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The Deacon’s Role in Seeking Biblical Justice*

“Our Judaic and Christian heritage neither denies nor overlooks the flaws of humankind…but in the face of all the empirical evidence, it nonetheless declares that all of us have great and equal worth: the worth of being made in the image of God and being loved redemptively by God. It adds that God holds us accountable for how we treat each other and for how we treat God. It is that framework of conviction that gave rise to our moral subculture of rights. If this framework erodes, I think we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we slide back into our tribalisms.”

This is how Nicholas Wolterstorff concludes his 2008 book Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

Justice respects the image of God in us, in each other, and in His creation.

Deacons are called to prevent the church from sliding into the tribalism that Wolterstorff describes. Often today using the term “justice” begs that it be defined in order to avoid partisanship. As deacons, charged with a mandate that includes, “be prophetic critics of the waste, injustice, and selfishness in our society, and be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evils,” how do we treat with sensitivity the calling to do justice? The Network has a host of resources that will help (search “justice” to get started).

When wrestling with defining “justice” for our context, a diaconate might consider watching this webinar presentation called, Atonement Confusion: How A Wider View of Atonement Can Lead To A Deeper Sense Of Mission. It places our justice role in that wider context of our mission.

It concludes with this quote from Daniel Bell, “Justice for Christians is not a strict rendering of what is due. Justice is that which restores and renews communion. Its name is Jesus….We are stuck in our sin, and the good news is that Jesus is the justice of God—Jesus reconciles, Jesus restores communion, Jesus restores creation. Therefore doing justice, if it is true justice, must confess Jesus. Similarly to be ‘in Christ’ is to be justified which is to make just and to be just is to seek and do justice.”

Another helpful definition comes from a Network pdf file called “Biblical Justice,” developed in response to the 2017 Synod request that churches annually have a service focusing on the role justice plays in all aspects of living out our faith.

It defines justice as follows, “We understand biblical justice best when we see it in context of the biblical story. We know from the Creation account that God’s intention for the whole Creation was (is) to experience shalom, that rich Hebrew idea of well-being and flourishing. Imprinted with God’s wisdom (Proverbs 8), the creation was formed with the potential to unfold and develop in ways that would promote life, offering glory to God, and joy, beauty, and prosperity to all.

“Made in God’s image (Genesis 1, 2; Psalm 8), human beings were given responsibility to preside over the subsequent unfolding of creation in history, to use their powers of knowledge and will to enable all the various dimensions of creation to unfold according to their calling. Human beings were created to be in right relationships to God, to one another (in the multiple dimensions of governance, marriage, economy and more), and to the whole of non-human creation as stewards of creational treasures. Their God-given powers were to be bent toward loving service of “the other.” The human calling is to be faithful toward that task. The blessing of God on such faithful service is shalom.”

The Reformed tradition has long called for our justice focus to be linked to that of the Old Testament concept of shalom. In his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace (71-72), Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it as follows, “I said that justice, the enjoyment of one’s rights, is indispensable to shalom. That is because shalom is an ethical community. If individuals are not granted what is due them, if their claim on others is not acknowledged by those others, if others do not carry out their obligations to them, then shalom is wounded. That is so even if there are no feelings of hostility between them and the others. Shalom cannot be secured in an unjust situation by managing to get all concerned to feel content with their lot in life.”

“But the right relationships that lie at the basis of shalom involve more than right relationships to other human beings. They involve right relationships to God, to nature, and to oneself as well. Hence, shalom is more than an ethical community. Shalom is the responsible community in which God’s laws for the multifaceted existence of his creatures are obeyed.”

“Shalom goes beyond even the responsible community. We may all have acted responsibly and yet shalom may be wounded, for delight may be missing…Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives has a dimension of a divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for.”

If as deacons we accept our justice role as one of ushering in the shalom of God in ever increasing levels, how then do we implement this task?

Some churches have not yet considered, or have avoided altogether, considering how to carry out this calling to do justice. Others have responded with advocacy approaches that resonate with some or most of their membership. Regardless of what point your church finds itself, deacons are called to introduce or to further encourage congregations in this work—to bring the church into a dialogue about justice and to challenge members to live out the implications of the reconciliation work that justice and shalom calls for.

In a subsequent post, we will look at practical ways that congregations who are at various levels of engagement can begin to more deeply live into their justice calling.

Here are some additional resources:

* This post was written by Andrew Ryskamp and appeared on the CRC website, The Network, on March 5, 2019. You can read the original post on The Network here