Category Archives: Justice
When will we be able to move past our racism? (I speak primarily of the United States, but other countries no doubt have their racial issues as well.) When will we, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, judge a person based solely on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? I have an answer, but I will save it for the end of this post.
I reacted very strongly to the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial. I thought the verdict was wrong, a fiasco, a blatant miscarriage of justice. Within 48 hours one of the so-called “unbiased” jurors revealed she had signed a book deal to “tell all” about the trial and the deliberations. Public outrage blew that bald-faced self-promotion out of the water. But this same juror showed up on a national TV show and spoke about her experiences. She referred to the defendant as “George” repeatedly. She spoke explicitly about a “stand your ground” law that was never even referenced in the trial, nor in the jury instructions (the wording, as far as I can tell, came from a self-defense provision, but not the law that received the nickname, “stand your ground.”) She allowed that Zimmerman should not have exited his vehicle that dark and rainy night, but almost in the same breath said that race had nothing to do with the jury’s deliberations, nor did she think that racial profiling was a part of the case.
In other words, this supposedly unbiased juror confirmed every one of my public and private fears about this trial. She connected totally on an emotional level with Zimmerman (poor little Georgie, he got a boo-boo on his noggin). Even though Trayvon Martin was doing absolutely nothing wrong, and that Zimmerman never should have exited his vehicle, she still bought into the defense argument that it was Martin that initiated the confrontation, not Zimmerman. We will never know who started that fight, and all we have is Zimmerman’s story. According to this juror there were three votes for guilty and three for acquittal when the jurors first started their deliberations. One juror actually felt Zimmerman was guilty of 2nd degree murder, two others felt he was guilty of manslaughter. That means that the three who leaned toward acquittal were able to change the minds of the three who leaned toward conviction. I wonder how they managed to do that?
Actually, I think I know. All through this trial Zimmerman was portrayed as the victim. Martin has been referred to as a thug, a hoodlum, a gang-banger, street trash. Zimmerman sat in the courtroom all spiffed up in his designer suits looking absolutely cherubic. And don’t feed me that “half Hispanic” line. Zimmerman looks as lilly white as Princess Kate. Those jurors saw this as a white/black issue, whether they would admit to it or not. It was simply inconceivable that a good white boy would be the instigator of a racial conflict. That black boy got what he “deserved.”
This morning a poll was released that just further confirmed my suspicions. As long as the link is valid, you can find the story here. To summarize, the poll revealed that by a significant margin white people and Republicans feel that there is no racial problem in the US, and that the justice system is just fine. Not surprisingly, black people and Democrats feel that racism is alive and well in the US, and that the justice system is broken. In my mind this disparity can only be interpreted one way – when you are in power, when you have absolutely no fear of being profiled by the color of your skin, when you do not have to fear having some vigilante with a loaded gun follow your 17 year old son simply because he “looks suspicious,” when you can put on a suit and tie and have a juror call you by your first name, then the world is pretty rosy for you. Conversely, when you cannot go to a convenience store and buy a snack without having somebody question your behavior, when you cannot walk down the street without having people move away from you, if you fear having your child pulled over by a policeman for “driving while black,” if your son can be shot dead and have the killer acquitted from even the most benign charges, then you are not going to have a very cheerful view of America and its judicial system.
By an overwhelming majority, white people and Republicans just simply do not get this. There is none quite so blind as he who will not see.
For the record, I am a white middle aged male. But a few years ago one of my very good friends told me about being stopped by a policeman in Houston, TX, for no other reason than he was a black man driving where he should not have been driving. “Driving while black” is what they call it. Maybe for the first time in my life I felt another man’s pain because of blatant racism. It changed me.
If I am not mistaken, God calls this behavior “sin.” And he has always called it “sin” and he will always call it “sin.”
How will America heal its racial divisions? The only way that I see forward is for all of us, white, black, brown, yellow, red – even green or purple, to actually confess that we have a racial problem. That’s right – all of us. White on black, black on white, brown on black, red on white – every color against every other color. Racism does not cut one way, or even two ways. Racism cuts every direction, and we cannot even remotely consider ourselves to be a Christian people as long as we harbor prejudices against someone simply because of the color of his or her skin.
Maybe one day we will be able to judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But as the Zimmerman verdict, and the very public comments by that juror demonstrates, that day will not occur any time soon.
Certainly not as long as a few scratches on the back of one man’s head are viewed as more significant than a gunshot wound in a young man’s chest.
So far I held off on commenting about the George Zimmerman trial. Well, that’s not exactly true, but I had to delete the posts I wrote Saturday night. At the risk of severe overstatement, let me say I was crushed by the verdict that jury reached. Far more than the O.J. Simpson verdict, or even the Rodney King verdict, I felt that, as a caucasian, conservative, attempting-to-be-disciple of Christ I was truly injured by this decision. When a miscarriage of justice speaks so clearly to one of the fundamental sins of our culture, everyone in that culture is injured – whether they realize it or not, and whether they admit it or not.
Several facts that came out during this trial prove to me that race was the sole and determining factor in the verdict. The primary one is that Trayvon Martin was doing nothing, absolutely nothing wrong when he was racially profiled by George Zimmerman that cold rainy night. He was a young black man walking down the street in a “hoodie,” a hooded sweatshirt. He had just been to a convenience store to buy a snack. George Zimmerman saw him, saw that he was black, became his own judge, jury and police force, and set out to make sure Martin did not get away.
Trayvon Martin did not need to “get away.” He was not doing anything illegal. He was returning to his father’s house.
George Zimmerman instigated this whole event. He was the one who decided Martin was guilty simply based on the color of his skin. He was the one who followed – make that stalked - Martin on the way back to his father’s house. Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and chased Martin some distance before an altercation occurred. What happened during that altercation no one will ever know – Martin was shot dead and the only witness to the shooting is a lying, self-serving, arrogant racist who claims self defense. And this became the greatest crime in the whole sordid story. In order for Zimmerman to make his case, he and his defense team had to turn Martin in to the aggressor. The victim of a shooting became the perpetrator of a fist fight. A man who was told not to follow Martin and who was carrying a loaded 9 mm pistol became the victim in a scenario that he created from start to finish.
And because Zimmerman looks lilly white (he claims Hispanic genetics as well) and because Trayvon Martin was black, and because Zimmerman represented law and order and because everyone knows that young black men are just murderers and rapists and burglars just waiting to happen, the predominantly white, all female jury let Zimmerman go totally free.
The Ku Klux Klan never had it so good.
This story would be despicable as it stands, but it gets worse. All across the country white people have gone on record throwing around some of the most hateful, vengeful, sinful racist comments imaginable – all worthy of coming out of a sweet little old church lady’s mouth. Martin “got what was coming to him.” Oh really – going to the convenience store deserves a death sentence? “Martin should not have been where he was.” Nice – he was visiting his father who lived in that gated community – and Martin was just walking home in the rain on a dark night. “If some punk jumps me and I have a gun you better believe I will use it to defend myself.” Oh, so racially profiling a young man (regardless of race is being profiled) and going against police dispatcher instructions and chasing (stalking) that same young man is perfectly okay, but having that young man defend himself is wrong? Here is the absolute tragedy of this case. Zimmerman, who is white, is afforded the right to shoot and kill a young man for the supposed reason of self-defense, but a young black man is not allowed to use his fists to defend himself. Remember – we do not know who started the fight. The only words we have are from the white killer who gunned down the black man. The same white man that, incidentally, was caught in multiple lies before and during the trial. Do you honestly think he would admit to starting the fight that ended in Martin’s death?
The prosecution of this case was a joke. I honestly believe the prosecutor wanted to lose this case. He did the defense’s job for them, and did not prosecute Zimmerman at all.
Perhaps worst of all was the racist venom spewed by national and regional news commentators. Sean “the white man’s Al Sharpton” Hannity was the worst, although several others came in closely behind. To these individuals all you need to do is look at the color of a man’s skin and that tells you who is innocent and who is guilty. Zimmerman – white = innocent; Martin – black = guilty.
Where does this story intersect with Christianity? Just this – anytime a racial or economic power can force its will, and warp justice, because of that race or because of that economic power, God will condemn those who perpetuate that hegemonic power. Just read Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. Read the scathing denunciation of the abuse of power in the book of Amos. Read Jesus’ own words of turning racial hatred upside down in the parable of the good Samaritan or in his dealings with the Samaritan woman at the well or the Canaanite woman and her demon possessed child. (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 15:21-28) Read the concluding passages in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians and see how Paul commanded Christians to view others and treat others differently than what the prevailing culture sees and treats them.
The verdict in this case is nothing more than a repugnant stain against any claim of racial equality that white Americans want to delude themselves into believing.
I mourn this verdict. I mourn because Trayvon Martin did not get any justice. I mourn because his family if forced to deal with the incessant and vitriolic hatred of white so-called “Christians.”
And, I mourn this verdict because at the very core, if a young black man or black woman cannot walk home from a convenience store without being profiled by some racist vigilante, then my very white, very blond and very blue eyed daughter is not safe to walk home from that same convenience store.
As long as a person’s skin color is allowed to define innocence and guilt, no child is ever safe. But it appears in this country, African Americans have the most to fear.
(Postscript: Just to highlight my claim of racism, this story was brought to my attention. In the same state in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, and just few months more than a year ago, a young single mother was convicted of shooting a gun into the air when she felt threatened by her abusive husband. No one was injured, certainly no one was killed. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The judge in that case rejected her plea that she was simply “standing her ground” and defending herself. And, oh, by the way … she was a young single black woman. Here is the link, as long as it is valid - http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/?tag=socsh. Do you still think racism is not an issue in this case? By the way, I do not know if subsequent to this sentence there has been any appeal or overturning of the sentence. The point is that Zimmerman’s claim of self defense only works if the supposed victim is white, and the supposed aggressor is black.)
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)
For many people this rather simple command was revised into an even more simple one: do not lie. Now, heaven forbid I be accused of condoning lying, cheating on math tests, and telling your doctor you exercised for 30 minutes every day when all you did was watch the golf channel on TV, but lying is not what this command refers to.
What God is forbidding here is the presenting of false testimony in a legal dispute.
When you really stop and think about it, what is the one single function of government that, if the government gets it wrong, it doesn’t matter how many other things it gets right, the government becomes cruel and inhuman? Not taxation, not health care, not whether someone of a particular sexual orientation can get married or not. Therefore, not anything about which most Americans are all in a tizzy over right now.
No, the one thing that will destroy any government if allowed to exist for any length of time is the one thing that Americans seem to be the least concerned about and that is the judicial system.
If the rights of the citizenship are not carefully protected, if the rights of a victim are not carefully protected, and if the rights of an accused are not carefully protected then it doesn’t matter how efficiently the streets are paved or how regular the trash pickup occurs. The government becomes inhuman and, given time, will fall of its own inhumanity.
And the bedrock foundation of a just and fair judicial system is the requirement that everyone, from the judges to the lawyers to the juries to the witnesses, act in an honest manner. That means telling the truth first, foremost, and always.
I have verbally stated several times that our judicial system is broken, and I almost always get verbally disciplined by someone who happens to hear me say that. But I’ll put it in writing here – our judicial system is broken. I simply do not care that it is the “best judicial system in the world.” It is broken. It stinks. There is no “justice” in our “justice system.” Our system is a financial system, and he or she who has the money will win in the overwhelming majority of cases. Occasionally a judge or jury gets it right – but I would offer that those cases are in the minority. Even if the verdict is correct, the punishment rarely, if ever, fits the crime. Case in point: because of the “three strikes and you are out” laws that many states have, we have “criminals” whose only crime is possessing illegal drugs incarcerated for longer periods of time than someone who intentionally kills someone. Folks, that is just wrong.
I sat on a jury involving a Driving While Intoxicated case. The driver was caught “dead to rights.” It was a text-book open and shut case. However, we had two jurors who had bad experiences with the police previously and they refused to allow the rest of us to convict the driver. He walked with just a slap on the wrist – a meaningless little citation of not being able to maintain his driving lane. This was a perfect example of “bearing false witness.” The jurors lied to the judge and lied to the attorneys who presented the case. They had no intention of allowing the accused to be found guilty. The defendant walked out of the courtroom with a “cat who ate the canary” smirk on his face and the citizens of the community in which we lived lost more of our safety.
On the other hand, many cases have made national headlines involving individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes -rape and murder among them -being released upon further examination and, most commonly, DNA evidence. That raises a profound and disturbing question: how many innocent young men (mostly young black men) have been executed because of a racially stacked jury, with incompetent defense attorneys and blood thirsty prosecutors? It is a chilling question to ask.
Why do we allow this broken system to remain? Two quick answers.
One, we want the system to remain because in the back of our minds we fear being at the defense table, and we want a system that is most likely to work in the favor of the defense. If you have to convince a large number of people that a person is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, the cards are stacked in favor of the defense. Intuitively we know that. That is why very, very few people will opt to have a judge decide the case, although that is always an option. It is better to cast your fate into the hands of 6, or 12 uneducated “peers” than it is to trust it to one solitary person.
Two, and basically conversely, the system is rigged to favor the side who has the most money. The laws will never change because the lawyers own the politicians, and the politicians are not going to bite the hands that feed them. So, if you can afford an expensive attorney, you stand a better chance of winning. If you cannot, and the state has the most money (which is usually the case), you had better accept a plea bargain. That way everybody wins – the defense keeps you out of significant punishment (even if you are guilty) the prosecution can chalk up a “conviction” (even if you are innocent) and the judge gets to clear a case off of his or her docket. Then, all the principal actors get to go out to the bar and have a drink and laugh about the whole sordid affair.
The victim never wins, however. And it is the VICTIM that God is most concerned about in his judicial system. And the only way for the VICTIM to get any justice is for the entire system to be built upon a relentless and unswerving search for truth.
The judge must be compelled to seek the truth of the case – not who has the slickest attorneys, but whether the defendant is guilty or not. The defense attorneys must be compelled to present the truth – not some slick slight-of-hand that gets a defendant released on a technicality. And the prosecutor must be compelled to seek the truth – not just another conviction in his or her resume to be used in seeking higher office. The police must be held to the highest standard in the process of investigating and arresting suspects. And the witnesses must be compelled to tell the truth, all of the truth, and the whole truth when testifying.
I have previously mentioned one simple, foolproof method of making sure this process happens. Simply place the police, the judge, the jury, both attorneys and all witnesses under the same possible sentence as the accused. Then, if it is later determined that anyone dealt falsely during the investigation, the trial or the sentencing (or the acquittal) of the accused, then the person or persons responsible for the “false witness” must be sentenced to the maximum the accused was liable to be punished. That would clean up an awful lot of false witnessing. Or it would fill up our prisons – one or the other. If you question my sanity, read Deuteronomy 19:15-19. I know I extended my solution beyond what is specifically mentioned, but according to our system of “justice” you have to include more characters in order to clean up the mess we are in.
You shall not bear false witness. You shall not allow false witness to be presented. You shall not allow false witness to be purchased, or to be bartered. You shall demand your justice system to be based on a search for truth and the protection of innocent victims. You shall hold your police departments to the highest of standards, realizing they are human. Attorneys, Judges, and juries must be completely above any reproach – and that means trafficking in false testimony.
Convict and punish the guilty, acquit the innocent – provide justice for the victim. That is what the “justice” system is all about.
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
We live in a world of comparative justice – or comparative injustice if you will. By that strange term I mean that all we experience as justice, or injustice, is compared to others. We know what we think justice should look like, and “compared to _______” what we see is either very just or very wrong.
Jesus lived in a world of comparative justice as well. Consider the following:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, RSV)
We know little, if anything, about the two incidents that Jesus referenced. But obviously they were current topics, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking understood them quite well. The first was obviously an example of murder – Pilate had a group of “Galileans” killed while they were offering their sacrifices (at the temple in Jerusalem?). Why they were singled out as “Galileans” we are not sure. Was it because they were insurrectionists, or believed to be plotting an insurrection? Or were they just “out-of-towners” who got mixed up in an ugly case of mistaken identity? And what of the unfortunate 18 who happened to be in or under the “tower in Siloam?” Were they meeting there as a part of a plot? Or did the tower just give way as they happened to be gathered in the shade of the tower?
We have a lot of questions to which we may never know the answers. But one thing is quite clear – Jesus does not buy into “comparative justice” or injustice. Twice he asks, “Do you think this group worse that another?” and twice the answer is “No.”
We watch Tim McVeigh detonate his bomb in front of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and we recoil in disgust. We watch two airplanes being flown into the World Trade Center and we react with hatred and revenge in our hearts. We watch as two bombs are detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and we are repulsed.
And every day bombs are detonated in crowded markets and in busses and in places of worship and we hardly notice. Every day (it seems like) President Obama agrees to use another secretive drone to bomb a target in Iraq or Afghanistan and scores of innocent bystanders are killed and if there is any reaction in the United States at all, it is simply to say, “Serves them right.”
I remember in some bygone conflict (Desert Storm I or II, or in Afghanistan, even I lose track) there was a member of the media that was killed. Dozens of American soldiers had already died with barely even a mention or without hardly a whimper raised by the TV talking heads. But when the media person was killed you would have thought the entire world had come to a crashing end. There were pictures on the TV, dozens of stories about how this person was trying to make the world a better place through journalism, about how it just wasn’t fair for such a young person to die, blah, blah, blah. Comparative justice. According to the TV types, it was okay for soldiers to die, maybe even expected, but it was NEVER expected or okay that a reporter or camera person to die.
In comparative justice, it is okay for our enemy to die, but never okay for one of ours to die. It is okay for other children to be cut in half by a roadside bomb, but never in America. It would be okay for our American President to use a secretive drone to bomb innocent bystanders into eternity, but what if it happened in Boston? Or New York? Or Dallas?
Jesus would not buy into the idea of comparing the value of deaths. A death was a loss of a human life to Jesus. There were no “greater” and “lesser” sinners in his eyes. There were none who did not deserve their deaths. No, for Jesus we all stand guilty. We all deserve the death that awaits us.
Or, I guess I should say the death that awaited us. Because, you see, Jesus stepped into the middle and “took the bullet” that was intended for us. We have the opportunity to live eternally because he died temporally (in time) on that cross. But his death was not without meaning; not without a warning.
“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” I don’t think Jesus was talking about physical death here and was telling us in to how we can avoid murderous tyrants and creaky towers. I believe he was using two tragedies to tell us that a far worse death awaits those who continue to live in rebellion to God’s Kingdom.
The bombings in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington and Boston were horrific, make no mistake. But let us also be very clear. God does not view the death of an innocent American as any worse than an innocent Palestinian, an innocent Israeli, an innocent Iraqi, or an innocent Afghan. Let us dispense with the comparative justice concept. The murder of any human being is a stain against the image of God – for every human was made in the image of God.
And that should make us be very careful as we consider our response to whoever it was that murdered and maimed those people in Boston, as well as the victims and the families of the latest drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Throughout this examination of the Sermon on the Mount we have see where Jesus begins with a traditional teaching (or practice), identifies a descending cycle of behavior (often vicious) and then offers a “transforming initiative” that not only breaks the cycle, but restores the “traditional teaching/practice” to its original, God intended purpose. Thus we see where these instructions truly are instructions for living in the new “reign” or “kingdom” of God.
The traditional teaching here is the injunction not to store up treasures on earth. This is certainly a laudable prohibition, very much in line with “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” The vicious or descending cycle is briefly noted: moths and rust eat away both soft materials and some metals, and thieves break in and steal that which is more permanent, but is vulnerable none-the-less. The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.20, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. A repudiation of the “vicious cycle” then occurs, moths and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves steal that which is “in heaven.”
With this section of the sermon the question does not so much lie with “what is the traditional teaching” or “what is the transforming initiative” but is more practical – “how in the world can you lay up treasures in heaven?” That appears to be one of the “impossible commands” that this method of examining the Sermon seeks to avoid.
The answer, as Dr. Stassen points out (readers new to this series of posts need to review the first couple of posts of this title to get the bibliographic information I listed in several posts) is to separate the idea of “this life” vs. the “life hereafter” from the idea of the life that is lived here on earth that is devoid of the reign of God and the life that is lived here on earth that is bathed in the reign of God.
Think of the contrast this way: if you invest heavily in things, if you take pride in your house, your possessions, your retirement portfolio, etc., that is where your heart is going to be. With every new purchase or with every new addition to your collection your level of worry is going to increase proportionally. You will need to buy better locks, invest in an alarm system, maybe buy a vicious guard dog, buy a whole warehouse of guns and ammunition. You will watch the stock market reports like a hawk – and worry incessantly about trends and events over which you have absolutely no control. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow.
Now, contrast that with the one who invests heavily in the reign of God. This person gives to make sure there is justice for those who cannot afford it, who provide food and clothing for those who need it, who share their physical blessings so that those who are lacking in certain necessities are able to receive them. This person will be vitally concerned about the reign or the kingdom of God because he or she has already invested heavily in that reign and kingdom. This person’s heart will follow their treasure as well. Except this person’s treasure cannot be taken away from them; it cannot be destroyed, and it will not self-destruct. This person’s treasure in invested in the kingdom of God. That is, this person’s treasure is invested in the very heart of God Himself. No worries here about the stock market or buying a bigger dead-bolt lock.
As Dr. Stassen points out, there is some debate as to whether v. 24 is attached to this teaching, or begins the next section. If it belongs with this teaching the meaning is self-evident. If you love your treasure here on this earth, you cannot claim to love and follow God. If your heart is firmly attached to kingdom concerns, then you will not be worried about following the god of this world.
Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the oily side down!
Those following this series of posts (“A Radical Sermon”) are familiar with the outline proposed by Dr. Glen Stassen. Those just joining in or dropping by need to take a little time and review the preceding material. That way I don’t have to keep repeating myself by repeating myself.
The “traditional teaching” of this section is found in v. 33 – do not break your promises, but keep your oaths to the Lord. To this teaching Jesus adds a somewhat lengthy series of descending practices, or in Dr. Stassen’s term, the “vicious cycle” that occurs when we do not keep our word. Notice that none of these oaths that are discussed in the “vicious cycle” have anything to do with making promises to God. Rather, they all have some aspect of God as a “witness” in an oath made to another human being. Because the name of God was considered too holy to even pronounce, various substitutes were considered appropriate to use, some with greater significance and some with lesser significance. So, instead of swearing by the name of God, one might swear by “heaven” as it was God’s realm, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by one’s own head. Each “oath” required and guaranteed less assurance, thus making the oath even more and more questionable. Jesus’ point here is so simple – if a person cannot trust your word, no amount of piling on oaths will make it any more trustworthy. And, in the “vicious cycle” as discussed by Dr. Stassen, once you break an oath, it takes more and more and more to “re-establish” or “rehabilitate” your credibility. However, the more you have to resort to flowery oaths, the less credibility you have. The reader can truly see the “vicious cycle” in this passage.
The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.37. Just tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. There is no need for additional words. If you are trustworthy, those who hear you do not need the additional verbiage. If you are not trustworthy, all your extra words will be so much wasted breath. Your oaths won’t matter.
This section really does not need any further explication (and in Dr. Stassen’s article in JBL this section receives a brief treatment) but one issue does arise and since I have quite a bit of space left, I thought I would at least mention it.
Many people refer to this passage as a prohibition against taking any kind of legal oath. While it would be nice if such statements were not necessary, I do not believe that this section proscribes any state mandated oath of honesty. If it did, we would all be in a heap of big trouble. Just consider how many “oaths” are mandated today – the oath of a political office, the oath of jurors to uphold the law, the oath of peace officers to accurately enforce the law, the (written) oath we make to a lender for a loan or especially for a mortgage. In fact, if a person was to interpret this passage literally and not take any oath of any kind, either written or verbal, I simply do not see how this person could function in our society. Is this what Jesus is really saying?
No, at least not unless you want to place Jesus as one who violated his own law! In Matthew 26:63 the older translations read that the high priest (Caiaphas, if one goes back to v.57) says to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God.” (RSV) The newer translations help us out a little by placing the term in a more colloquial term, “By the living God I place you under oath…” (HCSB). The point is identical – the high priest places Jesus under a legal oath. He was required to answer, and he did. Unless you want to do some real fancy theological footwork, you either have Jesus breaking his own rule, or you have a situation where Jesus is forbidding frivolous promises and oaths, but not restricting legal “promises” or “assurances” that we will tell the truth or pay our bills.
Our legal courts have made a concession of sorts for those who dislike the term “swear” as in “swear and oath.” In the jury pools that I have been a part of, the “oath” we had to repeat was one of “promising” to judge fairly and by the limits of the law. The “swear” word was removed, but the effect was the same. If we violated our “oath” we could be held accountable by the very law we were promising to uphold.
This is really very simple. Tell the truth. The more tap-dancing you need to do to “prove” that you are telling the truth just demonstrates to people that you cannot be trusted. When you say “yes” mean it, and when you say “no” mean it. Anything else is of the evil one.
By the way – the picture in the right hand corner is there because Uncle Jed had one of the best lines I have ever heard about telling the truth. In one episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” Uncle Jed was called on to testify at a trial of some kind. He was “sworn in” by placing his hand on the Bible and made to swear that he would tell the truth. When asked if he would tell the truth, Uncle Jed said, “I make it a habit to always tell the truth, but now that I’ve put my hand on the good book, I’ll try double hard to tell the truth.”
Y’all come back, y’hear!
In this continuing study of what can arguably be called the most radical sermon in the Bible, we arrive at the blessing that is most directly attached to its antecedent – those who bestow mercy will receive mercy.
Now, at first blush there should be little to say about this – it appears to be one of the very few “self-explanatory” passages in the Bible. Nice people get treated nicely. Tit for tat. Put a quarter in, get a gum ball out. On a purely egoistic view of living in the world this would make perfect sense.
But, as I hope that I have demonstrated in this series so far, Jesus is bringing us to the edge. He is challenging our view of the status quo. He is challenging us to re-evaluate our priorities. He is talking about Kingdom behavior here, not politics. If we behave nicely only for the purpose of being treated nicely maybe we will have a nicer world, but we are still working on humanistic motivations. So, what is hidden here? Where is the challenge? What is the Kingdom value that confronts our humanistic, secular value?
The key, perhaps, can be found in a couple of other passages in Matthew. Matthew, I am totally convinced, was far more educated and a far more brilliant thinker than many of us have given him credit for. (Acts 4:13 does not mean that the apostles were stupid, back-water, red-neck hayseeds. What it means is that they were not “professionally” educated, in the sense of a school of a well-known Rabbi, competent to handle not only the law, but the volumes and volumes of commentary upon the law.) The gospel of Matthew reveals a deep thinker, and a systematic thinker, one who carefully and prayerfully constructed his story. (Note: I am in no way questioning Holy Spirit inspiration. But, you cannot do a study of the gospels and not realize the profound literary and thematic differences of the gospel writers. I do not believe in dictation inspiration, but I do very firmly believe in the Holy Spirit inspiration of the text.) So, anyway, let us return to Matthew and see if there are other passages which shine a light of understanding on Matthew 5:7.
I think those passages are found in Matthew 9:9-13 and 12:1-8, two “bookend” passages as it were that encompass an ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees. In both of those stories the key verse is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (9:13 and 12:7). In the first passage Jesus calls upon His Pharisee enemies to go and learn what the passage means. In the second, he chides His enemies and tells them that if they had done their homework and learned what the passage meant they would understand his mission. Now, here is where biblical interpretation, and therefore theology, gets to be so much fun. (At least for geeks like me.)
The passage that Jesus appears to be quoting is Hosea 6:6. But if you read the passage in Hosea in a formal or mostly formal translation you will not read what Jesus quoted. You will note that Hosea is quoting God as saying, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” The same concept can also be found in Micah 6:6-8, in which Micah quotes God as saying all he desires is “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” The Hebrew word here is chesed, almost always translated steadfast love or loving kindness. However, when the word was translated from the Hebrew into the Greek for the Greek speaking Jews, the word become eleos, meaning mercy. Now, we do not have the exact word that Jesus spoke here – he most probably was speaking to these Pharisees in Aramaic and not Greek. But, regardless, the word that Matthew chose (once again, lest I be misunderstood, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) was mercy.
So, did Jesus (or Matthew) change the meaning of the text? Why the change from steadfast love to mercy if Jesus really wanted to quote Hosea perfectly? Does the context of these two passages offer a clue?
In Matthew 9 the context is the calling of Matthew and the following meal. Jesus confronts the exclusivist behavior of the Pharisees by quoting a homey little proverb “those who have need of a physician are not the healthy but the sick” and then quoting Hosea. The context strongly favors our typical understanding of the word “mercy” – showing kindness to someone whether they deserve it or not. But, upon careful examination, a physician helping a sick person is not an act of “mercy.” It is his obligation. It is his job. It is something he is called to do, maybe based on his drive to help others, but still something that is expected of him. So, what is the “mercy” to which Jesus refers here?
In the second passage the immediate context involves the Pharisees’ complaint about the disciples’ violation of the Sabbath by plucking grain and eating it. Jesus responds with two Old Covenant examples of “legitimate” law breaking – David and the consecrated loaves and the priests “violating” the Sabbath law by making necessary sacrifices. Here, neither case that Jesus presented has anything to do with “mercy.” What they do encompass is obeying the will of God to its fullest extent. Both stories communicate steadfast devotion to God, and thus I believe we have the clue that unlocks the meaning of 9:13 and also of 5:7.
It is my understanding of the word “mercy” here that Jesus (and therefore Matthew) is drawing upon the greater meaning in Hosea and not just the limited meaning that we attach to the word. That is to say that meanings such as kindness, generosity and serving when others do not deserve our service are a part of the concept taught in Matthew 5:7, but the full meaning of the word is far, far bigger.
When you combine the passages in Hosea, Micah ( and others) with the later passages in Matthew, I truly believe Jesus is saying something like this: Blessed are those who are so utterly and totally focused on living out the full nature of God that everything they do reflects upon God’s faithful and enduring nature. Those who demonstrate their steadfast and immoveable love to God by steadfastly demonstrating God’s love, will, in return, receive the steadfast and immoveable love and kindness from God. Does that involve showing mercy? Absolutely. But does our 21st century understanding of mercy exhaust the concept of chesed and eleos? I don’t think so.
Many, many people can show mercy to others and not demonstrate any idea of serving God. There is a difference between feeding the poor and feeding the poor in the name of Christ. Both are good endeavors, and the hungry get fed. But it is only in the second that the steadfast love and mercy of God are glorified. The first points to the filling of an empty stomach. The second point toward the one who created both the stomach and the food – and to spiritual hunger and eternal blessing.
I really believe far, far too many people take Matthew 5:7 and secularize it and turn it into a command to go out and start a soup kitchen, or open a health clinic, or dig a well somewhere. Now, don’t misunderstand me – all those are good things. But if we are doing those things as a work of human righteousness, and we ignore the steadfast love and enduring forgiveness of God, then we are missing the point of Matthew 5:7. Jesus, and Matthew, is not just saying -”Go out and do something.” Jesus is saying, “In everything that you do, be so fully wrapped up in God that people will not see you – they will see only God and his love in you.” It is at that point that we will receive the love of God, even if, and in particular when, others turn against us.
When we get our minds wrapped around that, we will truly become a radical people.