Justice and Peacemaking in the Age of Polarization

Dr. Samuel L. Adams on January 29, 2017

Texts: Micah 6:1-8/Matthew 5:1-12

Why did each of us get up and come to church this morning? Force of habit certainly played a role. Sunday rolled around, and we all put on more formal attire and drove downtown. This is a regular ritual for most of us, if not a weekly one, then at least something we do regularly enough that coming to 5 North 5th Street does not involve a great deal of conscious thought.

But let’s mine beneath the surface understanding of our decision to be present this morning and ask a deeper question: what is our reason for being people of faith? Why do we believe? Why are we Christians? In answering this question, we might immediately remember the influence of parents and pastors, of church communities past and present that sustained us, especially during difficult times. That is certainly the case for me, as I think about the formative influence of early mentors. Not long ago, several members of Second described important Christmases from their early years, and those present were all moved by the vivid memories that came flooding back and the significance of past episodes for faith formation.

But I want to press this point a bit further. In many churches right now, congregants are hearing more fire and brimstone than I am offering this morning or than Alex and Kathryn typically preach from this pulpit. The message in many churches today is “You must do this and say this!” Or “You better do that, because if you do not, then eternal damnation awaits.” If you flip around the radio or television dial this afternoon, you will hear plenty of warnings about the devil, the need to profess belief in God, and warnings about ending up in what we refer to in our household as “H-E-double hockey sticks.” That’s Charlie’s phrase. Over the last few days, I have listened to sermon snippets of well-known preachers in American public life whose theological framework is predicated on warning people about eternal punishment. Yet in our tradition and at this church, we do not spend a lot of time worrying or warning about this topic, not because we are indifferent to the ultimate destiny that awaits each of us, but because we do not occupy ourselves too much with what is God’s ultimate choice for our lives. One of the reasons we are sometimes jokingly referred to as the “frozen chosen” is because we believe that God is totally in charge of everything that occurs, and it is not our place to decide the salvific destiny of ourselves or our neighbors.   

Nor do we spend a lot of time with feel-good pop-psychology. There are plenty of churches where “taking charge of your life” and “reaping the rewards of faithfulness” are the prevailing topics. Where the nuts and bolts of the sermon do not stretch beyond a cheesy self-help book you might find at the end of the aisle or in the airport terminal. Now of course there is nothing wrong with focusing on spiritual growth in the context of self-improvement, and truth be told we could probably stand to pay closer attention to spiritual formation in our Presbyterian churches, but the syrupy pop-psychology that characterizes a great deal of contemporary Christian discourse is not a preoccupation here. The belief that piety or good behavior will lead to overflowing material blessing is not something you will hear from this pulpit or in the vast majority of Presbyterian churches. We are not adherents to the “prosperity gospel.”

So we are very good at talking about what we do not profess. Yet as my colleague at the seminary, John Vest, often reminds me, we are far less skilled at talking about our central mission. We are much better at talking about what we do not believe than what we do believe. This is to our detriment in terms of growing the church, for unless we can be clearer about the central and abiding reason for being a community of faith in a way that is both authentic and inviting, I fear the PCUSA will continue to struggle. Christianity and individual congregations have to be more than a weekly space for social gathering among a group of somewhat like-minded people. So why do we come?

There is only one answer to this question: we come here to serve Jesus Christ, who alone is head of the church. We come to give glory and honor to God and to remind ourselves that Jesus through his life and works calls us into a new way of being in the world. We believe that God made Godself known through this itinerant carpenter/ preacher from the Galilee and that our most important calling in life is to promote the teachings of Jesus and the reign of God inaugurated by his ministry.

So Jesus calls us into a new way of being. Our Brief Statement of Faith declares that “Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.” This language draws directly from the content of the Gospels.

This morning’s lectionary passages comprise two of the most familiar and important declarations in all of Scripture: the prophet Micah’s description of a lawsuit between God and the people and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. We could spend two months going through Micah 6 and the Sermon on the Mount and not ever cover the same subject twice. This is foundational material, providing the answer to my original question: why do we come here? This morning I just want to focus on two verses. The first is from Micah 6:8, familiar language to us: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This declaration is not about being nice and courteous. In order to understand the prophet’s message here, historical context is critical. Micah lived in Judah during the eighth century BC, when the world was an unstable place, economic stratification was out of control, political parties were fighting against each other, and people were uncertain what tomorrow would bring. Refugees were pouring in from other countries, and there was great consternation about who was in and who was out. Chaos was the norm of the day. Sound familiar? Elsewhere in the book, the prophet rails against evildoers, those who oppress the poor and vulnerable because they are able: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

Let’s not water down the prophet’s message here with wishy-washy declarations about being nice to each other. According to the prophet, the first requirement from the Lord is to “do justice” (‘asot mishpat in the Hebrew). The Hebrew word for justice here is mishpat, and in the Old Testament it does not simply mean fairness.  “Justice” in the Bible means kindness to the poor, special attention to those who are most vulnerable, and active engagement in one’s society. Micah and the other prophets encourage not just being kind, but egalitarian social structures that prevent corruption, poverty and yes, mistreatment of foreigners. The justice imperative that Micah passed on lifts up the poor as needing protection in a world that tends to keep them on the margins.

Dr. King referred repeatedly in his writings to prophets like Micah and Amos, calling them “extremists for justice.”  In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he addressed to fellow clergymen, white Protestants sitting on the sidelines during the civil rights movement, Dr. King lamented their reticence in criticizing systemic injustices that were clearly present.  He expressed his frustration with those didn’t want to offend anyone, who favor “‘order’ to justice; who prefer a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”[i] My friends, we find ourselves at a moment where “order” is winning over “justice,” where a negative peace is prevailing over a positive peace, where fear is having its way over solidarity. To seek justice in the manner called upon by Micah requires us to think about it means for each of us to be a Christian, what it means for each of us “to do justice” at an extremely volatile moment in our nation’s history.  

Maybe a concrete example would help us here before I jump to the present. For those of you who do not know or need a reminder, in the 1970s the Nestle Company was marketing a milk formula that led to tragic health problems for children, especially in developing countries. The water in many countries was not suitable for mixing with formula, and children were being exposed to contaminated milk and an array of diseases.  Despite persistent pleas from a variety of experts, Nestle continued to market this powdered formula.

And then along with other organizations, the Presbyterian Church joined a boycott and did so with vigor.  I still remember my Sunday school teachers and my mother telling us not to eat Nestle Crunches or Mr. Goodbar. My friends at school thought it was crazy that the Presbyterians in our class had never eaten a Tollhouse cookie.  But by the mid-1980s, Nestle quit peddling the formula product to developing countries, and the boycott was lifted.

As you all know, we Presbyterians can be plodding and overly obsessed with bureaucracy. Doing things “decently and in order” can actually mean doing things “club-footed and with much hand-wringing over minutiae that does not really matter.” Yet when it comes to collective social witness like the Nestle boycott, sometimes our churches get it right. Such actions as the Nestle boycott also seek to model, however imperfectly, the example our Savior taught us: that we should never be satisfied with an unfair status quo, especially one that perpetuates injustice to those on the margins. Social justice is not some meaningless label, but an obligatory aspect of what it means to be a Christian. And now the stakes are as high as they have ever been in my lifetime.

In his very first public utterance, Jesus echoes Micah’s call in the Sermon on the Mount. I want to focus on just one of the verses here in Matthew (5:9):  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” What does it mean to be a peacemaker, from the vantage point of Jesus’s message in the Sermon on the Mount? As with Micah, peacemaking does not simply involve being nice to everyone, but seeking neighborhoods, nations, and an entire world where unity triumphs over division. There are political implications to this declaration, as Jesus and his early followers lived in the context of imperial Rome. He and his group of followers were a small minority in a backwater province of this great empire, and yet they changed the world through their insistence on justice. If God is the ultimate peacemaker, then it was also incumbent on the first disciples of Jesus to be agents of change in a dangerous, uncertain context.

Peacemaking, according to the Sermon on the Mount, involves risk-taking. As New Testament scholar Hans Dieter Betz explains, the Sermon on the Mount recognizes human sinfulness and the inevitability of war, political division, and persecution. Peacemaking requires taking chances in moments of perceived powerlessness “and demonstrating the conviction that in the end God’s kingdom will prevail.”[ii] Such a bold assertion by Jesus at the outset of his ministry demonstrates a truth of the Christian message. The Gospel is political. We cannot deny the political implications of the Sermon on the Mount and what they require of us. Service to the kingdom of God necessitates peacemaking. 

So now we arrive at an inevitable and difficult point of what these passages mean for us today, right now, with so many changes happening in our nation, seemingly by the hour. If you are like me, this past week you finished a meeting or a meal and turned on the TV or computer to find out what seismic event has happened over the last 45 minutes. Executive orders on border walls, bans on immigrants/refugees, many of whom have families here and are fleeing certain death in their native countries, and the healthcare of many of the poorest among us in jeopardy. Since we come from the tradition of John Calvin, it is hardly a coincidence that the words of Micah and the Sermon on the Mount are the lectionary passages for today. The Holy Spirit is at work. Pastors around the world did not have to go looking for what Scripture to choose. “Do justice.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Today, we unapologetically and proactively declare what it means to be a Christian and why we are here: to seek justice and be agents of Christian reconciliation in a world and nation that seems more fractured than at any moment in recent memory.

We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in this pursuit, those who bravely modeled what justice entails: early saints of the church who risked persecution and martyrdom to stand up for the message of Jesus, later figures like Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. We stand on the shoulders of more recent leaders in our Presbyterian context, people like Al Winn and Randy Taylor, who were not afraid to take a stand for peacemaking during the civil rights movement. All of these individuals took risks with the understanding that Micah and the Sermon on the Mount do not allow us to remain silent when injustice is occurring.

In order to live into these prophetic mandates from Micah and Jesus, we cannot tiptoe around some undeniable truths: Jesus and his family were refugees themselves who went into Egypt to escape persecution. Moreover, Jews in the ancient world were always required to welcome the stranger. Not just to be nice but to allow the resident alien (the one sojourning in the land, the individual with her or his green card) to be a full-fledged part of the community. This is the Adams translation of Leviticus 19:34, a verse we might all put on our refrigerators the next few months: “The resident alien shall be a full-fledged citizen to you; for you yourselves were resident aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Everyone immigrated at one time or another, and our tradition of peacemaking and justice-seeking requires us to follow the lead of our Creator, who takes special care for the stranger among us. When Jesus describes the final judgment scene in Matthew 25, it is not theological beliefs or denominational affiliation that will determine one’s ultimate destiny, but care for those on the margins: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt 25:35-36).

These words on justice and peacemaking are often lost in an effort not to offend anyone. As Jim Wallis explains when we ignore the social witness of Micah and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we reduce Christianity to a “‘small-s’ spirituality that is really only ad hoc wish fulfillment or a collection of little self-help techniques we use to take the edge off our materialistic rat race lives.”[iii]

The Gospel is political. Justice and peacemaking do not allow us to waffle on the acceptability of a ban on immigration that separates families from their loved ones and discriminates on the basis of race and religion. Justice and peacemaking do not allow us to be silent on the question of whether or not we should strive to make certain that the poor among us in Richmond have access to basic healthcare needs. Not just those who need access to Medicaid but poor families whose access to catastrophic health coverage is now very much in doubt. Justice and peacemaking do not allow us to be indifferent to the polarization or our national landscape in recent months. Jesus’s message is a political one, and the peacemaking element requires us to be bridge-builders, agents of reconciliation in a world that desperately needs hope and constructive change.

This is not about partisanship or who won the latest jousting match on CNN or FOX news, or who posted the wittiest response on Twitter. Jesus does not care who is winning the Twitter wars when people are dying in Syria and right here in Richmond. Jesus does not care about the size of inaugural crowds when 39 percent of the children of Richmond are growing up in poverty.  Jesus does not care about Senate filibuster rules when affordable healthcare is not available to everyone in our affluent society.

 Back to our original question: why do we come here? To be a community of faith that seeks justice. If we want Second Presbyterian to do what it does best, this is our current calling. We can surely disagree on some of the best policy prescriptions, but we cannot remain on the sidelines. The stakes are too high, and the Gospel is too clear. Let us strive together to live into the mandate that Micah and Jesus have given us, to promote the kingdom of God to a world that is in desperate need of wholeness. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” May it be so. Amen.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in I Have A Dream.

[ii] Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount, Adela Yarbo Collins, ed. (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 140.

[iii] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 36.