Tag Archives: justice

The Bible’s Vision of Justice: Enough Food For Everybody

No, this is the fast I desire: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

We are at a major disadvantage when we read the Bible for a number of obvious reasons: time, culture, language, geography, etc. One specific and major but hard-to-see reason we often don’t “get” the Bible is that we (most of us in the western first world) have virtually unlimited access to food and goods, goods that have been processed and prepared by invisible industries and sold to us in small packages in convenient public transactions. We have bought into a system that promises the automatic meeting of our needs so we can concentrate on more important things. So it seems absurd for me to suggest that the Bible’s consistent central theme has to do with something as mundane as the distribution of food.

To us it sounds downright silly. In our world, it seems like there are far more critical things to worry about than where food comes from and where it goes. So few of us actually work to produce our own food, and we regard the hunger and need of others as an unfortunate glitch in an otherwise fair and benevolent system. And so we cannot fully appreciate the fact that JUSTICE in the world of the Bible (and in much of our contemporary world) is primarily and fundamentally about equitable access to food.

Don’t believe me? Consider this quick survey of the biblical library:

  • In the foundational story in Genesis, Adam and Eve are charged with caring for creation and holding “dominion” over it. From the beginning, food is the currency of justice. God expects the earth’s resources to be distributed fairly, even generously. In our relative affluence and comfort we have too easily read this as the origin story of our privilege, but the moral of the story is that food justice is the human’s first responsibility. (Gen 2)
  • In the story of Joseph, the innovation that saves Egypt, the Hebrews, and Joseph’s own life is an advancement in the storage and distribution of food. (Gen 41)
  • In the Exodus story, the miracle of manna is about the people having enough food for today, with no scarcity and no hoarding. Everyone gets what they need as a sign of God’s provision and justice among them. (Exo 16)
  • The Torah’s agricultural laws and the institutions of Sabbath and Jubilee are explicitly designed to foster and maintain food justice, to keep the powerful few from controlling the people’s resources, so everyone – even the poor and the alien – has what they need to live. (Exo 20, Lev 23, Lev 25)
  • When Israel’s prophets rail against the people for the sin of “forsaking God,” this sin is most often manifested as the failure to enact God’s distributive justice. Hospitality and food are the measurement of righteousness. (See especially Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 58:6-7)
  • In the New Testament, Jesus resists a dare to turn stones into bread, denying his own privilege and choosing to trust God in solidarity with those in need. (Matt 4)
  • Jesus multiplies bread and fish for a crowd, blatantly enacting distributive justice. (Matt 14, John 6)
  • Jesus oversees a miraculous catch of fish, demonstrating God’s generosity with natural resources. (Luke 5, John 21)
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily bread,” a prayer for food justice today and forever. (Matt 6, Luke 11)
  • Jesus tells a parable about judgment and the rubric for justice is not something abstract like religious belief or allegiance, it is whether or not the hungry got fed. (Matt 25)
  • Jesus spends his last evening with his followers sharing a Passover meal, breaking bread and pouring wine. Jesus identifies his own body with the food humans share to stay alive. (Matt 26, Luke 22)
  • The risen Jesus shares food with his followers (Luke 24) and multiplies their food resources (John 21). 
  • Paul scolds Corinthian Christians for failing to understand the Eucharist’s inherent theme of food justice, as wealthy churchgoers turn the communal feast into a party and leave nothing for the working class latecomers. (1 Cor 11)
  • Revelation, one of the New Testament’s (many) visions of eschatological justice, envisions an earthly city that is a heavenly blessing to the rest of the world. Healing and life flow from it like leaves from the “tree of life.” At long last, the dream of global justice is realized. (Rev 21-22)

This is a very truncated and incomplete list. Every biblical story, every appeal to justice, every metaphor for God’s kingdom has something to do with agriculture and/or the distribution of resources. When food isn’t on our list of urgent daily concerns, we miss and forget how the Bible equates God’s will with food equity. In our prosperity and complacency, we have favored legal and punitive visions of justice over the Bible’s practical and agrarian ones. For the humans who wrote the Bible, God’s will and God’s justice are fundamentally concerned with egalitarian access to creation’s bounty, and God’s reputation hangs on the way humans live and eat and share.

Ho boy, has Josh lost it? Is he just a crazy liberal trying to tell us the Bible is really all about privilege and socialism? Not exactly. What I’m trying to do is invite all of us to a more fundamentally pure and authentic “square one” for reading the Bible, because I do believe that our wealth and insulation have blinded us to its real context and message. We gloss over agricultural language as if these were merely metaphors for loftier spiritual concerns, and we miss the gravity and urgency of hunger and want that is still a present reality for many of our neighbors at home and around the world. We agonize over doctrine, belief, and authority, arguing about God’s will in the abstract as our brothers and sisters starve to death. The bottom line is that same system which promises us plenty keeps others hungry. This is the single greatest injustice of our world, and every one of us could do something about it today. 


Harm Is Not Justice On Earth Or In Heaven

This year Holy Week generated more than the typical number of articles and debates about the nature of atonement and the meaning of the cross and Easter. I was happy and gratified to add my voice to the growing chorus of Christians rejecting theologies of wrath and punition, embracing instead the essentiality of divine peace and nonviolence.

Throughout the comment threads and Twitter debates, however, it was clear that traditional perspectives are alive and thriving. A not-so-surprising number of times I saw this response to the proposal of a nonviolent God and/or atonement:

“If you remove violence from God, you remove justice. If you remove justice from God you remove justice from the world, then people will do whatever they want.”

This is not one cranky strawman taking up a contrary position, this is a tried and true axiom espoused routinely by legions of committed Christian theology nerds. And to be honest, as deeply as I disagree with this statement today, it still gets stuck in my throat because, well, I used to think this way. Yes, I used to be that guy.

Here is a paraphrase that I think reveals the problematic assumptions in this formula: The point of justice is to punish people who won’t behave properly, the only way we know to achieve this kind of justice is through violence, and so if God does justice it must also be accomplished through violence.

Can’t we do better than this? If not, can’t God do better?

The False Dilemma of Punishment vs. Doing Nothing

From a conservative Christian perspective, the worst thing we can do is to give people the impression that they are OK as they are, that their sin is not a problem, and that God forgives their sin apart from any mechanism of sacrifice or punishment. This will just encourage them to sin more, denying them the opportunity to “get right with God” and putting them in real danger. Thus the caricature of a progressive/nonviolent theology that shrugs off sin while imagining God as little more than a loving, doting grandfather (or grandmother, sheesh!).

While I’m personally on board with the grandma metaphor, I reject the false binary offered here. God as a violent punisher of sin on the one hand and sin as not a big deal on the other are not the only two options available to us, nor are they mutually exclusive.

What if sin was a big deal, a huge deal, in fact; an undeniable epidemic and an oppressive slavemaster over all of humanity, but God was ALSO good and merciful and eager to pardon our sin apart from any requirement of punishment or sacrifice? This still puts the onus of repentance and righteousness on every one of us, but the threat of harm comes not from God’s hand but from our own commitment to violent and self-destructive habits and agendas? God’s role being only to bless and heal, never to hurt?

Wait, where have I heard this before?

Jesus, Sin, and Justice

I’m just one idiot blathering on the Internet, but isn’t this nuanced view more in tune with the way Jesus talked about sin?

I agree with my conservative friends on this: Jesus did not “look the other way” or downplay the problem of sin. In fact, he was on about it. But that’s also where Jesus departs from the evangelical party line on the issue of sin and justice. Jesus tells people they are guilty of sin and implores them to repent, but he does not tell them that they are depraved, or that God’s wrath burns against them, or that they need a blood sacrifice to cover their sins.

In fact, Jesus preached mercy over sacrifice, rejected the idea that God punished people for sin in this life, and his main metaphor for judgment was a fiery garbage dump where humanity destroys itself with war and violence. For Jesus, sin is an ungodly plague from which we need to be healed and delivered, not a trespass for which we must be harmed for God’s satisfaction.

Maybe God’s Better At Justice Than We Are?

Here on earth, violence is still the tool of choice for enacting justice. We have yet to apply our collective, God-given imagination to the task of discovering more compassionate and restorative ways of responding to danger and sin. But let’s give God some credit. Christians, let’s give Jesus credit for his vision of a God whose posture toward humanity is not threat and punishment but mercy and pardon.

For too long the church has mitigated the theology of Jesus because of its theology about Jesus. Theories of atonement predicated upon divine wrath and sacrifice have overshadowed and supplanted the peaceful and beautiful gospel of Jesus. We should repent of that sin and get back to God.

Have we really believed that a God who can calm storms, heal the sick, transform lives, and even raise the dead cannot forgive sin apart from acts of wrath, whether against guilty sinners or an innocent scapegoat? This might make sense if all we knew was the punitive justice of human tyrants, but we have met Jesus! We have glimpsed a better way, and now we have no excuse.  


Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, NY on Sunday July 20, 2014. It’s part of a series on the Ten Commandments or the “Ten Words” (as they’re actually referred to in the text), a conscious attempt to rediscover them as words of life and freedom rather than statutes or requirements.

I’m just going to say it: Sabbath is weird for Christians. I mean, everybody likes a day off, but Sabbath raises all kinds of questions. Are Christians required to observe a Sabbath? How precisely should we do it? Does it matter which day it is? What constitutes “rest”? What constitutes “work”? How do I know when I’ve Sabbathed enough? And while we’re at it, does God actually get tuckered out and need a break? Is that a thing? And how does “take a nap” make it into the Top Ten commandments right along with “don’t murder” and “honor your father and mother”?

Thinking about Sabbath makes me tired.

Why is Sabbath so tricky for us? I think the problem is, as with so much biblical material, that we’re so far away from the mind and heart of the world that produced these ancient texts and we’re just filling in the blanks with our assumptions. We inherited this thing called “Sabbath,” but we don’t really know how it works. It’s a fun day off, but it’s also a commandment. Relaxation and ritual are two flavors that taste weird together, so we’ve embraced the one and ignored the other. We’re left with a “holy day” that means almost nothing to us. And we never talk about it.

Jesus To The Rescue!

In First Century Judaea, according to the gospel authors, they had quite a different problem. Everyone talked about Sabbath. A lot. There was no shortage of opinions as to the meaning and mandate of Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, endless rules and clarifications and customs and traditions had been piled on top of the original Sabbath commandment, and debate raged concerning every possible detail and loophole. For his part as a teacher himself, Jesus’ contribution was not to layer on more opinions and restrictions and customs, but in fact to defy and reject them. Jesus didn’t reject Sabbath as an idea or institution, but he quite cavalierly stepped on the toes of the self-appointed watchdogs of proper Sabbathkeeping. He broke the many rules of Sabbath, and did so frequently and publicly.

When confronted with his transgression, Jesus gave his famous reply, “Sabbath was made for people, not people for Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sabbath, says Jesus, is supposed to be a gift and blessing for humans, not a master to rule over them. Jesus gives us permission to go back to the drawing board and rediscover Sabbath as a “word of life” rather than a religious prison.

Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

So we have some homework to do. Here’s the original Sabbath “word” from Exodus Chapter 20:

8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it special.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and made it special.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

I believe that, taken in proper context, this ancient “commandment” constitutes an invitation to us (after Israel) to become synchronized with God’s own time, a divine sort of rhythm, in which we discover a treasure trove of good gifts. I want to highlight three of them: IDENTITY, JUSTICE, and EQUALITY. Not words we typically associate with Sabbath, but hear me out:

1. The Gift of IDENTITY

Exodus is a story of salvation and identity. God plucks his people Israel out of the cauldron of oppression and slavery, and then restores her dignity by giving her a name and a new identity. We like the first part of the story, the rescue, because it’s easy to follow and makes a great movie. But then we get into all of those laws and feasts and commandments, and we lose the plot. Boring! Except, that’s the real heart of the whole story. That’s the life-giving stuff that turns wandering ex-slaves into a people and a nation. To the Israelites, Torah is not a prison of religious obligation, it’s the boundary that reveals the shape of a new kind of life.

And Sabbath is a primary feature and expression of that new life. The six-day work cycle and Sabbath observance are a way of integrating the Hebrews’ unique understanding of creation into their daily existence, and a way of setting them apart from their neighbors (and their oppressors – ancient Egypt observed an uninterrupted ten-day work cycle). Sabbath is a tangible, livable marker of their new identity as the people of the Creator, a countercultural statement of who they are.

2. The Gift of JUSTICE

This is an aspect of Sabbath that has rarely been explored by Christians, but one that is both transformative and crucial. In the creation poem, the song of Genesis 1, God pauses (“rests”) when the work of creation is complete, and sees that the work is “good.” Sabbath, then, is an occasion to look at our work and world and determine whether or not what we see is good. If it’s not good, it would stand to reason that it should be made good. Sabbath provides this opportunity on a regular basis, and without it we might forget to stop and self-assess.

This principle is greatly amplified in another Torah institution called Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). Jubilee is a sort of Sabbath year, a “rest” year after years of business as usual. It’s not a whole year of sleep (though that would be amazing), but a year when wrong things are to be set right: debts forgiven, slaves set free, and property restored. Human schemes are interrupted, and society re-synchronizes itself with God’s time, and justice is accomplished.

Biblical historians doubt whether a true Jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel, but the concept is incendiary and it illuminates Sabbath in a profound way. If Jubilee is the opportunity for justice at the national or societal level, then Sabbath provides the same opportunity in the neighborhood, the household, the relationship. It represents the hope that our plans and schemes might be interrupted, and things put right.

3. The Gift of EQUALITY

For the third gift we turn our attention to the list of those affected by the Sabbath ordinance:

10 …You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the alien who is within your settlements.

This is one of those bits which locate the Ten Commandments firmly in their historical setting. Not only does it describe the lifestyle of nomads who are becoming settled farmers, it reflects something of their (rather regressive) notions of social hierarchy. (Slavery is assumed, and note how livestock ranks higher than foreigners!). Once we get over the culture shock, however, we notice the extraordinary defining feature of this list: its egalitarian nature.

This gift of Sabbath, this gift of God’s own IDENTITY and God’s own JUSTICE, is not only for male heads of households. It’s not only for members of households. It’s not even only for those who call themselves the “people of God.” It’s not even only for humans! The gift of Sabbath is for absolutely everyone. The safety and opportunity of God’s own day of rest and restoration is not the exclusive property of any special group.


So Sabbath need not be a ritual or a burden. In fact it really is a gift, the gift of God’s own rhythm, a divine sense of time, a rest that is meant to bring freedom and justice and equality to every single corner of creation. Oh, and one more thing: Just as the “days” of creation are symbolic of the order and goodness of God’s work and need not be understood as literal 24-hour periods of time, so it is with Sabbath. Sabbath isn’t a magic day, it’s a state of mind. It’s a moment of self-awareness, of repentance, of empathy. It’s an invitation to live in harmony with the good creation of the good God.