No Great Escape

by Berry Friesen

Berry f

In December, John K. Stoner and I published our survey of the Bible, If Not Empire, What?  It reflects decades of studying the Bible individually and in various group settings in and around Mennonite congregations.  As the title suggests, we pay special attention to what biblical texts say about empire and the imperial worldview.

But by proceeding book-by-book and sticking close to each of the texts, we let the emphasis of each author emerge.  And across the Bible’s 67 books, no emphasis is more prominent than justice-and-righteousness.

This may strike some readers as unremarkable.  Yet increasingly, Christianity is dominated by perspectives that elevate other understandings of the Bible.  To be specific, some emphasize our metaphysical estrangement from God and the urgency of bridging that abyss before death and our passage into eternal bliss or suffering.  Others emphasize the transcending quality of God’s love and the bliss to be found by turning now toward God’s inescapable embrace.

Among most biblical writers, however, the preoccupation was justice-and-righteousness and how to achieve it.  I use that hyphenated phrase because there is no one word in English that conveys the full meaning of the Hebrew and Greek terms.  The heart of the meaning is a right standing with God and right relationships between people, producing a society in which justice is done.

The imperial way of pursuing justice-and-righteousness was pre-eminent during the four centuries of the kings and remained important throughout the Second Temple era.  But the prophets spoke of another way; Jesus picked up their refrain, then elevated and amplified it from a Roman cross.  This other way did not deprioritize justice-and-righteousness; instead, it powerfully demonstrated another way of pursuing it.

As we know, talking about justice-and-righteousness is divisive.  We disagree about what it means, and if we desire peace and tranquility, we find it tempting to stop talking about justice-and-righteousness entirely.   Yet justice-and-righteousness is prominent from one end of the Bible to the other, including the words and life of Jesus.  Decisively, what we see in the early Jesus-following assemblies are attempts to integrate justice-and-righteousness with the way Jesus pursued it:  without state power and top-down coercion, without violence or control, without the pretense that it is no longer important because Jesus has changed the subject and arranged a great escape.

No, Jesus did not change the subject.  And he did not give us an escape from the struggle and conflict. Instead, he gave us another kind of power with which to seek justice-and-righteousness, a costly but sustainable way, a way that does not impose justice-and-righteousness and does not create endless victims.

In our time, we often hear encouragement to lighten up, chill and live a balanced and tranquil life; all will be well.  Part of what I discovered in working on this book is how gently but firmly 1 John responds to such talk.   Earthly experiences–what we hear, what we touch, what we do–are important. Sin is harmful and must be addressed. Love is strong and must be practiced. The commands of God are beneficial and must be followed.

In other words, Jesus has not saved us from the struggle; he has given us another way to be part of it.

Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city.  He blogs at www.bible-and-empire.net

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2 responses to “No Great Escape

  1. As I read this post, you seem to be contrasting the approach of Jesus and the prophets, centered on justice-and-righteousness, with those who “emphasize the transcending quality of God’s love and the bliss to be found by turning now toward God’s inescapable embrace.” The latter you speak of as “the pretense that it [justice-and-righteousness] is no longer important because Jesus has changed the subject and arranged a great escape.” What I hear in this (whether rightly or not) is that the current turn toward inward or contemplative spirituality is in opposition to the way of Jesus, the way of justice-and-righteousness.

    You say rightly that “Jesus did not change the subject. And he did not give us an escape from the struggle and conflict. . . . Jesus has not saved us from the struggle; he has given us another way to be part of it.” But I would say that part of his way is that very work of “turning now toward God’s inescapable embrace,” the work of the inner life. If all our work for justice-and-righteousness is outward, is a matter of practical activity in a world of action, without attending to the presence of God within each of us (the image of God in which we were created), I fear that it too will fall short of Jesus’ full intent.

    Jesus located God’s first commandment in the Deuteronomy text “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and the second in the Leviticus text “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The contemplative movement is an attempt to live out the first of these; if it is done without working at justice-and-righteousness, it will fail, for God’s love inside must flow toward justice-and-righteousness outside. Attempts to live out the second commandment without nurturing our relationship of love with God, without seeking that “inescapable embrace,” can run dry, since our justice-and-righteousness-seeking love for our neighbors must flow from an inner source, the love that is the image of God within us (because God is love, as 1 John says).

    “We love because God first loved us,” as 1 John also states. On this day, the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton, contemplative and activist for peace-and-justice-and-righteousness, I celebrate the renewal of contemplative Christianity, not as an escape from the struggle, but as the struggle which grounds the justice-and-righteousness struggle and makes it both possible and necessary.

  2. David R., yes, an emphasis on “inward or contemplative spirituality is in opposition to the way of Jesus” when it assumes becoming a peaceful self is somehow primary or necessary before we engage in the struggle for justice-and-righteousness. And that assumption can easily take hold when (as is often the case) the context in which a contemplative spirituality is taught gives little time to justice-and-righteousness, but exhibits much pride in the development of a self that is exemplary and praiseworthy for its tranquility, balance and detachment from all the emotions that roil passionate people.

    I do not perceive that assumption in your comment and I take your point that a contemplative spirituality is a necessary part of the struggle for justice-and-righteousness, a part that “makes it both possible and necessary.” Thank you for helping to fill in the bigger picture.

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