Views of Justice and God
This morning we are continuing our series in the book of Exodus by looking at the subject of justice in the light of who God is. Over the last couple of years, there has been more contention, anger, and division over the subject of how Christians should practice justice than at any point that I can remember in the past 30-40 years. We have argued about whether or not we should protest, or give our support to organizations like BLM, or to adopt social theories around race and equality. There are so many voices, so many thoughts, so many opinions but the one voice that was meant to rise above them all has been largely ignored, silenced, and dismissed as being irrelevant. But as read the first few chapters of Exodus, to deny God’s authority on matters of justice is to forget the very source from which all justice flows. It is not a stretch to call the Exodus, the first breaking in of God’s justice into the realm of humanity. God who is the absolute foundation on which good and evil are defined, enters into human history in order to right that which is wrong, and to then invite us into what He has been doing since the day He met Moses at the burning bush. As I mentioned in last week’s message, we are not going to tackle any of these particular debates head on but present a way to think about these matters from the perspective of God. In our message today, we will look at the Biblical views on justice and meet the God who makes that justice possible. Since we have a much longer Bible passage to read, I’m going to break down the reading according to the three main points of the message which are:
How to discern the justice of God versus our own
How God prepares us to practice justice
How to understand justice in relation to who God is
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.
It’s significant that the first thing that we read about Moses, after being rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, is this account of him going out to see the oppression of his own people after being shielded from their pain by his position of privilege. We don’t know exactly the age in which Moses was adopted but it’s clear that Moses knew who he was and that he was a Hebrew, not an Egyptian. And as he watched an Egyptian, abusing one of his own, it would appear that his passion got the best of him and after looking to see if anyone was around, Moses decides to take justice in his own hands and he kills the Egyptian. (Quick thought experiment, how many of you think that what Moses did was wrong? How many think that what he did was right?) Now, what’s interesting is that there is no clear moral critique of what Moses did. We are not told if this was a right or wrong, whether it was justified or too excessive. The only thing that we know concretely is that Moses was very principled and he was a bad-ass. Not only does he take down this Egyptian but in the very next scene, which we didn’t read for the sake of time, Moses defends seven sisters from some chauvinistic shepherds who wouldn’t allow them to draw water from a shared well. Who knows how he must have scared a whole group of shepherds. Maybe he just looked at them and said, “You know why I’m here because I killed a man.”
The problem is the ethics of justice are difficult to discern and it’s important to think these things through. What I find to be helpful is to divide justice into two categories:
1. Justice on behalf of the oppressed (which we learned last week is always considered good in the eyes of God when it is done with right motives)
2. Justice against the oppressors (which leads us into murky waters)
Though justice against an oppressor may not be ethically wrong, it’s not always ethically right either, many times it occupies this gray area.
Let me share a case in point, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, eventually was arrested by the Nazis because of his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer who was thinking through the moral dilemma of killing Hitler was strongly persuaded by his sister-in-law to join. Neither Emmi or Klaus were Christians but Bonhoeffer’s older brother, was deeply involved in the assassination plot. In order to get the principle driven Bonhoeffer to join his brother, Emmi said to him, “You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty to do it.” So many times, right or wrong, it seems the voice of non-believers compel Christians to do something about injustice and often we get persuaded because we want to show the world that we care about the issues at hand. In the end, the assassination attempt failed, everyone involved was arrested and send to the concentration camps. He spent a year and a in prison and sadly just a few days before the the Allied forces came in to liberate the prisoners, Bonhoeffer was executed.
Some of the questions that come out of this tragic example:
Would it have been better if this group who must have had an incredible amount of resources and information on the inside use that to save 1000 lives, like Oscar Schnidler?
Would killing Hitler have made any difference or could it have made things even worse for those in the concentration camps?
Was Bonhoeffer more valuable alive then dead?
Hindsight is 20/20 but I think Bonhoeffer miscalculated the risk versus the reward. If killing Hitler would have meant the end of the war and saving of hundreds of thousands of lives, it would have been morally right without question. But everyone knew there was a whole succession of men just as evil as Hitler in the Nazi party that would have simply taken his place. I believe the miscalculation came because Bonhoeffer failed to see that his sister-in-law had a view of justice very different than that of the Christian worldview.
From a secular perspective extreme measures to fight against the injustice of oppressors is completely justified because there is no other option. Where there is no God, man is the only judge, jury, and executioner. From that view of the world, there is no God who will take up the cause of justice and therefore desperate times, requires desperate measures. But for the believer, we are given a totally different of view of justice. This is probably, in my mind, the scariest and the most comforting, verses that deal with the justice of God.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’
What you could do to exact justice is nothing compared to what God can do in His wrath. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God but at the same time that does not mean that we do nothing. It’s important that we join God when He invites us to stand up against the powers of oppressions but we need to be fairly certain that God is in the midst of it. This is why prayer, listening for God’s leading is so important in our fight for justice because we might find ourselves fighting alone. Consider what we read in the first passage, “Moses went out, he saw the oppression, he struck down the oppressor, he hid the body”. There is no mention of God. The justice of man apart from God is marked by these three failures:
Inconsistent (like a flash, the anger of man rises up, but we can’t sustain it for long, and it’s not long before things go back to the way things were.)
It doesn’t produce the intended effects (I read a story of a man who fought in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia because of the promise of equality and freedom from the rule of czars but when it became obvious that these were empty promises, he wept for his children because of the evil that he had brought into their lives.
A vicious cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. (Left to themselves, the Israelites would have eventually turned on the Egyptians and without God, they would have become their oppressors)
So it is with the man-centered view of justice that is taught in every university in our country. It is a woefully incomplete view of justice. Let’s compare the first passage with what we read later:
Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
When God raises us up and invites us into His fight for justice, it is a something that is special to behold because there is no army that can hold back the weight of his wrath but yet not even a sword has to be lifted. The story of Exodus is the beginnings of what we call non-violent resistance in which oppression is broken not by human might but by the prophetic proclamation of the vengeance of our God. This is described in the famous words of the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
But how does God prepare us for such an undertaking? And you might be thinking, I’ll never be called to serve God in this way. And that is probably true, none of us will have to be the voice of the greatest revolution in the history of man. That comes once in a few thousand years but in our day, we have a lot of armchair prophets who proclaim a great many things on platforms that all the world can see. Once in a while, I’ll get wind of these very bold proclamations. And I’m not going to make any value statements but some of them are pretty stupid and display not only the absence of God in their thinking but also the absence of common sense. The internet is like the closest thing to the Bible for our generation, what you write stays up forever, or at least forever in our context. And if we are going to be good armchair prophets, then we need to learn the lesson of Moses. Before God could use Moses and before inviting Him into the work of true justice, God had to break the single greatest flaw in Moses, his pride. Makes sense, the pride of man and the thirst for power it creates is the root source of al the injustice in the world. I am better than you and therefore, I can treat you whatever way I want. But ironically, those of us who have a bent towards justice like Moses struggle greatly with pride. That pride often gets in the way of the justice of God.
We have been quoting Dallas Willard, a lot over this weekend at the leadership retreat, I’ve got a good one for you guys:
…from those divinely renovated depths of the person, social structures will naturally be transformed so that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Such streams cannot flow through corrupted souls.
This is from his classic book, Renovations of the Heart, and like all heart renovations, God took Moses into the desert for 40 years. We are told that Moses looked like an Egyptian when he fled to Midian. When their father asked the daughters, who had rescued them from those mean shepherds, they told him:
They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
Moses was most likely not only an Egyptian in appearance but one in heart, he was not ready to identify with the suffering and the humiliation of his people. He tried to be there Savior but he couldn’t be their shepherd. As an Egyptian the lowest position in life was to be a shepherd and we can clearly see clues to the future injustice that the Israelites would face when they first entered Egypt with the help of Joseph. he coached his family on what to say to the old Pharoah:
When Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall say, ‘Your servants have been keepers of livestock from our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,’ in order that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.”
it is no wonder the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, because they despised them. For Moses, he had to undo all those years of pride and prejudice in his own heart towards his own. God has a plan in the formation of our hearts and for Moses, that meant becoming a shepherd for 40 years so that the humility of God might be formed in him. And in that place of humility God finally comes to invite Moses to be a prophetic voice for justice and the first leader of the nation of Israel.
Let’s close with the description of this encounter that has changed the world?
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
I’ve actually been reading commentaries from Jewish rabbis to get some insight into the Hebrew Scriptures. Makes sense since the Jews wrote it and have studied it for thousand years before it reached us Gentiles. Jewish sages tell us that there are two primary names that God uses in the OT, Elokim and Hashim. Elokim is a reference to God’s justice, Hashem refers to His compassion and kindness. Guess which name is used in Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush? That’s right, it’s Elokim. The God of justice is here and so take off your sandals because the ground that you are standing on is holy.
Later on in Exodus when Moses desires to see some form of God, we are told that Hashem, the God of compassion and mercy passed before Him. It is our encounter first with the God of justice that makes us a truly just people.
In the West, we tend to shrink back from the idea of a God of wrath but Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale, talks about the need to know God as both justice and love, that ultimately men cannot be freed from the cycle of vengeance and hatred unless they believe God to be just but yet He still calls us to love our enemies.
“My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many in the West...it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die along with other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”