. He got a God who is not just his God, not just his people’s God, not merely a divine strongman protecting just the Israelites. He got a God of all people. A God who protects God’s own, be they Israeli or Assyrian or Greek or Roman.

I love this story, because it reminds me today that God is the God of America, of Christians, of the West. God is the God of all. God does not support our side against theirs. God does not ride into battle with us, to protect us and avenge us. God instead stands with all of humanity, on both sides, no matter the wrongs committed by either side. God’s justice is bigger than our justice. God’s mercy is more bountiful than our mercy. Indeed, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah reminds me that, when my country gets into a war fever, or descends into tribalism, that God does not condone such things. God loves all of humanity, be they American, Israeli, British, Palestinian, Iranian, Mexican, Chinese, Russian, French – all of us.

And if we expect God to vanquish our enemies, well, we will be very surprised to find that our God is not just our God, but is the God of our enemies as well.

My Favorite Bible Stories, Part 1: Abraham Changes God’s Mind

To learn more about this series, click here.

16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?[a] 19 No, for I have chosen[b] him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lordsaid, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[c] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Genesis 18:16-33, NRSV

When people think of God, they usually think of God as omniscient, all-powerful, unmoving. God for the majority of Christians is immutable, and human beings are incapable of changing God is any way. This is prevalent view of God pushed by the church for almost two thousand years. This view of God is not the Biblical view, but instead was imported from Plato and the Greeks.

Abraham_copy__58044.1442764602.1000.1200_largeAs a process theologian, I don’t see God that way. Rather, this story from Genesis illustrates my view of God much better. In this story, we see Abraham bargaining with God, reminding God of God’s promises of mercy and justice, and eventually even changing God’s mind.

Process theology views God as changing and growing with creation, not the “unmoved mover” far above and beyond it all. The God we find so often in Scripture is a God who feels and changes. God, through the experience of co-creation with humanity, is not static but is instead dynamic. The God I know is not omniscient and omnipotent, and this does not diminish God, but instead makes God more accessible, more loving and more able to feel along with humanity.

Abraham knew this about God. Abraham saw a vision of a more just and merciful world, and worked with God to make it so.

I love this story because it reminds me of the agency I have as a human being, the freedom and power God created me with, to not just be a passive receiver and conduit of the divine will, but to be a co-equal creator with God of a better world in every moment. Human freedom is absolute and God wills us to exercise it. God is not a prideful tyrant, unable to accept questions and doubts and challenges. In fact, we are compelled by God’s love to do so.