How Should We Respond to Racial Injustice?: some suggestions for this moment

George-floyd-protests

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have added to the stream of cases, particularly over the past year, raising questions about systemic issues of racial disparities in the implementation of justice in our nation. Along with the well-known cases of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York, these recent cases increase the sense that something is deeply wrong in our nation in relation to racial justice.  This is a complex situation that touches on many elements, including law enforcement, educational opportunities, employment possibilities, and more.

I have talked with many individuals over the past weeks who are trying to understand what happened, what this means, and how we should respond as Christians in the face of these challenging times. As a pastor of a multiethnic church here in Milwaukee, I believe that the strongest witness happens when we journey together across our diverse backgrounds into a learning process that involves listening, healthy reflection, and taking action together for racial justice. Regardless of your opinions on the above matters, as followers of Jesus Christ we must approach these issues based upon God’s Word in Scripture.

A clear biblical response to this situation is to grieve. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” We should mourn with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, who lost loved ones in ways that are just wrong.  Regardless of our ethnicity, we should mourn together as one with the African-American community who senses things are deeply wrong in our country. Regardless of our politics, we should mourn over our own city which ranks so highly in ethnic segregation, poverty, violent crime, racial disparities for incarceration, and more. A healthy biblical response is to grieve over this situation that is shaking our nation.

As we grieve, we must also raise a prophetic voice for righteousness and justice. The Old Testament prophets critique the authorities of their day again and again for failing to bring justice into the courts of law. It was the prophet Amos who spoke judgment upon Israel for failing in this regard. He said, “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7). God has a concern for justice and righteousness coming together in the public square. While we know no human being or system can ever fully represent God’s pure justice and righteousness, we still have a responsibility as God’s people to call authorities to pursue the ways of righteousness and justice in our public realm. Where there are questions of a miscarriage of justice at any level, the people of God must move beyond party politics to seek righteousness and justice for all.

At the same time, we must also bring the love of Jesus Christ into our prophetic voice. Jesus was the one who revolutionized the broken human tendency for wrongs endured to swiftly become wrongs inflicted. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:43-45). Even as we stand up for righteousness and justice, as hard as it is, we must not enter a cycle of vengeance where violence is added to violence. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy of non-violence on civil rights advocacy is unparalleled in our country, once wrote, “We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony.” Violence will not create a community of peace.

In the midst of this, we must stand together across the normal human dividing lines with prayer. The only hope for us as the church and the nation is to move into the dream of God described in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The starting point for this is prayer; our ongoing conversation with the living God together. Prayer is not a meaningless aside from meaningful action, but is an essential activity for any movement hoping to bring good. When we pray, we humble ourselves together before the living God. When we pray, we see ourselves and the world more clearly. When we pray, we enter into praise of a great and good God. When we pray, we begin to confess the sin and brokenness that grips us and others. When we pray, we are moved to call out for God’s power to be poured into a world that deeply needs Him. Prayer is where true unity and transformation begins.

So, please join me in prayer. Pray for the families who have lost loved ones in painful and violent ways. Pray for God’s guidance and protection over those who are protesting and those who seek to maintain order. Pray for the pastors and community leaders around our nation, who seek to forge a new way forward that is constructive and meaningful in these very dark and trying days.


For more on this topic you may want to take a look at:

A Prayer inspired by the prophet Obadiah

Almighty God,
You are righteous and just,
You are the Judge and the Deliverer,
and we worship You.
Our world, Lord, needs Your intervention
with goodness and fairness –
come to us!
Our lives, Lord, need Your touch
of healing and restoration –
come to us!

Thank You for the message of Obadiah,
who reminds us that You see the ruins
and You will intervene,
that you know the loss
and You will restore.
Give us courage and strength
to persevere with You,
no matter our circumstances
until the day we see You
face to face.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
our Savior and Deliverer,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

The Core of Amos’ Message

justice and mercy

Understanding Amos’ message is tied up in these four contextual factors:

  1. a shift in structures of land ownership and exploitation within the new structure
  2. an increasing gap between the wealthy elite and the poor peasant class
  3. corruption of justice in the law courts
  4. covenantal disobedience with hypocritical religious ceremonies

Generally speaking, Amos proclaimed a message of doom, that “Yahweh was moving upon the land to devastate a sinful people” (Flanders, People of the Covenant, 344). He indicated that Israel’s pending devastation was primarily due to the utter absence of justice and righteousness within the nation as demanded by covenant relationship with Yahweh. As J. S. Smart writes:

The heart of Amos’ faith was the conviction that only a nation in which the dealings of men with one another are just can be in any true sense a people in covenant with God. . . . It is the justice, holiness, and purity of God that calls for justice, holiness, and purity in the common life of Israel. – J. S. Smart, “Amos,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 121.

Within the prophetic oracles recorded in the book of Amos, there are two key terms related to justice and righteousness and four key terms related to the poor. The first two terms, mišpat and tsedeqah, are common to most of the prophetic books included in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first word, mišpat, is usually translated as “justice” or “judgment.” Mišpat “connotes a complex of meanings like equal, fair, right, good, which, however modulated, constitute a focus of value that is understood to be essential to social well-being” (James Luther Mays, “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition,” in Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity, 145).

The second term, tsedeqah, is most commonly translated as “righteousness”, but also conveys meanings of “vindication, deliverance, uprightness, right, and even prosperity” (Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics and
Christian Life, 153). Tsedeqah is best understood in relational terms, as Gerhard von Rad elaborates, “Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term” (quoted in Birch, Let Justice Roll Down, 154).

We see justice that is essential to social well being (mišpat) and righteousness as the satisfaction of claims upon conduct within relationships (tsedeqah). Both terms are used in the scriptures of the interactions between God and Israel but also in reference to ideal human interactions within the covenant community. Thus, God relates in justice and righteousness with Israel by being faithful to them in the covenant relationship and fulfilling his promises given to them. Concurrently, Israel is required by the covenant to reciprocate such faithfulness with God by serving him alone as well as acting justly and rightly in all interpersonal relationships as prescribed in the covenantal stipulations. In his prophetic oracles, Amos joins mišpat and tsedeqah in parallelism three times (Am 5:7; 5:24; 6:12b), emphasizing that the two concepts are inseparably related. “The two are so closely coordinated that Amos’ use of mišpat is not to be understood out of relation to its source and orientation to sedeqah” (James Luther Mays, Amos: A Commentary, 92). J. du Preez further illumines the relationship of mišpat and tsedeqah as seen in Amos 5:24, writing that “the two words together express a specific idea which, to a large extent, amounts to what may be called social justice” (J. du Preez, “Social Justice: Motive for the Mission of the Church,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 53, 37).

These two terms, justice and righteousness, form the core of Amos’ message.

Amos [God in the Ruins]

God in the Ruins Series GFX_App SquareThis past weekend at Eastbrook, I continued our series on the minor prophets, “God in the Ruins,” by turning attention to the prophet Amos. Amos is best-known for his strong words about justice and righteousness, and his stinging rebuke of the people of Israel, particularly their leaders.

Unlike many other minor prophets, Amos has a clearly-defined vocation as a shepherd (Amos 1:1) and dresser of sycamore-fig trees (7:14). He was likely a wealthy land-owner who does not serve as a prophet beyond a short period of time. Even though he was from the southern kingdom of Judah in the vicinity of Tekoa, just south of Jerusalem, Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel at the height of its economic prosperity and political power around 760 BC.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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A Prayer inspired by the prophet Amos

Almighty God,
who can stand before You
without feeling some level
of smallness, fear, and failing?
Have mercy on us
in spite of our wrongs,
and bring Your forgiveness
over our sins, both known and unknown.
Save us from false religion,
from the bustling of activity
that has lost its center in You
and fails to reflect who You are.
You are a God of righteousness
and justice in Your character and activity.
Shape us, Your people, to be like You
so that justice might roll on like a river
and righteousness like a never-failing stream
in and through us, O God.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.