Perhaps the only thing all Americans have agreed on in the past two years was the blown call in the Saints/Rams NFC Championship football game earlier this year. Everyone, including the referees, agreed it was a massive non-call that probably decided who went to the Super Bowl. The outrage over the injustice of that blown call has since provoked swift rule changes in the league. The injustice unified a nation!
At many points the church is in strong opposition to the culture. But one point where the church and culture are wonderfully aligned is in our abhorrence of injustice. Justice issues are very important to followers of Jesus and very important to most Americans. That’s a fortunate alignment.
But note that “justice” is a big squishy word that means different things to different people. To the legal profession, it means an equal application of the law. To disenfranchised people, it means straightening out a twisted system of favoritism. To conservatives, it means punishing bad guys, while to progressives, it means punishing conservatives! But everybody joins together in crying for justice. At least what they mean by “justice.”
It should be noted that we students of the Bible are careful not to clamor too hard for God’s justice. God’s justice, because we’re all guilty as sin, would mean we’d all be damned to eternal godlessness. Let me explain that: Because God’s core predicate is “love,” and because love consumes everything that is not “love,” we — who are oh-so-petty and unloving — would be victims of the perfection of the universe that an application of justice would bring. In our “unlovingness,” we are unsightly grease-spots on God’s clean canvas. The moment God decides to only be just, we’re toast — erased from the canvas.
Fortunately for us, that same love constrains His justice and extends to us all the possibility of “justification.” That is, through the grace-soaked pioneering work of Jesus, we may be “justice-ified”; we may be freed from the impending sweep of God’s perfecting love that will eliminate all that is non-love. I know it’s a lot of words, but it’s a lot of truth! That’s why we urge all to accept that grace of Jesus’ offering for us and to us.
But to be fair, that’s not what most of our friends are talking about when they demand justice. They’re talking about societal justice. Not just a legal-kind of justice; they want to live in a place where all are treated equally. They want immigrants to be treated the same as birthright Americans, and black youth to be given the same presumption of innocence as white youth. They want everyone to have the same access to health care, and they don’t want policies to discriminate between people, including gay and straight. (Same-sex marriage was enacted when advocates reframed it as a justice issue — a civil right — rather than arguing the actual nature of an enduring procreating union.)
Most reasonable people will agree that justice is a commendable desire. But how is justice achieved? As Wesleyans, Free Methodists believe that one of those pathways is to work for legal/policy changes. We advocate for governments and institutions to be just. For example, Wesley and his friends worked to abolish the slave trade. Even though many of his countrymen were arguing that the success of their own nation was more important that the abuse of Africans in the slave trade, Wesley fought back, “I deny that villainy is ever necessary. It is impossible that it should ever be necessary, for any reasonable creature to violate all the laws of justice, mercy and truth” (“Thoughts Upon Slavery,” fmchr.ch/jwslavery).
Wesley fought for justice through governmental change. Some will recall that the last letter Wesley wrote, six days before his death, was to William Wilberforce who eventually saw slavery outlawed in the British Empire in 1807. In a similar vein, we advocate for immigration reform so that the millions of people who inhabit the shadow-world we have created in our dish rooms, farms and construction crews may actually have a legal and just way to do their work.
But we Wesleyans simultaneously work for justice on a second level: the internal transformation of the individual. Yes, justice is achieved collectively but also individually. We labor evangelistically to see unjust men and women become just men and women. In Luke 3, John the Baptist challenges the crowds to, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (v.8 NLT). When they ask what they should do, he describes acts of justice:
John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
“What should we do?” asked some soldiers.
John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay” (v.11-14 NLT).
John is not suggesting that the poor will be fed by lobbying Congress in Jerusalem. He’s locating the justice-solution in the changed lives of men and women!
This is the beautiful position of people like us. We seek justice through both paths: individual and collective transformation. We seek personal conversion and societal improvements. We know that we won’t see the kingdom of God on earth by simply legislating justice, but we also know that we cannot silently witness injustice and excuse our inattention by claiming we’re laboring to convert individuals. Our response to justice is “Yes, and yes!”
Bishop David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.