You may have heard about Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man who was jogging near his neighborhood in Georgia when he was followed, chased down, shot, and killed. This reminds me of Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot and killed in her home in our neighborhood last year. It also reminds me of Botham Jean, a brother in our fellowship, who was shot and killed in his apartment the previous year. Something these situations all have in common is that these victims are all people of color who were innocently living their lives. There is a very long list of other, similar situations.
I’m convicted by this on two accounts - One is that I am tempted to remain silent, saying nothing because this doesn’t directly affect me. The other is that scripture charges me to seek justice and help the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17); to uphold the rights of the afflicted (Psalm 82:3); and to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” I am unable to live out these teachings from a place of silence.
Jesus scolded the Pharisees in Luke, chapter 11, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God...” I have been guilty of upholding the minutiae of religious obligation, while ignoring the needs of others. I’ve been present in worship service but engaged in gossip; I’ve attended Bible class one day and committed sexual sin the next; and yes, I have given money to the church, but failed to give my voice to the voiceless. I have sought repentance in these things.
In what ways are we guilty of Phariseeism like this?
So, I feel compelled by God's Word to oppose injustice and stand up for those who can not stand up for themselves. Because I am following Jesus and desire to obey God, I am moved to seek justice. One passage in Romans 12, however, complicates this for me. Romans 12:17-21 says,
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Is Romans 12 meant to undo the other cries of scripture for us to seek justice? How can we obey God in seeking justice, but also obey God in not taking revenge? I have a few thoughts:
First, challenging injustice is different from taking vengeance. We can defend others, but we are called to not seek vengeance for ourselves - we often get this backward, fighting for our right to do what we want, while remaining silent with regard to others. When things are not going my way, or I feel that someone has wronged me, my kneejerk reaction is to launch back and defend my way of doing things, or argue to get what I deserve. The passage above exhorts us to "live at peace with everybody" and to "overcome evil with good." I can't rightly obey these teachings while also fighting for my right to do things my way or insisting on getting what I "deserve" (not to mention the reality that we all deserve death as the wages of our sin, but Christ has purchased freedom for us - Romans 6:23).
That being said, defending those who can't defend themselves, speaking up for those without a voice, and standing up against widespread injustice is a far cry from trying to fight for what I think I deserve. The above passage invites us to treat our enemies with generosity, not to chase them down and fight them. Perhaps we feel comfortable with this idea - we can be nice to people, even if we don't like them too much - but what do we do when someone else has chosen to disobey this command, and an innocent person has suffered? To be honest, I really do not know exactly what to do, but I believe we should speak out when a child is abused, when an elderly person is scammed, or when a black or brown person is killed, mocked, or jailed unjustly.
When a person seeks ill toward us, we can reflect the character of Christ by showing generosity and compassion. When a person seeks ill toward another (especially someone of limited means), we can reflect the character of Christ by standing up for the victim and standing up to the perpetrator.
The second thought I have is that we must have raw, honest conversations with ourselves (and others) about our own privileges and prejudices. In Philippians, chapter 2, Paul writes,
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
The word "privilege" has become a buzzword lately, but please let's strip away the baggage of that word and consider what Paul is saying here: Jesus had the highest privilege possible - equality with God - but He did not use that privilege for himself; instead, He used it to save the world.
How can we have the same mindset as Christ in this? I think it begins with admitting our privileges. Again, this has become a buzzword that we like to avoid, but if we get rid of the rhetoric and take it at face value, we all have some privilege. Are you able-bodied? You have a privilege over those who are not. Do you have a strong family that cares for you? That creates a privilege for you. Do you have good health? That's a privilege over someone with chronic illness. When we realize our privileges, we have three choices: 1) we can use our privilege to our own advantage and try to get ahead, 2) we can ignore it and do nothing, or 3) we can use our privilege to the betterment of those without said privilege. Jesus chose option 3, which will we choose?
In addition to examining our privileges is the need to examine our prejudices. Slightly earlier in Romans 12, Paul says, "Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position." To do this takes work and intentionality, since it is not our natural desire to be around "people of low position." We would rather surround ourselves with people who make us look and feel good, but for Jesus, this was never the case.
James gives an example of how it might look to live this out - In James, chapter 2, we are instructed to show no partiality or preference to others. The scene is of a church meeting in someone's home, where the host seats their guests. Typically, a host might put the wealthy, attractive guests in nice seats near them, but let the guests they are not so fond of find a seat elsewhere. James condemns this, instructing us to show no partiality and, in doing so, honor everyone.
What does this look like for us? Do we cross to the other side of the street when we see a black or brown person on the sidewalk? Do we choose our neighborhood based on how many people look like us, or advise people to avoid the "bad part of town"? Do we invite friends from our own socio-economic class over for dinner, but just bring sack lunches to those who are poor? I am guilty of all of these things, but I want to work on that and better reflect Christ to those around me, wherever I may be. It doesn't come naturally, but nothing about following Jesus is natural - He is a counter-cultural leader, and we must be counter-cultural followers.
And lastly, we trust in God. When it comes to issues of justice, we can and should stand up against injustice, we should examine our privileges and use them to benefit others, and we should grow out of our prejudices and seek to bless others. Let's do all of those things, but even so, we ultimately trust and hope in God to administer true, cosmic justice for eternity.
If you are someone victimized by injustice, know that there is a God who cares, who has seen and experienced injustice, and who weeps with you. Where the human justice system fails, God will not. When life is lost or people are taken advantage of, God mourns. If you are tired, worn out, or feel like giving up, God upholds you with His righteous right hand.
And if you are not victimized, or not part of a people group frequently submitted to injustice, we still hope in God, but this is no excuse for inactivity. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Why do we seek justice? Because we serve a just God. Why do we avoid partiality? Because we serve a God who shows no favoritism. Why do we admit our privilege and use it to bless others? Because we serve a God who gave His son to extend grace and mercy to us. As we seek to obey the will of God, let's not allow prayer to be a substitute for action, and let's not assume that God will take care of things so we need not try. We were created in God's image, and we can uphold His image and reflect His character by living out His will and doing justice.
I'll be honest, I don't know exactly what you and I can do in light of all this, but I am convicted that ignoring injustice is wrong, so I don't feel comfortable doing that. James also teaches that for someone to know what is right, and fail to do it, that is sin for them (James 4:17). I want to do what is right with regard to this narrative of injustice, and I invite you to do the same. Start a respectful conversation, stand up for someone with less privilege than you, be the body of Christ.