by Berry Friesen
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