Amos. First Peter. Two of my favourite biblical books through which to preach.

Doing so, however, creates tension inside me. Amos is a sustained attack by God, through his prophet, on the presence of injustice among the nations of the world - and especially within His people, Israel. It is unrelenting. It is blistering. God is so ticked, so angry. He hates injustice. It is only in the final few verses of the final chapter that we get some relief. In 1 Peter, Peter writes to scattered believers who are suffering unjustly for Jesus' sake under an oppressive Roman regime. Probably not martyrdom yet, but certainly harassment, abuse and marginalisation. In the middle chapters of the letter he calls them to submit. The S-word is there. It can't be massaged into 'stand up for your rights' in some way. Nor can it be deleted, simply because the motivation to submit is linked directly to the example of Christ himself.

A blistering attack on a totally unacceptable injustice. Repent!
A plea to endure an apparently acceptable injustice. Submit!

I can already hear the scholars among you rattling your swords. But I am a simple chap. Here is how I've tried to resolve this tension over the years: fight less about injustice done to me and fight more about injustice done to others. Let my advocacy for my self and my own rights be lost in an advocacy for the rights of others, near and far, locally and globally (and yes, hopefully, there will be those who do the same for me, but I can't count on it happening). As a result I benefit from the character which submission grows in me and my life demonstrates that God is a God of justice, every bit as much as he is a God of mercy.

Not sure I've ever had anyone fully agree with me on this approach (people tend to smile, or nod - and then change the subject) - until Fleming Rutledge, in The Crucifixion. She comes close... As an American speaking largely into the American Christian context, she critiques the way the individual has eclipsed the collective (the pronouns me:I are favoured over the we:us, even the they:them) - and the way the mercy of God has eclipsed the justice of God. Because of this the Christian life becomes about the mercy of God engaging with me, far more than it is about the justice of God engaging with us - and them. A consequence? Well, in the early chapters there is a bit of refrain that repeats: "in our world, something is terribly wrong and must be put right" (143, and elsewhere).

Listen to a few quotations:

If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends, though, on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one's group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.  There is a great challenge here. Whenever we take up the cause of justice, we can easily be drawn into an inflated idea of ourselves and our work. To understand the radicality of the gospel, it is necessary to realise that God is on the side of the defenseless, whoever they are(143-144).

Or, a few pages earlier, in a section entitled, "Where's the Outrage?":

Most people tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse. People turn out for justice when the issue is something that affects them directly, but it is difficult to generate public enthusiasm to support justice for somebody else, or some group other than one's own (128).

Or, the paragraph immediately above this one:

When affluent Americans think of heaven, we tend to think of celestial serenity, natural beauty, and family reunions. Black Americans and other disadvantaged groups would be much more likely to think of God's promise that there will be ultimate justice. For anyone who has suffered great wrong, it is important to know, as the book of Revelation promises so wondrously, that all wrongs will be righted (Rev 21.3-4) (128).

The public is outraged all over cyberspace about all kinds of things that annoy us personally ... but outrages in the heart of God go unnoticed and unaddressed (129).

Or, as this section, "Where's the Outrage?" draws to a close:

John the Baptist stormed out of the desert with a fiery message, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath of God?" In our own day, in our haste to flee from the wrath of God, we might ask whether we have thought through the consequences of belief in a god who is not set against evil in all its forms. Miroslav Volf writes, "A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence". Perhaps the reason we have trouble with this is that we ourselves are accomplices. Yet most people will say at some point that their "blood boils"; the question then becomes, what is the boiling temperature? If our blood does not boil at injustice, how can we be serving the God who said the following through the prophet Isaiah? "Woe to you who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people (Is 10.1-2)". (131-132)

This paragraph, just quoted above, sparked a footnote from Rutledge:

I had a conversation in the 1970s with a representative of a conservative evangelical missionary organization at the height of the repression by South American military governments. I asked him about his group's stance in view of the political conditions. His exact words were, "We don't recruit any workers whose blood is going to boil at injustice (132).

Do you get the idea? In so much of the church, especially in 'the West', the individual has eclipsed the collective, the mercy of God has eclipsed the justice of God - and it has created a mess that too few people care about, or even notice.

Let me ask you the question Rutledge asks, "Where's the Outrage?" for you?

I've been thinking a lot about my answers to that question. I feel outrage quite often. I need to be wary that it is sourced in a submission to God, not a lack of submission! It is uncanny how often the latter can be true. Here are five areas that come to mind, pretty quickly and in no particular order.

1. Today's mind-moulders, especially the media and the universities, can have such a self-righteousness about them. They consider themselves to be so neutral, so objective and so tolerant. But they are not. The 'intolerance of tolerance' comes to mind, as does the social engineering that can so readily happen. It is an outrage. These powerful atheists and agnostics (as so often they are the ones at the heart of this) need to be reminded gently that their assumptions are every bit as religious as any theistic religious person.

2. Yesterday I stood for the Indian national anthem before a movie and I will do it again on Wednesday, Independence Day. I enjoy doing so, but never to diminish nations across the border. I am a Kiwi and enter into the flags/anthems, especially on sporting occasions, but never to diminish nations across the water. But how about a single flag displayed inside a church building? Some churches in NZ have the flag of the modern political state of Israel at the front - near the cross, near the pulpit, near the communion table. What?! I wince. I recoil. It is an outrage. A bit like in the USA where their flag is a ubiquitous part of public worship. I've never understood it. The purposes of God have never been dependent on the fortunes and well-being of an individual nation and so we shouldn't give the appearance that this is the case. It is all about the church as a trans-national, global identity. If you want flags, make some effort to have a whole bunch of them, for God's sake.

3. Terrorist acts which impact white people carry much more weight and surface much more compassion in the public mind and heart than terrorist activity among people who are not-white. This is also true of what are sometimes called natural disasters. If you were a new immigrant to this earth, watching us behave for the first time, you might even conclude that white people are more valuable than those who are not white. It is an outrage. What else could possibly be said?

4. It is rare to find a Christian who is equally concerned about personal ethics and social ethics. But we should be. We should cross the (political) divide. It is an outrage. In my home country the government is about to loosen laws around abortion and euthanasia (as in personal ethics). Many Christians won't care at all, even if the rights of an unborn baby are further diminished for the sake of the rights of the mother. And what about poverty and racism (as in social ethics)? Across the waters, in the 'land of the free' with its rogue President, there is a controversy about football players kneeling when the anthem is sung. These players are using their freedom to quietly protest racism, injustice, and police brutality. Good for them, I say - and Kareem Abdul Jabbar agrees with me (Amos as well, I suspect). But where are the Christian leaders, from across the theological spectrum, supporting these players doing this noble act? Nah. Methinks it is too difficult for too many to feel outrage for issues around both personal and social ethics at the same time and in the one single heart.

5. #MeToo must be mentioned and where I live and work the stories are even worse than the ones in the headlines and before the courts where most of you live and work, as you throw in infanticide and dowry and trafficking alongside the other issues. It is an outrage.

So, how is your list of 'outrages' coming on?

Are you sure they are sourced in your submission to God, his will, his ways, his word - or just you getting angry? Are they merely about you and your group, or are they about others? Rutledge is right with her subtitle: 'understanding the death of Jesus Christ' is the place to begin. As we do so, please, please, please can we move beyond imaging the Christian life as only about the mercy of God engaging with me and include the justice of God engaging with us - and them?

nice chatting



Paul Burton said…
Thanks for these provoking thoughts. I expect for many of us the immediate personal issues consume most of our energy, our faith, mental and emotional energy. This is not an excuse. We need to be more outraged, and a mercy not only for us but that flows through us to become a cry for another's justice. I'm considering reading this book.
I've always understood the tension of submission for personal injustice and fighting for another's injustice as an expression of following Jesus in taking up the cross. I've often wondered at most loving and kingdom of God effective way to fight for others being treated in justly.
Paul B
Paul said…
Thanks, PaulB, for taking the time to engage with what I've written. It is always difficult to be outraged about the bigger things beyond 'me and my group' - but this is part of the challenge now of pastoral and missional leadership at a local level. I'm sure you have your ways of trying to help people through this dilemma. I wasn't clear about the point you were making about the kingdom of God in the final sentence ... if you have a chance to explain it further, that would be great. PaulW
Helen Brereton said…
Paul, thank you for this timely post. We have just started a sermon series on Micah - their first OT series in many years, and my first full 'book' sermon series as a pastor. Your blog has given words to the tension I have been battling as I've rested in and wrestled with each week's text. I'm also challenged by your blog to review our worship songs given we are formed by the words we sing in worship - its a small change, but I will be looking for opportunities to change I/me to us/we. Thanks again
Paul said…
That is so good to read, Helen. Micah is such a good option. I've always thought that preaching through the prophets is a great way to see/feel/hear the heart of God against injustice. Micah. Malachi. Amos. Plus it prepares you for the cross! Not sure if you have easy access to theological books - but see if you can find Abraham Heschel's The Prophets and read his 25 page Introduction. I was never the same again. Blessings as you preach - Paul
Josh Pound said…
Thanks Paul, a cracker!
Preach the text, feel the confrontation of God, wrestle with the tensions, and get to work.
My head’s been in Revelation lately. Feels like a similar tension- resist conformity to the oppressive regime in Jesus’ name, and endure the hardship that results.
I appreciate your prophetic voice.
Paul said…
Yes, indeed, Josh. You are so right. The fascinating thing with Revelation is that John makes it clear that is both a letter and a prophecy. Makes for interesting interpreting! Good for you for tackling the book. I never had the courage to do so as a pastor, but have enjoyed overcoming that fear in more recent years. I did a post on this some years ago, describing what I learned that helped me overcome that fear - maybe you've seen it. But here is the link, in case you haven't: http://paulwindsor.blogspot.com/2012/10/preaching-revelation.html

If I was still preaching in NZ, a biggie for me would be to remind people that Revelation is primarily Resistance Literature, not Relevance Literature ... blessings on your way.

Still in Whanganui?

Sarah Rice said…
Hi Paul,

Thanks for letting us read over your shoulder. I have not read the book you are reflecting about. It sounds very interesting. In this comment you’re reading over my shoulder while I am in Fiji researching the importance of the vanua for iTaukei entrepreneurs.

I was recently at a seminar at the University of South Pacific in Suva. One of the speakers spoke on how the Methodist church had a constitution saying that iTaukei could not self-advocate about injustices they were personally experiencing (such as loss of land). The missionaries had eloquent scriptural arguments, (interpretations more influenced by enlightenment thought) and argued that instead, they were to speak on their behalf. The result of this was devastating for iTaukei people (the newly published ‘Disturbing History: Resistance in Early Colonial Fiji,’ surveys this well). I am also seeing the impact in the stories I am hearing here.

In West Papua there is a Pastor speaking against the immense injustice he and his community have been facing. He has been told to stop self-advocating (which is wrapped in advocating for others) and to let westerners advocate for him in a more ‘rational’ way. In Zimbabwe Pastor Evans stood up and received critique from western Christians for talking about injustice he (and others) face in Zimbabwe. They often are not coming from an individualistic stance in their self-advocacy – it is wrapped in holding hands with others.

I have seen this tension often, that when people facing oppression speak out, there are often western Christians telling them to be quiet in Jesus’s name, while they speak for them (with the belief they understand the issue more deeply than the person facing it). Paul himself talked about how he spoke the truth to those who oppressed/persecuted/mocked him but he also responded and served them in love so that they could not find fault in him. He ‘submitted’ with a loud voice! In the OT and NT people personally go to God with their experiences of injustice, pain or loss. This is different from human rights, as the goal is Christ. Here where I am they are self-advocating about some immense injustices and in doing so people are coming to know Jesus and are experiencing a freedom that is defined by obedience to Christ.

People are often vastly misrepresented when they are spoken for, not with. Liberation theologians talk a lot about agency—the ability to have a voice and take action. Research in post-development thought or alternatives to development (the field I am in) shows that no matter how oppressed people are they often still have a level of agency. People are not passive voiceless victims but more often it has to do with the lack of value placed on that voice. I think there still is a place for us to advocate with others but I think it looks vastly different from speaking for others. The letter of Philemon and Galatians has formed a lot of this thinking.

This is where I am up to on this :)
Paul said…
Hi Sarah. Thanks so much for this comment. I've read it again and again, right through this week. It makes me want to add a sixth outrage to my original post. Like you, I feel a recoil inside with this "speaking for others" phrase that you use - although I'm not sure that "self-advocacy" is the only alternative. I've mentioned Amos and Peter. You've mentioned Philemon and Galatians - but there is more in the scriptures than even these books. What I couldn't shake off as I read your comments was solidarity, the interdependency of body-temple-household imagery in the New Testament. Not "speaking for" at all, but "standing with" - on the basis of deep trusting friendships that issue in strong both-way partnerships. Everyone having something to give; everyone having something to receive.

I deleted the paragraph in the original post, but I have vivid memories of Garth Hewitt putting his feet under our table while we were in pastoral ministry in Invercargill. Garth travelled with TEAR Fund, singing his songs about injustice - which we loved. But I'll never forget something he said one day to me (in about 1987). "If the global church had behaved like one church - in a 1 Corinthians 12 kind of way, suffering with those who suffer, pouring indispensability on those who may feel dispensable, giving special honour to those who are denied it etc - apartheid in South Africa would never have lasted as long as it did."

It is to 1 Corinthians 12 that my mind travels when I read about Fiji, West Papua and Zimbabwe in your comments. I can't see any speaking on other peoples' behalf here, especially the stronger speaking for the weaker. A repulsive thought. Genuine solidarity, authentic interdependency could not possibly think this way. But within the global body of Christ - and I realise your research and thinking roams far wider than this - I'm not not sure I am yet ready to reach as far as endorsing "self-advocacy" because the vision of solidarity in my mind would make this less necessary. But ya got me thinking about it, yes you have.

thanks so much - and may God continue to lead and guide you in your research and thinking


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