We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
In this post we begin chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.
The issue in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).
To anticipate a possible objection:
All this talk of judgement and righteousness sounds like a heavy-duty abstract theological discussion – let’s just focus on more spiritually important things like loving one another.
To which I would say at least four things:
i. What could be better than some important theology?! My tongue is not in my cheek here. God himself seems to see fit to give his people plenty to profound theology to wrestle over in the Bible. When it comes to understanding justice and judgement, he has given the book of Romans let alone the whole Old Testament to his people. Dare we say, actually, can we have something else please?
ii. The hypothetical objection above also assumes a disconnect between theology and ‘real life’. Few things are more disheartening to a Bible teacher than this false antithesis. Everything a Christian does and thinks and says is ‘theological’. To say ‘theology’ is optional or for professionals only is to say God’s Word and God’s truth does not matter, we can figure things out ourselves thanks. It’s a form of passive arrogance, not a sign of ‘spirituality’.
iii. Disinterest in theological issues like justice and judgement is actually symptomatic of a faith that is becoming irrelevant, not staying relevant. It will be so shaped by the world and its beliefs and values, that it will have noting distinct to say to ‘real life’. Understanding justice and judgement takes us to the heartbeat of Christianity because it takes us to the cross.
iv. Few things are less ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’ than thinking Christianly about issues of justice and judgement.
Are you concerned about injustice?
Do you ask at times ‘Where you are God?
Are you concerned about the mess the world is in?’
How do you respond when someone treats you unfairly?
What do you get angry about when you listen to the news?
These are the sort of everyday issues that a theology of justice addresses.
OK, that mini-rant come introduction over, let’s get back to Rutledge and see where the conversation goes.
It starts off with an important reminder – those that suffer most from injustice are the ones least likely to be reading Rutledge’s book (or a theological blog for that matter).
It is the poor, the marginalised and least educated who suffer most from injustice and have least resources to do something about it. Therefore,
Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (107)
How would you describe God? With what adjectives? What lies at the ‘essence’ of God’s character?
Rutledge suggests this is how the average churchgoing American might answer.
he or she will almost certainly call God “loving”. God is also commonly described as compassionate, merciful, welcoming, accepting, and inclusive. Very few white Americans will volunteer that God is just. (107)
Yet the justice of God dominates the Old Testament. Rutledge unpacks this story in detail and we can only touch on it here.
As God is just – and ‘holy’ and ‘righteous’ are virtually synonyms for just – so Israel is to be a community of justice. Injustice is the powerful or rich exploiting the poor – in Israel there were to be no poor. Where injustice exists, so God’s judgment follows.
Justice on earth is a foretaste of the future Day of the Lord which will usher in a realm of perfect justice.
Take Psalm 146 – look for how realism about the temporary nature of human justice leads to a future-orientated hope in the perfect justice of God.
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
2 I will praise the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
6 He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them –
he remains faithful for ever.
7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
8 the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
10 The Lord reigns for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
And so the OT leads to the Messianic hopes of a coming kingdom of justice – we return to this in the next post.
[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].