Justice as a question of piety vs. holiness

Justice as a question of piety vs. holiness January 21, 2013

With it being Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we preached on justice as our sermon series topic this weekend. For my text, I used Isaiah 58, where Isaiah confronts the people of Israel for fasting without justice. God’s people have often pursued devotional practices that “honor” God not only to the exclusion of treating other people justly but as a means of legitimating their lack of justice. I often call this pitting love of God against love of neighbor. As I was contemplating Isaiah 58, it hit me that our sensibilities about justice are often derived in whether we are seeking piety or holiness in our religious life. Here is my sermon audio.

I. Piety

Piety is a zeal for doing and saying the right things according to your value system. This need not be a religious phenomenon. Political correctness would be an example of a certain kind of piety, just like buying all organic food or only listening to music from underground record labels. The information age and social media have made piety largely about taking positions in support of or opposition to certain issues. The political polarization of our society makes being “moderate” into an attractive piety, which allows for some variety in coming up with combinations of “likes” and “dislikes.”

Since Protestant evangelicalism defines itself against “religious ritual,” evangelical religious piety consists almost exclusively in saying the right things about God, although having a “daily quiet time” and a rigorous Bible reading schedule would be two major exceptions. What’s paradoxical about evangelical piety is that one of its most important sensibilities involves a disavowal of our pursuit of piety. We say that what we do and say is “all about Jesus,” when in fact it’s all about us saying that it’s all about Jesus. The more emphatically we deny having any personal agenda in our piety, the more clearly we illustrate the importance of being seen disavowing our personal agenda.

In Isaiah’s day, fasting was the means of expressing religious piety. The purpose of this piety is revealed in Isaiah 58:3 when the people complain, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” When fasting is done for the purposes of showcasing one’s zeal for honoring God, then it only serves its purpose if God notices it.

II. Holiness

People pursuing holiness do many of the same things as people pursuing piety. The difference is that the motives for a person seeking holiness are more openly selfish and emotionally needy. They don’t need to explain their actions in pious formulations, because holiness is not about showcasing correctness; it’s about experiencing sacredness. A person seeking holiness engages in spiritual practices to get away from the stress, anxiety, grief, and other turbulences of fleshly existence that are created by sin. It is a question of finding peace and connecting with God, or as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:4, getting “swallowed up by [eternal] life.”

Holiness is not as much a quality that we exhibit in our character as it is a reality that God allows us to enter. When we are intimate with God, His holiness becomes part of our reality. One of the casualties of the evangelical manufacture of God experience as stadium hype is that we have created the false impression that it is easy to get to close to God. It really isn’t. God isn’t the goosebumpy feeling that you get from a Christian rock song or a motivational speaker who knows how to architect a “powerful” experience with the right combination of funny, serious, tear-jerking, and heart-pounding. Much of the time when we talk to God having been infused with these expectations, we’re putting on an act of piety for someone we are projecting as a conversation partner.

Here’s how this all connects back to Isaiah 58 and the question of fasting (or practices of religious devotion in general). While those seeking piety fast in order to demonstrate their zeal for God, those seeking holiness fast in order to come to the place of weakness and dependency in which God is authentically encountered. While the pious person packages what they’re doing to say that it’s “all about God,” what they’re really seeking is recognition for being theocentric. The person seeking holiness has no problem saying that they’re exploiting religious practices in order to stop feeling like a train-wreck, because what they want very selfishly and impiously is a real taste of God.

III. How does this relate to justice?

I think that the question of whether we are pursuing piety or holiness in relation to God is decisive in determining our attitudes about justice toward other people. Since piety is about correctness, justice to a pious person is about treating other people correctly by not showing favoritism in rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior appropriately. I can help other people as part of my display of piety, but that isn’t justice per se. To a pious person, sharing food, providing shelter, and clothing the naked (Isaiah 58:7) can only be called justice if I directly caused someone else to be hungry, homeless, or naked.

But the pursuit of holiness in fasting and religious devotion results in a very different perspective of justice. If I am fasting not to showcase my correctness but to gain an encounter with God’s presence, then justice has to do with whether others are able to have the same encounters I am privileged to have. It is unjust for there to be any circumstance in other peoples’ life that would get in the way of their ability to know God as I have known Him. Furthermore, it is unjust to God’s name for His existence to be misjudged on the basis of my aloofness to other peoples’ suffering.

God instituted the fast days and other mitzvot of the Jewish Torah not to give His people an opportunity to showcase their correctness, a.k.a. “glorify Him” (in pious language), but in order to provide the means for their transformation into disciples who were zealous about caring for one another. True holiness makes us want to honor the Hebrew justice of mishpat, a quest to discern what will bring everyone in our community shalom, and not just the Roman justice of iustitia, in which I have fulfilled my obligation as long as nobody can claim any trespasses or debts against me. Let us not allow our piety to keep us from tasting God’s holiness.

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