In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. joins Pete & Jared to discuss biblical evidence for social justice. Together they explore the following questions:
- Does the Gospel have anything to do with justice?
- What are the two most often occurring ethical concepts in the Bible?
- In the Hebrew scriptures, is righteousness an individualistic concept?
- What is the dual meaning of dikaiosunē, a term used in the Gospels?
- Why is social justice in the Bible a divisive concept?
- If social justice is so plainly in the biblical text, why do some deem it to be anti-biblical?
- What do salvation and deliverance refer to in the Hebrew Bible?
- What is behind a Protestant Reformation, individualistic reading of Paul?
- If the Bible really does advocate for social justice, how did the concept of become politicized?
- How does concern with power and privilege negate an interest in social justice?
- What passages in the New Testament point to the revolutionary nature of turning things upside down?
- Was Jesus involved in social activism and concerned with social change?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. you can share.
- “The most foundational and most often-occurring and often-used ethical concept in the Bible is justice.” @oberyhendricks
- “Love your neighbor as yourself” means wanting the same rights and privileges and opportunities and access to good things in life for others as you want for yourself. The whole biblical witness is egalitarian social justice.” @oberyhendricks
- “In the Bible, the culture is essentially dyadic. In other words, it’s all about the community. There is no word for individual in biblical Hebrew. The term is always ha’am, the people, the community.” @oberyhendricks
- “Loving our neighbor or doing justice in a society is the reflection of one’s relation with God. Actually, it’s the only evidence of one’s relationship with God.” @oberyhendricks
- “We have folk who see things in terms of individualism and read individualism … in their translation of the text … when those who wrote the biblical texts and lived the biblical texts didn’t have any notion of individualism at all.” @oberyhendricks
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Christians Against Christianity
- Book: The First Paul
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast. Our topic today is “Social Justice and the Radical Gospel,” and our guest is Obery Hendricks.
Jared: Yep. And Obery is a visiting professor at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary and author of the book Christians Against Christianity, which has just come out, but this was really based on our reading of one chapter of that book and talking about this idea of social justice.
Pete: He really lays out the, biblical evidence is the right word for it, about how pervasive the idea is.
Jared: Yeah, and I just think in our, again, in the circles I would have run in and seen the chit-chat on social media, there’s this sense in which social justice is pitted against the Bible or against Christianity which has me scratching my head. So, I think it was great for Obery to lay everything out like that.
Pete: Yeah, hope you enjoy it.
Obery: The most foundational and most often occurring and often used ethical concept in the Bible is justice, misphat. Justice and doing justice in community or doing right in society together, what you get is social justice. Doing justice in society, doing right in society – it’s amazing that this is never talked about in Christian circles.
Pete: Okay, Obery, welcome to our podcast. Great to have you.
Obery: Thank you. Thank you. So glad to be with you.
Pete: Absolutely. We’re going to talk about a very, very important topic, a timely topic, and also a perennial topic, you know? It just, this is something that does not go away. How, let’s talk about how social justice and social activism, right, doing something about it is a deeply biblical idea. And not only is that just a worthy topic, but as you know as well as anyone, in our day and age, in a lot of, you know, quadrants of the Christian faith, at least in America, a lot of people really think that social justice, social activism is, at best, a side issue to the Gospel and to scripture. But actually, something that’s almost like an attack, like a Trojan Horse or something and you’re trying to sneak in unbiblical, unchristian ideas in the form of the Gospel and stuff like that. And it seems to me, and please weigh in here, but I think in the recent months, a lot of the debate about Critical Race Theory is maybe fueling that in a sense, you know? Or maybe that’s just another example of a similar kind of almost a reflex animosity, I think, that people have for thinking that the Gospel has anything to do with justice.
Obery: Yes, absolutely.
Jared: So, can you take us through, we just want to dive right into the Bible. Like what, in your, not just your opinion, you have some great scholarly credentials to back this up. Walk us through these biblical texts and what does it have to say about justice?
Obery: Yeah, well, it’s amazing that this is never talked, is seldom talked about, in Christian circles and certainly not in right-wing evangelical circles, but the most foundational and most often-occurring and often-used ethical concept in the Bible is justice, misphat, justice. And you know, has very still nuances of meaning like vindication or rights or deliverance, but its main meanings are justice and judgment, and judgment in the sense of discerning between right and wrong. This is the most foundational oft-occurring ethic in the Bible. The second most occurring ethical concept in the Bible is tzedakah, usually translated as righteousness, which gives a connotation of personal piety, but it really means doing right in the community, doing right in society or doing justice. Doing right is doing justice. And when you put the two together, and in fact the two, misphat and tzedakah, they also are the most often-occurring paired concepts in the Bible. When you put justice and doing justice in community or doing right in community or society together, what you get is social justice, right? Doing justice in society. Doing right in society. Right? Social justice.
And then, when you take the quote from Leviticus that Jesus says is so important that is as important as loving God and that is “love your neighbor as yourself,” which means wanting the same rights and privileges and opportunities and access to good things in life for others as you want for yourself, that really means egalitarianism, a posture of egalitarianism. What we find is foundational to the Bible, the whole biblical witness is egalitarian social justice. Doing justice in society by making sure that the structures and relationships and the laws and the policies of society give everyone equal access to the good things of life. And that’s it really, essentially, in a nutshell.
Pete: And, you know, I, one thing that was sparked as you were explaining that is this whole idea of no partiality.
Pete: Right, people with more are not of greater value. God does not, basically, play favorites. So, that has, I think that has in it again this idea of egalitarianism, of shalom, of peace. This is what it looks like when there’s no partiality. And you know, loving your neighbor as yourself, as you were pointing out, that seems to have like an egalitarian notion baked into it and I think from what you’re saying, here’s where I think people are going to maybe need a little bit more help. Misphat, justice… justice seems to imply some, it’s not individualistic, because there’s a communal nature to that, but righteousness is the individualistic word for a lot of people. Righteousness is, it’s sort of like this is how, I mean, Jared, at least for me, this is how I think a lot of people understand righteousness, it’s I have this quality about me.
Obery: Mm hmm.
Pete: That, as a Christian, God bestows upon me because I have faith in Jesus, so he sort of changes me on the inside. It’s almost like a disposition, an inner cleansing, but that’s not what it means, is it? In the Hebrew scriptures, that’s certainly not what it means.
Obery: No, it doesn’t mean a personal piety, a posture of personal piety. When we look at the culture in which the biblical witness, almost every book of the Bible except for the more Greco-Roman ones found later in the New Testament. In the Bible, the culture is essentially dyadic. In other words, it’s all about the community. There is no word for individual in biblical Hebrew. The term is always ha’am, the people, the community. And so, when we talk about righteousness, righteousness is not tzedakah, righteousness is not individualistic because that was not, that was not the cultural climate. That was not the culture that people grew up in. So, it had to do, everything has to do with its impact on the community. So, one is righteous if one is doing right by others in community. Right?
So, it’s like, now Jesus, you know, gave his wholistic sense of spirituality when he said love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, which is vertical, and love your neighbor as yourself, which is horizontal. And what tzedakah really deals with is this horizontal notion of loving our neighbor. It is a reflection of the vertical, in other words, loving our neighbor or doing justice in a society is the reflection of one’s relation with God. Actually, it’s the only evidence of one’s relationship with God. Does that make sense?
Pete: It makes a ton of sense. And, you know, again, something that’s sparking in my mind here as you’re talking and I’m thinking of the New Testament, we’re not going to go there, but you know, very commonly we’d hear about the righteousness of God and that’s a place where I think a lot of people land. See, God is righteous. God has this inner characteristic of piety or perfection, but even there it doesn’t mean that. It’s God does right by His people. And for Paul’s theology, it is saving the people by his own sacrifice of himself so to speak. So, even there it’s very much communally related. It’s a word that means nothing apart from the effect that an act has on the well-being, the shalom, of other people and that seems so foundational to me. You know? It’s hard to get away from that notion.
Obery: And if we get away from that notion, then we get away from the foundational meaning of the biblical witness. And you mentioned righteousness in the New Testament, I think you mentioned it in relation to Paul, but the term that is used in the Gospels, dikaiosunē, Paul used it too. It doesn’t just mean, it means also justice.
Obery: It has a dual meaning, right? Righteousness and justice. So, we talk about the justice of God and the judgment of God. Well, we know what the judgment of God is because Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31-46, right? And what the judgment of God is, is if you have tried to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and do right by people in society, as you have done that, then you have done it to God. And then we’re told that those who do that, how does it end? It says the just ones enter into paradise. That’s my paraphrasing of course.
Obery: But, it says that justice, the righteous, but it means the just ones, right? The just ones, it means we translate it as the just ones enter into eternal life. So, when we have these translations that don’t give the full dimension of a word or don’t give the dimension of the word that does not fit into pietistic notions, then it gives a whole different meaning and flavor to the passage in which it occurs and that’s part of the real problem here. We have blinders, we have folk who, in the current age in our society, who see things in terms of individualism and read individualism into Paul and they read it back also in their translations of the text as having some kind of individualistic meaning when those who wrote the biblical texts and lived the biblical texts didn’t have any notion of individualism at all. It was always about what’s good for the community. What’s, it’s about for the community. So, we have Simeon, right, in the temple in Luke 2 and Jesus is brought to Simeon by his parents, but what are we told Simeon is doing? That he is in the temple day and night praying, not for himself, not for his own welfare, he’s praying for the consolation of the people, of his people, and that is reflective of the kind of cultural mindset, the cultural lens through which we should view the biblical witness.
Jared: Then, maybe let’s back up a little bit because we have, you know, a disconnect in our culture. I do feel like there are large swaths of Christians who would say social justice, like you said, is at best a distraction, at worst it’s actually anti-Bible, but at best it’s a distraction. The real work is getting people saved, you know, say the Sinner’s Prayer, get them to heaven, and move on. And then there’s others who see, as we’re talking here, social justice is sort of the foundation of the biblical witness. So, where do those divides, what are the reasons why we might go one direction or the other in this? I’m trying to kind of understand what leads one to ignore the foundations of the biblical witness and move towards, now to a place where there are people who would say it’s anti-biblical to see it that way. How does that happen?
Obery: Well, you know, if we look at John McArthur who released this very, very tragic misunderstanding called the Statement on Social Justice, and we look in this case the way that the, that he engages social justice and his commentary it’s like, this is a political stance, a political bias that folk have because social justice, many people think fighting for social justice as threatening their ascendency. Threatening the status quo.
Pete: Threatening their politics.
Obery: Yes! And McArthur’s case and those right-wing evangelicals who think that way, that’s largely the case that chock through their theology is ignoring the radicality of the Gospel and using it as a prop for the status quo. But this is not new, because it goes back as far as Constantine, it goes, certainly goes to the translation of the King James Bible, which removed the term tyrant that was used quite often in the Bishops Bible that was just translated like fifty years before the King James Bible.
Well, you read the King James Bible and it’s clear that every kind of reference in there that might inspire folk to rise up against a monarchy or an unjust tyrant, that they are translated in a more domesticated, more threatening way. And this same mentality we see in right-wing evangelicals because right-wing evangelicals, I mean part of their theology is white nationalism underpinned by white supremacy, which by definition, means they want to maintain the status quo.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Obery: Now, there are other folk who do not subscribe to those kinds of, you know, dominationist and racist politics, but so many Christians, so much of Christianity should really be called “Paul-ianity,” because they read the Gospels through the prism of Paul who is coming out more Greco-Roman culture milieu and so he does give the sense of this salvation being about individualism. It’s about working out your own salvation. I think he uses that, he used that term. But, in the biblical witness, certainly from the Hebrew Bible, salvation and deliverance wasn’t about over yonder. It was about deliverance from the oppression in this world. So, we get that from the Exodus, and we get that in different ways. And also, we know that because throughout all but the very tail end of the Hebrew Bible, I think, there is no notion of an afterlife. We don’t see any sense of a notion of an afterlife, so deliverance can’t be about an afterlife of being delivered into eternal life, it is about being delivered in this world. Paul changes that, and most of Christendom seems to lean more toward Paul than toward the Jesus of the Gospels.
Jared: In some ways, it’s, what I’m hearing too is, if that trajectory continues to go down. So, maybe Paul kind of moves the needle a little bit then you have, kind of, Constantine in the Middle Ages and we just kind of keep moving that needle more and more and reading back into the text our own cultural context and milieu, to where now it’s even difficult to see, for instance, that might even be pretty mind-blowing for a lot of people to hear that the afterlife isn’t really mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. While very much true, we’ve all been taught to sort of, to skate over that fact and find those places where we can kind of wedge in our current views of the afterlife. And so, there’s just so many layers of cultural context over and over and over that I, that’s what, I guess for my, you know my tradition and the people in my family and the others around, there’s so many layers, it would’ve been very difficult for them to cut through that and to see the social justice that seems quite plainly present in the text.
Obery: Right. Right. That’s what I’m getting at. I mean, it’s not taught. It’s taught as a text that is more concerned with the vertical relationship, you know? With going to heaven and personal piety in a sense of like old folks say in the Black church, giving honor to God who is the head of my life, but that’s a vertical thing. They’re not talking about giving honor to God who’s taught me to try and make the world a more just world. They’re taught this individualistic, personal pietistic approach and so many people can’t envision anything differently because to them it’s all about being saved and having personal salvation which is about entering into eternal life in the hereafter, but that is not the predominant way that Jesus talks about things in the Gospel. He mostly talks about what’s going on on Earth. He talks about poor people and suffering and oppression more than anything else other than God.
Pete: You know, what I find interesting is that Richard Hays, I think it’s Richard Hays at Duke, he says that getting into Paul a little bit that the, for Paul the goal of the Gospel – the reason, I shouldn’t say reason, but at least a central element of Easter, Easter Weekend, is not to get people into heaven, but to create a new people of God which is made up of Jew and Gentile together. So, there is, I think there is definitely a communal element to Paul, the thing is that gets missed all the time and we reduce Paul to, well, it’s by grace it’s not by works.
Pete: And this is just my theory. I think this goes back, in my opinion, this goes back to Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement, you know, the late 19th century where that was denounced by fundamentalists as being sort of, this is salvation by works. And I think that’s the bee that people have in their bonnet. They think you’re talking about we’re saved by doing good works and then you mentioned before Matthew 25 which sort of seems to say that. You know?
It’s just, but that’s again, you’re saved by works, but what are you saved for? Is it going to heaven when you die? Or is it for something big that’s happening here? You know like Zacchaeus, right? Up in the tree and Jesus calls him down and he gives half of his stuff away, right? And truly salvation has come to this house today. I don’t think Jesus is saying, “Thank goodness, now when you die tonight, you will know you’re going to heaven.” There’s something else happening there and I think the word communal, not just individualistic, but look at what he did, he did an act of misphat, of justice and righteousness, by giving away his wealth –
Pete: To people who may not have had it, right? And I mean, the short way of putting this, I think a lot of what’s behind this is a very common Protestant Reformationally driven, individualistic reading of Paul.
Pete: Right. And getting past that, I think, is a huge, huge hoop because it is, Paulian-ity as you said before, that’s very much my experience, you know, in past communities that I’ve been a part of. You preach from Paul, Jesus tells stories and does stuff, but the lessons come from Paul, right?
Obery: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And one thing I would like to say – you’re right – what I meant was a misreading of Paul, right? And you corrected that. It’s not that Paul is so individualist, because he’s not. Paul is working for the good of the community, but I think I also want to say that I agree with you because as Crossan and Borg point out in their book The First Paul, I think they do such an extraordinary job, Paul was essentially a mystic who’s concerned about God-consciousness. You know, he talks about going up to the third heaven and all that, and in all of his scolding and his teaching and all of that, it’s like he’s trying to rid people of things that would keep them from understanding, from growing in God-consciousness, not preparing them to ascend to heaven necessarily. But he’s concerned about the community growing in God-consciousness, I think. Also, I want to mention one other thing in addition to what you pointed out. And so, with Zacchaeus, the reason why Zacchaeus gets the nod is because, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Yeah, you get it Zacchaeus. You understand the foundation of the kingdom of God which is, or the sovereignty of God, which is relational.” Right?
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Obery: And in the community, he’s giving everything, you know, to the poor. And the rich young ruler, Jesus says give your wealth to the poor. He doesn’t say get on your knees and, you know, stay there for forty days. He says do things, show love in the community, show love to your neighbor in the community and that is what gets one closer to God.
Jared: At the risk of maybe wading into some controversial waters here, earlier mentioning the politics of it, I wonder too if there’s, in our current climate, you mentioning Critical Race Theory, Pete, and some other things, there’s just these layers of maybe of fear of the “how” we get there leads to people not even acknowledging the “what.” Meaning, if we were to acknowledge that the Bible really does advocate for social justice, which again, seems like it’s not that problematic of a thing to say. It’s kind of baffling that that’s still a challenging thing to admit for people. But if we’re going to say that, usually then there’s this, like, assumption then that we have to be a Democrat in America. Like that’s the political party you’re going to affiliate with and that can kind of turn people – and it also assumes that you’re going to be a Communist or whatever these sort of – the political layers that get laid on top of.
Now, maybe that’s right, maybe that’s not right, but I just think for people maybe it is hard because it sounds like, in their communities, if they were to look at the biblical witness, look at the prophets, look at Amos, and to say, “You know what guys? I think, maybe there’s something here to this whole social justice thing.” They’re immediately going to be labeled a “Democrat,” a “Communist,” there’s all these labels rather than simply letting it be and then saying, okay, what does it mean for us to do this now and do this here in our local community, maybe, or in these smaller ways. Do you get the sense to that there’s just a lot of labels being thrown around and not a lot of conversation of how are we faithful to the biblical witness maybe in new and fresh ways?
Obery: Yeah. I think I’m following you and when we speak, for instance, of Critical Race Theory, of course you know that almost no one who talks about it has an idea what it really is. It’s taught in law schools and graduate schools.
Jared: Right, right.
Obery: And never could show up in grammar school, but something like Critical Race Theory is about, it’s about talking about injustice, right, with a view toward rectifying. Well, that’s biblical. I mean, that’s basically biblical. For instance, Jeremiah 22 says, “Thus says the Lord, act with justice and righteousness,” misphat and tzedakah, or I translate it, “Act with social justice,” which is a defendable translation. “Thus says the Lord, act with social justice and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed and do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed any innocent blood in this place.”
Now, Critical Race Theory is concerned, wants to get – first, it’s about delivering folk from oppression, right? One aspect of it deals with reparations, well then it says deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, well certainly the enslaved were robbed and those in Jim Crow were robbed, right? Do no violence to the alien or the immigrant, right? I mean this is just so basic. This is one of the many, many passages in the Bible that really seems to be telling folk, telling those who are protesting for justice, social justice, that’s it’s telling them to do what they’re doing as long as they don’t, you know, don’t cross certain boundaries of excess and injustice themselves, right?
Pete and Jared: Mm hmm.
Obery: So, it’s so very basic, I think. And you can find it all over. You find it in Isaiah 28, “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, and I will make justice (misphat) the line and righteousness (tzedakah) the plummet.” So, wait a minute. So, what’s the problem here?
He says the measure of what we should be measuring our actions by, what the foundation stone should be justice and doing justice in society or social justice. This is very, very basic. So, if, but those who want, particularly, let’s point to right-wing. Right-wing evangelicals, they ignore this. They don’t want to understand this, right? Because their concern is not justice. They never mention justice, they never mention love the neighbor, their concern is to at least maintain the balance of power and privilege where it resides now and not to hear anything or be held to account in any way for excesses that have occurred in the past that they continue to benefit from.
Pete: You know, and I would throw maybe into that mix a different kind of problem perhaps that there are many evangelicals who may not even be aware of the nature of the problem.
Jared: Well, yeah, I was going to say –
Pete: I think there are some who are very intentional about this. I think others just, they’ve never heard this before, right? Hence, the podcast, right?
Jared: Yeah, the only thing I would say is that just tying some pieces together. I think in some ways, if the Gospel is only “go to heaven when you die,” it’s sort of pretty coincidental that really means kind of stay out of our affairs here on earth. It’s just sort of, it’s a distraction in some ways.
Jared: Of like, yeah, if we just get people to think that, again, it’s not like there’s these twirling mustache evil people at the top of these things usually.
Pete: There are some.
Jared: There are some, usually. But it’s just a whole system of maintaining power that has this distracting theology of “No, it’s just really all about go to heaven when you die, so we don’t really need to worry about disrupting, you know, upsetting the apple cart here.” So, I think those go hand-in-hand.
Pete: You know, this is a big commercial for why the Old Testament is important, I think. You know, I mean, because a lot of, you know, there’s stuff in the Gospels too, that you bring out in your book beautifully, Obery. But the Old Testament has, there’s a lot of culture and society happening and, you know, Israelites are ruling themselves and kings aren’t being just, and people aren’t being just to each other. I think, and especially with Paul, it’s pretty clear he was convinced that we’re not going to be, things are going to change rapidly. Jesus is coming back any minute, right? And maybe the focus isn’t quite on how do we live here and now? How do we focus on the thing that the prophets focused on that Jesus had so much to say about? And again, that’s no fault of Paul’s, I guess, but you know, if, you know, the evangelicals we’re talking about now, if they had a robust embrace of the prophetic literature, it may give us different things to think about, but it’s hard to get sound bites out of a few hundred pages when you could just, you know, pick a few verses in Paul, I guess. And it’s, a lot comes down to just how the Bible is used, I think, for some people.
Obery: I think you’re right, and you know, of course, when I speak of the right-wing evangelicals, I am generalizing because I agree, there are many who are wrong, but they’re sincerely wrong.
Obery: They believe those who mislead them are telling the truth. Though I must say, I don’t know what percentage that is, because their rhetoric is very, very hateful.
Obery: And in many ways, an anathema to the Gospel. But also, when it comes to the prophets and overlooking the proclamation of the prophets, I also, I think that that is, well, part of that is because some of them are taught that, you know, that they really don’t need to know the Hebrew Bible because, you know, all they need to know is Jesus and Paul. But also, some of the statements of prophets are just too challenging for folk who don’t want to get involved in the dirty business of trying to make this world more just. I mean, many folk come to a church just looking to be justified. Some come looking to be entertained, some come to be able to feel righteous, and I don’t know how many folk are involved and are serious enough about Christianity, serious enough about the Gospel to really want to make a difference in this world. So, it’s individualistic thing. I’m looking out for myself, I’m working out my own salvation, and so, again, it comes, it comes down to me that mainstream Christianity has a domination, an underpinning by definition.
Obery: Folks subscribe to that unbeknownst, but I wonder how many folk would call themselves Christians, or at least be involved in the church if they really knew how revolutionary they are supposed to be in this world.
Pete: And how threatened, how threatening it would be to do that. And I’m channeling here, we’ve had guests on over the past few years, and I didn’t come up with this myself, somebody else said it. But how, you know, the marginalized are going, their ears are going to perk up when they hear the words of the prophets. Those who are not marginalized may not be as inclined to hear it. And I think part of this is, you know, economic privilege, which of course, is tied to the history of racial issues in America as well. It’s such a complicated mess, isn’t it, Obery, all these things that come together. But I think your point is a very important one, the revolutionary nature of turning things upside down. You mentioned Luke, you know, Mary’s song about turning the world upside down. You know, the first, you know, the rich will be, you know, down and the down will be up. You know, that’s, the Beatitudes, right? Those are aspects of the New Testament that I think speak really, not just the Old, but the New Testament as well that speaks to this revolutionary nature.
You know, on that, I wonder if you can comment a bit on, you know, we mentioned social justice, but also social activism. Is Jesus a social activist in his day and if so, how?
Talk about that. Flesh that out a little bit for us.
Obery: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good question. Before I do, I just want to make this comment about those who might read the biblical prophets and might recognize that they are making very hard charges against them, but they think that, they don’t apply it to themselves.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Obery: Few people see themselves in a position of those, the prophets are speaking to. And that’s how they can –
We’re always on the good side!
Obery: Uh huh.
Pete: We’re never the Pharisees. We’re always the other ones in the New Testament, right? We’re always on the winning side, okay, got it. All right.
Obery: You know, was Jesus involved in social activism and concerned with social change? Well, you know, Luke tells us that when he portrays as a first, the first sermon of Jesus, first public oration of Jesus, what does Jesus say? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news or bring good news to the poor.” And that’s the concern, that’s a social concern. When he says to bring good news to the poor, it was good news to the poor that there’s going to be change and structural change.
Pete: It’s not that they’re going to heaven?
Obery: Right, well, I mean –
Pete: Don’t worry, you’ll die one day and then everything will be fine.
Obery: Right, right. It says bring good news, well, the way we know that it’s not just spiritualized because later he says to bring liberation to the oppressed, he used the term thrauó which means pressed down, oppressed. To bring liberation to the oppressed, all right? Now, that is, that is oppression in this day, he’s talking about social change. He’s speaking as a herald of social change and of course, good news to the poor is structural change, that the structures, laws, relationships, the attitudes that make people poor and keep them poor, that they’ll be transformed. It’s not like this prosperity anti-gospel where some, you heard me say anti-gospel. A prosperity anti-gospel where some people get lifted up while others are still poor. No, no, no. It’s about changing things in an equitable way.
But not only that, Luke tells us that Jesus talks about “blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” dikaiosunē, justice. Hunger that is translated as righteousness, but it also means justice. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. In this world, I’d say social justice. He tells John the Baptist he must be baptized to fulfill all justice, all dikaiosunē, all justice. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake or for, you know, dikaiosunē, for justice sake. And you know, I mentioned in my book, you know, the Christians Against Christianity.
Pete: Yeah, I forget the titles of my books too, don’t worry about that.
Yeah, right, Christians Against Christianity. Well, Wolterstorff says, he writes, “my own reading of human affairs is that righteous people are either admired or ignored, not persecuted. People who pursue justice are the ones who get in trouble.” And that, I mean, that just, that’s it in a nutshell. It makes sense. So, Jesus is not saying, “well, those who are personally pious and who are so holy that butter won’t melt in your mouth, blessed are you.”
Pete: No? Hmm.
Obery: Those of you who stand up for justice in this world, and he’s concerned about the poorest and the least of these, it makes sense that is what he’s talking about. It only makes sense, it just doesn’t make sense to those who don’t want, who refuse to look more deeply at the meaning.
Pete: And it makes sense in light of the fact that there was a lot of poverty and hunger, but it isn’t just like, you know, a few people in ghettos somewhere you don’t have to worry about, it was very pervasive. So, it was a constant problem that people simply didn’t have enough.
Obery: Oh, yeah. I mean, he talks about that more, poverty more than anything, right? Mary talks about it in the Beatitudes right, when he’s still in, I mean in the Magnificat, Jesus is yet in her womb, and she’s talking about the hungry being filled with good things. And so, it’s important, I just want to stress again, and in this, in this parable in which Jesus in Matthew 25:31 and following, he ends by saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
And these will go away into eternal punishment. But, and the term there again is dikaiosunē, but the just ones, not the righteous, but the just ones into eternal life. And so, he’s concerned about justice and about the state of society and he talks about that more than he talks about anything else. And definitely more than he talks about, more than he gestures about afterlife. But he says if you’re going to, the key to eternal life is to work for justice in this life.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Obery: That’s the key to understand the Gospel, I think.
Obery: I think if we look at love your neighbor as yourself and we look at this passage in Matthew, to me, that gives us the crux, the core of the Gospel.
Jared: I think that’s a wonderful place to end as we kind of move from the Hebrew Bible into the New Testament and Jesus’s emphasis on this. And you know, for me, I would just say one thing that I really appreciate is I appreciate that you swap out the word justice when we see that word righteousness. Because I do think we have this pietistic lens, and it also kind of doesn’t mean a lot. In my mind, I kind of glossed over that a lot as a kid. I didn’t really know, it felt very abstract. But to think about justice in those instances just makes a big, it makes a big difference and jars us out of our regular reading just enough to maybe see the Bible a little differently. So, maybe as we leave, you know, Obery, is there anything else that you would give as sort of a word of wisdom for people, maybe who are just now waking up to this idea that you know, maybe the Bible does have something to say about social justice. Maybe it does have something to say for how we kind of go about our lives and community and in society. Is there kind of a, you know, some practice or a simple step, or just something that maybe people can take forward as they continue to grow in this?
Obery: Well, I think that what should be kept in mind is how foundational this notion of justice and doing justice in society is. It is the, it is the foundation of the Biblical witness in the sense that it is, it is the ethical formulation that we find more than any other in the Bible. Even in Psalm 72, in what we understand to be an inaugural Psalm, the prayer is “Endow the king with your misphat, your justice, oh God; the royal son, with your tzedakah,” your sense of doing right by people in society. “May he judge you people in tzedakah and your afflicted ones with misphat. I mean, he’s saying, what it’s also saying here is those who are in positions of power and governance that they have a responsibility to be concerned with those in need, but more importantly, what they should have as their guiding star is this whole notion of social justice, doing justice by people in society. And that shows just how foundational it is. It’s foundational even to the extent that he tells how those in government, how government should act.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Obery: And so, I just want to leave that. Anyone who takes seriously the biblical witness as a guide for action in the world, the way we act in society, should really take seriously that justice, that must be seen as analytical. In other words, we analyze our actions and analyze policies and we analyze acts that are going on in the church and in society as to whether they comport with the notion of biblical justice. And it’s prescriptive in that it tells us, it prescribes how we are to act and what kind of laws and policies and actions that we should get involved with, that we should prevail.
So, I’d like to just share that, and I’d like to thank you for this discussion about my book, Christians Against Christianity, because I’ve tried to put my heart and soul into this, into this effort to raise consciousness so we can stand against the degradations of those who are so misleading people about the Gospel to the point that they support politicians who are doing, who lie and cheat and doing the exact antithesis of what Jesus taught.
Jared: Thanks again, Obery. Just again, appreciate your articulation of justice and righteousness in the biblical text, and I think a lot of people are going to learn from that. So, thanks again.
Pete: And thanks for writing the book, Christians Against Christianity, too. Great to have you on the podcast.
Obery: Thank you. Great to be with you gentlemen.
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