A Lack of Theology in the Evangelical Shift Toward Justice?

A Lack of Theology in the Evangelical Shift Toward Justice? December 11, 2012

Today, my friend Jamie Arpi-Ricci wrote an excellent reflection on evangelicals and justice. He is positive, as am I, about the current shift towards activism for the “least of these.” He cites human trafficking as a cause worthy of the church’s attention. But: What exactly do we hope will happen to the offenders when they’re finally captured?

It seems to me that evangelicals still have a western view of judgment. We see the court system as being retributive, when the biblical narrative offers a paradigm that is much more restorative. Our goal as Christians should be that both the victim and the offender find wholeness or shalom and can become fully human image-bearers once again. Unfortunately, few Christians actually question the judicial system in United States. The reason for this lack of criticism comes as we have failed to think theologically about the nature of justice.

Jaime Arpin-Ricci writes the following:

What concerns me about such examples is that they reveal an underlying mistake in our understanding of justice as Christians. Without question, the man [human trafficker] deserves to face the judicial system and I share in the hope that his punishment is adequate to keep him away from harming others for as long as is possible… That said, I also believe that at the heart of true justice is the offensive and stubborn grace of God that desires the redemption of the offender as well….

I am not suggesting that these people do not deserve to be punished, but rather that the justice that Jesus calls us to- the justice that we are to hunger and thirst for- is first and foremost about forgiveness and redemption. Even the act of punishment is subservient to that purpose. This is restorative justice, the same justice that transformed the Christian-killing Saul of Tarsus into the Apostle Paul, arguably the most influential Christian in our history. We romanticize Paul’s story, but that he would become a central leader to the early church would have been a bitter pill to swallow for many of the other Christians. Yet that is the nature of grace and restorative justice.

One of the central causes of this disconnect for many current justice orientated Christian ministries is the lack of a solid, developed theology of justice. The heart is right and the commitment to action is essential… We risk parroting the retributive justice of the world rather than embracing the counter-intuitive grace of God that can transform even the worst of sinners into brothers and sisters in Christ. READ THE REST OF JAMIE’S ARTICLE

Question: Do you believe that our evangelical theology of justice is underdeveloped? How do social justice causes and our goals for both victims and offenders need to be reflected in the church’s approach to activism? Other thoughts?

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  • Guest

    “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

    Grace is an all encompassing way of life. And as Jamie eluded to the early church got a up close way to practice this graceful living, by welcoming Paul.

    So in answer to your question justice is undeveloped in my life, and I’m sure in others. This seems to come down to a position of trust. Do we trust Jesus?

    As Jesus responded to the woman that was about to receive her ‘justice’ from her accusers, “go and sin no more” seems to place the grace upon the offender, and trust in the King.

  • Mike

    This is an excellent point, Kurt. In fact, it’s worth spending a lot more time on.

    There’s no question issues like trafficking are of critical importance, and I stand with many others who believe Christians should be at the forefront of end this global injustice. It’s a vital aspect of our calling as ambassadors of Christ, bringing a gospel of reconciliation to the whole world.

    But you’re right, bringing reconciliation means bringing it to both sides of the issue. Both those in captivity and their captors need healing. And perhaps the captors even more.

    Moreover, all of our efforts against trafficking and myriad other evils need to be doused with a humble and sacrificial love that is ultimately empower by God’s Spirit. I’m not sure how to express this just yet, but without that element, I fear we’ll end up repeating our social gospel mistakes of a century ago.

  • “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

    Grace is an all encompassing way of life. And as Jamie eluded to, the early church got a up close way to practice this graceful living, by welcoming Paul.

    In responding to your question, is justice is undeveloped? Yes it is in my life. This seems to come down to a position of trust. Do we trust Jesus?

    As Jesus was confronted with a judgement, a woman’s life was in jeopardy. This woman was about to receive her ‘justice’ from her accusers. His response was “go and sin no more.” This seems to place grace upon the offender, and trust in the King.

  • Happy to see you taking this up, Kurt (and Jamie)! I presented a paper about two years ago at an evangelical justice conference in the D.C. area, giving “creation stories” for the western criminal justice system and for the Anabaptist-Mennonite-influenced emergence of the modern restorative justice movement. It was pretty clear from the conversation – which included some folks from the International Justice Mission – that, indeed, American evangelicals are pretty uncritical about western notions of and institutions for justice.

    An Anabaptist corrective is certainly needed. (If you’re interested: http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/2011/04/yes-and-no-to-restorative-justice-as.html)

  • Luke

    Yes, I think we need to better develop out theology of justice. I think what you said about the Western view of judgment in regards to justice is huge. So many within the American church seem to have ideas of justice that are wrapped up on Western culture. I went to a large justice conference last year, and the first thing that struck me was how commercial it was. There were vendor selling all sorts of “just” goods, and there were people buying up tons of those goods. The underlying message was not hard to see: “You can still participate in your consumerism and way of life and still do justice!” There was little talk about local justice or about how justice may disrupt our Western consume culture. Instead there was Toms shoes, saying that all you have to do to practice justice is buy a pair of shoes (and Toms isn’t even that just).

    Out sense of justice in our culture so often ends when that justice threatens our way of life, or we realize that justice is going to push us out of our comfort zones. We like justice we can do from our computer, or that eases our conscience about bad things. I know this is too often true in myself. And one reason is a lack of theology about justice, which for many Christians is still something that is tacked on to the gospel, not central to it.

  • Penny Hunter

    I had the privilege of serving for almost 5 years in leadership at IJM. During that time, the founder, Gary Haugen, was deliberate about teaching the theology behind justice. And, yes, it did include accountability for oppressors but also a plea for restoration. While there, I did meet people who had been oppressed and more than once heard their request that we pray for their oppressors – that they would turn their hearts toward God and be restored. We have to look no further than the story of John Newton – a slaver turned hymn writer to see the power of forgiveness, restoration and justice. It is sobering when we realize the gravity of grace — the totality of forgiveness and the long arm of justice.

  • Shelly

    It definitely needs more looking at! I think the average person assumes that the justice system is based on biblical doctrines and doesn’t question the truth of this assumption. We trust that foundational decisions made hundreds of years ago have led to accurate interpretations of the laws we abide by today. There was a lot of this sort of thinking in my textbooks as a kid- who as you know Kurt was home-schooled and had strictly Christian curriculum. I do have to say that being friends in University with law students was very enlightening and I realize I know very little about the inner workings of our judicial system.

  • it’s worth unpacking, but right now, the church does an abysmal job of ministering to the victims of abuse. any conversation about restoration for abusers and oppressors cannot happen at the expense or further marginalization of the abused. we have a long way to go before they see shalom and restoration, and too often, it’s their stories that are silenced so that privileged people can dictate how a grace and forgiveness narrative plays out. justice and grace require accountability and safe spaces for victims and hurting people to heal.

    • I agree with suzannah. I don’t see a lack of “grace” for abusive people in the church. In fact, I see “grace” for them coming at the expense of the well-being of survivors. I’m still working out what I believe restorative justice looks like, but I know it doesn’t look like what I’ve seen in the evangelical church so far.

      • But then, that isn’t really grace, is it? People use the term “grace” to avoid justice. No one is getting restored in that approach and the victim is abused even more. So my point stands. Let me be clear. The examples you cite are very real and certainly not uncommon failings in the church. I am not disagreeing with you thatsuch things happen and that many Christians don’t handle them right. That is injustice.

        That said, I would still suggest that the overall emphasis- even if only in lip service- is on the victim. The general emphasis is not on radical redemption. Again, note that I am clear that restorative justice doesn’t negate the need for punishment. That includes the boundaries and consequences.

        That you have not seen restorative justice in the evangelical church is entirely my point. We through around words like grace and justice, but all too often use it to ignore the difficult and complex realities of dealing with an abuser, all the while letting the abused get hurt even worse.

        My point was one of emphasis, not practice. Thanks for the push back.