Why does a theology of justice matter?

Three conferences this week exemplify why a theology of justice matters.  Restore 117, The Justice Conference and the Southern Baptist Convention all hosted gatherings this past week.

The Southern Baptist Demonstration of a Theology of Justice

The Southern Baptist are the largest evangelical denomination in America.  In the past decade they have confessed the evil of slavery, condemned the confederate flag, supported refugees and immigrants and this last week adopted a resolution to “decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Evangelicals from Russel Moore to Ed Stetzer to Thabiti Anyabwile rightly praised the measure.   The Southern Baptist modeled turning to God’s word as the measure against which all must be weighed.  This is critical to understanding and advancing God’s heart for justice.  Justice begins with God, is evidenced in His word and then flows through His followers.  A Biblical understanding of justice recognizes that the first commandment is to love God and enter into a personal relationship with him.  Salvation comes through no other means.

Once saved we are compelled to love our neighbors and work for truth and justice.  But we cannot understand those ends apart from the Scripture.  Both truth and justice are found in God and God alone.  And God is revealed to us through His Holy word.

The Justice Conference Demonstration of a Theology of Justice

There is another way to view justice.  Justice begins with us.  We have a responsibility to improve the world as we work toward a utopian kingdom.  We must work for justice on behalf of the poor and people of color to tear down sinful systems because of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  We need to understand God’s preference for praxis (practice) over theology.  What matters most is working to change oppressive systems.

Ed Rene Kivitz is a liberation theology pastor from Brazil.  He was joined by many at The Justice Conference who agree with this view.  Born out of Latin America, many have criticized liberation theology as Marxist.  The theology grew out of the Catholic Church but Popes have denounced it.  While Pope Francis has been more welcoming of liberation theologians, he has not changed his prior position of condemnation.  The evangelical world has long rejected liberation theology.

Liberation theology elevates the poor and believes the rich will not inherit the kingdom.  They oppose the church which they believe to be another flawed institution.  They believe Christ brought a sword and we must oppose all forms of oppression.  And since oppression is inherent in systems, wealth and privilege, we must stand against this.

What happens when theology is distorted

The Justice Conference ended with a contrast between liberation theology and Biblical theology.  Lisa Sharon Harper was asking the crowd how one could be a Christian Conservative.  If we must be social liberators then this is a good question.  A white audience member sought to answer the question.  The question was honestly rhetorical and the audience member was out of line.  That could have been easily addressed.  But when the person speaking to a black woman is a white man, that cannot be accepted.

Adam Thomason stopped the conference to discuss the PhD he is completing in slavery studies and why a white man must be silenced.  He was upset that other white members of the audience did not share his rage and called on white members to shout out and shame this man.

Theology Matters

This is why theology matters.  In liberation theology this is completely appropriate.  We must speak against all power and privilege to achieve justice for people of race and poverty who have too long been silenced.  This may be why the Justice Conference responded with a video from chief liberation theologian, Ed Rene Kivitz.

But a theology of justice that begins with the premise we are all sinners in need of a Savior, speaks love to all people regardless of wealth or race.  Each of us needs grace.  No one group or race is more precious in his sight.  We all fall short.  Rather than speak up for his rights, challenge his oppression, Jesus laid them down and died for us.  He didn’t brandish a sword and overthrow governments.  He loved his neighbor and forgave his enemies.

A proper understanding of Biblical justice recognizes that God is the one who balances scales and He is the one who first restores what is broken and rights what is wrong.  He invites us to join him in this work of restoration.  A work marked by humble, loving service.  Attacking others on the basis of race is never appropriate.  An apology should have been offered instead of an invitation to a better understanding of liberation theology.

Restore 117’s Demonstration of a Theology of Justice

Restore 117 is Gospel Justice Initiative’s conference.  We seek to demonstrate humble, practical service rooted in the recognition of God’s grace and mercy toward us.  Whether white, black, Asian, or Hispanic we believe all people matter to God and He treats them the same.  Each of us were far from him until we acknowledged our sin and received his free gift of grace.  We will not save the world – He already did.  We will not change the world – only God working through the Holy Spirit can accomplish that.  But we can humbly accept his invitation to join Him in doing justice.

Restore 117 invited Noel Castellanos to share a strong evangelical perspective on Nehemiah.  How we move forward in fasting and prayer, side by side, families in neighborhood, loving and serving together.  Matt Soerens walked us through the Scripture as foundational to understanding immigrants and refugees.   We provided many practical tools for making a difference, while recognizing we do so rooted in God’s word sharing the hope that comes from Him – not from us.

Social Justice vs. Gospel Justice

There is a struggle in the world of Christ followers.  Both desire to see justice.  But will we do that in our strength through social structures or will we do that through the power of the Holy Spirit as He leads us with the hope of the gospel?  On the surface the difference can be subtle, but it is actually profound.

A theology of justice matters.  My hope is that you will study God’s word and listen to His voice.  We should not be afraid to enter into these conversations but we must do so rooted in God’s word or we will simply reflect our polarized world.  We serve a God of unity rooted in truth.  Let us hold fast to the truth of God’s word as we seek justice together.