Friday, March 06, 2015

Can Christianity Be Reduced to Love Seeking Justice?

By Ethan van der Leek

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Jószepf Molnár
The Bible is filled to the brim with stories, wisdom, and prophecies of God’s liberating energies. One of the founding and establishing moments of Israel was God’s act to free them from slavery and oppression in Egypt. This event is inaugurated when God sees his people’s misery and hears them crying out. The God of the Hebrews is an attentive God, a God who responds to suffering. And it is this attentiveness that he summons his elected people too.

The event of the exodus is etched into the memory of Israel and makes its mark throughout the Old Testament. It is established at the outset of the Ten Commandments, prefacing the law given to Israel as a mark of their covenant relationship with God: “Remember the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”. The law itself is filled with concern for the suffering; “care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”, God says, “proclaim a year of jubilee”. It is present in the Psalms, the songbook of Israel, as a call to remember God’s faithfulness in raising Israel from Egypt. The prophets, too, claim that Israel was not faithful to God and they expressed this unfaithfulness by oppressing the poor and the land, ignoring God’s call to be a light to the nations and establish a kingdom of love and justice; Israel forgot God’s act of liberation, and established themselves as oppressors and idolaters, for which the justice of God brought them to exile.

In the New Testament Jesus is the fulfilment and culmination of the justice of God. He comes to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and to preach that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He preaches and ushers in the Kingdom of God, calling tax collectors, prostitutes, and all manner of sinners to follow him in a disruption of the established social order built around the pax Romana, the “peace” of Rome established and maintained at the tip of a sword. God’s love in Jesus unsettles everything. “Blessed are you who are poor,” we read (Luke 6:20). The Apostle Paul describes equality and unity between opposites in Christ: no Jew and Greek, no slave and free, no male and female, but a universal equality of love and justice established in God’s promise through Jesus. So then what are we to make of all this, this major theme in the Bible of God’s love and justice, of his action in the world, and his commands and invitations that his chosen people participate in that love and justice? Is that the heart of the Christian message? It has been said, rightly so, that cutting every passage about justice from the Bible would leave a rather tattered and flimsy volume. The pursuit of justice through love is a massively central message of the Holy Scriptures.

But are the scriptures and the Christian traditions reducible to such a message? There are certain circles of Christianity where it may seem so. If you’re disappointed or frustrated with an individualistic, self-centered, and emotionally-based Christianity, where else is there to turn but the proclamation and action of love and justice? And in our contemporary climate influenced by scientific truth, skepticism, and cynicism towards traditional Christian beliefs and practices, doesn’t it simply make sense to reduce the message of Christianity to one of love and justice? Shouldn’t Christianity adapt to the current day and age by working out and practicing its ethical principles only and forgetting about spirituality, transcendence, or other things of the past? Consider the title of Gretta Vosper’s 2009 book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, and you’ll get a sense of the questions I’m asking.

Christianity, though, needs to maintain the importance of prayer, spirituality, worship, and other aspects of the Christian life that may seem superfluous to the pursuit of love and justice. It is only in maintaining them that love and justice be pursued with any Christian integrity. Christianity should never let itself be separated from the pursuit of love and justice but it also should never let itself be reduced to an ethical system, whether individualistic sexual ethics on the one hand or public-justice ethics on the other. On both sides of this spectrum is the assumption that Christianity is an ethical system; the only disagreement is on what that ethical system consists of, which ethical propositions are held to be true.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pedro Berruguete
What is the alternative proposal? How can Christianity simultaneously never let go of acts of love and justice while at the same time never reducing Christianity to them? The answer has to do directly with Christ: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). There is no attempt to be self-dependent in Jesus; he constantly grounds and reminds himself of his Father in heaven, who is a mystery of boundless love and justice, a mystery which cannot be grasped, never fully captured in thought or in deed. In Philippians we read that Jesus embraced this very ungraspable mystery, he “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).

As imitators of him, we are summoned, called, invited, to do the same, to take on the very nature of a servant. But we do so in recognition of our dependence on God. What flows from this is a passionate concern for love and justice, for the poor and oppressed in our world. But it is a manifestly non-judgemental, non-patronizing, and non-superior pursuit of justice, particularly in confronting those with whom we disagree on what God’s reign manifests itself as. It is of course passionate, convinced, and energized by the life of God at work within it. But instead of being a source of pride, this pursuit of justice will spring from a source of grace, that is, God’s desire to make his life known through you through communion and union.

Our imitation of Christ continues unto glorification: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9, 11). We are invited into Jesus’ relationship with God, such that we cry out “Abba, Father!” Through Jesus, the firstborn of the new creation, we are born unto a new creation and participate in God’s dwelling in all things. Our acts of love and justice are real instances of the God’s life already here and God’s life still to come, as are our acts of prayer, worship, and silence. We are not proud or self-aggrandizing; instead, we are joyful, filled with the authentic joy that comes from God making his home in us so that we become increasingly and infinitely more like him in whom the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Not a reduction to ethics, but an elevation of ethics to the very life of God into which all creation is summoned.
Ethan van der Leek is in the MA program at ICS. His thesis is exploring the relationship between Christology and philosophical anthropology in the writings of the 20th century French philosopher Michel Henry. Next year he will be working as a campus minister at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC and continuing theological studies at Regent College in Vancouver.

First photo used from wikipedia in the Public Domain; second photo used from wikipedia, in the Public Domain.


  1. In my own tradition frustration with an individualistic, self-centered, and emotionally-based Christianity is felt by many. It’s also true that those who experience this frustration look for solace in communities that emphasizes social justice because this emphasis seems to resist some of the ills mentioned. I’m skeptical of your suggestion that such an emphasis necessarily or even generally leads to reducing the Gospel message to an ethical system. However, I believe you’re absolutely right when to suggest that prayer, spirituality, worship, and other aspects of the Christian life that on the surface seem superfluous to the pursuit of justice are actually integral. Unfortunately these seemingly superfluous things can be associated with the same things that are causes of frustration (individualistic, self-centered, and emotionally-based Christianity). The challenge is showing how prayer, spirituality, and worship can be understood and practiced in a way that is integral to our ability to respond to the call of justice. This is one reason I really enjoyed your last GM post on prayer.

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    2. Just saw a typo that I wanted to fix.

      Thanks for your response. I'm not arguing that an emphasis on social justice in the church necessarily reduces the entirety of Christian faith to an ethical system. Am I arguing for it generally? Well, any and all forms of Christian life, faith, and praxis are tempted by idolatry. Social justice, sexual purity, precise and perfect theology, spiritual practice; ALL of these can be opportunities for idolatry, where trust and hope in God decreases and pride increases. In this post I'm focusing on one specific locus of temptation to idolatry, the pursuit of social justice, which easily infuses those communities who rightly sense idolatry in individualistic settings. The move towards pursuing social justice is one which I heartily embrace and identify with, and the absence of this pursuit is idolatrous in its own right; but like all movements in the Christian life, if abstracted from participation in the life of God it becomes an opportunity to create a new system of self-dependence (law?) which can be used to oppress rather than free, even as it does authentically bring freedom at the same time! We’re hard pressed in this life to find any actions which we can either wholly condone or wholly condemn.

      There are real problems with individualistic Christian life, to be sure. But I’m hesitant to too quickly dismiss a passion for prayer and relationship with God, even when that passion can be rightly condemned for neglecting the pain and suffering of social injustice. I mentioned in my post that there is a secular temptation to keep the ethical content of Christian faith in the face of skepticism regarding anything that smacks of ‘supernatural’ or ‘metaphysical’. And for some it might even be that faith in God is not what God requires of them (at least from my perspective of Christian faith); if they pursue social justice with no concern for prayer and worship, I am certainly not trying to condemn them or suggest that it is not authentic justice or anything of that manner.

      However, there is a moment of truth in prayer, even, I dare say, in prayer abstracted from the pursuit of social justice, that I don’t think Christian communities should risk dismiss as purely problematic individualism. I would, of course, say the same thing about the pursuit of social justice; even abstracted from a life of prayer and worship, it still has a genuine moment of Christian truth to it. I just want to keep struggling to bring these two poles of Christian life together, both conceptually as in this blog post, and in the concrete lives of myself and Christian communities.

  2. I might weigh in with a story from ICS's past. Jim Wallace of Sojouners visited ICS around the year 1980. He told the story of the then recent past of the Sojourners community. He told of their near burnout after the intensity of the anti-war effort, and of their weariness in their struggle to live among and in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable of Washington D.C. He implied that the future health and maybe even existence of the community was on the line. Then he told of meeting Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker's Movement, who testified to the centrality of worship in the health of Catholic Worker's communities. The Sojourners community took Dorothy Day's testimony to heart and began to institute prayer and worship at the centre of their own communal life. Seems to me that Jim Wallace's story of that visit, speaks to Ethan's point quite compellingly. Of course, this is not a counter example to the tension Caleb sees. The Sojourners community was not an introverted pietist community adding a social justice orientation to their devotional repertoire. Rather, they were a community that knew in its bones that social justice suffused their life in Christ, who came to learn the importance of the spiritual discipline of prayer and worship as nourishing their spiritual energy and commitment.

  3. This post seems absolutely right to me, Ethan. It often feels like we Christian academics just traded an individualistic liberal protestantism of post-war Europe for a communitarian liberal protestantism--the common element being our love of "not being like those bad guys" (i.e. self-deception). The fact that you have to spend three paragraphs quelling everyone's fears that you might be "one of them" for the sake of something so obviously fundamental as prayer in the Christian life is itself a telltale sign of pernicious ideology.

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  5. "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17). This means "continuously", not "continually". How can this be possible? By living always in a posture of dependence. We are, after all, "images" of God. The Hebrew is "nephesh", not substantial (as in the Classical conception), thus independent, souls, but through and through dependent. Be mindful with each breath that each breath is God sustaining and speaking to us. Practise the presence of God. And "give thanks, in all circumstances" (v. 18).



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