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God’s justice in the inner city

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My friend Ling looks better than she has in months. The pallor of death that rested on her face has been buried alongside her husband. The housing authorities have granted a reprieve from the annual process of trying to evict her. Most of her husband’s pension went towards his hospital care, but soon she will be of age to draw her own pension and decrease her dependence on social support.

Ling has spent years trying to keep her family together. Her daughter works and goes to school in the evenings, so Ling raises the grandchildren. As she hasn’t been given legal custody, the Housing Commission recognizes her as a single person who is “over-housed” in a two bedroom apartment.

When she wasn’t at the hospital caring for her husband, Ling worked under the table, earning money for groceries by babysitting and housecleaning. Ling recently asked me to help her find the right word in English to express her feelings. Through her gestures, we determined she wanted the word, “love.” She said, “Yes, yes, Tara, that’s it. I love you. You are my church family.”

I’m not from the city. I’ve always had compassion for people in difficult situations. However, prior to meeting people like Ling, I was also quick to offer solutions without considering all the factors. In this case, I might have logically suggested that if Ling gained custody of her grandchildren and applied for a regular job, many of her worries would disappear. But I would have failed to consider Ling’s language difficulties, her husband’s illness, and her age.

Although we have a desire to help, our logical minds often prevent us from being actively engaged in true biblical justice. This type of justice involves creativity and a focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. But in North America, we have a propensity to funnel justice into the realm of law and punishment. In propagating such a narrow perspective, we deprive ourselves of the riches held within the biblical concept of justice.

Biblical justice

God’s justice is less about right and wrong, and more about restoring relationship with him and with each other. The Bible is clear that God is just and righteous. Indeed, justice is the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 97:2). To be just means we participate in right thoughts and activities. And when we act rightly, we are in right relationship.
Justice and righteousness are clear themes woven throughout the Old Testament. As Adam and Eve broke faith with God, the impulse for Christ’s restoring act was set in motion. God’s relationship with his creation had to be made right. God’s justice in the inner city The Ten Commandments, the very laws given from heaven, were a comment on relational rightness. The first tablet outlined peoples’ relationship to God and the second tablet outlined peoples’ relationship to others. When we understand justice as relational rightness, it moves from being a theme to being the theme in the Bible.

Justice is active. The Hebrew verb, tsedaq, means to be just, to be made right, to bring justice, to save, to justify, or to make righteous. In Genesis 18:19, Abraham’s faithfulness was counted as tsedaq. In Micah 6, God’s faithfulness to Israel was manifested in tsedaq. Justice and righteousness then, are not only active, but often long-suffering.
When Israel asked for a king, God mandated that the king be the safeguard for the rights of the poor, and crier for the cause of the marginalized. God’s call was for justice, for every person to be aware of each other’s worth in his sight. True justice, then, also has much to say about equality.

Throughout the books of the prophets, God is seen as just, as faithfully present and active, pleading for his people to understand true relational loyalty. Proverbs 21:3 underscores the importance of following this example: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

Jesus’ example

But we are a fallen people. We are frequently unfaithful to God. We don’t always care for one another with love. Through our sin, we constantly offend the righteousness of our perfect God. Without God, we are incapable of right and just relationships. With this understanding, Jesus becomes the ultimate sign of God’s justice.
Jesus began his politically charged ministry with the words of Isaiah 61; preaching good news to the poor, binding the spirits of the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives and release from darkness to prisoners, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, and providing for those who mourn so they will become oaks of righteousness (also a form of tsedaq).

Through Christ’s long-suffering and sacrificial love, we all have the opportunity to accept that Jesus has made us right with God. Jesus is the justifier – he redeems, restores, and reconciles our relationship with God. In his righteousness, he became justice for all who were, and were yet to be, created. He died for everyone who fell short of the glory of God. He died for the Pharisee, the Gentile, the thief, the judge, the homosexual, the poor, the poor in spirit, the pastor, and the convicted murderer – for you, for me, for Ling.

In response to accepting our redemption, we have a responsibility to continuously pursue right relationships with each other as equals. We are agents who must actively engage true justice that restores and reconciles.

And true justice, as it plays itself out in real life, becomes inextricably linked with social advocacy.

Small successes

In the inner city, advocating for right relationships is process-oriented and punctuated by small victories. A friend of mine smokes like a chimney and loves Jesus. Some would condemn him for not respecting the body God has given him. Contextually, smoking is a victory for him, as he was released from his crack and alcohol addiction by his Redeemer’s love. For him, pursuing just relationships means he doesn’t steal from others to support his habit. And he’s careful not to cloud his mind with drugs, which would prevent him from thinking about God’s grace.

We have a food bank in St. Jamestown that’s open four hours a week to service a high-poverty neighbourhood of more than 27,000 people. How can I engage in right relationships with those in my community who are hungry, when I’m not?

Women receive condoms from the health clinic down the street in order to protect themselves while prostituting. I used to be opposed to this practice. Yet, how can I tell them they’re beautiful and worthy creatures of God if I’m not concerned for their health and well-being?
In order to facilitate right relationships, we need to equalize our perceived positions in the world. When he first appeared to humanity in his risen form, he appeared not in majesty to the multitudes as he had every right to do, but in humble love to the woman he knew was profoundly grieving his death. Who are we in the inner city to do any less? Who are we as Christians in the suburbs, in our workplaces, in our social groups to do less? Who are we in churches that we seek any less than to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?
I confess it’s very convicting to work in the inner city. Achieving righteousness in relationship to God and to others can seem overwhelming at times. If not for the perfect love of God, I know I would have succumbed to the magnitude of failures instead of gaining optimism from relatively few successes.

I advocate for Ling with housing authorities, obtain interpreters for her meetings with her case worker, and deliver Christmas gifts generously provided by others. I give her space to talk and try hard to comprehend her broken English. I tell her about Jesus and how much she is loved by God. She calls me family and learns a new word in English to tell me, in words I can understand, how much I mean to her. I can give no more than faithfulness to God and others, and hope that God counts it right and just.

Tara Bishop is associate pastor at 614 St. Jamestown Church, Toronto.

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