Sobrino on Faith and Idolatry


Finally, from a Salvadoran perspective it is clear that the true God is at war with other gods. These are the idols, the false divinities—though they are real enough—which Archbishop Romero has concretized for our time in speaking of the absolutization of exploitative capitalism and “national security.” Idols dehumanize their worshipers, but their ultimate evil lies in the fact that they demand victims in order to exist. If there is one single deep conviction which I have acquired in El Salvador, it is that such idols are real; they are not the inventions of so-called primitive peoples but are indeed active in modern societies. We dare not doubt this, in view of such idols’ innumerable victims: the poor, the unemployed, the refugees, the detainees, the tortured, the disappeared, the massacred. And if idols do exist, then the issue of faith in God is very much alive.

I have also learned in El Salvador that to believe in God means to cease having faith in idols and to struggle against them. That is the reason why we humans must make a choice not only between faith and atheism but between faith and idolatry. In a world of victims, little can be known about a person simply because he calls himself a believer or a nonbeliever. It is imperative to know in which God she believes and against which idols she does battle. If such a person is truly a worshiper of idols, it matters little whether he accepts or denies the existence of a transcendent being. There really is nothing new in that: Jesus affirmed it in his parable of the last judgment.

So in order to speak the whole truth one must always say two things: in which God one believes and in which idol one does not believe. Without such a dialectic formulation, faith remains too abstract, is likely to be empty and, what is worse, can be very dangerous because it may very well allow for the coexistence of belief and idolatry.

Jon Sobrino, S.J. “Awakening from the Sleep of Inhumanity,” The Christian Century, April 3 1991, p364-370


Why Our Family is Protesting at Toomer’s Corner Today

  1. No one is illegal – The criminalization of migration plays into the hands of nationalistic, white supremacist forces that are building strength in our country. These forces are evil and should be opposed. The simple reality is that we only call people who break a single law “illegal” when they are people of color. I’ve broken laws before, you probably have too – does everyone become “illegal” after breaking a single law? Of course not. Migrants and asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico are God’s children made in God’s image for God’s purposes; they are my brothers, sisters, and neighbors. They do not deserve to be terrorized or detained indefinitely in de-facto concentration camps run by private corporations making a profit on systematic dehumanization.
  2. #AbolishIce – Our country’s massive immigration detention and deportation system is cruel and unnecessary. It is a growing cog in the US mass incarceration complex that imprisons more people in the “land of the free” than any country on the planet. ICE was only established in 2003. The entire agency should be dissolved.
  3. Freedom from Slaveholder Religion – Attorney General and self-appointed Bible scholar Jeff Sessions pulled an old trick from the book of Slaveholder religion by quoting Romans 13 in support of his “zero-tolerance” policy that led to thousands of family separations at our southern border. Christians in Alabama will not stand for this egregious abuse of Holy Scripture. Sessions’ interpretation of Paul’s words to Christians in Rome is anti-Christ.

The Books I Read in 2017

I’m a little late to the 2017 book list party, but it has been fun to read over the lists of my friends and others I’ve come across in the past few days. My reading has been pretty light (in volume) this year and I chalk that up to raising 2 little readers – one of whom has read hundreds if not thousands of books this year (not complaining!). So, without further ado:

  1. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson – we read this as a staff at ARM for our weekly staff meeting devo/discussion
  2. The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Fear and Division by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Rev. William Barber II
  3. Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission by David Fitch
  4. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K. A. Smith – favorite book of the year!
  5. Building the Good Life for All: Transforming Income Inequality in our Communities by L. Shannon Jung – writing a review for this one for The Englewood Review of Books
  6. The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute – another ARM staff meeting devo/discussion book
  7. In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology by Amos Yong (in progress)
  8. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (in progress)

Incarnation and Beyond: Thoughts on How to Change the World

This post was published originally on the Alabama Rural Ministry blog.

On Tuesday August 30, Joe and Betsy attended a lecture at Auburn University given by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the author of the recent award-winning memoir Just MercyAuburn selected this book as their 2016-2017 Common BookThese thoughts were written by Joe and were inspired by Mr. Stevenson’s lecture and by Joe’s reading of Just Mercy. The blog is being posted today in honor of the Alabama Arise annual meeting today, which Joe is attending as ARM’s representative.

img_20160830_215008I only needed about 2 days to read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy after it was given to me as a Christmas present in 2015. I was simultaneously enthralled and heartbroken by his stories of being on the front lines of Alabama’s criminal justice system as a lawyer representing death row inmates – some of whom were mentally ill and some who were innocent – and wounded children sentenced for life as adults with no consideration for the trauma they had endured. Interwoven in these stories were the same intersecting, death-dealing threads that infect so much of our American story: white supremacy and poverty. Stevenson’s stories reveal the sick inner-workings of a criminal in-justice system in which innocence and guilt are determined more by your skin color and annual income than the “facts” of your case.

At the same time, Stevenson writes of hope and redemption. He calls us as a nation to new depths of compassion, vulnerability, and courage. He believes – as do I – that we’re all broken people whose personal healing is bound up in our shared healing; that I am not whole until we’re all whole. The organization he founded and now directs in the capitol city of our great state, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), draws on this hope as it works to end these unrighteous realities of unequal justice across our nation.

Stevenson was invited to speak at Auburn University because his book, Just Mercy, was chosen as the selection of the year for Auburn’s Common Book program. Every freshman received a copy of the book. His lecture late in August is one of many events scheduled on campus throughout the year which will provide opportunities to explore the issues of justice and compassion his book reveals. As an Auburn alum, I found Just Mercy to be a fantastic book to challenge Auburn students to think critically about what it means when they say they believe “in obedience to the law because it protects the rights of all” (The Auburn Creed). Unfortunately, this belief is not yet a reality – not in Alabama, not in America.

This needs to change, and it can. Stevenson shaped the thoughts he shared to a packed ballroom at Auburn’s Student Center (along with a packed overflow room) around four principles to change the world. All four principles connect well with the ministry we’ve been called to in rural Alabama. While all four are worthy of their own blog post, I wanted to focus one the first one he shared since it resonates so deeply with our work and my own personal calling.

“To change the world, we need to get proximate with the poor.” -Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson heard his calling to the work of EJI during a law school internship with an organization in Georgia representing indigent death row inmates. He recounts the story of his first prison visit to tell a condemned man that he would not be executed for at least another year. The man’s response – a chorus of thank you’s followed by hours of conversation and singing songs of Godly endurance and praise as the guards roughly pulled the man back to his cell – struck Stevenson to the core. Before this meeting, Stevenson didn’t really know why he wanted to be a lawyer. Getting “proximate” – that is “within proximity” – with the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, changed the way he saw the world and his own work within it.

Stevenson appeals to a broad, secular audience and doesn’t speak in explicitly religious terms but the principles he upholds – this one in particular – could not be more Christ-like. When he talks about getting proximate with the poor, I think immediately of a poor Jewish baby born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. This baby, as we know, is and was God incarnate – in the flesh. According to John’s gospel, this was God’s chosen way of showing His unfathomable love for the world and His insatiable desire to save it and make all things new (John 1:14; 3:16). The Apostle Paul says as much in Philippians 2:5-11 as he describes “the mind of Christ” who emptied himself to become like us and kept emptying himself until there was nothing left to give.

When Stevenson talks about getting close to suffering in order to share in it, change it, heal it, he is pointing to the dynamic, ongoing, powerful truth of the incarnation that is rooted in the very being of God.

As Stevenson was sharing about getting close to marginalized people and not loving them from a distance, he said something that hit close to home (literally)…

“There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities.” -Bryan Stevenson

I’m a product of one of those communities – York, in Sumter County – and I know that Stevenson is right based on my own childhood, my service with ARM as a summer construction coordinator in 2005, and my service now since 2014. I felt this power when my own life was changed as I got “proximate with the poor” for the first time as a summer intern with ARM. While I had grown up in Sumter County, I was blind to the stark realities of race and poverty which are now so evident to me. My summer with ARM introduced me to people in my hometown whose stories gave me new eyes to see the world and my place in it very differently. I heard my call to Christian ministry that summer with ARM.

When I consider ARM’s impact, I think of the relationships I made that summer and the hundreds of volunteers and other summer interns who have been blessed by similar relationships over the years through ARM’s work. There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities not because ARM is special but because God is at work there in powerful ways; after all, God chooses “what the world considers foolish to shame the wise… what the world considers weak to shame the strong… what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” so that the foolish message of the cross and resurrection might be revealed as the power of God for the salvation of the world (1 Cor. 1:18, 27-28).

It is an honor to call the Black Belt home. It’s even more of an honor to be serving with ARM in these kinds of communities where we can introduce our mission teams to new friends whose stories can help them hear God’s call to be a part of God’s saving mission for our world.

Getting proximate with the poor. Living incarnationally. Loving up-close and personal. This is what ARM is all about. And yet, it’s only the beginning if you want to be a part of God’s mission to change the world make all things new.

God got up close and personal with us in Jesus, but God’s power at work to save our world didn’t stop after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. At Pentecost, in Acts 2, we see God pouring out the Holy Spirit in order to bring Jesus’ work to its fulfillment. God’s saving work begins with the incarnation, but it extends through the ongoing presence and work of the Holy Spirit today and into the future. God’s Spirit calls us into fellowship and makes us one in Christ across all our worldly lines of social and economic division. This Spirit inspired fellowship (aka “the church”) is not reserved for a special few – it is God’s desire for the whole world, for every community in every time and place. This requires folks like Paul who were willing to be sent out beyond their own communities into new places so that God’s good news could be proclaimed to all people. Paul certainly worked incarnationally as he invested heavily in the churches he planted and discipled, but he held this incarnational approach in tension with his calling to keep expanding his vision to reach new communities. His obedience to this bigger vision has literally changed the course of history.

Why do I bring this up? Because it’s important for us to remember the importance of working for change at a broader, more systemic level.

Our heart is partnering on a personal level with families and kids and mission teams as we repair homes and bring the Bible to life. We get the truth of the incarnation and it has been the basis of our ministry model for 18 years. But, on the other hand, we’re called to extend (our “arms”… get it???)Our vision is bigger: we exist to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. All of rural Alabama; not just the 3 counties where we currently serve.

There are so many families seeking home repair assistance in Alabama. We receive calls daily, and we sometimes feel overwhelmed by this burden. Why are so many homes in need of repair? Why are so many families unable to afford to pay for these repairs? These are questions that can’t be answered on a personal level because they point to broader, systemic problems in the way our society operates politically, socially, and economically. Like the early church, ARM is called to look beyond the communities where we serve and consider the reality of substandard across rural Alabama. Like Paul, we are called to be apostles of God’s saving, redemptive work with our neighbors next door AND across our state.

One of the ways we’re responding to this call to extend is through our membership with Alabama Arise. This is a coalition of public and private organizations who have banded together to speak as one voice to the Alabama legislature concerning public policy issues that directly impact the lives of our low-income friends and neighbors. Today, I (Joe) will be attending the annual meeting of Arise where priorities for the year are set. These priorities direct Arises’ research, outreach, and lobbying resources. One of the issues I’ll be voting for as a priority in 2017 is the funding of the Alabama Housing Trust Fund, which would create new opportunities for organizations like ARM and others who want to build and rehabilitate quality affordable housing across our state.

We want to change the world at ARM. We’ve staked our claim in Alabama’s poor, rural Black Belt communities. We’re thankful for the witness of Bryan Stevenson, EJI, and so many others in our great state who remind us to get proximate with the poor as we seek the justice, righteousness, and comprehensive flourishing of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Where do you stand? How is God calling you to extend? We invite you to join us as love up close and personal through home repair and kids day camp ministries. As you get to know our friends, we hope you’ll be inspired to extend, to see the bigger vision of sweet homes for Alabama, and to step out in faith with us on this journey towards God’s kingdom.

Harvey on the Real Problem of Race

Problems with the reconciliation paradigm and the assumptions about difference on which it rests become most clear when we move away from a “universalist” way of talking about race and difference and, instead, bring a “particularist ethic” to bear on the discussion. A particularist ethic recognizes that there is no one shared standard against which we might measure or interpret our experiences of race, nor one to which we may all be held similarly accountable. Rather, we can begin to speak of the “particular” problem white racial identity brings to bear on reconciliation, the particular relationship of white people to matters of race and racial injustice…

Allowing particularity or distinction to be our starting point allows us to analyze and meaningfully discuss the differences between blackness and whiteness, as well as to ascertain the different work required of differently racialized groups in the context of white supremacy.

Another outcome is that the structures, histories, and injustices that result in such particularity – that, in fact, give our identities (and our agency in response to those realities) distinct meanings – become central in our attempts to envision and work for racial justice… given the construction of race and US racial history, only a particularist ethic is able to support the kind of understanding imperative for meaningful and effective responses to our actual racial situation.

Racial division is a real problem… but the racial problem… is not separateness itself. And togetherness is certainly no solution. Separateness is merely a symptom. The real problem is what our differences represent, how they came to be historically, and what they mean materially and structurally still. Racial separateness is evidence of the extent to which our differences embody legacies of unjust material structures. Racial separateness is a to-be-expected outcome of the reality that our differences literally contain still painful and violent histories that remain unredressed and unrepaired. Racial separateness reveals that our differences are the very manifestation of ongoing forms of racial injustice and white supremacy…

Racism and racial injustice are actual material conditions that shape all of our lives and mediate all of our relationships with one another. These material conditions, which began in an era of enslavement and continue powerfully still today, are the source of our alienation from each other. Loving difference without addressing these conditions as a way of demonstrating that love is a recipe for failure…

As important as genuinely appreciating difference may be for an array of other reasons, setting our souls right can be done only through justice-filled engagement with and responses to those very same structures that racialized our human bodies in the first place and continue to racialize us on a daily basis.

Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, pgs. 59-61.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Jesus, Hosea, and Justice as Healing


Thanks to my good friend, Nick Melton, for inviting me to share a message on justice with the college ministry at Auburn UMC. 

Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to start with a story. A slightly embarrassing story that comes from my illustrious elementary school playground football career. I think I was in 3rd grade, maybe 4th. We were outside playing football during PE. It was 2 hand touch of course. It was all boys – except for one girl – Sally. Sally was the tom-boy in our class. A sweet girl, but kind of rough around the edges, sometimes a tad mean. Definitely tougher and bigger than me. So, there we were on the fields of glory, the boys and Sally, and my team is receiving a kickoff. It comes to me. I field it perfectly and take off down the field behind our expertly planned blocking scheme. It was basically like the KICK-SIX play. Epic. I sprint past the other team and there’s nothing but wide open field in front of me. Touchdown… almost. Sally. Somehow Sally had caught up to me. Not enough to tackle me but close enough to trip me. I go flying, and break my arm on the landing. My first broken bone; broken by a girl. Of course I sobbed and the everyone was mad at Sally, game over. I share that story to ask this question: what does justice look like in this story? Is justice having a flag thrown by the ref? Sally being ejected? Maybe I should’ve gotten to break her arm? Or maybe my family should have sued the school or my PE teacher? Maybe it could have been a class action lawsuit against people who take cheap shots on the playground? Or even better, maybe we should have pushed for a law to put playground bone breakers and dream crushers behind bars?!?! Are any of those things justice? What is justice really about? Keep those questions in mind as we explore this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This is a story you’ve probably heard before: the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. It seems simple enough, but there is so much to unpack in this brief encounter. What makes it so interesting and complex is in verse 13, towards the end of the passage, when Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, no sacrifice.’” Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea. So not only do we need to explore the dynamics between Jesus, Pharisees, and tax collectors, but we also need to know something about Hosea, his life, and his prophetic message. So, we’ll start the New Testament part and then do a crash course on Hosea. Here we go:

Tax collectors. Everyday Jewish folk despised these guys. They were also Jewish but they cooperated with the oppressive, “gentile” regime of Rome. For as long as they did that, they were considered impure according to Jewish law and socially excluded from Jewish life. Some or most were also corrupt (remember Zacchaeus?). Taking their own slice of the outrageously high taxes they collected. These were not the kind of people any self-respecting Jewish rabbi would want as his disciples. They had sold their souls. No one wanted them. They were sinners under God’s judgment.

Not only does Jesus say, “Hey, you, condemned impure tax collector, come be my disciple!!”, but then he goes to eat with a whole crowd of them. Along with other “sinners,” which probably meant prostitutes. More impure, unclean, condemned folks under God’s judgment who were “justly” excluded from Jewish life according to THE LAW. Not only is Jesus hanging out with them, making himself unclean, but he’s eating with them! Having a meal with someone meant so much more back then. It was perceived by some, the Pharisees, as passive acceptance of these people’s sinful, unclean lifestyles. It showed a profound disregard for “the law” in order to welcome and show compassion and mercy towards those who were excluded. Jesus would not only eat with “these kind” of people; he called them to be his closest followers and take up his mission. This is outrageous.

Which brings us to the folks who were outraged: the Pharisees. These guys – and they were only men – were the strictest sect of Jewish folk in their day. They studied the law of Moses like no one else and made it their life goal to make themselves “righteous” before the law. They were very very serious about not breaking the law. They created more and more laws to keep themselves from breaking the laws. This is a very small group of highly educated, highly respected, probably wealthy men who held positions of power over most everyday Jewish folk. When they see Jesus go to eat with Matthew and his sinner buddies, they are incensed by Jesus’ disregard for the law they love so dearly.

But before we go into Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and dive into Hosea, let’s step back just a little and explore the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. We’re in chapter 9. Back a few chapters, in Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, several instances where Jesus re-interprets Moses’ law. At the end of the sermon, people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority – not like the other teachers of the law, ie the Pharisees. In a key verse, Matthew 5:17, Jesus teaches that he and God’s kingdom are the fulfillment of the law. He will show them what the law of Moses was all about in the first place. Then, a few verses later in Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a somewhat confusing claim about the law of Moses and our “righteousness”, our justice, according to the law. He says, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Interesting, because Jesus seems to be disregarding the law in our passage by eating with sinners and calling them to be disciples. If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, to fulfill justice, and if Jesus’ disciples are called to be even more righteous, more just, than Pharisees, then how do we make sense of what Jesus is doing in our passage?

To answer that question, we need to dive into the Old Testament, to the prophet Hosea. When Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12-13 to the Pharisees’ indignation against his seemingly unlawful behavior, Jesus commands them to study Hosea. He quotes Hosea 6:6, arguably THE key passage in Hosea’s message. Here’s the full verse: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, instead of burnt offerings.” By quoting this one verse from Hosea, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to remember the whole message of Hosea. So, who is this guy?

Hosea. A prophet. Sent to proclaim God’s truth to the northern kingdom of Israel before it was attacked, defeated, and scattered by the Assyrian empire. After this defeat and Hosea’ death, his message became popular in the southern kingdom of Judah when that kingdom found itself in a similar position with the Babylonian empire. Babylon would eventually attack and defeat Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending what was left of God’s people people into exile. So, the socio-political context of Hosea’s message is one of impending doom. Foreign armies are threatening. The kings of Israel are increasingly corrupt, foolish, and trying to make deals with other foreign powers as last ditch efforts to save themselves. They have turned from God, worshiped idols, forgotten God’s law, and are generally relying on their own strength. Of course, during this time, they have continued to “follow” their religious rituals. Sacrifices and offerings are still being given at the temple where God is “worshiped.” But the people have forgotten God and are exploiting the poor, there is rampant inequality, injustice, farmers are losing their land, the king/temple is centralizing wealth and power. They are ignoring God, but still going through the motions of religious piety, as if they cared, as if God would have to intervene and save them as long as they “followed the rules” of sacrifices and offerings which they assume will “justify” their actions.

God calls Hosea into this unjust, idolatrous society on the brink of collapse to proclaim a message of God’s judgment, of anger, but also of profound, unending, steadfast love, and – one day – of restoration, redemption, reconciliation. You may remember that Hosea is the prophet God calls to marry a woman, Gomer, a woman who he knows will be unfaithful to him. Some say she was a prostitute. In any case, they had 3 kids together, but then she is unfaithful to Hosea with other lovers. When this infidelity is uncovered, she leaves him or is sent away by Hosea. This was in accordance with the law of Moses. But then God calls Hosea to go take her back, to renew his love for her. Why does God put Hosea through all of this? Because God wants Hosea to feel, to KNOW, in the pit of his stomach, the immense pain that God feels for his people Israel. Hosea proclaims God’s unfathomable love like no other prophet because he felt the betrayal, the rejection, the broken promises, the fleeting commitments, the disappointments of the one who had promised to love him and him alone. God wanted Hosea to KNOW this – not abstractly, not as a nice concept – but to know it in his bones because this is how God loves God’s people. This is how God feels about our idolatry and injustice.

So, what does this verse, Hosea 6:6 mean? Through Hosea, God is pleading with Israel to see the empty hypocrisy of their ways. God wants THEM, not their sacrifices. God wants their hearts, their minds, their bodies – all of them. God wants to bless them, to see them flourish, to see them enjoy and steward God’s creation, to love each other, to love God, to seek the good of their neighbors, of widows, of orphans, of strangers, of the poor.

Hosea 6:6 is setup as a parallelism. Two statements which mirror each other. Mercy – not sacrifice; knowledge of God – not burnt offerings. Mercy is in parallel with “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is in parallel with burnt offerings. The two things in these pairs are inseparable and we can’t understand one without the other. The people of Israel say they know God, but they have abandoned love of God and neighbor, they show no mercy, they live unjustly – and this shows they do not KNOW God. The Hebrew verb translated here as “knowledge” has a very rich meaning. It means so much more than head knowledge. Its not an abstract, conceptual knowledge ABOUT God; it’s a full bodied, emotional, passionate, deep kind of knowing that permeates thoughts and actions. The same Hebrew verb is used in the scripture, “Adam KNEW his wife Eve and she bore a son” and we all know what that means! SEX! Let me tell you: sex is not about an abstract, conceptual knowledge. Its mutual love and affection; it’s a shared commitment. When I say I know my wife, I don’t just mean that I know her birthdate, social security number, and address; my knowing of her and my love for her and with her are inseparable. THIS is what God wants from God’s people. The kind of deep knowing, in partnership, in friendship, that is lived out in the way we care for each other and structure our society. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, he is bringing this whole drama, this love story between God and Israel, back into the light for the Pharisees to see with fresh eyes.

So, when we left Matthew a few minutes ago, we were left with the question of how to understand what Jesus was doing eating with sinners and tax collectors and welcoming them into God’s kingdom – disregarding the law. Especially in light of his teaching that God’s kingdom FULFILLS the law and that our righteousness, our justice, in relation to the law must EXCEED that of the Pharisees. It’s seems contradictory.

But the contradiction fades when we understand justice the way Jesus did, the way Hosea did. The Pharisees were confused and outraged because they studied the law to justify themselves, to insulate themselves from “sinners”, to exclude, to protect themselves and their power over others, to set themselves up as the ones to be imitated and respected, as the ones to enforce the laws on others and punish them for their disobedience. But Jesus takes them back to the deep, prophetic well of Hosea, to reveal God’s heart, the heart of justice: mercy, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness, solidarity, co-suffering, sacrificial service, healing, restoration, wholeness, hospitality, peace, reconciliation, LOVE. When Jesus teaches that our justice and righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, he means that we can’t be content with mere obedience to law, as good as that may be. Rather, we are called and empowered to seek the restorative, redemptive intent of the law through concrete acts of mercy which lead to restoration, healing, and wholeness on personal, communal, and societal levels.

The immediate context of Matthew 8 and 9 bears out this re-orientation of justice towards restoration and healing through acts of mercy. There are 9 stories of Jesus healing folks or exorcising demons in these chapters. All these acts of mercy are demonstrations of God’s kingdom. Jesus has come to welcome the sinners, the excluded, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, into a pursuit of justice and righteousness, of healing and wholeness, in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes as a physician, a healer. The end of Matthew 9 describes Jesus as a shepherd who has compassion, ie mercy, on the crowds, the sheep who are harassed and helpless, as he heals, restores, and brings wholeness.

Now, do you think the Pharisees listened to this teaching? No, of course not! What’s crazy is that Jesus REPEATS this exact verse from Hosea to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 after they get all upset about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath day, which was “breaking the law” of not working on the Sabbath. They still didn’t get it. Then, this same idea comes up in Matthew 23 where Jesus is EXCORIATING the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In other words, I’m glad you’re so concerned about following every iota of the law that you make the effort to measure a tenth of your kitchen spices to obey the laws about tithing, but you don’t love people, you don’t care about the real needs of real people. You miss the forest for the trees. I like your commitment to obeying the law, but not if you’re going to miss the whole point of the law in the first place.

But the biblical evidence in Matthew for this deeper understanding of justice and righteousness founded in mercy doesn’t stop there. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to describe the final judgement before God, the ultimate act of justice. What will be God’s criteria for justice and righteousness? Strict obedience to the law? Ceremonial purity? No. It’s mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Acts of mercy alongside “the least of these my brothers and sisters” will be the evidence of our entrance into God’s kingdom. Justice as mere obedience to law apart from mercy leads to separation from God. It leads to death.

Is this simply works-based salvation? No, its not. Are we not saved by grace through faith? Yes, we are. God’s love for us has not, does not, and will never depend on our actions. We are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and nothing else. Our works of mercy, of pursuing justice, wholeness, peace, and the common good for all do not EARN our salvation. They are our joyful response to the love of God we experience deep in our hearts. How can we do nothing when we look at our world, our communities, our neighbors, our own lives and see the profound suffering, brokenness, pain, discrimination, hate, and apathy that surround us and invade our lives? God’s creation is moaning, all of us, earth, wind, sky, plants, animals, the entire universe is groaning for the promised restoration of God. And God longs to restore us as well. Hosea captured this longing in probably one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture:

Therefore I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [my people Israel]; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of [trouble] a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the [idols] from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will [KNOW] the Lord. “In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her [my people Israel] for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’

Behold the heart of our God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, longing for our redemption, for our love, for the wholeness, healing, flourishing of not just “God’s people” but for all people, all creation.

The problem is that we don’t want this. Not really, not actually. If we do, our lives don’t show it. The way of the Pharisees is too easy, too enticing, too safe, too comfortable, and we settle for it far too often.

So, back to my playground football broken arm story. What does justice look like? Is it throwing a flag, a lawsuit, a national ban on playground football? No, justice looks like a healed arm, back on the football field, with my friend Sally, playing and enjoying God’s good gifts, full of life. That’s a process. My bones had to be re-set, put in a cast for protection so they could heal. Then my muscles had to regain their strength. It involves forgiveness. Repairing relationships. And trusting each other again.

Now, I get this is a kind of a trivial analogy. It was a simple fracture that healed easily. But I share it to call our attention to the many fractures in our lives and our world today. These are not “simple”. They are what doctors call “compound fractures”. The ones where bones have torn through muscles and skin and are sticking out, exposed to infection, rot, and decay. We are probably aware of these compound fractures – human trafficking, racial injustice and white supremacy, grinding, dehumanizing poverty, war, genocide, sexism and misogyny, hunger, global migration, wealth inequality, discriminatory laws and law enforcement, environmental destruction, the desecration of life in so many myriad of ways.

What do we do? Jesus calls to be even more righteous, more just, than the Pharisees. God longs for our restoration. Do we care? Are our own hearts broken by these compound fractures that break God’s heart? Are we, like the Pharisees, busying ourselves studying the Bible, being “good” people, reading theology, winning arguments against atheists or other “heretics”, just so we can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves, justify ourselves, and stay out of the “messiness” of things like politics and economics? Have we bought into the Pharisaical notion of justice that excuses us from any responsibility to seek the common good so we can sit around in the pews and wait for God to snatch us up into heaven?

Mercy calls us to respond in concrete ways to seek the healing and wholeness of our hurting neighbors. Who are they? What are their stories? Too often, “doing justice” is limited to changing laws and policies, to understanding “issues”. Please hear me out: this is not bad. We need to work for more just laws and policies and for people to understand the issues deeply and thoroughly. But its not enough, justice doesn’t end there and its not where I think I should begin my pursuit of justice. As a person who doesn’t experience much injustice, my first step of mercy is to listen, to serve, to lament, and feel the weight of suffering caused by the brokenness of our world. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, says it this way: “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.” And deal with them we must.

As we love people who are hurting, God graciously opens our eyes to our own brokenness, and how our brokenness and the brokenness of those we love are interconnected, one and the same. Ultimately, seeking justice will cost us – those who like me enjoy the privileges that others do not. Our hearts will be broken, our lives will change, repentance will not be easy. But this is what God desires: mercy, not sacrifice. We must come to see that Jesus, and he alone, is Lord and Healer – not us. Doing justice cannot be our attempt to fix or save others as if we had no need of a healer. Another favorite author of mine, Claudio Oliver, captures this conviction:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer… when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

It may not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. We are not called to save the world by seeking justice and righteousness. As the prophet Micah said, we are called to walk humbly with God – all of us broken folks together – as we do justice and love mercy.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. A Christian pursuit of justice must be oriented towards the healing, restoration, and wholeness of all people – ourselves included. It begins with concrete acts of mercy. The question is: Do we care? Have our hearts been broken by the pain and suffering of our world? Or do we hide behind our privilege refusing to care, refusing to listen? May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Break our hearts for what breaks yours, O God, our Healer.

What is holistic community development?

In 200 words or less…

Holistic community development is a collaborative, creative process which cultivates the social, economic, political, cultural, spiritual, and environmental conditions needed for the entire community to thrive. An outside organization or community developer works to begin this process by creating space for dialogue that helps the community re-narrate its story by asking critical questions about the status quo and the local and non-local forces that keep the status quo in place. As the community is empowered by this critical consciousness, a new, more equitable, just, and sustainable vision of the community’s future can emerge around which its members can organize. This social capital is the fuel that propels the community in critical praxes in pursuit of concrete changes in its everyday life, its cultural forms, its political processes, its economy, and its environment which all work together to enact the community’s new story. While outside resources or expertise may be needed, it is the community who leads and controls this process. This definition of holistic community development is inspired by the work of Friere in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Margaret Ledwith’s Community Development, and Westoby and Dowling’s Dialogical Community Development