Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Cross and Social Justice (Midweek Message)

The Cross and Social Justice
Fr. Tony’s Midweek Message
October 18, 2017

Walter Brueggemann, in his magisterial Theology of the Old Testament, points out that throughout the Hebrew scriptures, one finds two great thematic threads. On the one side, there are the priests, concerned above all about the holiness of God, the separateness of God, and the need for God’s people to strive for purity and ritual holiness, to be special and set aside for God’s service.  “You shall be holy for I am holy,” we read in Leviticus, and there follows hundreds of detailed rules setting boundaries and defining categories to help achieve holiness.    On the other side there are the prophets, who stress above all God’s demand that we strive for justice and treat people, especially the marginalized, decently and fairly. 

The two themes often seem in opposition.  The priests and the Law talk a lot about purity and holiness.  The prophets tend to talk about dealing with others justly, especially the poor, widows and orphans, and the foreigner. For Samuel, Amos, Isaiah, Micah and others God says things like:  “I expect obedience, not sacrifice.” “I hate your sacrifices because you mistreat the widow and the orphan.”    “All I really ask of you is to treat the poor fairly, and to walk humbly with me.”  For the priests and teachers of halakhic law, however, God say things like, “You will be Holy for I am Holy, says the Lord.”  “You shall not pollute the land with impurity, or I will destroy you.”  “You shall drive out pollution from among you and separate yourself from uncleanness.” 

Brueggemann says that the two traditions are both important and mutually corrective. The boundaries established by the Law are what define and preserve the People of God, and allow ethical monotheism to flourish.  But if holiness is not tempered with the call for social justice, it becomes empty ritual, mere ceremonialism and obsessive-compulsive concern with purity.  It becomes a tool for oppressing others.   On the other hand, calls for social justice in the absence of an authentic call to holiness rapidly degenerate into the most obvious self-serving form of interest-group politics. 

This last week while I was in Chicago, I heard the Rt. Rev. Daniel Gutierrez give a presentation on the evangelism of social justice witness.  He made much the same point, casting it within the context of our Christian faith and experience and expressing it starkly:  without focusing on Jesus on the Cross, there is no social justice. 

“We preach nothing else but Christ, nailed to the Cross,” said St. Paul.  The great mystery of the incarnation, of God Almighty becoming one of us, sharing our human nature and frailty, and suffering along with us, is at the heart of our faith.  God on the Cross, God suffering along with us, taking all the evil the world can throw at us, is the basis for our hope, since after Calvary’s dark night comes Resurrection morning.  “Time on the cross” was thus one way black slaves in American history described their suffering, and expressed their hope for liberation. 

When we call for social justice, we should have a clear understanding that this is required for preserving the dignity of all of God’s creatures.   We should have a deep understanding that it was Imperial force and the privilege of the powerful that put Jesus to death on the Cross.  Without such an understanding, our efforts quickly are reduced to the worst sort of interest group politics.  It all becomes who gets what piece of the pie and no more.  It slouches into “hurrah for our side,” and targeting our opponents, sometimes with the very unfairness that we have suffered.  This degenerates all too easily into the very power politics, interest group wrangling, and politics of identity that put Jesus on the cross.   

Grace and Peace. 
Fr. Tony+