These past few weeks have flown by. It feels like just yesterday I was getting ready to go through orientation and here I sit, weeks later, knee deep in classes and midway through the 23rd Symposium. The “Theological Symposium” put on by Concordia Seminary is an event that happens every year, at least for the last 23, where people come together to think about and discuss a prudent topic. This year the theme is, “Doing Justice: The Church’s Faith In Action.”
A timely topic no doubt, but, perhaps inevitably, the conversation has vacillated between the poles of guarding against turning the Gospel into something purely social and the importance of recognizing the felt needs of our neighbors, the ones next door and the ones across the pond. The presenters have done a masterful job wading through the murky waters and have helped sketch the landscape we encounter daily. In an invaluable way they has reminded us, at least have reminded me, that, as one presenter Kathryn Galchutt, said, “Both justice and mercy begin at home, they just do not stay there.” But, as what tends to happen when we begin talking about something, the conversation has taken on a decided tone; one that, in my opinion, limits our understanding of justice.
Let me first say that I do not think this was intentional, nor do I think it is necessarily problematic, I am merely conveying what I have experienced this first day. The tone, for lack of a better word, has to do with justice being understood as meeting a felt need. Conversations, important and necessary conversations, have been held concerning how we help those who need to eat, who need a job, a home, and more help than perhaps any single person can provide. Additionally, we have been reminded of our complacency and complicit role in systemic evil. All of this important, but in the end, all of it limits the scope of justice to a single idea, aid. A need exists for whatever reason, justice invokes the necessary methodology through which that need is met, and that reason is eradicated.
Several times throughout the day I have been reminded of Gustaf Wingren and his notion that, “God does not need our works but our neighbor does.” As a church body we have admittedly had a history of being quietistic, for good or bad, when it comes to issues of justice. The obvious examples of the times we have become vocal need not be mentioned. Suffice it to say, we know how to take a stand sometimes we just prefer not to, unless, of course, the Gospel is at stake. This too is extremely important. We do not want to cheapen, imbrue, or lose that which has been gifted to us. We protect it at all costs and sometimes that leads us down roads most, inside and outside our circles, just do not understand. But Wingren, and indeed this entire symposium, calls us to remember that there are physical and spiritual needs that must be met. While the church’s unique responsibility is unburdening the conscience, it is not her only responsibility.
But thinking of justice, I wonder if, as I alluded to earlier, we are defining it too narrowly. We are, for better or worse, tying up justice with materialistic concerns which are of vital importance.Whether it is the inexhaustible work of LWR to aid and develop or the work of congregations who care for illegal immigrants or those who have nothing, we are working with a concept of justice that inadvertently glosses over emotions. Certainly our discussions on dignity and human worth have hinted at this but they too have ended with or moved toward the idea that we should actually meet the physical need of a person. But what about the injustice that exists within families? The son who feels like a second class citizen. The wife who doesn’t recognize the person she married. The bread winner who works to provide yet feels invisible. These too, as Bernhard Seter would say, fall under the category of, “I may not be able to define justice or injustice, but I know it when I see it.”
And we Lutherans have always had a way of dealing with these or any other theological tensions, we simply label them a paradox and continue one with life. Our theological presuppositions are rife with paradox, saint and sinner, now and not yet, etc. Even today I am reminded that there is again this tension between unburdening the conscience and filling the stomach. But I wonder if we run to that fire escape a little too often. It is easier to chalk it up to paradox than risk everything by facing the fire head on. Our theology is something we can hide behind all too easily and in doing so, betray the principle that allows us the freedom to live and think as Lutherans, because paradox isn’t an excuse, its a weapon.
We live in a world that isn’t fair. Being born in America is more of a privilege than we will ever know. Getting an education is a privilege all to often understood as a burden. As one presenter put it, “Being born in America is like winning the lottery of life.” Yet we still murder, rape, and exploit our neighbors. We still look to our own interests. We still turn way the beggar and toward that which we don’t need but can afford. And despite this reality, we live. We care for one another. We volunteer to tutor, we create programs that teach people how to care for themselves and their families, physically and spiritually. We look the beggar in the eye and give him the dignity befitting a human being. And the only way that can make sense is through a word like paradox. It is a both/and, it always will be.
That is of course until all is made new. While Christ’s death and resurrection have secured the future of all creation, the benefits are waiting in escrow. And until that day when we together with all creatures are made new we live a life with the recognition that life is up and down all at the same time. Rather than letting the realization that, to play on Christ’s words, we will always have the poor, destitute, and hurting whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual with us always paralyze us into quietism, we can enter into life unafraid with an unswerving confidence in the future. Because while today thousands will die, one day Christ will return and put all things in order. While we live with evil and good today, tomorrow will know only joy. While we live with, and will always live with injustice this side of Christ’s return, on the other side there is nothing but justice. The justice of pardon brought forth by His blood. The justice that levels the playing field, restoring all things to their proper place. The justice of the cross and empty tomb. The justice that can only come when He comes again.