Some years ago popular speaker and author Tony Campolo helped initiate a master’s program at Eastern College that trains students to enter Third World countries, as well as impoverished sections of American cites, with the express purpose of starting small businesses and cottage industries with the poor. Campolo was once part of such a micro enterprise in the Dominican Republic that produced durable footwear out of discarded automobile tires.
Campolo says, “When we talk about Jesus, we make it clear that he is not just interested in our well-being in the afterlife. He is a Savior who is at work in the world today trying to save the world from what it is, and make it into a place where people can live together with dignity.” This, I believe, is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice), for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6).
The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” Justice in the Hebrew/Christian tradition differs significantly from what many folks today mean when they use the term. Justice, as employed by the prophets and by Jesus, does not mean “getting what one deserves.” According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, the meaning of “justice/righteousness” is principally about actions that sustain and improve community well-being, particularly those that show special attentiveness to the poor and needy. The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious (see Amos 5:21–24).
Author Robert Pirsig refers to a clever method used to capture monkeys in southern India. A hole is drilled into a coconut, then the insides are hollowed out and filled with rice. The coconut is chained to a stake driven in the ground. The hole is just large enough for a monkey to insert its paw, but too small for it to remove its paw once it is filled with rice. The monkey, unwilling to let go of the rice, becomes effectively trapped. The irony, of course, is that it is trapped by the very thing it believed would sustain its life.
Our religion, which is intended to enhance and sustain life, becomes a snare when we are motivated by selfish ambition, or use it for personal advancement and self-aggrandizement. Our Christianity becomes a snare when we make it primarily about the afterlife or personal success in this life. When our faith becomes nothing more than a way to eternal bliss or a way to achieve personal happiness or self-fulfillment, then we too come under the indictment of the prophets and Jesus in particular.
Our faith becomes a snare when it entraps us in personal and group idolatries. When we arrogantly assume that God’s blessing is limited to our faith, our group, our people, our church, or our nation, then our Christian practice stands under the judgment of God.
Restorative justice is not about what is legal; rather it concerns what is good, fair, and just. It’s committed to the dignity of all people and to eliminating the causes of oppression, poverty, and injustice. Its focus is the common good, not private interest. It’s centered on God’s kingdom on earth, not the afterlife. (We need not worry about or concern ourselves with the afterlife, because our gracious heavenly Father/Mother will take good care of all of us).
Real virtue is bound to the pursuit of justice—the well-being and life enhancement of the community. Without this quality our religion fails and falls under the judgment of God.
The modern prophet William Sloan Coffin reminds us that the church “doesn’t so much have a social ethic as it is a social ethic.” Without a hunger and thirst for justice, the church is not the church. For the church to be what Jesus envisioned—an outpost for God’s kingdom on earth—the church must cultivate a hunger and thirst for justice.