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Institutional church and social justice, part 2

This is part 2 in a 2-part series. Read part 1 here.

The Israelites Leaving Egypt
The Israelites Leaving Egypt

The book of Exodus is the memory of how Israel came into being as the chosen people of God. Because as church we often refer to ourselves as Israel or the new Israel, we need to see ourselves in the story.

The people are suffering in the heart of the powerful and rich Egyptian Empire. They are physically oppressed through slavery and its violence, they feel spiritually alienated because they are not allowed the freedom to worship and they are emotionally damaged because they cannot protect their children from the Pharaoh’s death sentence. They cry out, and God hears them. God sees them. God knows them and their misery, their poverty.

Exodus 2:24-25: Out of slavery their cry for help rose to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered…God looked down upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.

God acts. God liberates through direct intervention into human history.  Through a human instrument, Moses, the people are delivered into freedom.

Exodus 20:2: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

But freedom is not always how we envisioned it to be. True liberation is spiritual instead of material and we can find ourselves FREE in the desert and become very afraid. God and Israel join together in a covenant, a new community in the presence of God. They are instructed, commanded, to imitate the redeeming, merciful acts of God on behalf of those among them and strangers who would experience isolation, alienation, poverty, or violence. This justice is based on recognizing each person as unique and equal within the human community.

Exodus 23:9: You shall not oppress…you know the heart of oppression… you have been delivered…

Deuteronomy 15: Open your hand to the poor and needy…remember you were a slave and the Lord your God redeemed you.

The people are responsible for cooperating with God through their relationships with each other, the stranger, the least of them and creation (the land and animals). Justice is not empty acts done only to check off boxes, it is supposed to be motivated by compassionate love for one another as God had for Israel.

We can wonder like Israel if our acts of justice will really make a difference if we are still all living in the with perceived scarce resources or life difficulties. We can begin to think that only God can do the work of liberation, our prayers and rituals should suffice to please him enough for him to act for us. We can become enamored of our own salvation and forget to work for others, happy in our chosen-ness.

There are two problems that come from this. First, we emphasize vertical commandments more than horizontal, and second we lose our memory of oppression and begin to contribute to the oppression of others.

Israel’s conquest of Canaan, David/Nathan, Solomon (taxes, forced labor, harems, but the temple) — a cult of royal authority develops. It becomes the responsibility of the prophets to remind Israel of who she is and how she is supposed to live in relation to others. The prophets have to confront the comfortable lives of believers to point out that there are still the poor and weak among us. It’s the prophets who caution us to remember that our worship does not exempt us from justice.

Isaiah 1: Bringing offerings is futile, I cannot endure solemn assemblies with inequity…learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Jeremiah 7: Do not trust in these words, this is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord…for if you truly amend your ways…truly act justly with one another…then I will dwell with you in this place.

Amos 2, 5: They sell the righteous for silver…push the afflicted out of the way…I despise your festivals, take away from me the noise of your songs but let justice roll down like waters.

The people cry out again to God for help, help to restore them to the covenant, to strengthen them, for understanding…and God hears them.

Malachi 3:  I am sending my messenger…he will sit as a refiner…and purify.

The consciousness that imperils Israel is depicted in the Gospels — the concerns of the Sadducees for order and ritual, the fears of the Pharisees regarding purity in daily life, and the despair of the Zealots who think violence is the answer to their suffering. There must be a dismantling, a revolution in the mind and heart. As the Incarnation and the Way, Jesus embodies the daily life of God’s ways and commands. He teaches the way, he acts and talks the way, thus providing believers with direct physical tangible direction. He comes in poverty, alienation, fear. He is the least among them — being the oppressed who does not become the oppressor but always the liberator, the redeemer of our very human lives as the mediation and embodiment of justice, which is God’s compassionate love for one another and creation.

Luke 1: He has brought down the powerful from their throne, and lifted up the lowly…he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.

Jesus enacts the loving service to others as the fulfillment of the commandments. His actions toward others — eating, drinking, walking with, acknowledging, speaking with, entering the homes, washing the feet — all convey the Kingdom of God, a people in covenant, present and real.

Mark 9: Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.

Luke 22: I am among you as one who serves.

The Kingdom is coming as only through God can all things find their truest end, but also being made real through love of neighbor. The cross as the solidarity of Jesus with the suffering. He is executed, it is brutal and degrading. It is Jesus Christ with the sick, the raped, the beaten, the humiliated, the tortured, the dying, the imprisoned, the lost and the defeated.

Check back for part 3 of this series, where I’ll discuss where we fit into this story.

About Colleen McLean

Colleen McLean is a life long Roman Catholic with a few pagan adventures along the way.  She has been active in lay ministry in two states and four dioceses.

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