June 5, 2020

Wanting and Doing Justice

associate pastor

associate pastor

Ken Rathburn


He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

Let’s just get it out there: I feel uneasy and unprepared to write this post. I’m a white man who is most often surrounded by other white people, who has made nominal inroads of friendship with members of the black community. I have never held any role in law enforcement, and lack the required bravery and fortitude for such an impossibly difficult job. So much has already been said in the emotionally charged discussion going on in our world right now. All of us can be so quick to voice opinions on social media—the place where small snippets and short soundbites rule the day. Christians are to be, as James reminds us, “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20) This is true and it should lead us to take a pause and a deep breath before most of our posts, comments and re-shares.

And yet, justice in this present moment demands more than pensive silence. The deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were nothing short of gut-wrenching. The horrifying public killing of George Floyd took place at the hands of an officer of the peace who swore an oath to serve and protect. While it happened—for an excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds—other officers stood by in what can only be described as apathetic silence. These people were human beings, all stamped with the indelible image of their Creator (Gen. 1:26-27). Hearts are breaking and the grief is real. Peaceful protests in which many police have joined are popping up across our land. Cries for ‘justice’ fill our air. These are noble things, which have sadly been overridden by the chaos of criminal riots and looting. And all the while, the upright members of law enforcement—all the ones I have ever known—continue to faithfully serve and protect the image bearers who remain.

How are we, as followers of the One who died unjustly for the life of many, supposed to make sense of all this? How do we fit into a time where people want good things but are deeply divided and schizophrenic on how that should look? Where do we turn when everything seems to be ripping apart at the seams? Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-16), always speaking the truth in love to a broken and confused world (Eph. 4:15). That is not done silently or in hiding, but also should not be done in a reactionary way. Before we attempt to season with salt or add illumination with light to this over-charged conversation, we first must know what our Lord has to say about this justice that we all desire.

God loves justice and wants it in His world.

We serve a God who loves justice. From Genesis to Revelation we see that justice is close to the heart of God—central to his mission of redemption and restoration for a broken world that is marred by sin. When God first called Abraham to make a people for himself as a witness to who he is, he said it was so for “his [Abraham’s] children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19) The Psalms—God’s prayer book for us—contains the same constant refrain. “He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” (Ps. 33:5) It is because of justice that God rules over all Creation. “But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice.” (Ps. 9:7) He will allow this world to suffer injustice for a little while, but justice he will dispense. “For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.” (Ps. 37:28)

More than this, God’s love for justice is a big part of why he cares for the afflicted and the downtrodden. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” (Ps. 103:6) Because of this we—all of us—can have confidence that God will see that justice is done. “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.” (Ps. 140:12) Seeing and knowing the character of our God means we are not alone in our efforts to transform the world into a more fair, more loving, more equal and more just place. Far from it. In fact, it means that whenever we feel our heartstrings tugged toward a desire for justice that we have received that desire directly from our Lord. It is his desire for his world, too. But it goes beyond desire and must shape how we live.

Seeing and knowing the character of our God means we are not alone in our efforts to transform the world into a more fair, more loving, more equal and more just place. Far from it.

God cultivates in His people a heart for justice.

Because our God loves justice so much, because he takes up the cause of the oppressed and wants wrongs made right, he wants to see the same desires in his people. As followers of Jesus, our lives should involve two things: repenting of sin and trusting in Christ. Never perfectly, but ever increasingly, we are to live more like Jesus. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom. 8:29) And, if we’re becoming more like Jesus, we will have a greater desire to see justice in the world. Jesus talked about justice all the time. The Gospel of Matthew, quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, describes Christ’s ministry in terms of delivering justice to those who didn’t have it in society:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.

The Gentiles were despised by the Jews in Jesus’ time. They were viewed as an inferior race outside of the favor of God—not worthy of love, care or of anything approaching equality. But God says that he will send his Son specifically to bring them justice.

And when his Son came, he challenged people for claiming God’s name and not having his heart. He chastised the Pharisees, the religious and political leaders of the day who should have known better, for missing the boat on this. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42) Do you see? These religious experts were so meticulous in following the Law that they were tithing their spices! And yet, they had completely missed the reason for God’s Law in the first place. God’s Law was given to govern righteous living, and no one can live righteously without caring about those who are powerless—seeing them lifted up, seeing them finally receive justice.

We cannot love God without doing justice.

This is where the truth really begins to poke at us. If Jesus came precisely to bring justice to those who needed it, then justice is extremely close to the purposes and heart of God. So, being close to the heart of God is not possible without being close to justice. The Lord speaks through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Look how serious this is! God doesn’t want our celebrations or our worship services, our tithes or our offerings, our songs or our praise unless justice and righteousness flow from our hearts. This requires far more than wanting justice or just wishing the world was a more just place. It means doing justice. Consider Micah 6:8 (our Scripture memory verse for June at NAPC): “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Every time the Bible speaks of justice it does so in the context of action. Justice is of course something we should long for and cry out for, but it is more than that. It is something we are called to do.

What does all this have to do with justice for George Floyd and countless others? Everything! It means that, as Christians, the bar our God demands is far higher than we imagined. We cannot be passively sympathetic to the hard life of the oppressed, racial minorities and the downtrodden among us. A few social media shares and posts like everyone else doesn’t make the grade. Doing justice takes a change of heart, intentionality, and the giving of ourselves. It means that when the protests and marches die down (and they will), when the social media barrage is over (and it eventually will be) we are to be found doing justice. So, how do we do this you ask? Here are some places to start:

  • Pray and Lament — Before you assume prayer isn’t synonymous with action, you need to see how Jesus viewed prayer. He prayed a lot, and it was the first place he turned in temptation, in weakness, and as a way to ask his Father to move impossible mountains. Pray for the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery who are grieving and feeling left behind. Pray that racially motivated crime would stop. And pray that punishment and angst heaped upon the killers would bring repentance and a changed heart. Pray for the black community, which was already deeply hurting before these recent incidents. Pray for healing and the strength to forgive. Pray for the upright officers who protect us all, that they may know Christ’s patience in being blamed for the sins of others. Thank God that he is a God of grace who can do all these things and more.
  • Self-Examine — Our heart cannot be transformed by the Holy Spirit if we are unwilling to face the ugly parts within it. While most of us could not fathom being involved in a racially-charged crime (praise the Lord!), sin always starts with tiny seeds. In what ways might we think ourselves better than those who are different than us? That is the exact opposite of the Gospel message and those seeds come from Satan himself. By God’s grace, we must root out such lies from our hearts. We must not paint communities and groups with broad brushes. We must remember that each individual was made in the image of the Triune God.
  • Change Things Now — I’m not talking about joining a movement or quitting our jobs or moving somewhere to become social activists. Think realistically. When was the last time doing justice was the driver in a major decision you’ve made? When did it last affect how you spend your time? Our church continues to build a stronger partnership with many groups in Linden. Just a handful of miles from New Albany, Linden is a predominantly black community where our church has committed to love the people there and to form deep relationships with them for the sake of the Gospel. Who have you even met from Linden? How much time have you spent investing in friendships with those who live there? I know I have fallen woefully short at this and that desperately needs to change. How about you? Are you afraid of some perceived danger or does the idea of it make you uncomfortable? Be honest, and then let’s get over those fears. I’m not talking about completing a few charity hours to assuage a fleeting sense of guilt. No, I am talking about really investing time and looking for opportunities to love people so as to see cycles of injustice broken down. Send an email to linden@newalbanypresbyterian.org. Let them know you are ready, willing and able to take a first step.

Friends, the problem of injustice takes more than a bumper sticker level of commitment. But the commitment is so worth it. You see, the day will come when Jesus returns and he will wipe away every tear from every eye and pain and sadness will be banished for good. On that day justice will be done and it will live in the hearts of the people of God forever. May the vision of that coming day prompt us to start that process right now in small ways. Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. May the day of his return come soon.

Growing in grace along with you,
Pastor Ken