The joy of the righteous works justice, and ruin to evildoers.Proverbs 21:15 Aramaic Bible Translated into English
All of humanity dreams of a world where justice, equity and the common good are available to everyone. As I begin my reflections on justice, I do so with the recognition that the word itself is under assault. So much of our current political and cultural discourse is being contested around what is truth and justice and who has the authority to determine how these terms are defined. Whether it is news or fake news, commerce or common good, ecology or capitalism, welfare or tax cuts, liberal or conservative, institutions or community subsidiarity, every area of modern existence is subject to the huge pressure to fight for its public voice and give an apologetic as to why it should be heard. Those who engage in the battle for ownership of words such truth and justice, recognise that if their interpretation of justice prevails then they (whoever they may be) will gain an ascendency and this political ascendancy then becomes the mandate to shape society into their own image.
For the follower of Christ, truth and justice cannot and never have been formed in the image of a political ideology. They are manifestations of the essential nature of the Creator God whose revealed will in Christ is to liberate us from worldly aberrations and restore us to our rightful place in the Peaceable Kingdom of Heaven. So I want to start with two stories that I believe illustrate the spiritual and moral tension that we currently find ourselves in.
When I first became a Christian I undertook a bible study on justice and righteousness. As with most newly blooded men of faith, I found the bible an intimidating read, I would rather give myself to activism and pour my energy into pursuing the idealism of social change, than spend time in quiet devotions that smacked of a middle class mediocrity, this son of working class heritage did not do. However despite my obvious hubris I conceded that the Bible was an important book, and I knew intuitively it spoke uncompromisingly in regards to matters of social justice and righteousness. On a very basic level, if Bob Marley could sing and quote the Bible in his songs, there must be something to be discovered.
So grabbing an old RSV translation off the shelf (a shabby old book I was never going to open to the daylight) I proceeded to start one of the most important studies of the bible I have ever undertaken. As I turned each page, I scanned for a number of keywords – righteousness, justice, poor, poverty, widow, orphan, oppressed etc. Indeed any word that was directly addressing the theme of my study, namely ‘A God of Righteousness and Justice’. As each page turned up the words I was looking for, I ripped that page from the book and began creating a pile of loose pages on the floor next to me. Hours later I was confronted with the uncompromising truth I had set out to find. The old leather bound book was hollowed out, and the floor of my front room was littered with the voice of prophets and the activity of Gods justice as recorded in the Bible. The lesson I learned was clear. If you take justice and righteousness out of the Bible, you do not have a Bible. The starkness of the exercise created a shock wave in my spirit that continues to unsettle my life and devotions to this day.
Secondly I recall a London conference on Justice and Culture where I was asked to facilitate a working group on justice. Our group focussed on the externalisation of justice. Justice as politics, Justice as mission, as public morality, justice as legal constitution or the failing criminal justice system. To what degree is God’s justice restorative or retributional? For our group, the default position concerning justice was to see our understanding of the word encoded as an external reality; a law, a rule that must be obeyed by all in society as a manifestation of Gods sovereignty over the affairs of the nation. For others the role of the Christian in this justice process was to act as a mitigating force for the extremes of injustice, and in some way campaign for our beliefs and outwork them through social action projects. Some even saw it is a means to an end – the salvation of souls. What was interesting throughout the entire workshop was how each group found the rationale for their understanding of justice primarily in the witness of the Old Testament and how God had interacted with the people who came to be know as the Israelites. The need for laws in our time, were justified by laws created in Israel’s time. Caring for the poor and oppressed was cited as essential based upon Old Testament prophets acting as a counterpoint to the failure of the people of the law to live up to their ideals. No-one in our group spoke of Jesus as being authoritative in our understanding of justice.
I, like many British Christians am very proud of the ground breaking men and women of faith who over the centuries have demonstrated a strong tradition of ushering in social change for the liberation of the poor and society at large. Social reformers like Lord Shaftesbury and the non-conformist Quaker John Cadbury, abolitionists such as St Patrick, Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale are all examples of ground breaking pioneers who saw that their faith in Christ had clear social implications. The creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the founders of the worlds first National Health Service all gave witness to the power of groups, inspired by faith and their conviction in Gods justice giving rise to social change that has in turn contributed to a more systemic equitable society.
In recent years Christians in Britain have been stepping up to the plate and actively shaping British Churches response to the climate chaos we are are now engulfed in. Ruth Valerio my wife in terms of her theological reflections on lifestyle and Arocha UK’s Eco-Church audit are just two examples enabling tangible change that is rooted in the Christian tradition of social and now creational reform and care. God is the Creator and we as the created ones, have a due diligence to care for, not exploit, our world for the common good. On a side note – if climate chaos is teaching us anything, it is how economic greed enshrined in the doctrine of capitalism is fundamentally at odds with the truth of God as Creator. However all these great acts of social and creational reform are the fruits, not the roots of the great river of justice that flows from heaven to earth.
As a practitioner of new monasticism, the call to start all over again rings daily in my ears. A call to return to the origin and roots of the faith I profess, and to yield to the unrelenting call of Christ in the poor and creation that is again searching us all out to walk authentically ‘the way of righteousness and justice’.
Jesus is the role model.
As a follower of Jesus, this challenge of pursuing Gods justice has been a defining expression of what I believe God has called me to be. It has equally at times, been a burden, an idol, a source of great anxiety and an obstacle to the maturing of my faith. How does one fulfil the primary mandate to ‘follow Christ’ whilst maintaining a just interaction with the world? Or is this even a requirement of the disciple of Christ? Drawing primarily from Johns Gospel, I want to explore the idea that without a Christ-centred (Christological) foundation, rooted in the primary call to Imitate Christ in life and spiritual behaviours, Kingdom activism cannot find its fullest expression in whatever arena we may be called to work in.
No man has seen God at any time; The Only Begotten God Who is in the bosom of The Father, he has declared him – And I have seen and have testified that This One is The Son of God.John 1:18, 34 Aramaic Bible Translated in English.
I start with the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus as the full expression of the Divine personhood. This incarnation presents me with an immediate window through which to understand Justice. Jesus is the Son of God as John the Baptist confesses and John witnesses too.
In the origin The Word had been existing and That Word had been existing with God and That Word was himself God. This One himself was at the origin with God – And The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of The Only Begotten of The Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:1-2. Aramaic Bible translated into English.
As a member of humanity He was equally divine and I understand this to mean that to be God is also to be fully realised human. Jesus as ‘the son of man’ (the term Jesus used of himself to describe his humanity), must therefore be the distinctive and unique authority in all matters of social and creational ethics. For Jesus (as the fullness of God) not to be seen as authoritative in these matters would be to deny the divinity and humanity of Christ. He fully inhabited this planet as a human being. Jesus is the centre of the Christian faith and defines Christian practice. This is the essence of the new monastic praxis – to imitate Christ in all aspects of life. I reflect on the incarnation of God as an act of intentional communication as to these social and creational priorities. The word becoming flesh and living among us demonstrates that Jesus and the way of justice are in fact, inseparable. Consequently how God chooses to do something is authoritative for the follower of Christ.
The challenge therefore is to seek to contemporise the actions of Jesus into our modern reality, rather than politicise them, which seems to be the dominant pre-occupation of western evangelicals at this current time. What does the incarnation teach me in regards to Gods justice and perfect plan for redemption and cosmic reconciliation? Simply put it teaches me that Jesus is the role model for engaging the world and the truest manifestation of natural and creational justice that we can look to and imitate.
The Perfect Community
At this point I need to reflect on the Holy Trinity. Jesus does not operate in glorious isolation. Individualism, as a meta-narrative, does not exist in the Godhead. Jesus is a part of a holy community, namely the mystery of the Holy Trinity. A perfect community in which exists, the entirety of heaven & earth and all that has been created. John the Baptists announcement of the arrival of Jesus gives one of the earliest visual illustrations of the perfect community that is the Godhead.
Yohannan testified and said: “I saw The Spirit who was descending from Heaven like a dove and remaining upon him. And I did not know him, but he who sent me to baptise in water, he said to me: ‘The One on whom you see The Spirit descending and remaining, This is The One who baptises in The Spirit of Holiness.’ And I have seen and have testified that This One is The Son of God.”John 1:32-34. Aramaic Bible translated into English
Here is a picture of God’s perfect world of mutual love, appreciation, submission and creativity. To use a negative theological approach for a moment, there is no: fracture, social alienation, abuse, crime, power distortion or use of coercion, manipulation, accusation of fake news or violence in what John the Baptist witnessed at the baptism of Jesus. There is no injustice in the character and nature of God. It is creative mutuality at its most intense and sublime. As God breaks into the world, the Trinity’s moral consistent signature is extended to the world we inhabit.
For in him All Fullness is pleased to dwell, and to reconcile all things by him to Itself, and by him It made peace by the blood of his crucifixion, whether of things that are in Earth or that are in Heaven.Colossians 1:19-20 Aramaic Bible translated into English
The Trinity speaks to the justice of God in a relational way, not a legal way. For many justice is seen as a law, an individual right, or a constitutional settlement designed to protect individuals from the extremes of others actions and acts of moral turpitude. In our world these laws act as a way of maintaining a common accord and standards of behaviour that should promote peace. However we all know that human laws are flawed and that Justice and the law are often in contradiction. In the Trinity there is no contradiction. God is Just, it is the very fabric of the moral essence of the Holy Trinity. God can be none other than just in all things, knowing no injustice, fracture, alienation, sin or evil within Godself. This just moral character is fully embodied in Christ and acts as a witness to us all as to the true nature of justice. It is the Trinity’s desire not to punish and condemn, rather to restore and redeem.
I believe that it is this ‘lived reality’ in the lives of the followers of Christ that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was seeing when he wrote his famous lines on new monasticism to his brother Karl-Friedrick,
The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do thisExtract of a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his brother Karl-Friedrick on the 14th of January, 1935.
The Imitation of Christ is therefore not only a sign of a genuine disciple of Christ, it is also the very substance of the way of righteousness and justice. As we imitate Christ in life, we are embraced again by The Father, in the loving bond of the Holy Spirit. The goal of the imitation of Christ is to complete the life long walk towards freedom, a freedom that is so exquisitely demonstrated in the Perfect Community of the Trinitarian Godhead.