Justice, Grace & Charity: Part 1

by Herb Montgomery | November 9, 2018

Autumn path in the woods


“We need justice that is distributive.
We need grace which is liberating.
Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.”


 

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

My younger daughter came home recently, visibly upset about misogyny in her high school. While she was speaking out against some of the structural, systemic privilege that boys receive at her school, one of her close male friends made a very patronizing, anti-feminist remark. She was shocked and disappointed. 

Later, she told me she couldn’t believe that one of her friends could have said and thought such a thing. She then repeated a saying I used to tell her when she was in elementary school. “Fish don’t know they’re wet,” she said. “He’s regurgitating only what he’s heard from the men in his life.” 

She wanted her friend to be a better human. She believed he could be a better human. She didn’t want to believe her friend could genuinely be so patriarchal. “He must not know any better,” she decided, and the next day she was determined to enlighten him. 

The following night she reported that her friend did apologize and had been open to listening. I wondered whether he was only trying to pacify her in order to keep her friendship, or was sincerely open to seeing another’s perspective. My daughter wanted to believe he was being sincere. “Oh this, by far, doesn’t fix things,” she said. “But it’s a start. We’ll see. Time will tell.”

Time will tell. For all of us.

This week I want to begin a two-week discussion of three words: Justice, grace and charity.

How we define each of these words makes a significant difference in whether we act as mere pacifiers for people’s or communities’ suffering or whether we go further and work as agents of change.

Justice

In the Hebrew scriptures, justice was understood not as retributive but as distributive. It was not about punishment but about resources and power being distributed fairly to all, so that everyone possessed what they needed to thrive. When justice prevailed, people would not thrive as individuals only: survival would not come at another’s expense. Instead, they were to thrive together. That’s the kind of justice that we find in the Jesus story. Matthew’s gospel refers to Jesus by quoting the book of Isaiah: 

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

“Bringing justice to victory.” I love that imagery. It captures the idea of distributive justice being presently obstructed, yet eventually overcoming through our choices for a more just world. Justice will one day be victorious.

Too often within Christian communities, justice is defined as retributive punishment or vengeance. This kind of justice then becomes seen as negative, something to be overcome by grace (another of our words this week that we’ll discuss in a moment). It becomes something that is escaped when grace prevails. But the hope of the gospels, like the hope of the Hebrew prophets, is not that justice will be overcome by grace, but that injustice, violence, and oppression will be overcome by justice—a distributive justice.

These same prophets do talk about punishment, too, but in the prophets’ writings and the gospels, the idea of punishment is restorative, not retribuitve. There were two Greek words for punishment in the cultures from which the gospels were written: timoria and kolasis. Both are translated in our English Bibles as “punishment.” Yet consider the ideas behind these two words.

Timoria implies causing people to suffer retributively. It’s very retributive and its purpose is penal. It refers to satisfying a need in the one who inflicts the punishment. Stop and consider that for a moment. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to satisfy a need not in the one receiving the punishment, but in the one inflicting or demanding it. That is retribution. (See Louw & Nida Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.)

Yet, as we know, there are other types of punishments—disciplines—that are not for the purpose of satisfying something in the punisher. When a parent rightly and healthfully disciplines a child, they don’t do so to satisfy their own retributive, punitive desire that demands payment from the child. Life-giving discipline is transformative, reparative, and/or restorative. It’s still a form of punishment. Yet the goal of restorative punishment is to win the child away from the behavior they have chosen to a different course. We should note at the same time that one of the perverse things about fundamentalism is how it teaches folks to inflict retributive, punitive pain and reframe it as restorative.

Kolasis implies this kind of reparative punishment, and Plato describes it in Protagoras:

“If you will think, Socrates, of the nature of punishment, you will see at once that in the opinion of mankind virtue may be acquired; no one punishes [kolasis] the evil-doer under the notion, or for the reason, that he has done wrong,—only the unreasonable fury of a beast acts in that manner. But he who desires to inflict rational punishment [kolasis] does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone; he has regard to the future, and is desirous that the man who is punished [kolasis], and he who sees him punished [kolasis], may be deterred from doing wrong again. He punishes for the sake of prevention, thereby clearly implying that virtue is capable of being taught.”

Various Greek lexicons and modern commentaries define kolasis similarly: 

  • “chastisement, punishment” (A Greek-English Lexicon To The New Testament, William Greenfield)
  • “the trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful” (Graecum Lexicon Manuale, Benjamin Hedericus and Johann August Ernesti)
  • “the act of clipping or pruning, restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement” (A New Greek and English Lexicon, James Donnegan) 
  • “pruning, checking, punishment, chastisement, correction” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Franz Passow) 

On later translations from Greek into Latin, Max Müller writes, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word for punishment, the Latin pæna or punio, to punish, the root pu in [Sanskrit], which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (in Chips from a German Workshop, p. 259). For still more on the differences between timoria and kolasis see William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed, p. 189, and J.W. Hanson’s Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine Of the Christian Church During Its First Five-Hundred Years, pp. 39-41)

What kind of punishment is kolasis then? It’s restorative, redemptive, and transformative. It’s the kind of punishment or discipline that a loving and functional parent gives a wayward child hoping to help them see the intrinsically destructive consequences of their choices so that they will turn from those choices and make better ones. It’s restorative justice, not retributive justice. 

What’s most important: whenever Jesus speaks of punishment in the gospels, the gospel authors use the word kolasis and never timoria! Jesus’ punishment is not a retributive punishment. It’s restorative, transformative punishment designed to reform the recipients.  

Yet, again, in the gospels and in the prophets, when they speak of “justice,” it’s not about punishment, but about a restoring a just distribution of resources. 

Consider this story in Luke’s gospel:

“Jesus said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’” (Luke 18:3-8)

In the gospels, then, the story of distributive justice is carried onward toward victory.

Grace

Grace is another word we find in the gospels. Consider how it is used in Luke:

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” (Luke 2:40, emphasis added)

Grace in the gospels is “favor that manifests itself in deliverance” (see Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible). It’s favor that works out liberation from oppression. 

In Christian circles, however, grace is too often defined as letting someone off the hook from punitive, punishing justice. In this context, grace becomes victorious over justice rather than justice being victorious over injustice, violence, oppression, marginalization, exploitation, subjugation, etc. When it’s all about grace, the discussion is about guilt alleviation rather than systemic change. The discussion is about a grace or unmerited favor that doesn’t condemn oppressors rather than a grace, a favor, that manifests itself in liberation for the oppressed. In the gospels, grace is expressed as a preferential option for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. It’s favor or solidarity on the side of those hungering and thirsting for distributive justice or “righteousness.” (See Matthew 5:6.)

One of my favorite stories of Gandhi is how when he bumped into the idea of grace as simply being let of the hook. Gandhi tells of interacting with a Christian he refers to as “one of the Plymouth Brethren.”

The Plymouth Brother says to Gandhi: 

“How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restlessness is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.’ 

Gandhi responded, 

“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: ‘If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.’” 

(Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, pp. 63-64)

Favor that manifests itself in liberation of the oppressed is miles away from favor that lets oppressors off the hook without discussing reparations or making things right.

Next week we’ll connect this to how the gospels speak of charity.

For now,

We need justice that is distributive.

We need grace which is liberating.

Only with both will we see far enough to have a life-giving discussion about charity.

We don’t need charity that is only temporary and leaves injustice not only untouched but also supported. We need a kind of justice and grace that shapes our world into one where charity is no longer necessary.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” (Matthew 12:18)

HeartGroup Application

This week, take some time together as a group and make a gratitude list.  There are plenty of things that still need changed in our larger communities. Yet progress is being made, too!  

  1. Each person write down three things you are thankful for this week.
  1. Go around the room, and from those who are willing to share, share why these items are valuable to you.
  1. Take a moment to bask in your gratitude and then name one area in which you see work still needs to be done.

picture of woman holding up two fingersAlso, don’t forget all contributions to RHM this month are being matched dollar for dollar.  You can make your support go twice as far during the month of November. [Find out more.]

 

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

God the Father, Exclusive Othering, and a Distributive Justice for All

Herb Montgomery | September 21, 2018


“And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, ‘I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’” 


“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

This week, we begin a series of articles on Jesus’ revolutionary prayer in Matthew’s gospel, the prayer we label today as “the Lord’s prayer.” This prayer  frames an outline we can use to consider the themes in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel. There’s much in it that I believe speaks to our work today of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

The outline of this prayer is:

Our Father in Heaven:
Be hallowed Your Name
Be come Your Kingdom
Be done Your Will

As in Heaven, so on Earth: 
Daily Bread
Debt Cancellation
Deliverance from temptation to evil

Those are the themes that we’ll be looking at. Now, let’s dive right in. 

Our Father in Heaven

Historically, the exclusive image of God as “Father” has borne bad fruit for those who are neither male nor fathers. Some in the dominant social position have weaponized it against those whose differences are “Othered” and then dominated, exploited, and destroyed them. One example aptly laid out by Grace Ji-Sun Kim is how these images of God have been used against Asian American women. In her book Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, she writes:

“As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth, Jesus was marginalized and stood in solidarity with the marginalized throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus’ incarnate life, kingdom teaching, and crucifixion on a Roman cross unveil God as a lover of justice, peace, and liberation.

While Jesus was a revolutionary, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus becomes reimagined as a supporter of empire. Classical theism in the West often emphasizes God as an Almighty Father. This patriarchal concept of God has often been wielded in destructive ways throughout the history of Western Christianity. Through European colonization, too often guided by a patriarchal image of God, indigenous cultures have been dominated and destroyed, Africans have been enslaved, Asians exploited, women have been abused, and the poor have been economically exploited. The male God image mediated through the Almighty Father has often had negative conscious and unconscious effects on women, especially women of color. God the Almighty Father has often been a theological tool used by white men of European descent to subjugate woman and people of color.” (p. 116)

This title for God, “Almighty Father,” has proven extremely vulnerable to being coopted by sexism, racism, colonialism, imperialism, and binary heterosexism for the abuse of those who, though not male and not fathers, are nonetheless bearers of the image of the Divine. For many, the phrase “Our Father” in such a transformative prayer as this is not an appropriate place to begin but a trigger of pain and suffering.

But for those also dedicated to contemplating and following the teachings of Jesus, this first portion of this prayer presents no small challenge. After all, Jesus was Jewish, and  Jewish tradition encourages practicing care with picturing  God in one’s mind’s eye. In the Torah we read, 

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This cryptic description of the Divine within the Hebrew sacred scriptures provides for a universality in bearing the image of the Divine. “I am who I am” is left cryptically defined.  The question could be asked, “Who are you?” We must practice caution against answering the question definitely, for any word that comes next will undoubtedly limit the Divine.  

There is a rich diversity within the human race. And to believe that all of humanity, every member of the human family, all of our human siblings, are made in the image of God speaks to the rich complexity of God, too (See Genesis 1:26).  Our concept of the Divine must become more expansive and inclusive. It is okay to speak of God as male and as female. It’s okay to speak of God as nonbinary and ungendered, too!  God is not just White, but also Black, Asian, and more. God has traditionally been defined within the imagery of heteropatriarchy. We must be careful to allow every person to see themselves reflected in an expansive image of the Divine because “in the image of God has God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6). And to the degree we exclude anyone from God’s image today, history shows we will exterminate them tomorrow. 

There are many ways to respond to this in prayer. Some of those who understand and practice this way of addressing the Divine in prayer use “Mother-Father God” or “Paternal God.” I’ve prayed, “Dearest Heart at the Center of the Universe.” I’ve also heard “Source of Light and Love,” “God of all nations,” “God of all peoples,” “Faithful One,” “Source of Wisdom,” or “Source of Goodness, Grace, Mercy and Justice.” On June 22, 2017, Rev. Kevin Kitrell Ross, addressed his prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives to the “Loving Presence,” and concluded with “In the name of a love supreme we pray.” 

The Jewish tradition seems to encourage not limiting God with our images of Divinity:

“You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)

I will admit that the authors’ intent in this passage was most likely to discourage people from using creation as any kind of referent at all, but I would also argue that this passage, therefore, leaves our image of the Divine as cryptic which also allows for an expansive and inclusive imaging that embraces the rich diversity of everyone. Jesus’ Jewish tradition would have given him sufficient grounds to have addressed his prayer in much more inclusive ways.

So why does this prayer in Matthew begin with “Father”?

We cannot ignore the reality that, like many of the cultures around it, Jesus’ culture was deeply patriarchal. Householders were almost exclusively men. Householders were “fathers.” In rare exceptions, widowed women might become householders. 

But there are some hints of another worldview in the rest of the prayer. It is a deeply economic prayer. Of all the things Jesus could teach his followers to pray for, he teaches them here to pray for enough bread for today, for all indebtedness to be forgiven in Jubilee fashion, and for liberation from evil as a violation from Israel’s covenant with YHWH. I believe, given the other content of this prayer, that deliverance from temptation to evil could have been a direct reference to the way the rich were exploiting the poor in violation of the economic teachings of the Torah. 

 “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

But back to our quest for understanding this prayer’s address, “Our Father.” Given that this prayer is grounded in economic realities, and in the Jewish patriarchal family the father was the householder, the one responsible for ensuring no one in the family had too much while others  didn’t have enough, John Dominic Crossan offers this fitting and possible explanation:

“[The prayer’s] vision derives from the common experience of a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?

“It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change here below so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? The Lord’s Prayer proclaims that necessary change as both revolutionary manifesto and hymn of hope. Do not, by the way, let anyone tell you that is Liberalism, Socialism, or Communism. It is—if you need an -ism—Godism, Householdism or, best of all, Enoughism. We sometimes name that biblical vision of God’s World-Household as Egalitarianism but, actually, Enoughism would be a more accurate description.” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 3).

Given the cultural context as well as the content fo the rest of the prayer, it could be synonymous to pray, “Our Householder in Heaven.” And Jesus’ point is that the will of the World Householder is that everyone have enough.  Within a Jewish worldview, the responsibility for carrying out that will has been delegated to humans. We have to ask ourselves what kind of world have we made with this responsibility. Jesus is calling for a community of people (the Kingdom) to come into being where the distributively just will of the World Householder is actually carried out. This is a prayer, within the contradiction of a patriarchal culture, that calls for an economic, distributive justice. How this prayer begins may still remain deeply problematic for many. But the prayer still offers us much. There is much to reclaim and to renew our hearts as we continue to work today toward a world that is safe, distributively just, and compassionate for everyone. 

The God who Jesus pictured for his listeners was a God who causes the sun and rain to fall on all indiscriminately. So if someone is going without, we have to look for the obstruction. It’s being “sent” to all, so who and what are preventing what we need for thriving from reaching all? As is often been stated, there is enough each day for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. In teaching this, Jesus was accessing his Jewish tradition:

“The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.” (Proverbs 29:13)

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:8)

This distributive justice spoken of by Jesus also has its roots in the way the Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power.

 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Crossan again notes, “the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly. The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is equitable distribution” (dIbid., p. 2). This was the great Hebrew hope of a distributive justice whose fruit would be peace.

“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne 
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it 
with justice [distributive] and righteousness.” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The fruit of that righteousness [distributive] will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) 

Amos names the error of prioritizing religious ritual over concern for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable. Two weeks ago now, the same group of evangelicals that produced The Nashville Statement last year put out another ugly statement entitled The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. I’m not going to link to it. It reveals the drafters’ and signers’ gross ignorance of both the gospel and social justice.   How many times do we see Christians practicing extreme care for their religiosity, while either being totally ignorant of or even opposing people’s cry for justice? Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “The kingdom and social injustice are incompatible” (A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 97). And if Amos were alive this week, he might have said, “I hate, I despise your endless religious statements that make you feel pious, protecting your phobias about those whose experiences in life are so different than your own. Away with your worthless statement and drafted expressions of bigotry. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

Jesus begins his prayer in a way that would have been heard and understood by his original audience. He paints a picture of the human family where everyone has enough to not only survive, but also thrive. 

I believe prayer, meditation, contemplation, and practices like these shape those who practice them. Over the next few weeks as we continue to contemplate this famous prayer, my hope is that it will shape us, too, into people who work to transform our world into a safe, compassionate home for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity, education, economic status, sexuality, gender identity and expression, ability, or whatever —a safe home for all, where everyone has enough.

“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’” (Matthew 6:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

There is a lot happening this week.  

Women all over the country are, again, hearing through our various news feeds and in private conversations family and friends the rhetoric of “boys will be boys,” “he was young,” “that was high school,” and more. Even before a hearing, the use of this rape culture rhetoric continues to perpetuate prioritizing violators over survivors. There is never an “okay” age for rape.  Teenage boys should not get a pass. To say they are not mature enough to understand consent is disturbing. As a father having discussions this week with both my son and my daughters, I’m deeply concerned about the messages being communicated to them right now. And as human being, I witness how these kinds of statements deeply impact the women in my life. I’m deeply concerned for what this continues to say to women, and survivors, and men.

  1. Take a moment this week in your HeartGroup to go around the room and affirm each of the women in your midst. Tell them that you value them. Be voices in their lives this week saying, “This is not okay.”
  2. If any would like to share, make time for the women in your HeartGroup to share how this week has impacted each of them. Listen to them. Let me repeat that. Men, listen to them.
  3. Lastly, put your feet in motion. What are some of the ways your group can engage the work of making our world a safer place for women? Create a list. Then pick something from the list and put it into practice the following week.

Thank you for checking in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

And remember, this is the time of year when Renewed Heart Ministries needs your support.  If you have been blessed by our work, please consider making a one time contribution or becoming one of our monthly supporters.  Go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate.”  Any amount helps.  And thank you in advance for your support.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.