Monday, October 20, 2014

Why I Won't Be Attending the 2015 Justice Conference, Part 2

Some people might be surprised after my last post to learn that I actually agree with a good portion of what Ken Wytsma (the founder of the Justice Conference) wrote in his book, Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things. Still--while I appreciate Wytsma's heart for justice, his desire to challenge Christians to get more involved, and some of the personal choices he's made--I have some concerns. The "Interlude" involving a conversation with Lisa Sharon Harper was not one of them.

In response to Wytsma's question: "If you could say one thing to American Christians, what would it be?" Harper, who co-authored Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat with D. C. Innes (a tea-party Republican) said:
We need to return to teaching Scripture. We have a scripturally anemic church. Think about this: John, in Scripture, says that Jesus is the Word! And here we, as a church, have basically tossed out serious study of God's Word. We have fill-in-the-blank study guides, and we quote verses out of context. You know it's bad when people are so starved for Scripture that they feel like fill-in-the-blanks are helpful. Scripture is supposed to be a feast! We have fed folks appetizers so often that they've started to think that's the whole meal. It's not.
I agree with Harper's statement. It's precisely because so many Christians  haven't feasted on God's Word that they may not pick up on the parts of Wytsma's book that at best seem oversimplified and at worst may even be inaccurate.

Studying Scripture at Bible Study Fellowship International (a highly regarded method used to examine and apply God's Word), for more than two decades plus working as an executive editor for almost 10 years at an apologetics' think tank taught me that sometimes a biblical interpretation can sound great, but one slight twist can introduce significant problems.

The first sentence on the left flap of Wytsma's book cover raised such a red flag. It said:
If God designed us to experience true happiness, why do so many of us feel dissatisfied and purposeless?
That statement presupposes that God designed human beings to experience true happiness in this lifetime. Scripture doesn't seem to support that premise. Even Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame for "the joy set before Him" as He gained victory over death and ascended into heaven. He also told believers to expect persecution. I doubt Saeed Abedini is experiencing joy while being tortured and locked away from his family. Or that the North Korean Christians forced to live in horrendous slavery would say they've found genuine happiness.

Though there was much to like in Wytsma's treatment of Chapter 4: Human Rights and Happiness: Recovering the Moral Value of Happiness (especially his explanation of the joy that comes from dying to self and serving others), I can't help but wonder who made earthly joy a "moral value." To pursue that "value" could be dangerous. Far too many Christians become addicted to the endorphin high involved with ministry. When Christian leaders start to feed off the adulation of those who think their particular form of ministry is the way to God, people often get hurt. That's why I cringed at last year's justice conference when a speaker called the audience "justice junkies."

In my experience being too focused on any one aspect of Scripture tends to lead to a truncated Gospel. An evangelist once tried to convince me that every Christian must be primarily focused on evangelism. Though spreading the Good News is certainly part of of God's call for believers, other aspects (such as justice) need attention too. And it seems Wytstma' about how the pursuit of justice is the primary way to know God neglects other equally important aspects. Thinking about his approach to justice raises many questions:
  • If, as Wytsma claims "there are more than two thousand verses in the Bible directly related to justice . . . compared to 1100 references to prayer and almost 700 for love" (p. 31), implying that the pursuit of justice is the highest purpose of believers, why aren't there more stories in Scripture of people showing how to implement justice?  Rather, from Abraham to David to Solomon to Daniel, Mary, Paul and the other apostles, we see Christ's followers pour themselves into seeking God, listening to Him and obeying Him--going where He wants them to go and doing what He wants them to do. Jesus modeled the way for us by His dependence on the Father. Christ also instructed His followers that apart from abiding in Him we can do nothing (see John 15:5).
          The Scripture about abiding in Christ appears to contradict Wytsma's statement on p. 2. "It's natural to want direction or a clear call. For most of us, however, that never happens." I disagree. Maybe believers need to pay closer attention to an active pursuit of God by studying Scripture, applying it and spending time in prayer. These disciplines lead believers into God's plans for their lives. Though we all need to do whatever we can to be just, too much busyness connected with social justice issues based on human effort could easily prevent someone from hearing God's call and obeying His voice. Throughout Scripture we see how He created individuals for specific work as evangelists, teachers, pastors, and so forth; all of which should include elements of being just. Didn't Jesus die so each individual could have a close personal relationship where they hear His voice and abide in Him and He in them? By abiding in Him we learn to love, to live according to truth, and to be just people doing whatever work God created us to do. 
  • While Christians should want to significantly impact their culture (and those involved with Transform LA and Transform World certainly do), aren't believers supposed to live as aliens in a foreign land rather than trying to force our concepts of justice on society in an attempt to make this world what we think it ought to be? Hebrews 11:9-16 describes believers as
aliens in the land of promise . . .looking for the city which has foundation, whose architect and builder is God. . . All died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. . . . they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.
           Those verses don't mean we shouldn't be "just," and "do justice" or that we shouldn't do all we can to promote a biblical worldview in every sphere of society, but they signify that there's much more involved with God's plan than a pursuit of justice in the here and now. There's the reality of sin and rebellion against God along with the spiritual battles believers face that complicate matters. And, there's the matter of faith--believing what we cannot see.
  •  Could it be that rather than focusing on the pursuit of justice to know God as Wytsma recommends, we should focus on the pursuit of God to know what He considers just and to learn how to demonstrate mercy even to those corporate execs who offend us? Didn't Jesus take time for the hated tax-collector Zaccheus and wasn't Lazarus (a wealthy man) among Christ's closest friends? Didn't Jesus come for all sinners regardless of ethnicity or financial means or a person's ability to "do" good works? Simeon was "righteous and devout" (Luke 2:25) and rewarded by getting to see the Messiah. The prophetess Anna "never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers" (Luke 2:37). Isn't there much to learn from all these examples?
  • If believers primarily know God by pursuing justice, what about those believers who have been brutally victimized--are they doomed to know Jesus less? Wouldn't justice for them involve punishment for the perpetrators of the crimes against them? When they show "mercy" to their enemies aren't they reflecting Jesus in the highest possible way? Whose definition of "justice" are we seeking anyway?
  • What about those using all their strength to battle cancer or taking care of a quadriplegic spouse or working with an especially challenging child? Are they as well as the poor less able to know God because they are not perceived to be "pursuing justice?"
    I agree with Wytsma that "doing justice" is a biblical value that can produce a deep sense of satisfaction and help us know God. Yet if our efforts are not directed by the power of the Holy Spirit, who can define what justice looks like? Wouldn't doing biblical justice include speaking hard truths about  a drug addict's or violent criminal's bad choices and need for a Savior? Wouldn't biblical justice include rescuing women from the oppression of abortion and helping them with raising their babies or putting them up for adoption instead of supporting those who want to offer free abortions on demand? God gave us the body of Christ to function in a multitude of ways. 1 Corinthians 12 talks about:
    the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge . . . to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting miracles . . . But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? . . . But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body just as He desired. (Heb 12:7-18)
    If all of us made the pursuit of justice our primary concern, would the body of Christ be operating the way God intends? While Wytsma claims there are many forms of justice, the tone of the book conveys a particular sense of "doing justice" that I believe falls far short. Statements like "a central truth of the gospel is this: God's grace enacts and restores justice." make me wonder. Really? Doesn't God's grace mean we don't seek justice when others wrong us?

    The whole of Scripture instructs us that the more we seek God in every aspect of our lives, the more He'll teach us to be just. Ephesians 2:10 teaches that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."Would He not want us to discover what those good works are?

    That's what excites me about the "justice through discipleship" promoted by the Freedom Summit. Every aspect of injustice is incorporated into human trafficking. Modern-day slavery is an umbrella for the injustice in a world inhabited by sinful human beings. It's an overarching symptom of underlying problems that concern every person on this planet, especially those who know Christ as Savior and Lord. Yet rather than promote a particular political ideology, the focus at the Freedom Summit will be on how God wants to work in and through His people to provide lasting solutions--all while growing in our relationship with Him.

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