“[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
[W]e have come to believe in Jesus Christ, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the work of the law” (Galatians 2:16).
The church is at an important juncture in its public life. How will it respond to the cries for justice bubbling up from the various marginalized sectors of our society? From the social cracks and fissures of our society we hear the righteous indignation of the #BlackLivesMatter activists; the cries of migrants sinking in seas of indifference as they risk all in desperate attempts to escape violence, rape, and poverty; the silent groaning of the planet as it succumbs to centuries of exploitation, pollution and abuse; the ancestral plight of native peoples forced to live as strangers in their own land, now “administered” by patronizing powers, remnants of an age of empire, colonial pillage and blatant genocides justified under the guise of evangelization and progress; the pain and shame of those having to bare in their bodies and psyches the homophobic violence of those who myopically confuse and conflate their own prejudices with the variegated biblical demands for justice and righteousness; the loud but yet rarely heeded protests of the poor majorities of the so-called third world countries (especially the women) whose labor continues to be shamelessly exploited and many of whom have to work under subhuman conditions for the sake of the life-style and comforts deemed by those of us living in the first world as our right; and so many more. The living word of God resonates in their cries as a voice calling the church to faithful action, to faith active in love. That is the ancestral prophetic call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Lutherans, however, have a very complex and complicated relationship with the public and organized struggle for social justice, especially when it involves political action and taking a prophetic stance. Calls for the church’s active involvement in social, economic and political causes is often viewed with suspicion as a slippery slope that ends in works-righteousness, the very denial of the gospel proclaimed by Paul and so bravely defended by Luther and the Reformers. Nonetheless, many Lutherans have also become fond of citing the example of champions of the faith like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faithfulness to the gospel (read through Lutheran lenses!), led to actively conspire against his own government, the Third Reich. It is forgotten, however, that Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and so many others were nevertheless a minority, the exception, and not the rule. Sadly, the norm seems to have been quiet acceptance of the status quo (when not its enthusiastic reception and active participation in it). Luther himself had a complicated relation to the plight of the poor and oppressed of his day. As it is well known, Luther sided with the peasants at first, but when their methods turned violent and their theology became revolutionary, he abandoned them and called on the authorities to violently stop them.
As we venture a faithful response to the cries of despair and the calls for compassion and justice that surround us, we must begin with confession, as we do every Sunday at the beginning of the liturgy. We must confess that we are not innocent; we confess that we too benefit from the injustices that suffocate the lives of so many others; we confess that in one way or another we stand on both sides of the line that divides “oppressed” and “oppressor”. But we also confess that we believe in God . . . in the forgiveness of sins . . . in the resurrection of the dead . . . and we yearn, in “birth pangs,” for the world that is to come.
In this issue of JLE three very different theologians, Ted Peters, Vítor Westhelle and Niveen Sarras model for us ways to engage our Lutheran and Scriptural traditions as resources to engage such daunting issues. Peters argues that the only ethics that can appropriately guide us through the complicated moral molasses facing the church today is by acknowledging our sin and thus venturing to sin boldly as we are moved by love of the neighbor making use of the freedom that we have been given by God in Christ. Westhelle, in turn, directs our gaze to Luther’s subtle distinction and inter-relationship between justice and justification, or love and faith. Using the extreme example of Christ’s call for love of the enemy in the sermon of the mount and Luther’s reading of that text, Westhelle argues for the need of love to be concrete and yet hidden at the same time in order to avoid falling into an economy of exchange. Finally, Niveen Sarras guides us through a contextual reading of the book of Jonah. Speaking from the anguish and anger of Palestinians living under the occupation of their land and of their lives, she imaginatively transports us to the prophet’s psyche and helps us understand his reluctance to bring the word of YHWH to his people’s ancestral enemies. Looking at the prophet’s journey through her feminist Palestinian eyes, she finds in the sacred text inspiration and guidance for Palestinian women’s struggle today. Hopefully these articles will provoke thought and conversations and above all will inspire us to find creative and effective ways to engage the many challenges we face in this historical juncture.