Some Thoughts on Justice and Mercy

Vantage Point
| |
Guess what? We broke the law

Around 1995 I became a Crossroad Bible Institute instructor. Following CBI’s daily guide for reading through the Bible, I became aware of the many verses expressing God’s concern for the poor—widows, orphans, aliens; those who are helpless, hungry, afflicted—and marked them all in my Bible. It changed my life.

Recently I bought a copy of Ron Sider’s book And They Shall be Fed—200 pages of Bible verses he found on this topic. I’d found about 1,000 verses on this theme; Sider, about 1,850. The difference? Sider had included 25 verses on laziness; I did not look into that. And while I picked the key verse in a passage, Sider included the surrounding verses to set the context.

Regardless of the number of verses, what is significant is Sider’s statement “Would anyone deny that [God’s concern for the poor] is the second-most common theme in the Bible?”

This raises questions. First, why have I, in my 78 years in the Christian Reformed church, heard only five to 10 sermons on this subject? Have others noticed this? If so, how can the CRC increase its awareness of this issue? When our church worked through Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, I saw no mention of the poor. Years later, Warren is quoted in Rick Warren and the Purpose That Drives Him by Richard Abanes as saying, “I’m sorry, God. How did I miss those 2,000 verses on the poor in the Bible? How did I miss that with all my training, doctrine, and education?” Since then Saddleback Church has changed its ministry to emphasize helping the poor.

Second, why is the CRC currently debating the role of the institutional church, with some saying the church should not speak out on justice issues? Clearly, God’s concern for the poor is a biblical issue!

Finally, how do you respond to those who say “They broke the law” is the bottom line in dealing with people who are undocumented? Guess what? We broke the law—and we continue to break it, every one of us. Where would we be if God said, “That’s it! You broke my law! No salvation for you!”

Praise God that he is not that way. Through Christ, God is consistently compassionate, patient, and forgiving with us. And he expects us to reflect him and do likewise. Could God say, “Now that you have been saved, your relationship toward others is no concern of mine”?

Even to say the Bible has two themes, salvation and concern for the poor, isn’t correct. It’s really all of one piece. God is compassionate to us; we must be compassionate toward “the least of these.” Who says so? Jesus himself says so in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 (see also Cornelius Plantinga’s powerful meditation on this parable in Beyond Doubt, Faith Alive).

About the Author

Frank De Haan, a retired chemistry professor, is an elder at Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Sun Valley, Calif.

See comments (9)

Comments

God's main concern might not be solely for the poor.   It might be for how we show love for the poor.   The commandment to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is denied and disobeyed when we ignore the plight of the poor.  If we help the poor without love, without considering their life holistically and spiritually, then perhaps we are still missing what purpose God has for us.  If we only help the poor out of a sense of justice, then we may miss God's intention for us, which goes far beyond justice.  It is really a sense of mercy as shown by God's grace to us, which is desired, isn't it? 

This article asks, "why is the CRC currently debating the role of the institutional church, with some saying the church should not speak out on justice issues?"

Huh?  I'm probably one of the "some saying" people this author is asking about.  The problem is, neither I nor anyone else is arguing the institutional church shouldn't speak out on justice issues?"  On the other hand, what I and others have argued is following:

   - The CRC, as an insitutional church, should not tell its members what political candidates or specific political positions they should take, nor should it lobby the government to take specific political positions.  (There are exceptions to the rule, but that should be the rule).  There are many possible ways to get to justice (the kind that government is assigned to promote).  The institutional church is ill-equipped to be the political/legal authority to speak for all its members, and to lobby government.  There are lots of Christians who, both individually and organized, who can do a much better job. 

   - The CRC, as an institutional church, should speak, even loudly, to echo the biblical admonitions and mandates about justice, even about the poor (the two words don't refer to the same meaning).  On the other hand, those admonitions and mandates rarely constitute specific political positions or candidates.

   - The CRC, as an institutional church, should itself work to help the poor and encourage members to help the poor.  And the more the CRC emphasizes political lobbying, the less it emphasizes doing that work itself.

   - The CRC, as an institutional church, should disciple its members so that they, individually and within organizations where they join with Christians of many traditions, do biblically faithful work in the areas of: justice, poverty, business, education, biology, physics, history, economics (list is endless).  Its not only justice and poverty that Christians should be working in -- its everything.

I think Ron Sider has his heart in the right place, just not his head. He is not careful to distinguish between/among the spheres of authority and responsibility that the Reformed tradition has call "sphere sovereignty."  He wants to solve the problems that are closest to his heart (and so far, so good), but in doing so, he merely looks to find the biggest stick (power) that he can find to do what he has decided should be done.  And so he lobbies for the government to so what institutional churches and the church as organism (in non-government 'spheres') should be doing (in part because they can do it much more competently).

Not long ago, a great experiment in having government direct all things in society in order to rid society of injustice came to a rather abrupt end.  It was called the USSR. Centuries before that, the state and government joined forces to rid society of heresy, resulting in the torture/murder of Guido de Bres and many other Calvinists and other non-Catholics.  Given history, I have no idea why some among us want the Church to become government or the Church to become one with government or assign to government the duty to do what the Church (as institution and as organism) should be doing.  Whether our hearts are in the right place or not, the consequences of increasing the role of government beyond what is should be and diminishing the proper role of the Church (both as institution and as organism) will likely to be the same.  And that won't be an increase of justice.

As the president of crossroad i have the wonderful privilege of seeing the very best of the crc every day. This article shows why. thank you.

I offer a hearty "amen" to your words, Mr. DeHaan. What a blessing to read of others who take God's covenant with Abraham seriously. As Abraham's spiritual descendants, the Church is blessed to be a blessing so that God's power might be demonstrated before the nations. Seeking justice for the wronged is a critical component of that mandate, or else we are hypocrites. May God receive all the glory!  

Let's have a go at your questions:

First, why have I, in my 78 years in the Christian Reformed church, heard only five to 10 sermons on this subject?
-Can't say.  But how many churches in the CRC have you been in over those 78 years?  How many sermons do you remember?  I write sermons - about 100 per year - and I sure don't remember them all.  What constitutes a "sermon on this subject"?  I preach on a particular text, which means such themes may be present in the sermon but depending on the hearer it might not be called a sermon on that subject.  And in truth it isn't.  It's a sermon on the text in view.

Second, why is the CRC currently debating the role of the institutional church, with some saying the church should not speak out on justice issues? Clearly, God’s concern for the poor is a biblical issue!
-Maybe because there is room for discussion and debate as to the best method of concerning ourselves with the poor.  Maybe because the institutional church's immersion in politics threatens the church's primary mission of bearing witness to Jesus Christ.  Maybe because the role of the institutional church in politics is debatable.  Just because somebody doesn't join in your favored program for ministry doesn't mean they have no calling or ministry or heart.  I recall something in the Bible about different parts of the body and what not that might apply here - 1 Corinthians 12, I think.

Finally, how do you respond to those who say “They broke the law” is the bottom line in dealing with people who are undocumented? Guess what? We broke the law—and we continue to break it, every one of us. Where would we be if God said, “That’s it! You broke my law! No salvation for you!”
-But they did break the law.  And just as our law-breaking carries consequences with it, so does this law-breaking.  We ought not simply cover that up and ignore it and pretend it never happened.  God doesn't.  There was a crucifixion involved in the affair.  I might also point to Paul's question in Romans, "Shall we sin more that grace may abound?"  The fact that I sin is not an excuse for another's sin.  Adam tried that real early.  It didn't work then.  It doesn't work now.  Nor is the reality of God's grace and mercy in the face of that sin a license to continue doing it.  I would agree that the reality of law-breaking is not the bottom line, but it is also not an insignificant matter.  So, how would you propose we go about encouraging obedience while yet practicing mercy?  It strikes me that this is a vexed question and pretending that those who argue for opposing policies are simply heartless is itself ungracious.

So if a political candidate has a diabolically opposed position to the bible on poverty, hunger, etc. such as Paul Ryan whose political philosophy comes from athiest Ann Rand than it should not say this is wrong, this position in fact is sinful?  If the church as institute cannot say that, I think we are in deep trouble.  I challenge you, defend Paul Ryan's position on taking care of the poor from the Bible.

Paul Ryan's political philosophy does not come from atheist Ayn Rand, despite the widespread reports to that effect.  Bear in mind that the "journalists" reporting on Mr. Ryan are diametrically opposed to him and shape their reports accordingly.  Ryan's political and economic beliefs rise out of a sincere appreciation for the Chicago School of economics (Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, et al.), a firm belief in human dignity which includes personal responsiblity, and Catholic social teaching.

Paul Ryan's position is also premised on the math.  The present method of caring for those who cannot care for themselves is simply not sustainable - the money isn't there and won't be.  What is more, the collapse of the economy that such massive debts will inevitably cause if not reined in and reversed will be far more damaging to the poor than anything he might propose at present.

I am not inclined to go further than that here, as Ryan's statements, budget proposals, and arguments are available to those seriously interested in what he himself says rather than what his enemies say about him.  It is also far too complex a subject to get into in the comments section of the BANNER.  But your sweeping accusation against him is without foundation and displays a general ignorance of his published statements and presentations except as filtered by a hostile press.

I was speaking of the Paul Ryan who credited at the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth her as inspiring him to get involved in public service.  In a speech that same year at the Atlas society, he said he grew up reading Rand, and that her books taught him about his value system and beliefs. Of the Ryan who required staffers and interns in his congressional office to read Rand.  But as you say, this is much too complex a subject to get into in the comments section of The Banner.

Paul Ryan spoke 8 years ago at the Ayn Rand Society in 2005.  And if we are going to tar and feather a man because he went a bit hyperbolic in his praise of someone who does not merit it, and use that to discredit everything he says or writes or does subsequently, despite his subsequent attempts to correct himself (and he has said he was a bit too enthusiastic in those days) - I dare say none of us would ever survive such a standard. 'Tis certain no politician within living memory would be able to endure it.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, Ryan's appreciation for Rand says far more that is negative about his literary taste than about his economics or his faith.  Rand really was an awful writer.

As for the merits of his economic proposals, I will leave that discussion for other venues.

X