Archive for the ‘justice’ Category

This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.

From larger-than-life dictators to too-big-to-fail banks, the 21st-century world is dominated by figures and institutions that exert an enormous influence on politics, the economy, and just about every other facet of modern society. Such systems of power, often driven by anxiety and greed, must continually consolidate control and suppress dissension in an effort to protect the status quo, inevitably resulting in the subjugation and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, outlines what he perceives as Scripture’s sustained witness againstany power structure that perpetrates injustice in its frantic pursuit of temporal security. Rejecting an Enlightenment mindset that would confine the Christian faith to “the private sphere,” Brueggemann calls the church “to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity” (11-12).

The Problem: Fraudulent Power

Brueggemann provocatively summarizes the problem as he sees it:

Public power is everywhere wielded and administered by those with concentrations of wealth, who thereby control the supply of money, who control the legislation that governs credit and debt, and who fund (or refuse to fund) military adventurism and technological advances that are often in the service of the military. Thus power refers to a network of influence and leverage that may be channeled through the state apparatus or, as is the case in our society, through the private sector with its huge corporate combines. (2)

Supporting and legitimating such concentrations of power are what Brueggemann (following Karl Marx) calls “symbolizers” (e.g., the state, the church, the academy, the media). These institutions are crucial for preserving the status quo, and often benefit from their privileged and protected status.

The Solution: Subversive Truth

In answer to such large-scale injustices, Brueggemann advocates a return to the pages of Scripture—particularly the OT—where we encounter narratives that consistently challenge all such illegitimate and self-seeking claims to power. Over the course of four chapters, Brueggemann examines the stories of Moses, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah, arguing that each narrative illustrates a distinct way in which the God of truth, working through human agents, confronted and subverted unjust power structures of the day.

Furthermore, after exploring each OT passage, Brueggemann highlights how various NT figures drew on and extended the same subversive critiques in their own day.

Unjust Structures

Adapted from a series of lectures delivered to a lay audience, Brueggemann’s writing is clear and forceful. Readers of all stripes will find the chapters accessible and engaging. While the first two chapters seemed forced at certain points (more on this below), the latter two were more convincing, offering readers some truly instructive comments about the Elisha and Josiah narratives. Brueggemann is a creative and insightful biblical interpreter, and where he succeeds, he succeeds masterfully.

Finally, despite the reservations mentioned below, Brueggemann rightly highlights Scripture’s repeated critiques of oppressive power. This reminder may be especially important for conservative evangelicals who have at times been reluctant to critique unjust social structures (notwithstanding those related to a few key issues), preferring instead to individualize and privatize Scriptural principles and commands.1 Readers would do well to recall (and perhaps reread) Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, which stands alongside Truth Speaks to Power as a sobering warning to complacent Christians (160).

Suspicious Reading

Brueggemann intentionally eschews a taxonomic approach like that put forth by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture, insisting instead the narratives he examines are “one-off enactments from which generalizations should not be drawn” (8). Additionally, Brueggemann claims he won’t make connections to any particular political agenda(s):

I do not believe the Bible points directly to any political policy or action. . . . Thus I do not believe that one can make direct moves toward or connections with contemporary issues, even though we—liberals and conservatives—keep trying to do just that. (1-2)

However, Brueggemann seems unable (or unwilling) to leave the narratives in their historical contexts, repeatedly alluding (at least implicitly) to recent examples that, in his estimation, parallel the biblical stories he explores (e.g., “banks and insurance houses” [18], Óscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. [32], “the rapacious capitalist-consumerist economy of our society” [58], Richard Nixon [115], liberation theology [121], etc.). Nevertheless, he assures us he has “no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system” (160). Individual readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Brueggemann stays true to this stated goal.

The book’s most serious flaw is the way Brueggemann’s focus on socioeconomic power-critiques occasionally overrides the natural thrust of the biblical narratives. For example, in discussing the story of Moses, Brueggemann cites Joseph, Egypt’s “food czar,” as the one who helped Pharaoh create “a peasant underclass of very cheap labor” (17-18). Later he writes that Joseph likely “turned his life toward the pharaoh and away from YHWH” (23). There is nothing, however, in the narrative necessitating this overly cynical reading. The text instead seems to highlight God’s gracious provision through Joseph’s wise stewardship.Likewise, this overemphasis on power-critiques is also illustrated in Brueggemann’s suggestion that Bathsheba may have framed Adonijah as a pretext for murder—a theory that, while exciting, finds no support in the narrative itself (53).

Moreover, drawing on his distinctive dialectical approach to the OT, Brueggemann relies extensively on a “suspicious” reading of the text (particularly with regard to the story of Solomon), highlighting the significance of subtle ironies littered throughout the narratives in question (47). At times, however, such “doublespeak” seems a bit too subtle, leading this reader to wonder whether or not it really occurs as frequently as Brueggemann suggests (48).

Finally, Brueggemann questions the historicity of the biblical text at certain points (e.g., 36, 116). However, this doesn’t prevent him from listening intently to what the narratives teach us about the God who consistently stands with the weak and downtrodden.

Greed, Denial, Despair

Brueggemann closes the book with a chapter reflecting on the implications of his reading of the OT, highlighting modern expressions of unchecked power in our world, and calling the church to live out the truth amid a society that “depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair” (162).

How the Scriptural narratives outlined in this book are applied to contemporary issues will doubtless differ from person to person and church to church. Nevertheless, Brueggemann helpfully challenges all Christians to pay close attention to God’s Word, where we come face to face with a God who consistently sides with the weak, the orphan, and the widow. Indeed, it is in Scripture that we encounter the ultimate example of righteous power wedded to perfect truth: Jesus Christ, the humble king.


1 For example, see Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, 2000).

2 Cf. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1B (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 850-852; John Sailhammer,Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 266. Sailhammer writes, “First with his brothers and then with the Egyptians, Joseph’s wisdom is seen as the source of life for everyone in the land.”

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God’s grace is not given according to the deserts of the recipients, but according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise and glory of His own grace; so that he who glorieth may by no means glory in himself, but in the Lord, who gives to those men to whom He will, because He is merciful … For by giving to some what they do not deserve, He has certainly willed that His grace should be gratuitous, and thus genuine grace; by not giving to all, He has shown what all deserve. Good in His goodness to some, righteous in the punishment of others; both good in respect of all, because it is good when that which is due is rendered, and righteous in respect of all, since that which is not due is given without wrong to any one.

– Augustine, The Gift of Perseverance, 12.28

It is highly likely that most Evangelical Christians have, at some time or another, heard this famous quote (often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi):

Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.

The sentiment behind such statements generally goes something like this: the church too often focuses too much on talking at people (even if it’s about the Gospel) rather than practically loving them, first and foremost.  The underlying conviction is (broadly speaking) that the most important/powerful “witness” Christians have is a lived-life abounding in generous, self-sacrificing love like that exhibited by Jesus during his life on earth.  Furthermore, our role as “verbal” proclaimers of the Gospel is usually relegated to a secondary position, lest our lives not first provide the foundation – indeed, substantiate – the cognitive message we preach.

Helping to bring fresh light to this important issue, Duane Litfin (former president of Wheaton College) has just written a new book, Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance (excerpt).

Somebody asked [Martin Luther], “Is the hardening of the heart in the Scriptures to be taken literally or figuratively?” [cf. Rom. 9:18]

The doctor replied, “Literally, but not actively, because God doesn’t do anything that’s bad. Yet his omnipotence does everything, and as he finds man, so he acts on him. Pharaoh was by nature wicked; God acted on him, and Pharaoh continued to be wicked. His heart was hardened because God didn’t hinder Pharaoh’s ungodly plans by his Spirit and grace. Why God didn’t hinder them is not for us to ask.

This ‘why’ destroys many souls when they search after that which is too high for us. God says, ‘Why I am doing this you do not know, but ponder my Word, believe in Christ, pray, and I will make everything turn out well.’ If God should be asked at the last judgment, ‘Why did you permit Adam to fall?’ and he answered, ‘In order that my goodness toward the human race might be understood when I gave my Son for man’s salvation,’ we would say, ‘Let the whole human race fall again in order that thy glory may become known! Because thou hast accomplished so much through Adam’s fall we do not understand thy ways.’

“There is a threefold light: that of reason, that of grace, and that of glory.”

– Martin Luther, Table Talk No. 5071: “‘He Hardens the Heart of Whomever He Wills’ Between June 11 and 19, 1540,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, p. 38.

Please, take a moment to pray for our brother in Christ, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who just yesterday was sentenced to execution in Iran for converting to Christianity.

Fox News reports:

Supporters fear Youcef Nadarkhani, a 34-year-old father of two who was arrested over two years ago on charges of apostasy, may now be executed at any time without prior warning, as death sentences in Iran may be carried out immediately or dragged out for years.

It is unclear whether Nadarkhani can appeal the execution order. …

Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and was tried and found guilty of apostasy by a lower court in Gilan, a province in Rasht. He was then given verbal notification of an impending death-by-hanging sentence. …

The court then gave Nadarkhani the opportunity to recant, as the law requires a man to be given three chances to recant his beliefs and return to Islam.

His first option was to convert back to Islam. When he refused, he was asked to declare Muhammad a prophet, and still he declined.

Pray that our brother would be strengthened by the Father through the Spirit to hold fast to the word of life, confident that though Christ’s enemies may kill his body, his soul is secure in mercy and grace of God his Father, the only Lord of the universe who works all things according to the counsel of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Please, beseech God for his mercy and sustaining power, that Pastor Youcef would be strengthened by the fact that God has granted him the great honor of not only believing in Christ, but also suffering for his name.  Pray that Pastor Youcef would fight the good fight of faith, and that he would confidently take hold of the eternal life granted to him through his good confession of Jesus Christ.

True atheism is nonsense.  If there is such a thing as beautiful, such a thing as good, or even such a thing as bad, then there is a transcendent standard that determines which is which.  An atheist can say that society prefers mothers to murderers, but he cannot say that this is as it should be.  Tell us what is, by all means.  But without God, you cannot tell us what ought to be.

– N. D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 74.

Superfluous Justice

Posted: December 20, 2011 in atheism, justice

Another great post from Doug Wilson highlighting the inescapable irrationality of atheism (emphasis mine):

We often say, when someone passes away, that they have “gone to their reward.” But given atheism, what is that reward exactly? It is exactly the same for Havel, Hitchens, and Kim Jong Il. All three have now entered into nothingness, which is to say that, given atheism, there are no rewards for anything — good, bad or anywhere in the middle.

Havel was an anti-communist hero, Hitchens was a courageous but infidel journelist [sic], and Kim Jong Il was a murderous and genocidal thug. They all graduated from this class called earth, and they all got exactly the same grade. Is that justice?

Well, no, the atheist could reply. He grants there is no justice after this life. He might add, somewhat lamely, that this is why it is so important for us to work for justice here and now.

Okay, I’ll bite. Let’s work for justice here and now because there is no justice in the universe? Nothing ultimately matters and so we must redouble our efforts to act like it does? All things are meaningless, and so we should make sure this thing here is meaningful? This is like maintaining that all triangles have three sides, except for this one here in my personal life, which has five, and which I find comforting. For people who put so much stock in “reason,” you would think they would spend a more little time meditating on what deduction actually entails.