I’ve been reading a book lately called How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, by John Dominic Crossan. The first thing I love about this book is the title. It speaks to the person I was, some 25 years ago. I decided then, after decades away from churches, that I’d give the Bible one last chance. So I began with Genesis, and chewed straight through the Bible. I read every word. And I got as far as halfway through Isaiah before I finally said, “OK, I can’t do this anymore.” I’d had more than enough of God-ordained slaughters, of cities conquered and burned, of foreign men murdered and foreign women enslaved, of the nasty goings-on of David’s dysfunctional family…
So Crossan’s book looks at the bewildering contradictions in the Bible—the ones I encountered—between a God who looks at a beautiful, newborn world and says “This is very good!” and the same God who says later, to Noah: “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” And in the Christian Bible, we have at least two versions of Jesus—the gentle shepherd, who carries lambs in his arms and gently leads pregnant ewes back to the barn, and the raging, furious king on a white horse wading through blood with a sword in his mouth. It seems sometimes as if the Bible is describing two different gods: one is a loving, inclusive God who opens doors to asylum seekers, meets refugees with food and blankets and hugs, and rejoices when all persons can marry the one they love.
The other god seems to be expressed largely though hate and discrimination and fear. And sadly, it’s way too easy to find that one in the Bible too.
How do we possibly reconcile these images into the one God we worship, the one Jesus we follow, whose law is love and justice?
Crossan starts by distinguishing two different kinds of justice, which he calls distributive justice and retributive justice.
When we, in this church, talk about working for justice, we may define it as social justice, economic justice, environmental justice. These are all forms of distributive justice. They’re based on the concept that there really is enough to go around. It’s a fair, compassionate sharing of resources to ensure that everyone gets enough food, clean water, decent housing, health care, rest, and an education that allows them to develop and use their skills and talents. In the Bible, this kind of justice is expressed as God’s unconditional blessing.
And the Bible is full of blessings, from the very beginning, when God looks at all that God has created, and calls it good. And when God has created humans, male and female (at the same time), God blesses them. And God provides plants for them to eat. And God blesses the animals and birds with plant food, too. There is abundantly enough to go around for all creatures.
Over and over in the Bible, when God speaks through the prophets, it is to call for distributive justice, based on God’s boundless blessing for all people and all beings including the earth itself.
So, to make a long explanation shorter, distributive justice focuses on the distribution of God’s blessings and love among all people—and all creation. This is the core of Jewish and Christian belief. Jesus said the most important of the many laws the Jews followed were these two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And he was quoting the rabbis who came before him.
But what happens, over and over, is that God’s clear message of distributive justice gets filtered through human ears, watered down a bit, twisted a bit more to suit the desires of those who love power or wealth more than they love God or their neighbors, and the result is the other face of justice: retribution…
punishment for disobedience…getting even. This is the kind of justice we usually mean when we talk about bringing criminals to justice. How will they be punished?
Retributive justice is expressed as rewards and punishments. Follow the rules, and God will bless you. Break the rules, God will curse you. This is God getting even with humans for turning away from God’s laws. Jeremiah says those people will be like desert shrubs; small, thirsty, unable to grow. God sends plagues, enemies, earthquakes, and snakes against people whose “hearts turn away from” God. That means that you can tell the good people from the bad ones by how well their lives are going. This world view looks at inevitable consequences, like Walk where there are snakes, and you may well get bitten! Or build your nation on the crossroads between empires, and you will probably be overrun a few times! And it re-interprets consequences as God’s punishments or rewards.
And if we believe that God doles out blessings and curses according to God’s rule book, we will do likewise. In human actions, retributive justice looks like incarceration. It looks like armed authorities killing or maiming people for breaking a rule. It looks like wars of vengeance. It looks like people being punished for their own poverty or illness or disability. It looks like a president who brags about his talent for getting even with his enemies.
And it looks like people exchanging Facebook posts about how he and his family should be punished when retributive justice has put a stop to them. That too.
Retributive justice is the normal way of things in human civilizations. Nations are built and destroyed by struggles for power—and power means we get to decide who is Us and who is Them, and We get to make the rules for Them. Power means We can gather the best and the most for Us, and We can decide what to do to Them if They disobey Our rules, or what We might offer as rewards for Their obedience. Retributive justice builds walls between Them and what we’ve claimed as Ours, and then punishes those who try to get through the walls. And this happens in every group, right down to small children laying claim to toys and making rules about who gets to play with them.
Retributive justice is easy, for those dealing it out. It’s a lazy kind of justice. It can say “three strikes and you’re out,” and never think about the circumstances of those three strikes. It can say “You do the crime, you do the time,” and not worry about the effect of that time on a community. It can divide populations into citizens and “illegals,” or taxpayers and freeloaders. Retributive justice separates.
Because retributive justice is easy, it becomes the norm. And that means that distributive justice, which considers the needs of every part of creation, is radical. It is always shocking when we hear it. Blessed are the poor? Blessed are the hungry? Really? You mean it’s not their own fault for making poor choices? It cracks open our perceptions about the way things are supposed to be, or the way they’ve always been. It makes us think differently about the structures that hold us in place, and who benefits from them, or who doesn’t.
Think about this scenario. Five thousand people show up for a conversation, and no one thought to bring a lunch, except one little boy. Retributive justice might have sent them all away with a scolding about coming prepared next time, or offered to sell them something to eat, with a nice profit for the vendors. But Jesus somehow inspires everyone to share what little they probably did bring—a power bar in your pocket, an apple in your backpack, a salad you meant to eat later at home—and everyone is comfortably fed and there are even leftovers. When we can stop clutching at what we think is ours (however we got it), everybody gets enough. What a radical idea.
And it often takes hard work, and it’s complicated, because this kind of justice demands that we consider everyone and every thing involved, including our own hearts and minds. Living in a state of distributive justice challenges us to consider all the consequences of an action. And the more we think about it, the more people and other beings we involve. Distributive justice heals and renews, and expands the circle of community.
But, again, retribution is a lot easier, at least for those dealing it out. So we tend to revert to it, almost as a default. And so whenever a society gets to a point where they have lost track of God’s distributive justice, God sends prophets to shout a wake-up call. In the Bible, Amos accuses Israel of “sell[ing] the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Micah talks about “those who devise wickedness…they covet fields and seize them.” Isaiah says “Woe to you who buy more houses and fields to add to those you already have. Soon there will be no place for anyone else to live.” And Jesus and his mother both say “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
Who are our prophets now? Certainly Martin Luther King was one, and so, now, is the Reverend William Barber. So are the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and the women and men of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the women who have spoken up about the power differential of sexual harassment, and the Red Dress movement to bring attention to the oppression of native women. And the Christians and Jews and Muslims who have stood with each other against religious persecution and discrimination. And the new young Congresspeople who are proposing a radical transformation of the energy industry. And the group of engineers who suggested a system of water production and pipelines along the southern border, instead of a wall.
And Prospect United Church of Christ. Our church positions us, as a congregation and as individuals in the world, as prophets of a radical justice that considers the consequences for all persons, all beings, all recipients of God’s unconditional blessing as we make daily decisions and long-term policies. We are considering opening the church to other organizations in the community, free of charge. We have taken active steps to conserve water. We have made the building as accessible as possible for people of all physical abilities—and I am very grateful for that! We display our beautiful rainbow flag as an assurance of acceptance for all genders and orientations—and again, I am personally grateful. We continue to support the preschool, which offers justice in early education.
As individuals, many of us work consciously, particularly during Lent, to reduce our carbon footprints. We show up for Black Lives Matter events and Pride Parades and community lunches.
This is not easy work. It requires us to stay conscious of consequences for more than just our individual selves, and it demands that we be willing to learn and improve when we inadvertently do harm to others. But it is joyful work. When we do the sacred work of distributive justice, when we turn away from the temptation of easy retribution, we help create God’s domain in the places where we live and interact.
God give us the strength and will to do this life-giving work. Amen.