Compassion and justice, God’s two strong arms

two-strong-armsOne of the noblest sentiments in the American pledge of allegiance is the final line intended to describe the United States of America: “…with liberty and justice for all.” As a people, we Americans have strived to live up to that ideal yet have often fallen short.

Psalm 146:6-7a says nothing of liberty, but it does address justice:

God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people are starving! (CEB, italics added)

The passage continues (vv. 7b-9), providing a seven-fold description of divine justice.  Our just God…

  • frees prisoners
  • gives sight to the blind
  • lifts up those who are stooped
  • loves the righteous
  • protects immigrants
  • helps orphans and widows
  • frustrates the wicked

The church’s mission in the world rests on a simple premise:

Find out what God is concerned about then join God in that concern.

The common denominator for five of the seven groups of people on the list is powerlessness. What can those who are incarcerated give us? Not much. Or how about the destitute woman who has lost her husband, or the child left alone after the death of their parents? As for immigrants, they are sometimes in the most precarious position of all. Yet it is not the rich and famous who receive the LORD’s special favor. Rather, it is those who seemingly have little to offer in return – the last, the lost, and the least – who have captured the loving heart of our Father. In a world that coldly pushes them to the margins as unimportant, God draws them in, wrapping them up in loving arms, whispering comfort. His compassion is naturally accompanied by the stubborn pursuit of justice on their behalf.

The parable is told of a farmer whose land was adjacent to a river. One day when tending his field by the river bank, he saw a woman flailing in the water. The farmer quickly called his family and together they fished her out of the water to safety. An hour later, the scenario repeated itself, except this time it was a man in peril. The rescues continued all afternoon, until they had saved half a dozen from the river. The farmer’s daughter finally spoke up. “Dad,” she asked, “I’m glad we’ve been able to rescue these people from drowning. But I wonder: Shouldn’t we go up river and see who has been pushing them in?”

Psalm 146:6-7 carves out a place for both the exercise of compassion and the pursuit of justice. God feeds the hungry and gives justice to the oppressed.

Mercy and advocacy are the two strong arms that rescue and empower those most vulnerable.*

If God is concerned about prisoners, immigrants, widows, orphans, the blind and those crushed by life’s burdens, then how can the church – the People of God – not also be concerned?

Yet there are two more groups of people on the list, namely, the righteous and the wicked. If we as God’s people are to be like God, then we must do as God does. And what does God do? The LORD loves the righteous (v.8) but frustrates the wicked (v.9). Here is where the church can set an example for society. Do we praise our children when they do virtuous things or do we ignore them, thereby discouraging that behavior in the future? Similarly, do we disapprove of those among us whose self-centeredness makes them callous, even wicked, or do we elevate them? It pays to study what God does then follow God’s example. To do the opposite is to invite disaster.

We serve an amazing God! The LORD models how we can walk a different path, one of heartfelt concern for the powerless. Psalm 146 reminds us that this concern entails both compassion and the pursuit of justice, Gods two strong arms. In times that risk frustrating the righteous and rewarding the wicked, let’s reverse the order. Let’s love God’s way, resisting the urge to marginalize the powerless. Instead, let us enfold the last, the lost, and the least.

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*Note: I am indebted to former Nazarene Education Commissioner, Dr Jerry Lambert, who spoke of evangelism and education as the “two strong arms of the Body of Christ.” I have adapted that imagery for this essay.

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Image credit: Estudos Gospelmais

Holiness as compassionate advocacy

wesley
John Wesley often spoke up for the poor and their squalid living conditions in 18th century England.

When asked the nature of holiness, John Wesley (1703-91) often pointed to Mark 12:28-31. All of the commandments are summed up in just two: Love God and love your neighbor. This love is the essence of holiness and it is the foundation of all compassion.

In recent years, we’ve spoken of compassionate evangelism. Now it is time to lift the banner of compassionate advocacy. Advocacy is concerned for social justice. As such, it is hardly a distraction from Gospel work. Rather, it is part-and-parcel of the church’s holistic Good News. In his article, “Social Justice in the Bible,” Dominik Markl notes:

Prophets such as Isaiah and Amos raise their voices on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, those belonging to the ‘weaker’ social groups. God himself prescribes a brotherly and sisterly social order in his Torah, and, in the same divine wisdom, Jesus develops a Christian ethics of love.

Those who are not followers of Christ will judge those of us who are by how we treat people who have nothing to offer in return. Right now on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a few thousand Native Americans – water protectors, as they call themselves – are peacefully resisting the construction of a pipeline across their land. Their concern is that the pipeline is to pass under the Missouri River, potentially fouling its waters with oil in case of a spill. This is hardly an imaginary threat. On July 1, 2011, such a spill polluted the Yellow Stone River. So muscular has been the response to the current standoff in North Dakota that Amnesty International is sending human rights observers.

Why should followers of Christ care? The simplest answer is that we should care about what Jesus cares about. Isaiah 42:1-4a (CEB) is a prophecy of the coming Messiah:

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

As a nation, we’ve done a lousy job of co-existing with those who were here before our European forbearers arrived. We haven’t cared much for these “faint wicks” or about justice in our dealings. But what about the church, particularly the Wesleyan-holiness tradition that I call home? If we are about making Christlike disciples – and that is a crucial task – then we need to cast a broader vision of what being Christlike means. It is more than abstaining from sins that defile us; it is also about coming alongside the weak and the oppressed in their time of need, standing with them in their fiery trial like Jesus stood with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 4:25). How can we read a passage like Isaiah 42 then yawn as if nothing is happening in North Dakota?

Perhaps our inaction stems in part from few of us ever being water deprived, yet water security is a growing issue around the world. Drought can drastically alter how we view this precious gift. When I visited the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September 2015, they were suffering an extended drought. The missionaries with whom I stayed sometimes had to decide whether they would wash the dishes or wash themselves. Thankfully, we prayed for rain and God answered our prayer. I went away from that stay taking water a lot less for granted.

Neither do the Sioux take water for granted. They cannot drink oil nor bathe in it. You need water for that.

Some churches are speaking up. Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church issued a statement last August in support of the water protectors. In his statement, he noted the theological importance of water in Scripture, including it being the baptism symbol of new life in Christ. I commend Bishop Curry for speaking up, but it makes me wonder: As holiness people, where is our voice? If the essence of holiness is love of God and neighbor, then here is a clear-cut chance to show a historically mistreated people that we care. These are our neighbors. Where is our love?

I’m glad that God is raising up around the world a generation of believers for whom justice isses are Gospel issues. May they be patient with us who have been around a bit longer, we who have been slower to see that holiness is both personal and social. And once we’ve seen, may the Lord move us to compassionate advocacy.