Monday, October 18, 2010

Finding Justice in the Bible

Recently, we began a conversation at Hope Reformed Church regarding justice. Turning through the pages of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, we sought to find a definition of justice that was theological rather ideological; a definition that was faithful to God's hope for the world. As a pastor I learned a lot in the time it took to study and put the outlines together. These posts will serve not only as a reference for the congregation, but as a reference for me. I hope to summarize over various posts what was covered in the class. The Bible was my main source, but here are some others that were especially helpful:

Old Testament - THE LIBERATING IMAGE, by J. Richard Middleton; THE PROPHETS, by Abraham J. Heschel; THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, by Walter Brueggemann.

New Testament - ENGAGING THE POWERS, by Walter Wink; THE WORD ON THE STREET, by Stanley Saunders & Charles Campbell; CALVIN'S FIRST CATECHISM, by I. John Hesselink; THE UNAFFORDABLE NATION, by Jeffrey D. Jones

It's always helpful to begin any conversation about "what the Bible says about..." at the beginning of the Bible. The conversation concerning justice is no different. In fact, much of what the Bible means about justice is rooted in creation and, more specifically, in the image of God. At Genesis 1:26-28, we find God saying, "‘Let us make humankind in our image…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.’ Whatever the image of God is, it is applied only to human beings in a way that sets them apart from the rest of creation. There are very few references in the rest of the Hebrew Bible that offer much more help to understanding what God means and how it informs justice.

The next reference is in Genesis 5:1-2 where the descendants of Adam are being introduced. “When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them.” We find repeated here a connection of the image to “male and female.” It could be said that the image has something to do with the interaction of both genders (more on this later). A further reference is found in Genesis 9:6-7, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” As in Genesis 1, this passage highlights God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” offering further clues as to what it might mean to say that humans are made in the image of God. The context of this verse is important in understanding more of its meaning, but we’ll return to that later as well.

Another reference in the Hebrew Bible is found in Psalm 8 where the Psalmists speaks of God making humanity “a little lower than the gods,” crowning them with “glory and honor,” and giving them “dominion.” We find here a very high view of humanity and, as in Genesis 1, the notion that God has given humans dominion over the animals of the land and sea. So, from these few references we have some clues as to what it means to be made in the image of God. First, it is somehow connected to “male and female.” Second, the image of God is related to the command “be fruitful and multiply.” Finally, the image of God sets humanity apart from creation and gives them “dominion.” The Christian tradition has done much with the image of God, but not all of it has been helpful.

More often than not, the image of God has been taken to mean that we share some sort of substance or inner quality with God. Whether it be conscience, reason, immortality, or a soul, many Christians have offered this possibility. St. Augustine, for example, considered God in Trinitarian form and related the human capacities for memory, intellect, and will to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Helpful as these ideas are, many of them are overly influenced by philosophy and take little consideration of the Bible itself. Many of them also neglect the role that our bodies play in the image of God. Beginning with the Reformation, some theologians began considering the image as human behavior or as our capacity for relationship. Still, while more faithful to our bodies, they still lack connection to the creation story itself.

In his book THE LIBERATING IMAGE, J. Richard Middleton, defines the image of God as designating “the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.” In other words, the image of God has to do with our function here on earth, the reason that God has placed us in this creation. If God created the world by ordering the chaos and bringing forth beauty on the earth, we are called to join him by continuing that creation. It turns out that God has put us here, “male and female”, to act as his representatives by “being fruitful and multiplying” in the earth, to have “dominion” by bringing order and beauty to the earth. When compared with competing notions of humanity’s place in the world it turns out to be a revolutionary revelation of justice. But that’s for another post.

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