Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Biblical justice isn’t optional
Vail, CO, Colorado
Martin Luther King Jr. anchored his stout-hearted faith in two sturdy traditions that established justice. He placed one foot in the Constitution; the other in the Bible.
“We will win our freedom,” King reiterated in stump speeches, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Our founding fathers formed a republic, as spelled out in the Constitution’s Prologue, with “a more perfect union” its purpose. The people construct a key building block when they “establish justice.” The Bible repeatedly endorses this goal: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). Justice refreshes the soul of our nation and rescues marginalized citizens from inequity.
On a rainy morning a few days before President Barack Obama dedicated the new $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, I looked up at the majestic Stone of Hope. Carved into it is a statue of King, over 30 feet in height.
It appears as if it’s been cut from a mountain of despair, two split portions of a granite mass that stand behind it. This statuary reminds visitors of the imagery King used in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. There he rang out a theme for the ages: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
King’s statue is thrust forward from the gap in the mountain of despair. His gaze spans the tidal basin. He peers at the Jefferson Memorial across the water.
Such placement between the two monuments is intentional. It sets in stone King’s reference to the Declaration of Independence in his 1963 speech as a “promissory note” on which “America has defaulted … insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” African-Americans have struggled to achieve justice that our nation’s guiding documents promised them.
Carved into the King statue is an epitaph — a humble, crisp summary of his life’s work: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Unfortunately, this quotation has been abbreviated. King wasn’t thumping his chest when he uttered these claims. Rather, he urged Americans to heed his call to establish justice for all people.
Growing up in a conservative Christian community during the 1960s civil rights marches, I read evangelical periodicals and heard warnings from pulpits that King had gone too far, pressing for justice. Some conservative preachers downplayed justice. They preached that the heart of the Gospel was God’s redemptive love made real through Jesus’ life and death.
Such preachers assumed Christians who practiced love made the world more just. Let individuals show charity. Let churches sponsor soup kitchens. Let private businesses grow without government regulatory restraint so inner city citizens might find jobs. Such acts of love took precedent over promoting justice that integrated neighborhoods and sometimes lowered real estate values. These preachers said individuals, not government, should promote justice.
Fifty years ago, Billy Graham started the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. J. Howard Pew, Sun Oil’s company’s magnate, was the principal supporter. When founding editor Carl F. H. Henry published articles on establishing justice that didn’t jibe with Pew’s free enterprise conservatism, he had Henry replaced. Pew believed establishing justice was optional if it meant redistributing power and money to those less fortunate.
Traces of this mindset still surface in conservative evangelical circles. Charles Colson, judged guilty in the Watergate scandal before becoming “born again,” gives lip service to the Bible’s insistence on justice. He starts out strong, insisting on biblical justice but retreats if seeking justice leads to taking power from the well-heeled.
Colson writes in his “Breakpoint” commentary (Nov. 15, 2011), “So, while the Bible contains many injunctions for helping the poor and teaches that the weak and the marginalized in our society are especially close to God’s heart, it does not prescribe policies. Instead, it makes very clear that if we do not care for them and put their well-being at the top of our priorities, God will disown us just as we have disowned them (Matthew 25).”
“None of this requires income redistribution — taking money from one person and giving it to another to make them more ‘equal,'” erroneously asserts Colson. “It doesn’t require punitive levels of taxation whose principal purpose is satisfying people’s sense of envy.”
Notice Colson’s subtle shift from implementing justice that transforms society. Colson suggests the Bible is all for justice as long as such striving doesn’t disturb wealthy power blocs. Such “justice” is so diluted it loses its identity in a sea of righteous platitudes.
Justice, as Martin Luther King believed, is not a nice after-thought Christians embrace. It forms the Gospel’s center. Justice grants rights to people whose dignity has been diminished. It finds ways to treat people more humanely when their rights have been denied and dignity demeaned.
As Nicholas Wolterstorff, my college professor of ethics insisted, “Rights are what respect for worth requires.”
The Bible looks emaciated if the body of justice passages is removed. When Martin Luther King laid down his life, he did it because justice isn’t optional. It is the Gospel.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com) His book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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