Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public

Saturday, June 06, 2015

In part two of this series on violence and the New Testament I discussed the tendency we have to embrace parts of Scripture that fit into the values we already hold, and side-stepping those that do not. I proposed that instead of doing that, we should instead have our values shaped by the way of Jesus.

The difficulty is that the way of Jesus, expressed in his teaching on enemy love, is something that is seldom taught in church, and largely not understood. As I explained in my previous post, if we don't understand something, we won't do it and will find ways to side-step it in how we interpret Scripture.

We see this in how conservative Christians embrace Romans 13 as a God-ordained societal model, but reject Jesus' understanding of the kingdom as one. This has little to do with biblical exegesis, and a lot to do with projecting one's pre-existing values into Scripture--using the Bible to support what we think is good, rather than having the Bible shape what we think is good.

In the case of Romans 13 the reason conservatives take this one small part and uphold it as a God-ordained societal model is that they are taking their pre-existing values of empire and projecting these onto this text. In other words, they defend state violence, not because they read the whole New Testament and concluded that this was its message, but because as part of the privileged class in America, they deeply believe in state violence, and so they use whatever snippet of text they can find in the Bible to support that.

So why do they embrace state violence? The basic idea behind state violence is we give the state the right to use force, including lethal force, with the idea that this will reduce violence. If you can call the police when someone takes your stuff, you don't need to take the law into your own hands, and that means less violence overall. It's a version  of Paul's statement in Romans 12:19, except it replaces the state for God, saying effectively,
Do not take revenge, citizens, but leave that for the police take care of it, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the state.

The result is that we feel safe in our homes knowing that the police are there to "serve and protect" and part of that is that they are permitted to use force, including lethal force if needed, to do this. That's the idea behind state violence, and why it is seen as "good." When people defend state violence, they do so because they believe that it keeps them safe. I recognize this. I'm glad we have police. I feel much safer knowing that they are there.

However, as we have seen in protests across the country in response to police shootings of unarmed black men, women and boys, many people of color do not feel safe around police. They do not feel protected, they feel afraid, harassed, mistreated, and in danger.

The reason conservative Evangelicals support state violence is that, as part of the privileged majority class of American society (and I should note that when I say "conservative Evangelicals" here I really mean white conservative Evangelicals), the system works for them. That makes sense. It works for me, too as a white male.

This however is not the perspective of Paul or the New Testament. Paul is writing to a people who are a persecuted and oppressed minority in the Roman Empire, not to those who are the privileged in that empire. The situation at the time of Paul's letter was an impending revolt against abuses surrounding taxes. The church in Rome was considering taking part in that revolt, and Paul in Romans 12 & 13 is telling them not to resort to violence, telling them that this is not God's way in Jesus.

At the time, it was inconceivable that Christians could have political influence in Rome. So Paul is not saying in Romans 13 "here's how Christian government should operate." Romans 13 is not intended to be a model for what Christians should do if they have political influence (which was not the situation they were in), it's a model for how a persecuted minority should act under oppression (which was their situation). Most of all this is about rejecting the solution of violent revolution and revolt that had been their script for centuries. Paul, and the NT in general, want to change that script of violent revolt. Paul rejects the way of the Maccabees.

So if we read Romans 13 today, from the very different context of a people of privilege living in the world's biggest empire, rather than seeing this as an affirmation of the values of empire, what the gospel and the way of Jesus call us to do is look beyond ourselves and what works for us, and to look to how our system is hurting others--especially the disenfranchised. I truly do understand why white conservative evangelicals embrace state violence as good. As a white male myself, the system of state-sanctioned violence indeed works for me. But Jesus shows me I should not only care about my own welfare, but especially for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and condemned in our society. For those people the system does not work, and these are precisely the ones Jesus tells me I need to pay attention to. As I care for them, I care for Jesus. And as I disregard and dismiss them, I do the same to Jesus. "As you have not done it unto these, you have not done it unto me. Depart from me!" 

That's quite the wake-up call. As Brian Zahnd puts it in A Farewell to Mars, Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:
The Poor. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink … I was naked and you gave me clothing.” 
The Sick. “I was sick and you took care of me.” 
The Immigrant. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” 
The Prisoner. “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25: 35– 36)

Jesus did not identify with power and privilege, but rather identified with the "least"--the poor, the sick, the immigrant--in short, he identified with those who were regarded as unworthy and even as enemies. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Over and over again in his parables, the good guys are those who are dismissed and despised and seen as "other" by those in power, and the bad guys are those with power and privilege who shut the door on them.

Romans 13 is not a model for what Christian political influence should look like. The fact is, the NT does not tell us what that would look like at all. This was beyond their horizon, just as the abolition of slavery was beyond their horizon at the time. So to move away from slavery, or to move towards lessening state violence, we need to go beyond where the New Testament writers were able to go. That's where a trajectory reading becomes so important.

Charting what that trajectory may look like is our task for today, and a place to start is to begin by seeing people as Jesus did, through the lens of compassion. The big problem with (white) conservative Christianity is that it is a theology that appeals to those in a position of privilege, to those for whom the system works. That's why the wealthy and powerful like and support it--because it does not call them out for their oppression, but upholds them as noble benefactors, focusing on private sins (usually sexual sins), and ignoring systemic sin. Both personal and systemic sin are important of course, but systemic sin is more important for the simple reason that it hurts more people. When conservative evangelicalism ignores the problems of systemic sin it misses a major aspect of the gospel. It is their persistent stubborn neglect of this major aspect of Jesus ministry and heart that led me to leave conservative Evangelicalism, as I found it incompatible with the way of Jesus and far too comfortable around Caesars and CEOs.

In regards to state violence, I'd say it is still beyond our horizon today to imagine how society would function without the use of state violence and force. However, there is a lot we can do to reform police brutality and abuse, to reform our profoundly unjust and broken prison system, and to reform the systemic abuses of our military from Guantanamo to the NSA. Just as it is a part of the gospel to care for the poor, it is equally a part of the gospel to care about justice, and to look for a better way of creating justice in our society today than simply mirroring Rome. In the words of Cornell West,

"Justice is what love looks like in public."

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6 Comments:

At 11:00 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Hi Derek ... Totally agree with your message here ... But as to Paul's intent in Romans 13, insofar as that matters ... If he's saying what you are proposing, he's doing it in a kind of weird way ... With the government as "The servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" and all ... That just feels like a different animal than "turn the other cheek" ... Maybe Paul is using hyperbole to make sure his warning not to revolt is heeded? ... If my five-year-old daughter had a habit of running blindly into traffic, I'd say just about anything to get her to stop and keep her alive ...

 
At 11:05 AM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Turning the other cheek and obeying the governing authorities are the particulars, the applications. Love of Enemies is the principle. It takes many different shapes, and is not formulaic, but is based on the narrative of the life of the recipient of the gospel of grace for enemies, for the poor, for the outcast, for the alien, and for the poor of spirit. The message of the gospel is just the love of God meeting people where they're at. This is what Jesus did meeting the Jewish and Roman people; he met them where they were at 2000 years ago.

 
At 11:12 AM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

That's my answer though, which just so happens to be a very formulaic, non-formulaic answer.

 
At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Phillip,

"If he's saying what you are proposing, he's doing it in a kind of weird way"

Yes, I agree. Let me try and elaborate a bit on that. I think that Paul is making an argument in Romans 13 that basically says "Pagan government is used by God to keep order, so pay your taxes." I think his main motivation here was to try to dissuade them from a violent revolt, but I wonder if Paul looking back might want to re-think what he said.

Later Paul would be put in jail by that same government. Later Nero would burn Christians alive as torches for his parties. So Paul saying this about the Roman government is comparable to saying the same thing about Nazi Germany.

At the very least it seems rather naieve to the reality of how empire abuses power, not as a rare exception, but as a norm, and how this is completely opposed to the way of Jesus that Paul is committed to.

So I wonder if we were to say to Paul "he bro, what you said in Romans 13 seems really naieve looking back on history I wonder if he might say "yes, I that was pretty lame."

Perhaps then the question for us today is how we can hold the balance of not engaging in violence ourselves, in not becoming what we hate, while at the same time not being passive or silent in the face of injustice. I don't think they really figured that out in the NT, and so we need to look to continue the develop that further. They made some really vital first steps, but we can't stop were they did, we need to keep going.

For that we can look at Gandhi, at MLK, and I'd add we can learn a lot from the many POC protesting of systemic police abuse around the country today are a good example of what that can look like.

 
At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Joel,

Yes I think you nailed it. Love of enemies is the big picture principle, with lots of ways of applying it. Amen!

 
At 1:06 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Thanks bro! I appreciate it.

 

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