This week, we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, a champion not only for people of color in America, but for many who were and are marginalized. There have been volumes written on Dr. King’s legacy, how and why it has endured over the years. While there may be nothing new to add here about his ministry, I think it is particularly important to revisit his vision for justice and how that vision is and should be played out in the life of our school and our churches.
One of the things that made Dr. King so effective and enduring is that his work was ultimately rooted in something transcendent. He was committed to justice, but in a very specific vision of justice, one not shared by everyone, not even many of his contemporaries. Dr. King’s vision was rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There’s confusion surrounding the notion of justice today, whether we’re addressing issues of race and ethnicity, poverty, human trafficking, or other forms of marginalization and brokenness. This confusion extends to its relationship to the gospel itself. Sometimes it’s said that justice is something separate and apart from the gospel of Jesus, that the gospel is about promoting reconciliation between God and man through the restoring ministry of Jesus Christ’s atonement, and does not include promoting healing of human brokenness wherever injustice exists. The danger in this line of thinking is that it’s reductionistic, meaning that it takes only part of a whole and makes it the whole. The gospel as Jesus himself described it is more holistic and complete than simply praying to accept Jesus as one’s savior (although it certainly IS that). Disciples of Jesus are those who think as he thinks, feel as he feels, and do what he does. Transformation by truth requires these things, and we don’t want to fall short of being transformed through limited, reductionistic thinking.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he did so in his home synagogue, in Nazareth. Luke 4 tells us that there he preached his first sermon:
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
When Jesus talked about the gospel, the good news, he used specific language. “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) “Heal the sick and say to them, ‘the Kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:9). Through Christ’s coming to earth, His rule would be completed, and His Kingdom established. The gospel is as we sing in Handel’s Messiah, and read in Revelation 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” Earth, in all her sinful state, has been recaptured for God’s reign and His glory, all through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The atonement for man’s sin and restoration of relationship with God, but also all Creation’s restoration with mankind.
The gospel, the good news, is that all of this is and will be restored. At Grace, we’ve talked about teaching Jesus through working and praying to create a shalom-based learning environment. Shalom is found in the quest of restoration, of fulfilling our role as followers of Jesus in working to restore these four relationships, by God’s grace and through His power. Not in our flesh, but by His Holy Spirit. Being a disciple is about promoting all forms of reconciliation: God to people, through sharing the gospel and leading others into restoration with Jesus, but also to being a part of bringing justice and mercy to the distorted, sinful world around us.
And, yet, it’s a specific kind of justice, one rooted in God’s Word and his truth. This is the notion of justice in which Dr. King was rooted. Author and pastor Tim Keller wrote a series of excellent articles on justice and race in the wake of the summer of 2020, and the turmoil surrounding the murder of George Floyd and others. Keller notes that biblical justice has certain distinct characteristics. Because God’s Word shows the world to be deeply interconnected, we are responsible for the well-being of our community and our brothers and sisters who live within it. This means that God and those around us who are in need have some claim on our God-given resources, and that not everything we have is to be used for our benefit, but for those in need.
Because God tells us we are all image-bearers, created with dignity, value, and worth, we should be treated and must treat others with dignity and equity, and we should work to promote these things. As Keller says, “any system of justice or government in which decisions or outcomes are determined by how much money parties have is a stench before God.” Whether it’s government, or business, or any dealings with people, regardless of who they are, God calls me to recognize their worth and work to provide equal opportunities and access, wherever possible.
Again, because God’s Word shows us we’re interrelated and built for community, we are both responsible for and impacted by our community and our individual choices. One does not exist to the exclusion of the other. Thus, while I’m responsible for my own sin, mistakes, and choices, I’m often impacted by the sin, mistakes, and choices of others, and my sin, mistakes and choices, impact them. Likewise, the good and bad things that happen to me, my successes and failures, are caused both by my own decisions and by the community around me. All of this means that, as a follower of Christ, I’m responsible for repenting for my own sin and working to heal the impact of my sin and brokenness, and collective, community sin and brokenness, wherever it manifests itself, whether in poverty, racial or ethnic conflict and brokenness, human trafficking, sanctity of life issues, or wherever. It also means that in solving problems and promoting human flourishing, the solutions are complex and require both individual healing and healing societal structures.
Finally, just as God has a special concern for the poor and marginalized, he calls us to have such a concern, as well, and to advocate on their behalf. This isn’t because those affected are more important to God than others, or that we should care for the poor and marginalized more than those who aren’t; it’s that those who aren’t don’t need us to advocate for them. They have the resources to do it themselves. They can promote their own flourishing, and need our love, but maybe not our advocacy and special care. We are simply to work to level out the playing field whereever we can.
Perhaps one of the reasons we as Christians recoil today at what passes for justice, or social justice in our culture, is that it’s rooted in non-biblical, or even antibiblical, philosophies and perspectives. Keller notes that worldly justice is grounded in a variety of concepts, all of which lead to notions of justice that are biblically-distorted. Keller says there are basically four such notions: libertarian justice is rooted in individual freedom, at the expense of collective responsibility to the group or whole. Liberal justice is rooted in fairness, but devoid of notions of absolute truth and what is ultimately right. Utilitarian justice is rooted in the pursuit of happiness for the greatest number at all costs, regardless of the impact on the marginalized minority. Postmodern power grounds a just society in one which subverts the power of dominant groups in favor of the oppressed, yet undermines forgiveness and reconciliation, and denies common sinfulness. None of these are biblical justice, and all will undermine someone at the expense of someone else.
That being said, as followers of Jesus, we can’t be “throw out the baby with the bathwater” people. We have to be people of justice, because it’s the gospel. But, we have to be people of a greater justice than the world’s vision, giving testimony to the gospel and to our Lord who is its author. Dr. King understood that; he was a man of enduring legacy because in promoting the work of mankind, he saw the Kingdom of God. His legacy should be ours, as well.