Posted by: 15shekels | March 12, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

“We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice.” -excerpt from Human Right Watch’s Mission Statement

“We take action to: Stop violence against women, defend the rights and dignity of those trapped in poverty, abolish the death penalty, oppose torture and combat terror with justice, free prisoners of conscience, protect the rights of refugees and migrants, regulate the global arms trade.”  -From Amnesty International’s website

“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” -Isaiah 1:17

“Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute…” -Proverbs 31:8

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” -Jesus, preaching in Nazareth, Luke 4:18-19, 21

The enlightened, socially conscious, modern intellectual supports justice, equality and freedom. He admires if not advocates for the work of human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He respects and empathizes with victims of human rights abuses.

And he is probably not a Christian. Because in the minds of most enlightened, socially conscious, modern intellectuals, Christians are exclusivist, narrow-minded, paternalistic vehicles of oppression and discrimination.

As a Christian and an aspiring human rights advocate, it makes me deeply sad that a few hot-button political issues have led most of the human rights community to view believers as opponents of human rights. And it is true that many Christians and many churches have given them good reason to do so, by demonizing those who don’t share their views, and preaching a religion of moralism instead of one of love and justice.

However, if one can look past the sea of flawed and hypocritical Christians to the figure at the center of the faith, she will see a very different picture indeed. Jesus did not spend his ministry condemning those with whose lifestyles he disagreed or pushing legislation. Instead he went straight to the marginalized, the outcasts, the prostitutes and the poor, and he loved and welcomed them.

Furthermore, when Jesus died on the cross as a willing victim, he set into motion a cultural revolution. He took the side of the victim, and people have been doing so ever since.

The French philosopher and sociologist Rene Girard grew fascinated with the pervasive empathy for victims that he saw in modern society, an empathy that he found no trace of in ancient literature. Philip Yancey writes about Girard’s search for this empathy’s source:

“[Girard found that in ancient literature] victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the ‘marginalized.’ His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim becomes a hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.”- Philip Yancey, “What Good is God?”, pages 215-216.

I would argue that this empathy for victims traces back beyond Jesus’s death into the Old Testament where the unchanging and eternal character of God is revealed. Next to idolatry, the thing that makes God angriest at the Israelites is their indifference to justice. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament God tells the Israelites to seek justice, and to fight for the four groups of people who are most likely to become victims of oppression: orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor. God’s commands to his people thousands of years ago sound strikingly like the mission statements of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In my own experience, getting to know this God of justice leads naturally to a personal love of justice. Before I came to know God at age 21, I rarely thought about victims of oppression. I had a vague sense of guilt and obligation to them, but I chose to mostly ignore uncomfortable human rights issues.

But as my faith started to grow, I not only began to be agitated by injustices I saw around me, but I also developed a global vision and concern for abuses happening far away from me. As I have grown close to Jesus, the ultimate empathizer of victims, and to his Father, the creator and defender of justice and love, a passion for justice has risen in my heart so strongly that I now want to spend my life defending it.

I am one of many Christians, including Girard, who came to believe that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. “It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.” -Yancey, page 216.

Yancey goes on to explain that God’s stream of liberation is bigger than the failures or successes of Christians:

“Sometimes Jesus’ own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect…Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the ‘politically correct’ movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles. The gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue.” -Yancey, p. 216

Human rights activists may be at odds with religion at times, but human rights and the gospel have the same beating heart. Both movements are driven by a love for justice and a desire to defend the oppressed. Some of the most beautiful moments in history have been when these movements have joined forces, such as when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. led the fight for civil rights. King’s passion and courage were driven by his faith, which he talked about frequently. I conclude with one of King’s most famous lines, one that many people probably don’t know is a verse from the Bible:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” -Amos 5:24

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