Structural Injustice and Why Christians are the Obvious Candidates to Help

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I received an email from our school superintendent the other day that read: “I am deeply saddened to report the passing of Dontrae Henning, a beloved member of the class of 2010. Dontrae was killed by gun violence while sitting in a car on Monday night.”

Now, very little is known about the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. But at intense moments like this, people understandably want to ask, “Whose fault was this?”

Traditional liberalism tends to say “It’s the corrupt system’s fault.” Traditional conservatism tends to say “It’s the broken family’s fault.” In other words, everyone always thinks it’s someone else’s fault. While there certainly is blame, I’m fairly confidant that sitting around and assigning blame is unproductive. What I do know is that, like every other 17 or 18 year-old, I made many foolish choices by that point in my life too. And yet I never once felt as though any of those foolish choices would lead to me sitting in a car one night and getting my life taken. What that means is that I was afforded a level of grace by God – a grace of safe living conditions, grace of a loving family unit, grace of a Christian upbringing, grace of quality education and abundant life opportunities – graces that many others are simply not afforded, at least to the same degree.

Now I have no reason to feel guilty about the blessings I received. But it’d also be inappropriate to fail to recognize those blessings for what they were, GRACE. The spiritual blindness of the human condition leads us to take more credit than we deserve. This is the reason why everyone who wins an award first remarks, “I worked really hard.” While they may have worked hard, it’s dismissive of the efforts of others to say you won simply because you worked the hardest. It ignores good fortune and positive circumstances. It ignores God’s interventions. Put differently, the Christian response to blessing would NOT be to say, “I earned this,” nor to throw my hands up and say, “I guess I got lucky!” Instead, the reborn response to good fortune would be to ask, “How do I bless others with the grace afforded me?”

So, for instance, in Milwaukee, we have thousands of kids who by the age of 17 or 18 have almost no marketable skills. They have almost no trajectory of healthy social productivity. Author Matthew Desmond did a remarkable job laying this out in his best-selling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Make no mistake, this is a Christian responsibility. Why is social brokenness a Christian responsibility, you ask? Everyone has gods, but Christians are the only ones with a God of grace. Consequently, Christians are the only ones who can who have the resource of grace themselves to apply grace, undeserved love.

Yes, secular people can throw money at stuff. Yes, secular people can demonstrate social activism. But only someone who has received Jesus Christ’s life for theirs, gifting them eternal life in paradise, will have the resource to say, “Okay, now my life for yours. I’m willing to be hurt in order to help bring your hurting to an end.” On the other hand, if you believe this life is all there is and that the highest goal of this life is your own personal comfort (the highest pursuit of the modern western person), you will never live like that.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of structural injustice I’ve ever heard was presented in Divided by Faith, written by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. They create a parable in the book that goes something like this: There are two guys, Guy A and Guy B, who both need to lose some weight. They both decide to go to a summer camp to lose weight. But let’s say at Guy A’s summer camp everyone is fit. Everyone encourages you to lose weight. All the stores are health food. And all the gyms are inexpensive and popular. Now, let’s say at Guy B’s summer camp the only place to get food is McDonald’s. The one gym there is lousy and super expensive and you have to wait in lines to use machines. And finally, most of the people there are pretty out-of-shape. Now, of course there are still some important individual choices to be made and personal ownership of those decisions. It’s still certainly possible for Guy B to lose weight through discipline and willpower. But you cannot deny that it’s going to be more difficult for Guy B to lose weight at his camp than Guy A. That’s structural inequality.

blog - injustice 1Now the reason God doesn’t just give everyone a basket with an equal amount of goods in it to provide for needs is because he doesn’t desire for us to be merely dependent upon him, but also interdependent upon one another. So, he might put two sets of goods in my basket and none in another, because he wants me to share with the one who has none. In that case, we’re not only both provided for, but we’ve built relationship together. And if you’re so bold as to think that God cares little about structural injustice, that anyone who encourages Christian humanitarian efforts is merely practicing a social gospel, I’d encourage you to re-read Jesus’ haunting warning in Matthew 25:31-46. On the Day of Judgment, Christ says the litmus test for true orthodoxy will not merely be accurate doctrinal confession (i.e. “Lord”), but active social compassion.

The reality with structural injustice is that you don’t have to be an overt racist or classist to perpetuate a system that favors some ahead of others. You can participate non-consciously, which is probably most participation. We rarely recognize clear advantages when we’re the one receiving those advantages.

So, to overturn social injustice, you must have two things: 1) Someone must call your attention to social injustice; 2) You must have a compelling reason to change, even inconvenience yourself along the way.

I think it’s worth noting that in the history of believers, despite clear warnings, God’s people have occasionally been completely unmotivated to enact social justice…with painful results.

The prophet Amos’ chief mission in his 8th century Northern Kingdom ministry was to call the wealthy Israelite elite to repentance over their structural injustices. Assyria and Egypt, the understood powers of the day, had become weakened for various reasons. This enabled Israel to overtake important trade routes, resulting in a rapid influx of cash into the empire. But the financial impact was only seen by the professional class, not the working class, which created a greater class disparity. Sound familiar?

The most obvious demonstration that the nation was becoming corrupted by this wealth was the injustices taking place in the court system. Bribes were commonplace. And the victims of a system like that, almost invariably, were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, and the poor (Zech. 7:10). By profiting off the poor, the wealthy were building their dream houses. God called them to repentance through Amos, but when they didn’t, he finally came down and said, Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” (Amos 5:11-12) The God who positions the stars in the sky, changes the seasons, causes the rains, etc. (Amos. 5:8), he’s the one that will have final say on wealth distribution, since it all belongs to him and he controls it anyways.

So our simple filter when it comes to making life decisions and managing blessings is this: Does this honor God? Is this me first or is this you first? The reason any structural injustice takes place is because you have a bunch of people who collectively, defying God, are saying, “Me first.”

Where are you at on this? I’ll be honest with you, there’s a strong part of me that has become convicted that if, for instance, I was born and raised in the 53206 zip code, there’s more than a small chance that I’d probably be in jail right now. In other words, if you put my exact same disposition and spirit into a young man in a geographic area and cultural circumstance of high violence, poor economics, poor education, family dysfunction, and social injustice, he might very well end up in jail. What that means is I was shown some grace and blessing in circumstances. And what that then means is that with the choices and management opportunities I’m given in life, I need to bless others.

Why? Not to earn my salvation, but because by grace I’ve already been blessed with salvation. Rather, here’s your motivation for social healing: Jesus is the one who was literally on the inside of God, safe and secure inside the Trinity, but voluntarily left that comfort to come to earth and be unjustly banished outside of the holy city. Worse yet, Jesus was brutally pushed out of God’s love upon the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46) But he willingly and graciously did it so that we who deserve to be cast outside for our injustices would instead be forever welcomed inside God’s family. To the degree I recognize that I am the beneficiary of his injustice, I will become a healer of injustice myself.

God now opens our eyes to injustice and to the outcasts (the victims of injustice). Don’t wait till you “feel led” to get involved. I think for many years I believed you had to feel compelled to do the things that were right in God’s sight or it would somehow be disingenuous. I’ve since learned that’s just not the way Christian maturity tends to work. Instead, a Christian walks by faith and does what is right in God’s sight, watches God work through him, and that generates the appropriate feelings.

As the Christian Church in the west continues to wane, I’m led to think that the believing communities that will last are those who best carry out fully what Jesus designed his church to be: His voice of truth, yes, but, no less, his hands and feet of compassion.

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The Christian Need to Embrace Those Different From You

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That which is different is scary. But in most cases, it’s not bad. It’s just different.

I was reminded of this when preaching on the account of the interaction between Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and Peter, the disciple and leader of the early church. All of Acts 10 is the narrative of the two being brought together by God.

Cornelius is a “God-fearer,” which is a specific New Testament technical term for a Gentile who came to believe that the God of the Jews was, in fact, the one true God, but who did not fully adopt the Jewish culture. In Acts 10, God gives Cornelius a vision to send for Peter. And God also gives Peter a vision about a wild, “unclean” buffet of animals that God wants Peter to kill and eat. Peter, always one to tell God how to do his job, responds that he would NEVER do such a horrible thing as defile himself by eating unclean meat (Acts 10:14). God then plays the trump card and says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Peter goes downstairs and Cornelius’ messengers show up, so Peter goes to visit Cornelius. When Peter arrives and learns the faithfulness of Cornelius and the other God-fearers there, marked especially by the obvious outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44), he says, I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)

By saying, “I now realize,” somewhat surprisingly, Peter is suggesting that prior to this occasion, he didn’t understand that God didn’t show favoritism. In other words, before Peter witnessed a faithful, God-Fearing Gentile in action, he was inclined to believe that God was much more likely to accept some people over others based on their culture. In fact, elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Gal. 2), we learn that Peter had some latent, underlying racism – a Jewish cultural superiority complex – that God was trying to get him over.

In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit is trying to convince us then that, by nature, we struggle with the exact same problem Peter did. But we rarely realize it. Peter had no idea he was a racist until he stepped foot into the house and life of someone different from him. It’s not like Cornelius was a hardened criminal. He was a Roman centurion. Consider him something similar to the CEO of a company of a hundred employees. He’s successful, he’s highly moral, and he’s socially compassionate. The only problem is…he’s different from Peter. And different is scary, confusing, and sometimes frustrating to fallen humanity.

What Does This Mean?

I think there are several very practical lessons here about embracing a culture different from yours for the sake of the gospel. So, let me offer 3 encouragements:

Embrace someone different from you with the gospel because…

  1. Our World is Changing Demographically

Most projections over the past decade are suggesting that by the year 2050, the white population in the U.S. will become a minority (in the sense that the American population will consist of less than 50% white people). If you are like me and belong to a church body with a Lutheran theological tradition, you are at the bottom of ethnic diversity in American religion. Please understand that I’m not suggesting a church or church body should become more diverse merely for the purpose of surviving, but as white birth rates continue to drop, it is going to become exceedingly difficult for predominantly white churches to maintain numbers.

This isn’t completely unlike what was seen in the Early Christian Church. Justo Gonzalez does a great job explaining in The Story of Christianity that the church, in its infancy, existed purely of converted Jews. Gentiles didn’t start making up the majority of the church until the 2nd century. At the outset you had almost exclusively Jewish converts. But within that group of converts you had two subdivisions – the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The Hebrews maintained a rigid loyalty to Jewish customs. The Hellenists were Jews who were open to embracing Greek culture like the rest of the Roman Empire, without embracing the immorality that often pervaded the culture.

Not surprisingly, the Hellenist churches were significantly more successful at eventually converting the Gentiles, because they didn’t put cultural obstacles in the way of coming to Christ.

The basic lesson here is that it’s wise not to add culture to Christian faith.

Second, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…

2) It Fights Against Self-Righteousness

Evangelizing to people culturally different from you (which is essentially ALL evangelism), is beneficial not only for those whom you witness to, but it’s also a way by which God continues to shape you. The reason for that is because when you see someone culturally different from you demonstrate faith in Jesus, it helps clarify what the gospel is NOT. The gospel is not a language or a musical style or a haircut or a skin color. Islam certainly is. You cannot truly practice the Muslim faith without knowing the Quran in Arabic. But Christianity has no manmade defined culture. Rather, it infuses manmade culture with grace.

Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 7.58.31 AMWhy is it so important for us to learn this? Because every sinful human heart (Peter, the Jews, and us too) unwittingly create manmade categories that we easily fit into as requirements for being “good” believers. The reason we do this is because human hearts are naturally resistant to Jesus Christ alone as our Savior (Rom. 8:7). So, if we make our own categories that put us closer to God apart from Christ, i.e. self-righteousness, we are then taking some credit for our salvation.

The benefit to you of embracing a culture different from yours with the gospel is that you then discover what biases and gospel distortions you formerly didn’t realize you had. Say, for instance, you grew up in a church where everyone wore the same style of clothes, had the same basic haircut, preferred the same type of music, and liked the same forms of entertainment. In all likelihood, you’d subconsciously develop a belief that some of those neutral things were “right” (or “righter”) than other neutral forms. You might even passionately defend that some of those neutral things are better than others. But God would say something to the effect of “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Consequently, when you encounter another Christian who preferred worshipping with a different style of music or wore a different style of clothes, who was just as much a Christian as you, it would confuse you a bit at first, but clarify the gospel for you. You’d realize you were likely adding manmade categories in the past and be compelled to repent of adding to Scripture (Mark 7:6-8; Rev. 22:18-19).

The basic lesson is that it’s theologically accurate to not add manmade culture to Christian faith.

Finally, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…

3) It Images Christ

What was the work of Jesus Christ? The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that a holy God who was completely unlike us came to live with us. He had everything in common with God, but he came to hang out with man. He was rejected because he was misunderstood. He was despised because he hung out with losers. And then he was killed under the worst culturally preferred torment the Romans had, crucifixion. Why? Jesus embraced you who were different from him because he loved you undeservedly, unreasonably, and recklessly. He walked into our house so that we could live forever in his. To the degree that we understand that, we will walk into the lives of people different than us with undeserved love as well.

Jesus didn’t just cross cultural borders, he crossed over from heaven to earth. But because he did, you have forgiveness for any cultural elitism, you have hope for a perfect future society of love and equality that you can start working towards today, and you have a clear path and model to serving others with the gospel.

Cross earthly cultural borders with the gospel and anticipate the Spirit coming down (Acts 10:44).