Preaching Justice: The Ethical Vocation of Word and Sacrament Ministry


This article is James Childs' address from February 4, 1998, when he was installed in the newly established Sittler Chair.

Copyright © 1998 TRINITY SEMINARY REVIEW, Trinity Seminary. Used with permission.
From Trinity Seminary Review, Number 20, Spring/Summer 1998.

[1] I am keenly aware that whatever shine is on me is that of reflected glory and borrowed eminence: from the late Joseph Sittler, my teacher, friend and mentor and from our guest speaker Dr. Martin Marty, a recipient of our Sittler award for theological leadership and of virtually every other award and accolade accorded theologians.

[2] Dr. Marty's participation is a bonus for us all and a fitting tribute to Joseph Sittler, whose memory deserves more theological stature than I can provide. I am deeply grateful for the rich legacy of Joe Sittler and for the wisdom and theological insight that is ever present in the incredibly prolific work of Martin Marty. Most of all, I give thanks and draw strength from the fact that these two men, among the most eloquent and discerning Lutheran theologians of our century, have been so completely faithful to the Gospel and so deeply involved in the life and mission of the church.

[3] This presentation builds on thoughts and themes that have developed in my thirty years as a teaching theologian and as an author. However, it also charts some new territory, which I hope will be the basis for future work. Though the paper is not about Joseph Sittler and his theology, I hope it has resonance with some of his key themes. I want to be in conversation with him as I attempt to work out my own modest contribution. In this respect, the focus on preaching feels right, for Joe was certainly, if not preeminently a preacher who loved his colleagues in that ministry. The topic of justice recalls his emphasis on seeing the scope of grace as larger than individual salvation. It echoes Sittler's strong statement that, "Justice is not an invented and imposed virtue; it is a precondition for human life."[1] Our theme connects with his understanding that the ethical vocation of God's people is the reenactment of God's acts of love and justice.[2] Other points of contact will emerge as we proceed. To be sure that happens, I have liberally seasoned this stew with occasional insights and comments from the speeches and writings of Joseph Sittler.

[4] As a Lutheran theologian addressing an aspect of preaching, I operate with certain basic assumptions. First of all, preaching that is faithful to our calling will be, to use a favorite Sittler term, "drenched" in the biblical witness. Secondly, faithful preaching will throb with the pulse of the Law-Gospel dynamic. I hope, then, that as we proceed, it will be evident that the ethical vocation of preaching justice is deeply rooted in the traditions of Scripture and at its truest when mediated by the interplay of Law and Gospel. I offer five propositions for your consideration. The first two are foundational. The second two are topical. The final one is methodological.

[5] 1. Preaching justice is at the core of the church's gospel proclamation.

"It is the nature of the gospel of redemption that all space, all personal relationships, all structures of society are the field of its energy. The gospel of the Word of God made flesh . . . the thrust of the redemptive action of God is into the structure of mankind, society, the family, and all economic orders" (The Structure of Christian Ethics).

[6] This proposition reflects a recurrent theme and a foundational principle of my teaching and published work. Still, it deserves to be reiterated, especially among Lutherans, because it is not an understanding that all would be ready to embrace in principle or in practice. Put another way, the difficulty of clearly seeing the coinherence of justice and justification has retained a tenacious hold on our theology and preaching.

[7] Joseph Sittler's concern to see the scope of grace as larger than the salvation of the individual led him to a Christology and a doctrine of grace vast enough to encompass concern for the redemption of society and the whole of nature. This is already evident in the quote given above and it finds further elaboration in his famous address to the World Council of Churches Assembly in New Delhi (1961). He argued then:

The way forward is from Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and the wrath of God. . . The care of the earth, the realm of nature as a theater of grace, the ordering of the thick, material procedures that make available or deprive men of bread and peace - these are Christological obediences before they are practical necessities.[3]

[8] In seeing that our Christological obediences involve justice for the earth and for the human community inextricably linked to it, Sittler was out ahead of much of the theology that had shaped Lutheranism up to that time. Christology and soteriology had had as their referent the salvation of the individual believer with no apparent relevance to the concerns of justice in human community such as equality, freedom, peace, and wholeness. Justice was relegated to the murky precincts of the civil use of the law and the rather untidy activities of political life in a fallen world. This outlook is typified by Christian Ernst Luthardt's influential nineteenth-century essay on Luther's ethics. In connection with Luther's two kingdoms doctrine, he wrote:

To begin with, the Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with outward existence but only with eternal life, not with external orders and institutions which could come into conflict with the secular orders but only with the heart and its relationship to God, with the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, etc. . . . Thus Christ's servants, the preachers, likewise have no reason to espouse these secular matters but are only to preach grace and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ.[4]

[9] Most of us who are the "senior citizens" of Lutheranism, or nearly so, can testify that some form of this dualistic separation of the personal and spiritual from the social, political, and material was a staple of our theological formation. I know I was the recipient of dire warnings about preaching on matters of justice rather than sticking with justification. Given the prevailing theological opinion that the two were unrelated, that admonition was not surprising. When my generation was coming of age in ministry, one major study showed a strong conviction among laity and many clergy that the church, beyond a demand for personal piety, had no ethical advice to direct the conduct of believers in society.[5]

[10] Some of Luther's unguarded statements, such as a notable one from the essay on "Temporal Authority," certainly contributed to the development of a dualistic interpretation of his two realms doctrine. "You have the kingdom of heaven," said Luther, "therefore, you should leave the kingdom of earth to anyone who wants to take it."[6] Indeed, the very formulation of two realms or modes of divine rule was probably destined, by the sheer inertia of twofold formulations, to have a dualistic spin placed upon it.

[11] Luther scholars in this century like Karl Holl, Heinrich Bornkamm, Gustav Wingren, Helmut Thielicke, and George Forell rescued Luther from himself and from his interpreters and thereby helped to revitalize the church's commitment to justice. However, in our present context, though the stated commitment to justice still stands, such Enlightenment progeny as the separation of church and state, secularization, and triumphant individualism have made a mixed marriage with the quietistic impulses of our theological tradition to produce new offspring deeply invested in personal spirituality but having little interest in religious claims about justice.[7]

[12] Once again, Joseph Sittler's words are fitting: "We are tempted to regard God primarily as a God for solitude and privacy and only secondarily as a God for society. We have a God for my personal ache and hurt, but no God for the problems of human life in the great world."[8] This traditional, individualistic religion is with us in new forms. It has a new face, but the family resemblance is clear. Notwithstanding the social activism of organizations like the World Council of Churches and the social statements of mainline denominations, the preaching of justice in the parishes where preaching is heard is as urgent a need as ever. Now as then, justice has been a sidebar to the main text of justification or the spirituality of self-realization.

[13] Preaching justice will be vital preaching when we clearly understand that it is at the core of the Christian proclamation of the gospel. Joseph Sittler tried to broaden the scope of that gospel promise with a Christology and a doctrine of grace from whose purview nothing in reality or human experience is excluded. I have found the strong themes of biblical eschatology which frame the Bible's vision of justice and the constructive development of those themes by theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg and my own teacher, Carl Braaten, to be most helpful in making the case that preaching justice is integral to preaching the gospel.

[14] As the Bible develops its portrait of God's promised future, sealed by the victory of Christ, we discover a variety of values that comprise that ultimate good. These values are tightly intertwined with the aims of temporal justice. These values are the focus of Christian love as it battles against all that negates them and strives for all that fulfills them. Love seeking justice in pursuit of values that are an integral to the gospel promise of God's reign is bearing witness to that hope; ethics and evangelism belong together. A few examples should make the point.

[15] For the prophet Isaiah the reign of God will be one of unbroken peace (2:2-4) and justice (11:3-5). When Christians engage in reconciliation at all levels of life, they anticipate the promise of peace in God's dominion. When in love they concern themselves with issues of economic justice and equal treatment under the law, they anticipate the perfect justice of God's reign that will be beyond the need of coercive law.

[16] In Christ God has made peace with the world and promised a world of peace in which hostility and estrangement are supplanted by community and unity. God has called the eschatological community, the church, to work at this now (2Cor. 5:19). We do so in expectation of its coming, even as we eat the meal of the future in the Eucharist of the present.

[17] In the reign of God there is equality beyond any distinctions (Gal. 3:28). When Christians work to break down the barriers of race, gender, and ethnicity, attacking the "isms" that exclude and denigrate people because of who they are, they anticipate this promised equality in the hope of its final realization.

[18] At key points in his ministry, Jesus identified his person and work with prophetic expectations for the reign of God. These expectations include the triumph of life over death, healing of infirmities, good news for the poor, and the end of oppression (Matt. 11:4-5; Luke 4:17-21). When Christians uphold the sanctity of life against all that threatens it, they anticipate the triumph of life in the reign of God. When Christians not only visit the sick and comfort the suffering, but seek to alleviate hunger and actively pursue health care for all, they bear witness to the health and wholeness of the kingdom foreshadowed in Jesus' healing works. When Christians identify with the poor and oppose all forms of oppression, they anticipate the shalom of God's rule where our final freedom from sin dissolves all oppression in perfect freedom with God.

[19] In biblical terms, the promise of God's future, revealed and secured by the Christ, is a promise for the comprehensive fulfillment of God's intention for the wholeness of the whole creation. The worldly ethical concerns - concerns of faith active in love seeking justice - for the spiritual and physical well-being of individuals, the common good of society, and the care of the earth point to dimensions of the gospel promise of God's reign. The church's ethical vocation is the witness of anticipation. As such, its ethical vocation works in tandem with its evangelical vocation. In short, preaching justice is at the core of Christian proclamation.

[20] 2. Preaching justice is not moralizing about it.

Utopias owe their character and force to the vigor of the exhortation "see what is possible!" The Christian vision is fundamentally different; its vision of what is possible is engendered both by the realities of human existence and the promises of the God of its faith. . .Its fundamental trust is not in the allure or energy of the possible (these collapse, wane, and frustrate) but in the Giver and Promiser who does not abandon what he has given or renounce his promises. (Grace Notes and Other Fragments)

[21] Moralizing does justice neither to the Law nor to the Gospel. It stirs up guilt without recognizing the depth of human sin. It utters admonitions which betray too much faith in human possibility and, therefore leaves us powerless in the end. Moralizing does justice neither to the Law nor to the Gospel. Moralizing about justice misses the radicality of God's absolute demand and absolute judgment as revealed in the Cross. In its humanistic proclivities, moralizing about justice misses God's absolute, radical love and mercy, which is the promise of the whole Christ event. Moralizing about justice leads to despair over unassuaged guilt or the complacency of denial and self-deception, not to repentance and not to action.

[22] Words about God's absolute demand from a remarkable little Sittler piece called, "The Mad Obedience God Requires," help to capture what I am trying to say:

Only the absolute demand can sensitize human beings to occasions for ethical work and energize them toward even relative achievements. And only such a demand can deliver us, in these achievements, from complacency and pride, prevent us from making an identification of human justice with the justice of God. . . . To live under the absolute demand is the only way, given the human power of dissimulation and self-deception, to keep life taut with need, open to God's power, under judgment by his justice, indeterminately dependent on his love, forgiveness and grace.[9]

[23] True preaching of justice begins and ends with God's absolute demand and judgment and begins and ends with God's absolute grace and mercy. Moralizing about justice begins with an illusory belief in human potential and ends with the existential disappointment of human failure.

[24] It is clearly true that our preaching has seldom been guilty of overestimating human goodness. In no uncertain terms we have declared that we are sinners who see the price of our alienation reflected in the agony and unspeakable brutality of the cross. However, effective preaching of justice will need to take us beyond our personal iniquities and beyond using faraway violence and oppression simply as an instance of human perversity to illustrate an abstract doctrinal statement about sin. We need to move to a deepened sense of our own ineluctable complicity and responsibility - for what has been done and for what has been left undone - both as individuals and as members of a Christian community throughout time and space. Helmut Thielicke's poignant words seem to fit: "So long as we are here below, we are implicated in innumerable, suprapersonal webs of guilt . . . we are actors in a thousand plays which we individually have not staged, which we might wish would never be enacted, but in which we have to appear and play our parts."[10]

[25] Effective preaching of justice will look at injustice through the lens of God's justice. God heard the cries of God's own people in their captivity in Egypt (Exodus 2:23-24). God called for a jubilee to reunite impoverished and imprisoned families on the land they had lost to debt (Lev. 25:8-10), an act to make whole the broken as radical and unconditional as our justification by grace alone. God spoke, through the prophet of Isaiah 61, good news to the poor, the captive, the oppressed and gave that message new and fullest meaning when it fell from the lips of Jesus (Luke 4: 18-19). In the epistle of James we hear the judgment of God against the rich who have cheated their employees: "Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord hosts" (5:4).

[26] With God, justice begins with the cry of pain and proceeds with the work of mercy. Too often in our world, our response to the challenge of justice is not one of mercy but one of calculation; not a response to the pain, but to the problematic. Thus, we do not begin with the conviction that all our people in the U.S. should have health care, including the 33 million that don't; we start by enumerating all the problems we will encounter in providing it. Sure, there will be problems, but you deal with them after the commitment to care has been made. Notwithstanding the intricacies and genuinely debatable issues of how to craft the eventual plan, we can certainly preach, without hesitation, that there ought to be a plan. Moreover, we can give strength to that conviction and impetus for advocacy among the people of God by pointing to the evidences of God's mercy.

[27] If we have failed to preach the full extent of the judgment of God's justice, we also have often failed to preach the full scope of God's grace. I reiterate: admonition and prescription without empowerment leads to self-justification and complacency or the paralysis of unrelieved guilt - the engine is racing but the gearshift is stuck in neutral.

[28] Preaching justice that is not moralizing calls people to do God's justice in the name of a Gospel that not only forgives, but makes a new creation fraught with new possibilities. The basis of our call is that promise, not our own potential. The hope of our striving is in that promise, not in our own possibilities. Preaching justice involves doing better than battering people with what they aren't doing and ought to do; it involves allowing God's word to stir up their hearts for what, by the grace of God, they can do.

[29] Similarly, preaching that always goes directly from sin to justification or from cross to resurrection without ever stopping off at sanctification or anticipation is missing something of critical importance. It overlooks the message of the transfiguration event. Though we have seen the Christ in his glory on the mountain top, for the time being we must live on the plain. We have the promise that God's Spirit is with us on that plain, graciously providing that which we need as individuals and as the body of Christ to fulfill our calling. The grace of God which justifies also sanctifies God's people.

[30] Preaching justice, more than moralizing, proclaims the power of God's grace to make a people of the new creation and strengthen them in faith, active in love, seeking justice. St. Paul was full of admonitions, but he was also always ready to give thanks for what God had done among the people and assure them of the gifts they have been given for the calling to which they have been called. Even in the case of the problematic Corinthians he did not hesitate to say, "you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful. . . ." (1 Cor. 1:7-9).

[31] In preaching justice the imperative and the indicative coinhere; it comes under the rubric of the still useful phrase, challenging the people of God: "Be what you are."

[32] 3. Preaching Justice in America means addressing our racism.

What I am suggesting is that our church - as no other in Christendom, an insistor that all things must be understood from the center of Grace - break that term out of its imprisonment in sacral and sacramental and too precious spiritual words and energies and loose it for its light and power in the human world. . . . It is a grace of God that we should now be troubled by this anger and bitterness that flings out its voice from men bereft of full identity in our common humanity. The anguish of hurt is but God's way of announcing his intended right. ("Inter-Racial Understanding," an address to the Ohio Synod, May 1964)

[33] There are many "isms" expressive of the injustices among us - "isms" that are ideologically hardened and inherently intolerant and oppressive. All these attitudes and their attendant actions are the concern of preaching justice. However, racism is such a virulent presence in our cultural bloodstream that it deserves special mention and attention.

[34] Several decades ago, the prominent African American theologian, James Cone chided the theologians of the white church for not having taken "the worldly risk" of dealing with the enduring problem of color. In his judgment this failure was at the bottom of the fact that America was not producing prominent theologians. Instead, Cone argued, we were merely writing footnotes to the Germans, who, in their own contexts had successfully related theology to social reality.[11] His further remarks on this subject included this scathing commentary of theological education:

The seminaries of America are probably the most obvious sign of the irrelevance of theology to life. Their initiative in responding to the crisis of black people in America is virtually unnoticeable. Their curriculum is generally designed for young white men and women who are preparing to serve all-white churches. . . . Most seminaries still have no courses in black church history and their faculties and administrators are largely white. This alone gives support to the racist assumption that blacksare unimportant.[12]

[35] We are all familiar with the explanations one offers as to why it has been difficult to create needed changes in the situation Cone described. We are also aware that leaders among persons of color are not always of one mind about how that change can and should be effected. However, after all the caveats have been offered up, it is impossible to escape the central truth of Cone's analysis and one would also have to admit that, at least among predominantly white theologians and seminaries, progress has been painfully slow during the thirty years since those words were written.

[36] In some respects, this is not surprising given the deeply entrenched and sometimes fugitive character of racism in our society. Even when it seems that we have eliminated some of its most blatant expressions, like an adroit virus that mutates to circumvent the latest vaccine, it continues to find new ways of infecting the bloodstream of our culture. In the first public event sponsored by Trinity and Capital University's Center for the Advancement and Study of Ethics, the renowned civil rights attorney, Derrick Bell, defended the thesis that racism in America is permanent. Rather than racism being an anomaly on the democratic landscape of America as Gunnar Myrdal's study, The American Dilemma, had concluded, Bell maintains that, "Without the deflecting power of racism, masses of whites would likely wake up and revolt against the severe disadvantage they suffer in income and opportunity when compared with those whites at the top of our socio-economic heap."[13]

[37] Derrick Bell's claim that whites have bonded over against blacks to such a degree that they can't make common cause with one another when they suffer the same economic injustice, may be hard for some to accept. We have not the time to debate the matter. However, it is sobering to note that Bell's description of matters provides a perfect example of what Reinhold Niebuhr called "tribalism". Tribalism is a name given to the paradoxical and ironic fact that human beings, despite the obvious marks of their unity in co-humanity, seem able to recognize a common humanity only in the unique and distinguishing marks of a tribal "we-group." Those, "lacking these obvious marks of tribal identity, whether racial, linguistic, cultural, or religious are treated brutally as if they were not a part of the human race." America's problem with race, Niebuhr maintained, is one vivid example of this cruel paradox.[14]

[38] Tribalism as Niebuhr described it appears to run very close to what Cornel West has called the need for and consumption of existential capital. Existential capital is what we desire and require as human beings in terms of belonging and self-esteem. There is existential capital to be gained from adherence to racist ideologies; the denigration of the one, through racist attitudes about appearance, intellect, sexuality, and character, lifts the self-esteem of the other.[15]

[39] Bell's thesis that racism is permanent and its close phenomenal association with endemic tribalism and the racially permeated drive for existential capital simply serve to punctuate the assertion that racism remains lodged deep in the soul of American culture. Thus, we hear Cornel West begin his book Keeping Faith with these stunning words at the end of the Preface: "Not since the 1920's have so many black folk been disappointed and disillusioned with America."[16] For liberal whites, who devoutly hoped and thought that racism was becoming a thing of the past, this kind of talk comes as an unwelcome and disconcerting revelation, often prompting denial or despair.

[40] However, denial and despair are responses outside life in the Gospel. Denial and despair are failures of the moralism of liberal Christianity and its deafness to the profound truth of the Law-Gospel correlation with its blend of realism and hope. Cornel West, despite his blunt realism, insists that he is driven by the love of Christ to continue in hope and to still call for new alliances and partnerships among people of all races for a more just society.[17] Credible preaching of justice that addresses our racism will arise out of participation in such alliances. This leads us to what we shall have to settle for as our last point under this proposition.

[41] In one of his informal discussions with pastors of the former Ohio Synod (LCA), Joe Sittler observed that all of American history might be described as a "flight to the suburbs." By this he meant two things. First, we have fostered the idea that we could always expand to new frontiers. Opportunity to pursue our individual ambitions, we believe, is not and should not be limited, a point relevant to our next proposition. Second, and more to the present point, it is a way of saying that the overwhelming majority of the white majority has consistently tried to get away from people it didn't want to associate with. But, moving away is not always simply a geographical matter. It is equally a cultural and intellectual decision. We are back to where we started with James Cone's critique of theology and theological education.

[42] Without the intellectual leadership of the African American thinkers in engendering a more discerning grasp of racism and without the cultural enrichment of the African American tradition, our society will not have the understanding requisite to form the alliances Cornel West calls for in building a truly democratic multiracial society. If the churches of the white majority turn their backs on these resources, there will be scant chance of preaching justice with integrity and keeping faith with the promise that all are one in Christ Jesus.

[43] However, our conversation with African American Christianity offers more than a resource for better understanding of the race issue. As Joseph Sittler was inspired by the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy to better understand and express his growing sense of the expanded scope of grace under the aspect of Christ the Pantocrator,[18] so we may draw inspiration and instruction from the African American preaching tradition. We have only to look at the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. to be reminded that in that tradition, there has never been divide between salvation and concern for justice. "Within African American Christianity," says James Evans, "grace conforms itself to the suffering and shame of the downtrodden, and grace transforms the quality of life itself, imputing honor in the midst ofshame."[19] "In the hands of skillful African American pastors," Robert Franklin observes, " preaching seeks to empower the powerless by telling the stories of God's preferential care for the disadvantaged."[20] The empowerment this preaching gives is the backbone of the political, economic and civil rights activism so integral to the mission of the Black churches.[21]

[44] 4. Preaching justice means looking at the greed in our culture through the lens of the divine economy.

Endowed with this magnificent continent, with all the riches and the possibilities, in three hundred and fifty years we have turned into a bunch of selfish affluent pigs mostly. The poor are forgotten, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer . . . [and] we seldom preach a sermon in which you say Christian faith engenders a shape of life, a kind of behavior, a way in which you exercise discipline over your affluence, over your habits. ("Comments on Preaching" Resource Cassette, 1981)

[45] The story is told of a French winemaker back in the 30's who lost seventy-five thousand dollars in a speculative venture. Despite the fact that he was still worth two million, he became so distraught over this loss that he went down to the local store and haggled with the merchant over the price of a piece of rope. After bargaining down to the best price he could get, he then took the rope home and hung himself. He had the bent of a miser to the bitter end. This is but one of many stories of the inordinate love of money in Hirsch Goldberg's The Complete Book of Greed.[22] They are bizarre and tragic stories of individual avarice which illustrate the characterological problem of greed.

[46] However, greed is not only a matter of personal character. It is fostered by two features of American cultural orientation which make the issue of greed an issue of justice. The first of these is our strong tendency to place the freedom of the individual ahead of the equality of the many in our social priorities. Whether wealth interests us or not, we tend to value our freedom to choose our own course of life more than we value a more equal distribution of wealth by limiting freedom any more than necessary. The second is the belief that wealth is virtually always capable of expansion or growth. We can grant those who wish to amass great wealth the freedom to do so because belief in the practically unlimited ability of wealth to expand means that others also have a chance at greater wealth, if they choose to pursue it. As one news magazine put it not long ago, "Nowadays there are few voices raised in challenge to the pursuit of wealth. Americans don't always love the rich, but they harbor the abiding hope that anybody can become prosperous."[23] One might nuance that further by saying that people may not always seek great riches, but they cherish their freedom to pursue their chosen level of acquisitiveness without hindrance from morally framed constraints. It is not so much the size of the wealth as it is the centeredness of the self.

[47] The existence of a market economy does not entail either of these two perspectives and both have a very complex historical-cultural ancestry. Democratic capitalism is not the target per se. Nonetheless, these two building blocks of greed have had a fecund symbiotic relationship with the capitalist tradition. The result has been a shaping of our cultural attitudes and our political choices in a way that contributes to serious inequities begotten of factors other than choice or chance. An unchallenged individualism of maximized freedom plus an unchallenged belief in limitless growth comprise the fertile soil of endemic greed.

[48] This enculturation of greed both stimulates and is aided and abetted by the tendency for the rules of economic life to become the rules of life in general. As M. Douglas Meeks has pointed out, market logic becomes problematic when it pretends to be the logic governing all relationships and all patterns for the distribution of social goods. When that happens, justice is skewed in favor of those who possess the greatest economic power and who perpetuate the rules of the game.[24]

[49] In like manner, Hans Küng has recently observed the danger we currently face ". . . of elevating the sub-system of the market economy into a total system, so that law, politics, culture, and religion are subordinated to the economy." In this scenario, Küng says, ethics "would be sacrificed to power and money, and be replaced by what gives pleasure."[25] When greed is an integral part of the order of economic life and the rules of economic life become the arbiters of all relations and values in society, there is an inevitable neglect of the common good.

[50] The church's preaching of justice engages this situation on three levels: Character formation, cultural critique, and political advocacy.

- Christian preaching in shaping the character of the people of God for their public witness knows that the neighbor love Jesus commanded trumps the self-centered impulses of the prevailing ethos and points away from a society of self to a society of sharing.
- Christian preaching with its holistic vision of God's promised reign challenges trends toward translating the rich, multivalent character of human community into the pinching discourse of market logic, which distorts when it becomes master instead of servant.

- Christian preaching with its incisive understanding of human sin and finitude will advocate for political measures that curb the hubris of limitless growth, address the glaring imbalances in prosperity, and inculcate the sort of corporate stewardship required for economic justice and global sustainability. In the Genesis narrative of our creation in the image of God, we receive the message not only that this image confers special dignity, but also that we are "image," dependent, finite being. It was the denial of that limit in the Garden that has introduced the perduring limitation of human sin.

[51] Joseph Sittler taught us to respect the integrity and sustainable limits of our earth long before the rest of us learned of the necessity to emerge from our anthropocentric cocoons to engage the whole of the world and rediscover the connection between nature and grace. Those who have followed in his train now provide new evidence of the natural limits of finitude and, in the products of pollution, expressions of the limitations of human sin.

[52] 5. Preaching justice is the voice of Christian community in dialogue, seeking the will of God.

"My own disinclination to state a theological method is grounded in the strong conviction that ones does not devise a method and then dig into the data; one lives with the data; let's their force, variety, and authenticity generate a sense for what Jean Danielou calls a 'way of knowing' appropriate to the nature of the data." (Essays on Nature and Grace)

[53] If much of what has been said to this point seems more like an ethical treatise than one on a homiletical topic, it is not entirely an accident of my discipline. I lift up the ethical challenge of justice and our call to pursue it as essential to our capacity to preach it. Every seasoned pastor knows that her/his preaching gains power and authority as she or he becomes more deeply involved in the lives of the people. So it is with justice; it cannot be preached in a vacuum, only in a context of involvement.

[54] I speak here of that involvement in terms of dialogue. I don't mean dialogue instead of activism, but dialogue as an essential concomitant of effective activism. Dialogue is not harmless conversation carried on in relative detachment. Dialogue requires entering into the reality with which one is engaged. It includes the dogged quest for truth and an active praxis.

[55] In seeking the truth of justice for our fallen world, dialogue runs directly into the complexities and ambiguities of the tangled skein of public policy options and the seemingly runaway and random developments of economic life. It is this array of uncertainties and conflictual choices, exacerbated in their confusion by the pluralistic cast of our present world, that has prompted some to suggest that the church has no business getting stuck in that mire. We have no Word of God for the proximate decisions of enforcing justice and we compromise the real message of the Word and our own authority by pretending that we do.

[56] However, this contention is only a half-truth. It is true that there is no specifically Christian economic system or political platform. We have no peculiar expertise for writing public policy. Yet, it is also true that we are called to preach and pursue justice, as I have tried to show, and we are set free in the gospel to tackle even the gnarled, thorny, and imprecise problems of securing justice, as well as the more straightforward matters. It is, in short, the same invitation and admonition to bold sinning that Luther gave Melancthon.

[57] Now, let me hasten to add that all issues of justice are not shrouded in the mists of ambiguity. Some things are quite clear, even when the details of their political solution may not be. Moreover, our authority is not in certitude, but both in the assurance of our call from God to speak and in our faithfulness to the values revealed in the Word made flesh.

[58] With the freedom and call to speak comes the responsibility to know - as much as humanly possible. The dialogical quest for the truth demands openness and every effort to identify as intimately as possible with the needs and insights of others. We cannot and ought not speak out of knee-jerk ignorance.

[59] Christians in dialogue with the world may also discover in new ways the proximate character of their own insight as the world fills the forms of love with its demands for justice. New ethical understandings stemming from the voices of those who suffer and further informed by the social and political sciences, have reversed the prejudicial attitudes and practices of the church in the past and beamed light on its blind spots. We have been given the grace to receive such revelations.

[60] Finally, preaching justice is the community in dialogue as community seeking the will of God. In his article, "Preaching as the Church's Language," Richard Lischer observes, "[The] church exists for the world, but it renews its identity when it gathers for worship. It speaks in the world, but it learns its 'distinctive talk' when its members come together around word and sacrament."[26] That is why preaching justice is so important to doing justice. Preaching is integral to Word and Sacrament ministry, and Word and Sacrament is that which shapes us as a people. The grace and community that is ours provide the wherewithal and the context for the dialogue we need among ourselves. With the sharing of our manifold talents and experiences, we profit from an enlarged capacity for discerning the will of God as God's word intersects with our world.

[61] There can be no final word for the concerns we have been considering, not until the fulfillment of history in God's future. However, the last word for this brief time frame goes to Joseph Sittler. It is eloquent and suitable as an overarching comment on all our efforts to be faithful.

The place of grace must be in the webbed connectedness of [our] creaturely life. That web does not indeed bestow grace; it is necessarily the theatre for that anguish and delight, that maturation of longing and hope, that solidification of knowledge that can attain, as regards ultimate issues, not a clean, crisp certainty but rather the knowledge that: [in the words of W.H. Auden]

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

[62] As we pursue the cause of justice in the webbed connectedness of our creaturely life, seeking the grace of God for the anguish of humankind, we do so knowing, in our longing and hope, that, in the cross of Christ Jesus the Eternal has done a temporal act and the Infinite become a finite fact. We who must die have our miracle.

[1]  Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace, ed. Linda-Marie Delloff (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 117.

[2]  Joseph Sittler, The Structure of Christian Ethics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958), 36-38.

[3]  Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity," Ecumenical Review 14, 2 (January 1962), 175-187.

[4]  Quoted in Two Kingdoms and One World, ed. Karl Hertz (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 83-84.

[5]  Lutheran Churches - Salt or Mirror of Society?, ed. Ulrich Duchrow (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1977), 244.

[6]  Martin Luther, "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed," in Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s Works, 45, 102.

[7]  See Larry L. Rasmussen's discussion in Moral Fragments and Moral Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), especially 100-109.

[8]  Gravity and Grace, 35.

[9]  Joseph A. Sittler, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, ed. Robert M. Herhold and Linda Marie Delloff (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 77-78.

[10]  Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 496.

[11]  James H. Cone, "The White Church and Black Power" in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-79, ed. Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979), 126-129. This chapter was reprinted from Cone's book, Black Theology and Black Power.

[12]  Ibid., 128.

[13]  Derrick Bell, "The Racism is Permanent Thesis" an unpublished presentation at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, January 29,1993.

[14]  Reinhold Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1965), 90-91.

[15]  Cornel West, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 268-270.

[16]  Ibid., xvii.

[17]  Ibid., 29,291; see also Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 63-67.

[18]  Joseph Sittler, Essays on Nature and Grace (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 52-73.

[19]  James H. Evans, Jr. We Shall All Be Changed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 40-41.

[20]  Robert Michael Franklin, "Church and City: African American Christianity's Ministry," in Envisioning A New City, ed. Eleanor Scott Meyers (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1992), 146.

[21]  Ibid., 147.

[22]  M. Hirsch Goldberg, The Complete Book of Greed (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 226-228

[23]  "The State of Greed" in U.S. News and World Report (June 17,1996), 68.

[24]  M. Douglas Meeks, God The Economist (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 37-38.

[25]  Hans Küng, "A Global Ethic in An Age of Globalization" in Business Ethics Quarterly, 7,3 (July, 1997), 31.

[26]  Richard Lischer, "Preaching as the Church's Language" in Listening to the Word, ed. Gail R. O'Day and Thomas G. Long (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 115.


© May 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics 
Volume 2, Issue 5