“Just” Musings

In the preface to his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf reflects on the question Jurgenn Moltmann askes him, “But can you embrace a cetnik?” A cetnik was a term for the Serbian fighters who had been recently herding Volf’s people into concentration camps, raping woman, burning down churches, and destroying cities. Volf took a while to answer, but immediately wanted to say, “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” Volf’s further comments in this regard are striking. Volf says in the first chapter of the same book, that he sensed “an unexpressed expectation to explain why as a Croat I still had friends in Serbia and did not talk with disgust about the backwardness of their Byzantine-Orthodox culture” (16). In the sidebar, I’ve written, “I also feel that sense as a Christian who wants to work with Muslims.” Volf continues, “But the new Croatia, like some jealous goddess, wants all my love and loyalty. I must be Croat through and through, or I was not a good Croat.” Again, in the sidebar I’ve scribbled, “So sad, I kinda know what that’s like.” I feel the same. There is this not-so-invisible expectation… that my religion forces me to hate, or act unjustly, to the Muslim (or to anyone else who significantly disagrees with me, or is different than me). When I see unjustness I’m to let it slide for the sake of Christ, for the glory of Christ… after all, I am a Christian, and I exist for the glory of the one true God! Somehow the circumstances justify the unfair representations, the hateful attitudes, the misinformed arguments… Why would we need to be just, to “them?!”

I don’t think Volf is exaggerating when he says, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference” (20, Exclusion and Embrace). The problem remains – the nonrecognition and misrecognition of “the other” actually does inflict harm, is a form of oppression, and is ultimately a way we imprison others. BTW, Just because it turns into a cold indifference over time doesn’t make it any less evil… exclusion as assimilation, or domination, or abandonment, is always, always evil. To exclude inappropriately is to be unjust. And we Christians know it is our duty to “do” justice – that is, we ought to “live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish.” (177, Keller’s Generous Justice) This seems obvious, but it’s a pretty big request. Actually, it doesn’t even follow that a Christian can also be at the same time, unjust. Why, then, is “doing justice” so difficult?

I’ve just finished reading Keller’s “Generous Justice” and it’s got me thinking. I’m reminded that ultimately, in Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Ramachandra’s words, justice is “scandalous.” The scandal is in Jesus commanding “when you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends… instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind… (Luke 14:12-13).” And Jesus didn’t just preach justice, he lived justice – Keller reminds us how Jesus showed the greatest respect to the immoral woman who was a social outcast (Luke 7:36ff)…resisted the sexism of the day (John 4:27), refused to go along with the racism of his culture, making a hated Samaritan the hero of one of the most famous parables (Luke 10:26ff) and just about started a riot when he claimed that God loved Gentiles as much as Jews (Luke 4:25-27), etc. Yeah, that sounds about right… justice makes people upset… it causes riots… then and today… why?

It seems to me – and tell me if I’m wrong – that most of us think of “justice” in two ways. It goes something like this:  We think, “On the one hand, justice is what I (and my peeps) deserve. For all the good reasons, I deserve justice of the best kind. You know, I deserve to be spoken to appropriately. I deserve respect. I deserve to be represented how I would represent myself. I deserve everything I’ve received, and probably a lot more. Justice should flow to me and my kin (family). Ultimately, God’s grace makes a lot of sense, for me. But I’m not so sure the same applies to everyone… certainly not EVERYONE deserves this same justice.” And this is the other side: “What about those people whom I so disagree with? Whom I don’t understand? Whom I don’t automatically respect? Whom I don’t know? Who disagree with me? Do they deserve the same sorts of justice as me? Certainly not. There are GOOD reasons, to withhold justice from my enemies (neighbors).” Justice is defined one way when we are speaking of family, and another way when we are speaking of our neighbors.

Tim Keller’s chapter 4, “Justice and Your Neighbor” was my favorite part of his book, where he comments on the parable in Luke 10, where Jesus eventually asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?” (Luke 10:36) In this parable, Jesus was giving a radical answer to the question, “what does it mean to love your neighbor?” and in doing so, Jesus refuses to let us limit not only how we love, but who we love. A significant point of the parable is that anyone at all in need – regardless of race, politics, class and religion – is your neighbor, and the true neighbor is the one who acts mercifully towards that person in need.

And yes, this is fair. After all, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are…very undeserving.” But we all inevitably run into the question, “When you talk about loving our neighbor, you can’t mean someone like her [insert someone you think doesn’t deserve it], can you?”

Then, in chapter 5 Keller speaks to the real problem… we all know we are to be just, but none of us feel like we have a significant enough motivation to act justly. Ultimately, Keller believes a proper motivation to “do justice” includes:

1)      Joyful awe before the goodness of God’s creation, and

2)      The experience of God’s grace in redemption.

After all, we know “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. It is immortals who we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and other Addresses, 46). That “other” is a human being made in the image of God, just like you and me – no better and no worse. So we are to be rejoicing in the goodness of God’s creation within the other, all-the-while as we remind ourselves of God’s outrageous grace in redeeming people like us to Himself.

C.S. Lewis describes beautifully, as always, what this duty of “doing justice” looks like. He says, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken… This does not mean that we are perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sin in spite of which we love the sinner” (88).

Keller says, “A lack of justice is a sign that the worshippers’ hearts are not right with God at all, that their prayers and all their religious observance are just filled with self and pride” (50). This must be true, since “An encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice (49).” Keller continues, “To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need” (102).” But I’m curious, why is it that we don’t “wear justice?” How come so few Christians are characterized by others as having a humble and cooperative spirit? Perhaps we don’t have a James 1:17 understanding – which reminds us that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice and beauty across all the human race, regardless of people’s beliefs. But, again, I ask, how come many of us don’t have a deep desire for full shalom – complete restoration and reconciliation with one another?

Almost anyone who knows me knows I want to work with Muslims for the rest of my life. I want to help Christians understand Muslims, and vice versa. I’ve loved Muslims for as long as I can remember… It seems it’s the only just thing for me to do. I’ve grown up hearing all sorts of things about Muslims, much of it blatantly false (unjust). What grieves me is the fact that my message – and my goal of helping each side see each other clearly – is not wanted by all Christians – including some who are very close to me. Why?

Justice is scandalous. It is uncomfortable. Speaking justly of the other requires me to place my feet where they walk. It requires me to admit “the other” is more than an object – S/he is a person who has legitimate reasons for saying what S/he says and believing what S/he believes. Justice forces me to stop making overgeneralizations. Justice forces me to shut up… to listen… to learn. Justice forces us to mingle with those who are different than us. Justice forces us out of isolation, ignorance, or an intolerance of difference. Justice pushes us into the real world and makes us better. When we “do Justice” we reflect Christ’s personality to others. No wonder this stuff causes riots, the process is painful. It’s hard for us Christians to be generously Just in the same way Christ was generously Graceful with us. But isn’t the pain worth it? I can see that I’ve got a long road ahead of me. Justice isn’t “cool” for everyone… not every Christian wants to do it. But Keller’s book Generous Justice was a reminder for me that the Christian God is just, and was generously just to me, and it’s OK to want that same justice for others. As C.S. Lewis described, I really do feel the burden of my Christian duty towards justice, to take the other seriously… and I don’t need to apologize for that…

“Can I embrace a Muslim?” I can, and I should.