More Than Thoughts and Prayers: A Call to Justice

By Jamerson Watson | June 15, 2020

He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Luke 4:16-19 (NKJV)

We are living in troubled times.

God never said we’d be immune to trouble, He just dictated that it shouldn’t trouble our hearts. And yet we can’t escape it. Many of our hearts are broken. COVID-19. #KyrieEleison. #BreonnaTaylor. #AhmaudArbery. Christian Cooper. Tye Anders. #TonyMcDade. #GeorgeFloyd. Many believers are feeling trapped. We know that we are supposed to not love the world or anything in the world. At the same time, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Paradoxical on the surface, this leaves some of us feeling conflicted. And yet, as Jesus read in the synagogue on that Sabbath day, there is no reason to feel conflicted. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And thus begins our model of how to live holy. Pay close attention to the time and place and scripture selection. None of it was by accident. Jesus was extremely careful, meticulous even, to make certain he did not mince words as He laid out exactly what his ministry would look like, strategically revealing his priorities, which left those in attendance awe inspired. Jesus used His anointing to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to the imprisoned, bring sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. Let that sink in for a moment. The poor, brokenhearted, jailed, blind, and oppressed were Jesus’ priority. This didn’t mean Jesus elected to ignore the wealthy, the haughty, the comfortable, those not living with affliction, and the liberated living lives of privilege. Jesus just recognized something critical- one of the bedrocks of God’s promise: while every life matters, it’s those lives who are the most ignored, marginalized, and without agency that desperately need salvation.
Just as Jesus calling us to live righteously can be overwhelming, the same holds true for us being called to live justly. It’s not within our own power, but through the power of the Holy Spirit that we as believers uphold the banners of righteousness and justice. What does justice look like? I want to offer an analogy that might help clarify why calling for justice for those who are the most targeted by institutional and systemic oppression should be our priority. Imagine you live in an economically diverse neighborhood. Across the street, to your right, is a family down on their luck, living month to month on the verge of possibly losing their modest home. To the left is a family living comfortably with its well manicured lawn and modern fire sprinkler alarm system recently installed.
You’re leisurely soaking in the beauty of your community through your living room window appreciating the diversity of your neighborhood, when suddenly you hear the high piercing sound of an alarm blaring. You notice across the street that the neighbor to the right’s modest home has smoke billowing from the window. You hear cries for help and see your neighbor waving frantically from their kitchen window. What does your instinct tell you? Better yet, what does Christ in you tell you? For most believers (and even some well-meaning, moral unbelievers), they’d dial 911 and then run toward their neighbor. You might be frantic, but you care about the community around you. As you pray for your neighbor and leap into action, the fire trucks arrive. But, something is wrong. The fire trucks pass by the modest home set ablaze and instead go to the aid of your wealthier neighbor on the left. Remember them? The one not in need, with its modern fire prevention system. You are confused. Why would the emergency units render assistance to the home that isn’t on fire and needs no aid? Sure, their home matters too. But, right now who is most vulnerable? The neighbor in the greatest need with the least amount of recourse.

“Jesus just recognized something critical- one of the bedrocks of God’s promise: while every life matters, it’s those lives who are the most ignored, marginalized, and without agency that desperately need salvation.”

And yet, in many ways, this is an apt metaphor for Christianity in 2020. We minister to those we consider safest, in the least amount of need, often out of fear or apathy, and wonder why the world around us still remains skeptical of and desperate for the true savior of the world. And that’s where we are teetering. We have a first century gospel strapped to a twenty-first century worldview desperately seeking to reshape it into a twenty-first century gospel. But, that’s not how God operates. The gospel of justice that Jesus preached in the synagogue on that Sabbath is the same gospel we are called to preach today. Hebrews 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Today, Christ’s recitation of Isaiah still rings true. We, if we are in fact desiring to be like Jesus, are called to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to captives, bring sight to the blind, and liberate the oppressed. How do we identify those in need? Just look around you. Who is being murdered at higher rates? Who is living in poverty? Who is feeling demoralized by illness and desperation? Who is institutionalized? Who is fleeing persecution? Who is living with disabilities, injuries, and other obstacles? Who is targeted because of cultural, social, economic identities? Those are our neighbors that we are called to defend.
It is time that the church stopped fearing the world and started facing the world.
We have too long washed our hands of prophetically crying out against oppression because we believed it was an operation of the natural order and, therefore, we didn’t regard it as a spiritual matter. Yes, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. But, that’s exactly where oppression comes from. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc are manifestations of the enemy seeking to steal, kill, and destroy us from within, targeting those who are most marginalized. A house divided cannot stand. James tells us in no uncertain terms “to resist the devil”. He doesn’t say ignore the devil. Burying our heads in the sand and ignoring injustice is not an appropriate Christian response when humanity is operating as a house divided. Paul speaks eloquently in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 of being one body. Imagine, as you prepare dinner, holding a knife in one hand and that hand suddenly desires to cut off an ear? People would claim you’d fallen prey to madness. Why? Because it’s utterly ridiculous for one body part to seek to destroy another body part. How much more is it ridiculous that one believer seeks to destroy another? That can only be considered a manifestation of spiritual hosts of wickedness.
We as the redeemed in Jesus Christ speak not only to the Christ in people, but just as importantly, we speak to their needs and desperation as well (James 2). If someone is hungry, we don’t just say “depart and be filled with the love of Christ.” or if someone has been beaten, we don’t respond “your wounds fester, but rejoice that Jesus sees your courage.” Such a believer would be considered cruel. Christ is made manifest in His saving power as well as His power of deliverance. Jesus did not fail to act when someone was sick, destitute, in bondage, seeking refuge, afflicted, or institutionalized. Equally He didn’t fail to call out the powerful when they sought to marginalize the vulnerable. Being an instrument of justice is part of our inheritance. And it won’t be easy. He never promised it would be. As a matter of fact, fighting injustice might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever experience. It always was for God’s people. Remember when the children of Israel were returning from exile and were confounded by God’s lack of responsiveness to their acts of piety? They desperately sought after God’s righteousness, praying, lamenting, and fasting. But, with stinging rebuke God reminded them that all the while they desperately sought righteousness they failed to seek justice. It’s time that we stopped pretending righteousness and justice are separated in the heart of God, instead of two sides of the same Godly coin. Jesus did both. Go out and do likewise.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Isaiah 58:1-8 (NIV)