Over the course of the last year I have been tugged back and forth in my mind many times over the question of how the Church — how I as a Christian — should respond in the face of the unjust treatment of people — especially black people — in this country. It is clear that there is injustice in our world (surprise surprise), and it is clear that in these United States, injustice has historically been meted out disproportionately along racial lines, affecting the status quo. But what is to be done about this? Should anti-racism be a part of Christian catechesis? Should my preaching occasionally suggest that we vote for politicians with distributist economic policies? Or are these in fact Marxist ideas in Christian dress? In the chaos of the news-cycle it is hard enough to identify the problem, let alone which solution would be pleasing to God.
Thanks be to God, months of internal wrestling were soothed by his Word, presented to me by a parishioner who attends the parish I serve as rector. While conversing on this topic, my friend Mike felt led to point out Luke 12:13-14:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
These three simple verses were like a ray of light piercing through my mental darkness. Let me unpack this little event in the life of our Lord against the backdrop of the racial/economic injustice question that is red-hot in our own day, and you will see why:
The first man (“Brother A”) has been wronged by his brother (“Brother B”). A theft of inheritance has occurred, and therefore an injustice. Brother A presents the injustice to Jesus, and asks — actually he tells — the Lord to force the immediate repair of the injustice materially. Jesus absconds from the role of judge entirely, “who made me a judge over you?” Jesus — who, remember, is the Judge of the whole world (John 5:22, Acts 10:42) — refuses to sit at the bench that would force a material solution to a material problem. Instead he replies with a “spiritual” answer, “be on your guard against covetousness.” Significantly he addresses this charge to both brothers, not just Brother A who implored him. Jesus reminds them both of the charge of the 10th commandment of the Decalogue — the moral Law against covetousness — and urges them to be vigilant in attending to its keeping. As fashionable as it is to pooh-pooh “individualism”, “individual salvation”, “moralism”, “private spirituality”, etc., it sure seems that the Lord makes a hard pivot toward individual morality, when presented with a public economic concern. This makes sense, because however much the popular over-realized eschatologies of our day protest to the contrary, our Lord’s Kingdom really is not of this world.
And the charge Jesus gives to both brothers — it is actually a solution. In fact the solution, that pleases the Father. Jesus absconds from making a material judgment, but he is always presenting a spiritual decision. If the brothers heed his command, and through true repentance seek to have their covetousness cut out of their hearts — what will happen?
Brother A, in being willing to forsake material goods that have been denied him, will be able to have peace of heart, knowing that the Lord God will bring justice in the End. He will also continue to call on the Lord for his needs, knowing that God will provide for them — which is exactly what Jesus teaches next (v. 22-34), “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on…your Father knows that you need them.”
Brother B, in the mean time, demonstrating the sincerity of his repentance, will, like Zacchaeus, restore what he wrongly took, and will be careful to avoid that sin again in the future.
And so, by pivoting to a spiritual solution to the presented material problem, Jesus is winning their souls to faithful obedience to God, and the net-outcome, once the Spirit has done his work (which takes time), will be the rectification of the material injustice. Brother B will give back what was justly due to Brother A.
To extend the application: Jesus doesn’t say, “My kingdom is only manifest when injustices like this are removed. Hand over the money, Brother B!” He also doesn’t say, “vote for a governing authority that will enforce the redistribution of wealth so that Brother A will eventually get what is due him.” Jesus fully recognizes that there is a problem — an injustice — but these are not the solutions he urges. No, he doesn’t want for the problem to be simply “fixed” by whatever means necessary, and by collusion with whatever powers. He wants our hearts. He wants us to individually be saved by his mercy, and to individually seek to obey his commandments, and the process of that spiritual transformation often has material out-workings. But the giving away of wealth (for any reason, whether or not there is injustice in the past) is the fruit of having received the Gospel, it is not a synonym for the Gospel.
And so my anguish has come to an end. As Christians in America, we do not have to deny any data or anecdata that reveal the presence of injustice, inherited or newly-caused. And we are called to weep with all who weep. But when it comes to solutions to injustice, Luke 12 shows us that Christ’s solution strikes at the heart, far more than any societal arrangement. Civic activism and socialist ideology He has not required; the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and contrite heart.