Archive for the ‘justice’ Category

Memories of Max Dunn           

August 23, 2017

My friend and role model Max Dunn died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. I had seen him a short time before, when he was in excruciating pain. He needed a hip replacement, but his doctors were unenthusiastic about operating on a man of his age. Max, characteristically, had no doubt. He had things to do and he needed a good hip to do them. He talked the doctors into doing the surgery, which went extremely well. He was jubilant, his family says, and two days later was ready to go home when he suddenly stopped breathing.

A very capable man, Max had worked as an executive for a big department store chain. He also served on the organizing committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. After his retirement he did a master’s degree in world mission at Fuller Seminary, then traveled all over the world in a wide variety of missions. (He worked with a good friend of mine in Kenya.)

In the small town of Healdsburg Max joined the board of a struggling medical clinic serving farm workers. Pretty soon Max was the CEO. He built that clinic into one of the largest medical providers in our area.

Max was good-looking, athletic, and friendly. He loved tennis, bridge, and ringing the Salvation Army bell (and getting others from his Rotary Club to do it). But when I met him, what Max most loved to do—passionately—was to visit men at the local Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab program. He went nearly every day, meeting individually with men and teaching an anger management class. It was Max’s enthusiasm that moved me to begin volunteering at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Gospel Mission, in a program similar to the Salvation Army’s.

As much as I admired Max’s capability, I admired his friendliness more. He really loved those men, which is saying something. By the time somebody gets to a free, residential, long-term rehab program, they have usually burned every last bridge to family and friends. Many if not most have been in and out of jail and prison. They have little education and many tattoos.

In short, they tend to be quite different from the people Max met at Rotary. I don’t know whether Max really noticed. Even when he was in terrible pain, he wanted to be at the Salvation Army more than anywhere.

I did wonder how Max became so indiscriminate in his friendliness. It really was unusual. His peers in business, the men he met at Rotary, were willing to help out in good causes, but they didn’t choose to hang out with addicts. Max did. I’m sure that some of that generosity came through his family upbringing, and some came through the genes that he inherited. The primary influence, I’m thinking, came in his middle years when he and his wife Carolyn were drawn into the Episcopal charismatic renewal.

It was hard to get Max to tell stories about the past, because he was far more interested in the present. But when I got him to talk about those years when he was introduced to the renewal, he glowed. Thirty or forty years later, it still excited him. He said it was when his life changed. He would have liked to live in that excitement forever.

That renewal emphasized, more than anything, that Jesus is alive and active through the Holy Spirit. For people like Max, that turned faith from a list of beliefs to an experience—an experience of Jesus.

That explains, I think, why Max liked everybody. If you want to see somebody who talked to everybody, helped everybody, believed in everybody, but especially the poor and the desperate, that would be Jesus. I think Max learned it from him.






Refugee Test Case    

March 7, 2017

President Trump’s ban on refugees entering the US promises to be temporary, and I hope that turns out to be the case. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable and pitiable people on earth. Just over a year ago I was in Europe, interviewing scores of them. Their vulnerability will never leave me.

But how to treat them? This is one issue where the Bible is clear–not as to precise policy, perhaps, but certainly as to its general direction.

In ancient Israel, foreigners were a constant presence. This was not an age of walled borders or stamped passports. Foreigners found themselves in Israel because of economic opportunity—there was always international commerce—and as refugees from war and famine. Israel, preoccupied with threats to its survival, and concerned for a distinctive identity as God’s people, had an important choice: how would they treat foreigners? Would they see them as a threat? Or would they welcome them?

The Law makes it very clear:

Lev 19:10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Deut 26:12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

The welfare system included foreigners. Gleaning was not charity. It was legally mandated, embracing almost the entire productive economy. In addition the tithe was a 10% tax over the entire productive economy, directed to help those who could not participate in the economy (Levites) and those who were poor and vulnerable (widows and orphans and foreigners).

Lev 19:34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Foreigners were to be treated the same as citizens, and with love.

Lev 24:22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’

Numbers 15:15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.

Laws and rules must not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. Foreigners have the same rights as do citizens.

Deut 10:18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.

It’s well known that God is on the side of the defenseless poor. He is equally on the side of the foreigner, caring for their material needs.

Deut 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.

How do our farms and factories live up to that?

Deut 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Why should Israel treat foreigners so benevolently? The answer is consistent: because you were foreigners in Egypt. The treatment of refugees is a test case for empathy. Can you feel for others the way you feel for yourself?

Our treatment of foreigners is also a test case for America. History tells us that America has welcomed millions. It also tells us that episodes of fear and prejudice have caused us to exclude millions. (Most dreadfully, Jewish children were sent back to Nazi Germany just before WWII began.) What kind of people will our generation be? We are being tried.

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016


The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.

Jesus and Justice

May 6, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of short reflections on justice.

Going from the prophets to Jesus—from Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zephaniah to the Sermon on the Mount—one travels some distance. The prophets speak to particular political and moral realities. Jesus seems focused on something beyond. Even when he stands before Pilate, he seems barely concerned for the cruelty, the oppression and the corruption of Pilate’s government. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.” (John 18:36)

Jesus did launch a protest at the Temple, turning things upside down. Yet he didn’t try to change things, by, say, organizing weekly protests, or trying to influence the Sanhedrin, as typical activists would.

He had other things in mind—things wrapped up in his little band of disciples, things concerned with his crucifixion. Only after his death and resurrection did he fully explain himself, when he spoke to his disciples. (Luke 24:27) It would remain for the disciples—joined, influentially, by Paul—to work out and explain how these things went together to set the world right.

Jesus’ life challenges us to think deeply about what kind of justice we really want to achieve. His justice is not just about politics and reform. Jesus’ kingdom is not merely to set the Roman Empire right—that is too small—but to set right all the powers of heaven and hell, all the nations, all the rulers and potentates and spiritual powers. It is to bring the whole world into the joyful worship of God. That is why Jesus’ disciples do not take up the sword for his kingdom. The game is bigger than revolution, and much bigger than reform.

Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples are to make more disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Those commands can be summarized in two words: “Follow me.” To follow Jesus is to live for justice. All of Jesus’ ministry fits into a justice narrative: he heals, setting right the body; he casts out evil, setting right the spirit; he teaches about loving your neighbor, setting right the social realm. Jesus lives out all that God wants his people to become. He is the epitome of justice as the Old Testament describes it. In his life, we see what justice should be. In his life, we find a pattern of justice to follow.

However, his justice for all the creation is more than what we can achieve ourselves by imitating Jesus. We need a greater power. Following Jesus, obeying his commands, puts us in his company. We go where the Lamb goes, to see the whole world converted through the power of God.

A Talk on the European Refugee Crisis

April 29, 2016

I gave this talk at my church a week ago, and some of you may find it interesting. It will seem a little odd, though, because much of the talk I was working my way through some photos taken by my colleague Gary Gnidovic during our trip. A lot of those photos are in the magazine article or on Gary’s blog, but putting them together with my words may require more imagination than you are willing to lend to the project. All the same, some people have indicated an interest so I am posting the audio here.

Prophecy and the Story of Justice

April 27, 2016

This is the third in a series of short reflections on justice.

We know the prophets as outspoken advocates of justice. That tradition begins with Nathan confronting David for his injustice toward Uriah the Hittite (stealing his wife, then arranging his death). It carries on with Elijah confronting Ahab for murdering Naboth in order to steal his property. Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Daniel: they speak truth to power. They condemn corrupt judges and greedy landowners; they accuse society of failing to care for the vulnerable.

An underappreciated contribution toward the story of justice, however, is the prophets’ visionary description of the future. Activists often overlook this, I think. In the short term the prophets’ predictions may be bleak, but in the long run they see a world in which all nations are at peace, the evil and violent are punished, weapons of war are repurposed as agricultural implements, the lion lies with the lamb, and so on. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations,” as Jesus put it, quoting from Isaiah.

This exposition of the future, with its luminous vision of the world made right, transforms justice into a story. The prophetic “speaking truth to power” is not a hopeful enterprise. What can it accomplish, except to go on and on forever confronting the unjust? It represents a static body of law—God’s law—speaking into a more or less perennially corrupt social situation. The vision of the future, however, makes for a dynamic present.  The workings of transformation may be mysterious, and the present may seem discouraging, but that is much of what makes a story: facing obstacles and confronting power with the faith that there will be a happy ending—always without certainty as to how and when that will come about.

Law and Justice

April 22, 2016

This is the second in a series of short reflections on justice.


The Old Testament word translated “justice”—the Hebrew mispat—is used more than 400 times. Just as often as “justice,” it is translated “laws.” It frequently speaks to a situation where laws are adjudicated in court. So, superficially, one can easily read mispat as concerned with legal rights and wrongs, vindication or punishment, just as justice is today.

That’s what I’ve frequently noticed in conversations about justice these past years. As noted in the first post of this series, people hear justice and automatically shift to injustice. And the content is almost always legal. What is the crime? What is the punishment? What compensation should be assessed? Whether environmental destruction or family violence or embezzlement, the framework is the same.

Yet if you read through the Old Testament, you will recognize that this legal mindset misses something at the heart of Old Testament justice. The problem is not that justice is unrelated to law—it certainly is. But the difference is that God’s law stands worlds away from our modern legal environment, where murder, fraud, theft and abuse, property, contract and regulatory mechanisms dominate. God’s law is something different altogether.

The laws of Israel begin with the command to worship Yahweh only. They thus open up a whole life of praise and delight. And how does Jesus sum up the law? He speaks of love. This is proven in the particulars. God’s laws include regulations requiring care for orphans and widows, redistribution of the means of production on a systematic and regular basis, and the forgiveness of debt. The law demands generosity toward immigrants and love for neighbor.

“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,” says Psalm 112:5 in a typical parallelism, “who conduct their affairs with justice.” Isaiah speaks for God in demanding, “Stop doing wrong! Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:16-17). One could add many examples where doing justice is synonymous with charity or activism on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

What emerges is not a tale of crime and punishment, but a portrait of the good life, life as God intended his creatures to live it: life full of love, generosity, and care.

When we think of the law, we think of people who have done wrong and must be punished. When Israel thinks of the law, by contrast, they think of the kind of people God has called them to be. That explains why the psalms can say, “Oh, how I love your law!” (119:97). Nobody would say that today, not even lawyers or legislators; Israel put it in their hymnal for all to sing.

So justice has to do with law—but God’s law, of love and worship. Justice is God’s world set right.

Refugees in Europe

April 20, 2016

As you may remember, I spent several seeks in Europe during January and February, researching an article on the refugee crisis. With photographer Gary Gnidovic I visited Germany, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Greece on behalf of Books and Culture Magazine. It was a very memorable experience and I am thrilled to report that, finally, the long article has appeared in print. Here’s a link.

We Need a Larger Justice

April 20, 2016

“Justice” is a polarizing word. Progressives have camped on it so much that conservatives have a Pavlovian reaction to its mention, as they do with “global warming.” Inject the word “justice” into a room and you can begin to extract blue from red.

However, the conservative reaction against government overreach also has a foundation of concern for justice. It’s not worries about economic efficiency that fuel white-hot rage against government mandates . It’s unfairness—the perception that it’s unjust for unaccountable pen pushers to rule over personal liberty. “You’re not the boss of me” is also a cry for justice.

Both sides of this divide have this in common: their idea of justice is punitive and accusatory. Somebody is to blame, and justice involves assigning that blame and making somebody pay.

This is in accord with the American justice system, which has to do with applying written laws uniformly, such that all wrongdoers are punished and forced to repay their victims.

Much can be said in favor of that, especially by anyone who has brushed up against whole countries where the rule of law is only arbitrarily applied. Indeed we Americans also have a lot to improve on, since our American legal system punishes or rewards some groups more than others, depending on their income or their skin color. Conservatives and liberals can easily agree that this fails the standard of justice.

It seems to me, however, that we need a more expansive view of justice, one that draws on an ancient tradition that is largely forgotten. I have recently understood this from studying the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible. There one learns of a justice that demands love for neighbor, and welcome for strangers. There one learns of a justice measured by the care of the poor and the vulnerable in society. There one learns of a justice where “trees clap their hands in joy.”

A “judge” in these ancient societies was not someone who had studied the law carefully and knew exactly how to apply it to particular cases. The judge was not a legal technician. Rather, the judge might actually be a warrior, defending an embattled tribe or liberating an embattled people. A judge took tangled disputes and had the wisdom to bring harmony to quarreling people. It is not that the English word “judge” does a poor job of translating the Hebrew. It is that a very different view of the law and of justice is in view.

I recently served as general editor for a Bible (God’s Justice: The Holy Bible) that examined the theme of justice throughout the sacred text. This edition of the Bible was remarkable because of its authors: 55 scholars and activists from all over the world, north and (emphatically) south. It was fascinating to see how they commented on familiar material. Westerners are accustomed to a tradition that reads the Bible as a matter of personal spirituality. That is, of course, certainly in view. But my authors from the global South rather easily pointed out that the Bible has to do with history, that its history constantly comments on alienation from other people and from the created world itself. They saw how often it spoke to the condition of the poor and the most vulnerable—not merely the fact that they got a raw deal in court, but that they were and remained poor and vulnerable. And most importantly: they saw everywhere that a God of justice is determined to set the world right!

What does that mean? In these ancient traditions, setting the world right certainly means setting it spiritually right. But it also means the full flourishing of the whole creation. It means an end to war. It means international reconciliation and peace. It means building beautiful cities and producing bumper harvests. It means nature itself rejoicing in the goodness intended for it from the beginning—nature frolicking! Justice, in these ancient traditions, is beauty and truth. Justice is love, and love is justice. Justice is a flourishing society.

And yes, these ancient traditions certainly recognize the existence of real evil. They speak of the judgment of evil powers. Here too, God is determined to set things right. That means not just punishing evil, it means doing away with it.

Thus our western fascination with crime and punishment is a portion—an important portion—of a much larger picture. The world is intended for good. On the road to that good, we need laws to promote that good, and these laws must be enforced.

However, preoccupation with crime and punishment will not get us very far down the road. Rather we need to be clear on where we want to go, and we must focus not only on what has stopped our progress, but on what we must do to get where we seek to go.

I do not know how to “fix” our current political polarization, the reflexive assigning of people to camps of good and evil that stops all discussion and has, as a matter of fact, put an end to politics that can accomplish anything.

I believe, however, that a fix will come only when we re-learn to focus on what the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” That speaks not of a filmy spirit reality but of a real and physical society with real people who flourish together. Assigning blame invariably leaves a residue of anger and resentment, and rarely leads to productive encounters. Defining hopes and arguing over how to realize them has a tendency to push us closer together. We will not always agree. Perhaps we will not agree very often. But we will point forward, rather than only doling out scorn on the sins of the past.


April 19, 2016

 This is the first in a series of short reflections on justice.

When you spend years working on a study Bible that focuses on the theme of justice, you stare at “justice” from a number of different angles. Sometimes, just from staring, you see things you haven’t seen before.

The team working on the Bible—now published as God’s Justice–was holding a planning meeting. As we grappled to define the contents of the Bible, we fell into a discussion of whether to include short articles on key justice issues—things like sex trafficking, domestic abuse, bribery. Somebody—I don’t remember who—made a point against including them. “We aren’t planning an injustice Bible. It’s about justice.”

As though a light switched on, I saw that, almost automatically, we change the subject. When we say the word “justice,” we think of offenses against it—trafficking, slavery, corruption, pornography, prejudice.

Those aren’t justice. They are violations of justice. Justice is positive and beautiful. God’s justice is a shining city lit by God’s presence. Tears are banished. So is death.

Because we switch injustice for justice, it becomes an adversarial and political subject. A lot of people feel antipathy toward it: justice makes them nervous; they brace for a fight.

Whereas justice is a hope we all share. Justice unites.

Of course we have to fight for justice, and we can’t ignore politics. But we need to frame such struggles inside a hopeful narrative. I like the subtitle for God’s Justice: the flourishing of creation and the destruction of evil. God does away with evil so that his creation can flourish. It’s this flourishing we must never forget.