On Justice and Citizenship in the Next World
by Richard Toews
Richard Phillip Toews is a friend who lives in British Columbia and is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University. He writes: "This letter is a response from me to my brother who sees social responsibility differently than I do. I sent a message on to him about how Christians should respond to the overwhelming proliferation of social upheaval due to globalization. His response to this phenomenon was to simply say how glad he was that he had 'another citizenship'. I love my brother dearly but I have difficulty trying to reconcile his commitment to a pietistic theology with a more sacramental theology. At the end of the day, however, it is love and humility that must reach out and connect human beings."
How good it is to hear that you are trying to make a difference in your own way. What you say about the "other citizenship" is so very true, but let us never forget, as I know you don't, that we still live in this one and its this one that exercises social and economic injustice with a rapaciousness that will often destroy the human spirit. That cannot be a measure of God's love and grace, care and compassion no matter how one cuts it. Let us never forget that Christ our Lord was as much in battle with the powers of this world as he was with the next. The year of the Jubilee was, in point of fact, an attempt to redress injustice in the present, not some future reality. The apostle Paul, as you know, tried to remind us of practicing justice in the here and now, as much as he wanted us to be aware of that "other citizenship".
The context of almost all discussion about justice for Paul, Jesus, James, and the Old Testament prophets was contextualized by an understanding of justice defined by the "dik" stem one finds in Micah which is manifested by a profound respect for one's real life neighbour in this world, who was more often then not the destitute, the social outcast, those made poor by the rich and powerful landholders -- the multinational corporations of the day. Micah 6:8 is the lynch pin on which hangs almost all the discussion in the New Testament with respect to justice: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (In point of fact, I have no trouble whatever articulating the first part, but I am in a constant reminder to myself that without the humility one can bray loudly about justice, but it has no meaning, something like the sound of a "resounding gong and a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13) unless there is love and humility -- just a footnote to myself and a reminder to you that while I may go on and on about justice, which I will do shortly, talk about justice without humility is hardly justice, but egotistical pride).
The parables of Jesus were focused on injustice in the here and now not a picture, as has so often been suggested, of the next world. How do we know this? We know this by paying attention to the social reality of the day and the language used to tell the story. Jesus inserted semantic markers that were very obvious to the people of his day, which indicated a sharp criticism of their present social reality. Any study of the parables must necessarily be predicated on some large understanding of what Jesus' public work was all about; he used parables for tactical purposes related to the strategy of his larger public activity. Of course many people have trouble accepting this and want to relegate his ministry to some spiritual context in which spirituality becomes highly romanticized; that it is only about resisting our sinful nature, and we are only in residence in this world as prisoners until that great awakening when "those in Christ" will all be taken up. But if spirituality is not placed within a social context, as Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests, then perhaps what we are really talking about is etherialization rather than spirituality.
Spirituality is highly charged with social/political/economic meaning. I believe William Herzog, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Rochester Divinity School, is right when he raises the important point: "If Jesus was a teacher of heavenly truths dispensed through literary gems called parables, it is difficult to understand how he could have been executed as a political subversive and crucified between two social bandits. It appears that Jerusalem elites collaborated with their Roman overlords and executed Jesus because he was a threat to their economic and political interests. Unless they perceived him to be a threat, they would not have publicaly degraded and humiliated him before executing him in as ignominious a way as possible."
Jesus threatened the institutional powers of the day, institutions that stripped people of their humanity and broke their spirits, for in effect they were actively engaging in a strategy that robs the human person of their Godliness. What happened just before the crucifixtion? Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple. We know from scholarship that, while this was viewed by orthodox Jews as an abomination, the religious elite (Pharisees) supported money changing in the temple presinct because it was a means to establish their own economic might. We also know that when Jesus preached his first sermon, it was to remind the people that they had ignored the year of Jubilee for close to 400 years and his ministry was as much about re-establishing the Jubilee prinicple as it was about freedom of the captives from their "sin." What was the response?
John Howard Yoder gives a wonderful expose. From what we know today in terms of Biblical scholarship, the real reason the people wanted to kill Jesus "before his time" was that the year of Jubilee was too threatening to the economic power structure which was inextricably linked with the religious elites. What better way to get rid of an economic and political threat than to kill him under the quise of a religious interdiction (he referred to himself as the Son of God). In this sense, then, the Kingdom of Heaven is as much about restoring all of creation (not just humanity) to God as it is about citizenship in some metaphysical reality. That being the case, the Kingdom of Heaven is about resisting powerful institutions that want to efface the face of God in the people in the here and now. I think it is instructive to go back to the words of Mother Theressa who says that when she gives a cup of cold water to those made poor she sees the visage of Christ. That is about citizenship in this present reality as much as it is about what one refers to as an "other citizenship."
But is Jesus' ministry simply about politics? Most assuredly not. I have come to the conclusion that his ministry was more about demonstrating what it means to be fully human. In this context, Jesus came to restore all of creation, as indicated above, to the Godhead. The fall of creation and the fall of the human person was a fall away from the Godhead and that had to be restored. But in the process of the fall, humanity lost the ability to be human, lost the ability to reflect the viasge of God. To be human, after all, was to reflect the image of God in our humanity. That is what the Incarnation was to restore. The Incarnation is about restoring humanity as a new species.
Soli Deo Gloria
Richard Phillip Toews