Tag Archives: justice

Kingdom vs. Empire

“Isn’t it right for us to take up arms and fight back against the enemy?”

In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
In November a suicide bomber detonated just outside this college building in Kontagora, barely missing the targeted crowd of students (especially girls) gathered inside for their exams.
The passion with which my student asked his question hinted at the enormity of the situation it represents. For Christians in Nigeria right now, this question is more than just theoretical. In the last week I have heard it come up in casual conversations, Sunday school lessons, and master’s degree classes.

Why? Because Christian churches and communities have been increasingly frequent targets of Muslim attacks. Because Nigeria’s mixed population of Christians and Muslims has become polarized by rivalry, violence, and fear.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5:38-39

For the decades now Nigerian Christians have turned the other cheek. But their collective wounds have accumulated with each additional bombing, each raid on their communities, and each restriction on their rights. The cry I have been hearing from this young pastor and from many others like him is one of frustration and angst.

This community of refugees  was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship. A local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
This community of refugees was forced to flee tribal warfare in their region. The Bishop of Kontagora has advocated for their rights to land and a place of worship, and a local pastor regularly treks out to their settlement to lead them in worship.
“We have turned the other cheek so many times that there is no cheek left to turn!”

I feel for their dilemma, and the red-blooded American part of me wants to pick up a gun and join them. I was raised on stories about the Alamo and slogan’s about fighting for our rights. I have no problem with the use of arms to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, I think that is one of the core responsibilities of any government.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:43-45

But what about church leaders encouraging their people to shoot Muslims who threaten or harm them? Apparently this is what happened in one region of Nigeria, and such a bloodbath followed that leaders on both sides were appalled. The police ran for cover as Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until their hatred and their ammunition were spent. In the end, those Christians gained the fearful distance of their Muslim neighbors, but they lost their testimony.

My spirit recoils from the violent outcome of this sort of pragmatic solution. Didn’t Jesus forgive His enemies and offer His back to His oppressors? If I were living here, shouldn’t I be more concerned with ministering to my Muslim neighbor than with killing him? But for these Christians, the tidy categories of “ought to” have been blown open by the painful reality of kidnapped sisters and demolished churches. Being passive is no longer an option.

But is being aggressive the solution?

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Romans 12:12-18

This morning I witnessed a very different sort of solution to the crisis, one so subtle that I almost failed to recognize it. Here in the north central region of Nigeria, Muslims outnumber Christians. They control local government policies enough to be able to stop Christians from running orphanages, building new churches, or even renovating existing ones. In light of the mounting opposition and the upcoming elections, many Christians have left this region. For understandable reasons they have taken their businesses and their families to the less Islamic areas of the country, further depleting this area of its Christian presence.

Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
Bishop Jonah Ibrahim and his group of Anglican pastors.
But a dedicated band of pastors led by their tenacious bishop have courageously stood their ground. They have neither given in to their enemies nor attacked them. Instead they have patiently toiled with minimal resources to advance the presence of the kingdom of God in this place. These pastors oversee three churches each, often going without their monthly salary because it simply isn’t there. Their bishop doggedly works the socio-political system, making the necessary compromises and outlasting the opposition until he finally gets things done. An orphanage built and government permission relentlessly pursued to take in the area’s many needy orphans. A tiny, open-air church established for the community of refugees who immigrated here last year. A clean water project and sustainable animal husbandry developed to help to support local pastors.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12:19-21

But of all the work these Christians are doing here, the project that spoke the loudest to me was the school that I visited today. Initially I was most moved by the sight of teenaged girls sitting in a classroom, refusing to relinquish their education to the threats of Boko Haram. But when I heard that both Christians and Muslims have been welcomed as students in this school, I was dumbfounded. Such an audacious move speaks louder than any number of guns or grenades ever could. This is taking love for enemies to the next level.

Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram's threats.
Courageous school girls, undaunted by Boko Haram’s threats.
Refusing to retaliate against enemies takes a massive amount of courage. But refusing to quit loving them takes even more.

I am humbled by what I have seen here, and am still processing the difference between how governments should respond to violent oppression verses how churches should. This much I can say:

The empire may strike back, but the kingdom of God will advance one act of mercy at a time.

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Reconciling Justice

“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”

My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.

Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.

Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73:4-12

Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.

Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?

We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.

How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22

But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.

We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.statue of justice

Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Psalm 73:18-20

Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26

Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.

Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Psalm 73:27-28

The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.

Vindicating Forgiveness

I sat at lunch with a dear friend recently, swapping stories of past hurts and current healing. Sadly, neither of us was surprised by the other’s experiences of betrayed friendships and smeared reputations, spiritualized power plays and politicized cover-ups. And although we both have been delivered from these abusive situations, the doubts and insecurities they raised within us linger on. The questions they raised about our honor remain unanswered; the accusations they implied about our character stand uncontested. In a way, we both feel like we were taken apart by a team of ruthless examiners and then left in pieces, abandoned on the workbench.

Public shame calls for public honor.

What would finally allow all the pieces to be made whole again? What would lay these past wounds to rest and free us to move on?

In a moment of brutal honesty, we admitted that we want vindication. We want the record set straight about who we are and how we have been treated. We may privately know the truth, but as long as public perception remains inaccurate, the past cannot be laid to rest.

Is vindication a godly desire? Shouldn’t forgiveness eradicate our need for it?

When I think of forgiveness, I picture Jesus on the cross, reputation thoroughly trashed and body totally thrashed, crying out to God to forgive the people who were treating Him this way. No vehement self-defense. No retaliatory threats. Just compassionate, sacrificial love.

Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer– it does not rise from deceitful lips. May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
Psalm 17:1-2

And yet when I read the Psalms (including some of the messianic ones), I can’t escape their repeated prayers for vindication. These prayers are what David claims to be a righteous response to being falsely accused and unjustly persecuted. At least he is going to God for vindication rather than taking it into his own hands, but shouldn’t he just let it go altogether?

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.
Psalm 26:1-3

But he can’t. The fact is that even in God’s economy, honor matters. David’s integrity has been denounced, and he is coming to the righteous Judge to make it right. He is asking God to look him over, check to see if he is alright, and reapply the stamp of approval that others have stolen from him.

O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent. Do not be far from me, O Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, O LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me. Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.” … May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
Psalm 35:22-27

And a private awards ceremony won’t cut it. Knowing that God sees and knows the truth about him isn’t enough. David boldly asks God to make public what He has already affirmed in private. He has been attacked and shamed before the eyes of others; now he is asking God to restore his honor in the same sphere.

This isn’t just about David’s reputation. It’s about God’s. Is He or is He not just? Does He or does He not care about the well-being of those who entrust themselves to Him? God’s vindication of His servant will vindicate His own character before a watching world.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:62-64

And this is exactly what I see happening in Jesus’ story. At the height of His trial, in the midst of cruel insults and relentless accusations, He broke His silence to answer a direct attack against His identity as God’s Son. He told His accusers that they would one day witness what they were currently denying. He had no need to argue His position now because God would prove Him right later. He would not defend His honor now because God would publicly exalt it later.

Entrusting our vindication to God allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

Jesus’ ability to forgive His accusers was predicated on His certainty that God would vindicate Him before their eyes. He could let go of His honor because He knew that God wouldn’t.

So is it wrong to ask God for vindication? Far from being wrong, I think it demonstrates a deep trust in God’s righteousness and an unwavering confidence in His unfailing love. Taking vindication into our own hands would betray our lack of faith in God’s justice. Downplaying the idea that God will vindicate us would deny the extent of His care for each of His beloved children, including ourselves. But entrusting our need for vindication to Him allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

We can love them because He first loved us. We can forgive them because He won’t forget us.

Voiceless.

Pleading hands stretch out on a wooden doorframe. Crimson blood stains its lintel. A woman’s life slips silently away as the members of the household sleep in peace, safe on the other side of the door. Do they not care that she has spent the night in indescribable torture? Does it not matter to them that she has been raped and beaten beyond recognition? But they sleep on, undisturbed by her plight. And she breathes her last, voiceless in life as in death.

In those days Israel had no king. Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah.
Judges 19:1-2

What voice did she have in leaving home and becoming a concubine? Bethlehem was her birthplace, and yet her father had handed her over to this hill-country Levite to be his second-rate wife, a sex servant with benefits. But even concubines had the right to leave their husbands and go back home if they were being mistreated. And for whatever reason, that was exactly what she chose to do.

After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. … She took him into her father’s house, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. …so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there. … But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.
Judges 19:3-4, 10

Who asked her if she wanted to return to her husband? Four months later when he turned up at her doorstep, she took him in. But the next four days were full of her husband and her father eating, drinking, and partying together while she stood silently by. In the end she was packed off along with the servant and the donkeys, little more than a possession to be claimed and controlled by the men in her life.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”
The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. …Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish…”
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.
At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.
Judges 19:22-28

What choice was she given in being shoved out the door into an angry mob of violent, degenerate men? Her husband had made the choice to leave late and to stay overnight in this town. Their host had made the offer of sex with his unmarried daughter and herself to the locals who were after her Levite husband. And her husband had sent her out to them, sacrificing her body in place of his own.

Cruel blows. Ruthless piercing. Throughout the night she was tossed from man to man, used and abused as her husband and their host had given permission. When they were finally finished with her, she crept back to the house she had been thrown out of and fell down outside the door, a heap of discarded leftovers.

As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.
Psalm 123:2

The woman’s hands said what her voice could not. They reached for the threshold of the doorway, grasping hold of it in a silent plea for sanctuary. Upturned eyes implored to be noticed. Outstretched hands begged to be received. Silent screams pled for mercy.

The night remained silent. The door remained shut. And her life ended.

The abused may be voiceless, but we are not forgotten. We may be silent, but we are heard.

But her story didn’t. The voice that went un-heard by men was compassionately listened to by God. The life that had been trashed by men was tenderly honored by God. And though He took His time in doing so, He came down to personally enter into her suffering.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions…
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:3-5, 7

Pleading hands stretched out on a wooden cross-frame. Crimson blood staining the beams. The Bethlehem-born Son of God, rejected by His family and tossed out by the Levites to an angry mob. Beaten, molested, pierced, and marred beyond recognition. Silent voice. Upturned eyes. A sacrificial lamb, life laid down in the place of others.

But God did not abandon Him there. Nor did He abandon her, or the many others like her. As gruesome as her story is, it is still being experienced by countless women who live at the mercy of merciless men. Social systems may silence them. Men may ruthlessly control or selfishly use them. But God hears their cry and draws near. And the end of His story brings hope into theirs. He will not leave them in this hell. Resurrection is coming!

Abused but cherished. Isolated but not alone. Voiceless but heard.

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave…
Psalm 16:8-10

Abuse Exposed

Abuse is such an ugly topic; it pains me to write about it. But left unaddressed, its sinister message continues to radiate through layer after layer of its victim’s soul, damaging the very essence of the image of God within. Following my own devastating experience of abuse, I wrestled for years with gut-wrenching questions about what I was worth in light of the treatment of me that God and others seemed to deem “beneath their notice.”

They clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. … They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”
Psalm 73:6-8, 11

Did God not see what was happening to me? Did He not hear me calling for help? I thought He was the righteous Judge of all the earth, the One who sees everything and calls the wicked to account. So why did they get away with treating me this way? Is this really how He is going to let my story end, with me a broken mess and my abusers perfectly unscathed?

The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

But that isn’t how the stories of His other abused children turned out. God saw what had happened to Bathsheba. He took note of how Uriah was handled. And He was not about to turn a blind eye to such abuse, even if it was at the hands of one of His favorites, a man after His own heart.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. … Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
2 Samuel 12:1-4

How could David live with himself? Surely he knew that his actions were wrong, and yet somehow he managed to justify them to himself. Despite his un-confessed sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, David maintained a strong sense of his own righteousness and a quick willingness to judge others. After all, he was God’s appointed leader, the one called to make sure everyone else was obeying God’s law.

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
2 Samuel 12:5-6

What David could not see in himself, he readily identified in others. So when the prophet Nathan approached him with the case of one man using his power to take advantage of another, David did not hesitate to judge such behavior as intolerably wrong, deserving of severe punishment.

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:7-9

In one of His grand reversals, God yanked the carpet out from underneath David’s royal feet, leaving him flat on his face, defenseless and exposed. Who did he think he was, taking all the privilege and position that God had given him and using it to get more? God had not given him the right to treat others however he deemed fit. He named the people David had abused, cataloguing his crimes against them. They were precious to God too, and He was here to judge the judge for their abuse.

The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants? … But suppose the servant … then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants … That servant who knows his master’s will and … does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:42-48

David was not above the law, somehow an exception to the standards that he held for others. In fact, God judged him all the more severely because David knew His standards and ignored them, because he used his position of leadership to get away with his own self-indulgence. God had entrusted him with much, and he had abused it. Did he really think that God wouldn’t notice?

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”
2 Samuel 12:11-12

God had seen every action, heard every word, noted every detail of their mistreatment. What David had done in secret, God was going to make public. What David had thought he would get away with, God was going to repay in the sight of all. And the price was going to be high, so much so that anyone who heard of it would wince at its brutality.

For all those who have suffered at the hands of others, who have wondered if God really notices or will ever right such horrible wrongs, the story of God’s harsh retribution of David’s crimes lays our questions to rest. (If anything, it moves us to compassion on behalf of our abusers, making us want to ask God to go a little easier on them.) Yes, He will vindicate our suffering; He will expose our abuse, no matter how important or invincible our abusers may seem. This is what we are worth to God. The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.