Thursday, July 19, 2007

“God’s Justice”

Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17[1]

Justice is a relative term in our society—it depends on your perspective. To some extent, that is built into our system of justice. Two parties come to court, each with their own idea of what “justice” looks like in their case, and the court has the responsibility of weighing the facts and rendering a decision. It seems that most of us see justice as whatever is good for “me.” I guess you can say that justice “is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Bible has a very different idea about justice, however. You could say that the Bible’s view of justice is very “results-oriented”! The Psalm for the day spells it out pretty clearly: God’s justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. It means that those on the margins of social power—those who are not a part of the group that passes out legal decisions—not only have someone who advocates on their behalf with the “powers that be,” but also have someone who takes concrete steps to make their lot in life better.

Simply put—God’s justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. God’s justice is no respecter of special interests! God’s justice does not favor the rich and powerful, the privileged and successful, or the beautiful and the famous. God’s justice makes it possible for everyone to thrive—rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; tall and short, thin and overweight, nearsighted and balding, young and old. It does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin. It does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, or political affiliation. It does not discriminate based on how many cars you own, the kind of car you drive, or even if you have a car! You get the idea—God’s justice makes life flourish for all—no exceptions!

I think the nature of God’s justice is dramatically illustrated by the story of some 50 African slaves on the Spanish schooner La Amistad. On June 27, 1839, the Amistad left from HavanaCuba. transporting the Africans to another part of Five days later, one of the Africans named Cinqué managed to free himself and the other captives. They took the ship but spared the lives of the two slave owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, with the understanding that they would return the ship to Africa.

However, they deceived the Africans and steered the Amistad north along the coast of the United States where the ship was sighted repeatedly. After 2 months at sea, they dropped anchor half a mile off Long Island, New York. Some of the Africans went on shore to procure water and provisions, and the vessel was discovered by the USS Washington under the command of a Lt. Gedney. He took custody of the Amistad and the Africans, and he took them to the state of Connecticut and presented a claim for possession of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans.

That was just the beginning of the judicial maze of selfish interests who claimed the right to the vessel and the Africans. Everyone from Lt. Gedney to Mssrs. Ruiz and Montez to the government of Spain got involved, filing suit to claim ownership. Even Vice President Martin Van Buren tried to use them for political “capital” with the southern States in the upcoming election. And I’m sure every one of them had their own idea about what “justice” should look like—meaning that they wanted the courts to rule in their favor. With all the selfish interests involved in this case—some of them very powerful—it’s a wonder that in fact the courts declared the Africans to be free men and women who had been illegally kidnapped. They were given their freedom, and an anti-slavery group raised the funds to transport them back to their home in what is now Sierra Leone.

In my view, this is an excellent example of what the Scriptures call justice. These people, who were illegally taken from their homes and their families, were given the chance to return to their lives. That’s the kind of justice that the Bible advocates. It gives everyone the chance to live the lives they were meant to live. Of course, defining what that looks like in specific situations isn’t always easy: what about someone who has committed a terrible crime? What about someone who lives from one drink to the next in a ramshackle shack under a bridge? What does God’s justice mean for those who have lost the joy of living because they traded it away for the comfort and convenience of wealth? Our world presents us with all kinds of situations that erode life. While there are no easy solutions in most of these cases, I think one thing that God’s justice means is change—from selfish to selfless living. God’s justice is for us all, and it enables us all, both the upright and the outcasts, to live a life that is full and meaningful because it directs us to the path of life.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/10/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

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