Monday, July 25, 2011

What is "social justice"? Some thoughts from my friends

Someone asked me recently for a definition of "social justice". I actually found it hard to answer her question, and so I asked some friends to help me. Here are suggestions from them. I think they are insightful.

"One of the first things that comes to my mind is that it isn't about issues, but about the breaking through of God's justice into a social/communal/corporate setting, as opposed to remaining an element of personal salvation."

"Social Justice is about seeking God's perspective on social issues and working for change so that our world (and the issues we face) look more and more like God's will."

"I would say that social justice is the setting right of all relationships in the world."

"Social justice is an expression of God's love, about the last being first and the first being last. It is about the breaking in of God's kingdom on earth."

"I also see social justice inseparably linked to hope. While it is the breaking in of God's kingdom on earth, it also anticipates the future new creation, when there will be no more tears and no more pain and the old order of things has passed away. Social justice is God's order of things, it is the restoration of creation, it is transformation, and therefore it is inherently part of salvation."

"I would prefer to talk about transformation, which includes things like social justice, personal transformation of the human heart (from selfishness to self-giving, from harbouring personal resentments to having an attitude of forgiveness etc) and care for the earth."

As for me, I think one reason why it's hard to define "social justice" is that the Bible does not have the word “social justice”. Instead, the New Testament uses the word dikaiosunÄ“, which refers to a range of notions including righteousness and justice. It seems to me that justice, according to the biblical worldview, does not separate social justice and the justice of God. The Bible speaks of a God who is righteous, justice, loving and always faithful to his covenant with his people. And this God wants his people to do what is right, just and loving; and they are to do so not only as individuals but also communally in their inter-personal relationships. Indeed, God wants us to act justice, show mercy and walk humbly with him in all spheres of life.

Ultimately, if we understand that our Christian life is about following Christ and his self-giving way of life, then walking humbly with God is about living out a cross-shaped life as disciples of Jesus.

If we understand justice from a biblical perspective, then what we call “social justice” is in fact an integral part of discipleship. It is about how we may be faithful people of God.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on cheap grace and costly grace

It seems that everyone is talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the moment. Here are a few famous Bonhoeffer quotes I've found on the Internet.

On cheap grace

"Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God." (emphasis added)

"Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before."

"Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On costly grace

"Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has... It is the kingly rule of Christ,..., it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."

"Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'ye were bought at a price,' and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."

"Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a world of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some thoughts on mission (especially cross-cultural mission) - Part 1

Recently I have been thinking about my own view of mission. There are many who know much more than I, and so I don't think the following is new. But I feel that I need to formulate my view on mission in light of the Scripture and experience. Here are some initial thoughts.

Much can be said here. But I will only mention the fact that Paul - the Jewish Christian - is an apostle to the Gentiles. In Romans we find that Paul envisions a Jew-Gentile love-centred community that seeks to follow Jesus. This community is in Christ through Jesus' atoning sacrifice, and seeks to embody Christ's self-giving life through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul sees this as God's saving purpose and his role is to proclaim this good news ("good news" is of course the meaning of the Greek word for "gospel") - first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles.

Christ's identification with humanity
The New Testament speaks of a God who sent his Son to our world. It talks about Christ's participation in frail humanity and suffered death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (not least in Romans 8:3-4). There is a strong sense in which the followers of Jesus are to follow his way of self-giving life. The mission of God consists in him sending his Son to our world to accomplish his saving purpose. The vocation of his followers is to participate in his saving purpose by embodying Christ's way of life. In the context of cross-cultural mission, the messengers of the good news will do well if they enter the culture of their audience, live among them and remain there long-term, learn their language and participate in their sorrow and joy. Through this participatory approach, God's heralds of the gospel reflect God's character and love through their deeds and words. Through God's Spirit the gospel is proclaimed through his Presence in the Christ-followers.

Not everyone is called to engage in long-term cross-cultural mission. But we are all called to participate in God's saving purpose by embodying Christ's self-giving way of life in our own contexts and through our solidarity with those who engage in long-term cross-cultural mission.

(Click here for Part 2 on my thoughts on mission)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gordon Fee on Revelation 20:1-6 - "the thousand years"

Every now and then people would ask me about what the "thousand years" mean in Revelation 20:1-6. Here I will cite a few comments from Gordon Fee's commentary (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011) to help us answer that. But first, here the NIV2011 version of the passage:

"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And 

I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.  (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years."

Here are excerpts from Gordon Fee's commentary on Revelation.

"[T]he two paragraphs, both of which begin yet again with the verb 'I saw,' are best understood together as an interlude between the divine overthrow of the unholy triumvirate (Satan, the Empire, the cult of the emperor) delineated in the preceding section (19:11-21), and the final judgement of all evil, both demonic and human, in 20:7-15. Again, as throughout, judgment itself is not the last word. So the book concludes in turn with 'a new heaven and a new earth' (21:1-8), and a 'new Jerusalem' (21:2, 9-26), which evolves into a restored Eden (22:1-5)!" (page 280)

As to the question of what is the role of this passage to the narrative as a whole, Fee says,

"[S]ince Jewish apocalypses (after Daniel) regularly have such a moment in them, although this is the only instance of 'a thousand years' as such. Millennial ideas, for example, can be found in 2 Baruch 29-30 and the Psalms of Solomon 17; but neither of these specify a thousand-year time period, rather they look forward to a time of messianic bliss on earth. However, in neither of these cases is there also a final 'heavenly' existence as well. Thus, whatever millennial ideas may have preceded John, the present passage is remarkably his own, and has specifically to do with the special place Christian martyrs have in the divine economy." (page 282)

What then is the meaning of "after that, he must be set free for a short time" in Rev 20:3?

"[It] is mostly likely related to ... that John's major concern here is not with time as such, but with the special place God has reserved for those who have been killed by the state simply because they were followers of the once slain, now risen Lamb. In any case, John's obvious concern lies with the second paragraph (vv. 4-6), and thus not with the time period as such. The picture itself is ultimately about the role of the martyrs during the thousand-year period. And even though there is no specific geographical location given, John seems clearly to have planet earth still in view. This is made certain by the language about 'the nations' in verse 3 and the picture of the resurrected martyrs 'reigning' with Christ, plus the reality that it is literally sandwiched between the Last Battle in 19:11-21 and the release of Satan to 'deceive the nations' in 20:7-10." (page 282)

Here are some Fee's conclusion remarks on Rev 20:1-6.

"So John's apparent intent here is not to say something about them [ie. the martyrs], but to make sure that the reader recognizes that what is true for all believers is true for them in particular. That is, since all of God's redeemed people will experience the first resurrection, it is therefore also true that all of God's people are thereby 'blessed and holy' and will not experience the 'second death.' This, however, is especially true of the martyrs, about whom John then concludes, they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. Here again the reader can hardly miss the high Christology, in which the Father and Son are once more brought together at the Eschaton. What is noteworthy in this case is that the final pronoun 'him' is singular, therefore referring to Christ alone. Thus believers will serve as a kind of eternal priesthood before God and Christ, but the special privilege of the martyrs is that they 'reign' with Christ (alone) for the thousand-year period allotted especially to them. After all, according to the preceding sentence this privilege does not include 'the rest of the dead.'" (page 284)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My new article: The gulf between us and the poor

ETHOS at the Australian Evangelical Alliance has published my article entitled The Gulf Between Us and the Poor.

Here is the heading provided by their editor.

"The gulf between the rich and the poor is not simply an economical one. While the poor do not have moral superiority over the rich, and at least in theory our material affluence should not adversely affect our ability to understand the Bible, is our wealth a hindrance that stops us from fully understanding the plight of the poor and the Scripture?"

There is a great cartoon in the article. Have a look!

Click here for the full article.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reflection: Two recent movies, discipleship, justice for the oppressed

Two recent movies reflect elements of what I have been thinking in my studies and in my work in an overseas aid and development Christian organisation. Of course different people have different takes on the movies. But here are my reflections.

(1) Movie: Of Gods and Men

Based on a true story, this movie is about the choices made by a group of monks in a monastery in Algeria when their lives were threatened. I think true discipleship is ultimately about following Christ's sacrificial way of life, which is expressed in our solidarity with the community, not least those who are vulnerable and powerless. This is no abstract theology or theory, but a call to be authentic followers of Jesus.

Click here for a review from Guardian, UK.

(2) Movie: Oranges and Sunshine

This movie is based on true events that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, in which thousands of children were transported to Australia from England wrongfully. I think this movies highlights the fact that we need to recognise the fact that injustice and oppression is often embedded in a web of systemic social and individual sins. There are political, social and even religious systems and structures that oppress the vulnerable in our world. We need to stand in solidarity with those who suffer from injustice because of their powerlessness. Unfortunately Christians often are unaware of this, despite the fact that the Bible speaks of this in the Prophets (not least Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Zechariah) and in Jesus' own ministry.
Click here for a review from ABC At the Movies.

Putting the above two reflections together, I think the church is called to participate in Christ's life, suffering, death and resurrection, just as he participated in human frailty in order to accomplish his atoning sacrifice for our sins and his redemption for his entire creation. We are to proclaim this Christ to all humankind - through our words and daily life - so that people may have hope and shalom through faith in Christ Jesus.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Proclaiming and living out the resurrection of the crucified Christ (Michael Pahl)

I just finished reading Michael W Pahl's little book called From Resurrection to New Creation (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010). In the following I will cite three quotes in the last chapter that are very helpful (on page 94).

The first two quotes probably require reading the book itself before one can fully grasp their significance, although they shouldn't be too hard to understand. The last quote shows how in practice the church can carry out its task of proclaiming and embodying Christ in this age.

In many ways this has been what I have been trying to say in the past five years at theological colleges and churches.

"Proclaiming and living out the death and resurrection of Jesus in faith, hope, and love, as described above, the church is called to enact God's program of creation renewal in this age in anticipation of the fulfillment of the renewal of creation in the age to come."

"Another way to look at this task of creation renewal is to see it as simply fulfilling the purpose of humanity in the image of God, ensuring and extending God's loving and faithful rule throughout the earthly creation."

"Yet another way to see this creation renewal task is to understand it as applying the resurrection reversal of the crucified Jesus to the world around us. In Jesus' resurrection, condemnation, shame, oppression, and death have been transformed into vindication, glory, freedom, and life. Thus, by the Spirit of Jesus the church is called to bring restorative care to the earth, liberating justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, comfort to the suffering, healing to the sick, forgiveness and honor to the guilty and shamed, love to those in need, faith to those who doubt, hope to those in despair - light and life to a dark and dying world. This resurrection reversal is both our salvation and blessing and our missionary task."

The way I myself would like to frame this is through the stories in the Bible, the stories of the people of God, as well as the stories of the poor and oppressed. Through the biblical narratives we discover the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, as well as the stories of God's people (those of Israel and the Christ-community). As we enter the biblical stories we learn to appropriate those stories in our own lives and in the world. That's how we may proclaim and embody the gospel in a world out-of-joint.

N. Clayton Croy on th incarnation and the resurrection of Christ

I found the following written by N. Clayton Croy's from the website of the seminary where he works as a professor. It is about the incarnation and the resurrection.

"The twin theological themes of incarnation and resurrection are especially interesting to me. The former is God's resounding affirmation of embodied life; the latter assures us that such life is not a temporary aberration. Resurrection is God's way of saying that embodied human beings are too good an idea to have a shelf life."

Click here for the web link from which I found this quote today.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Timothy Gombis on "God's Missional Sustenance for God's people"

Timothy Gombis has posted something really nice in his blog. It's his reflection after a number of posts on John 4. It ends with Gombis' own experience in his church. For years I have been thinking about what the Christian community should be like, and I am really glad to find that Gombis is saying something very similar to what I have in mind (and he articulates it so much better). Here are some excerpts from his blog post.

"I’ve been thinking about this in relation to divine election as the identity of the people of God.  So often we shrink back from this notion because it seems to imply an “insiders only” mentality.  “We’re God’s elect and they aren’t.”  We may have seen a doctrine of election put to use to endorse a lack of redemptive involvement in the wider culture."

"Jesus indicates, however, that it is only when the church encounters outsiders in open-ended relationships that we are sustained."

"First, we do not encounter the other—or, the world—with a posture of condescension, arrogance, or even in order to set anyone right.  Just as Jesus asked the woman for a drink, taking on a posture of mutuality and even need, we ought to cultivate friendships and relationships of mutuality with others."

"There are countless ways that churches can relate to outsiders and to surrounding culture(s) that follow the pattern of Jesus, but so many of these are unexplored.  We tend only to imagine manipulative relationships, ones that will “get results.”"

"Churches can offer to clean up local neighborhoods, care for town parks, staff after-school services for kids from low-income homes,... And we can serve the world in these ways with no interest in “the bottom line,” but simply with hopes of faithfully embodying our identity as followers of Jesus."

"We tend to imagine that we need to have all the right tools, get all the right teaching, and only then do we go out and get involved in our communities.  I wonder if we think this way because we want to have some sort of guarantee that we’ll get results.  Or, maybe to pacify our fear of failure."

"About a year into our urban missional church experience, I was walking with my friend John Mortensen in our church’s local neighborhood.  We had imagined that God was going to do amazing things through our church.  After all, we were sent there as their salvation.  Or so we imagined."

"The on-the-ground realities slowly dissolved our romantic notions and our big dreams.  Rather than seeing lots of change in the neighborhood, we began seeing changes in ourselves.  That conversation made all of this make sense to me.  John and I came to the realization that we weren’t the salvation of that neighborhood.  God had us there in that neighborhood to save us."

"God was sustaining us and giving us life as we enjoyed conversations with people over a meal, as we shared about our lives and listened to their stories, and as we developed friendships of giving and receiving."

Click here for the original blog post.