In order to convey the effect Ken Wytsma’s excellent book Pursuing Justice had on me, I need to very briefly explain a bit about my own background. My father runs an organization that sends teams of doctors and nurses into the streets to provide health care for New York City’s homeless. My mother was a teacher in one of the Bronx’ most troubled schools during the crack epidemic of the 1980s. I grew up believing that a true understanding and application of the Bible demanded that believers take action to tangibly bring about justice; as such, while I figured Wytsma’s book would definitely be something I enjoyed reading, I expected it to mainly tell me things I already knew and offer me an affirming pat on the back. I expected Wytsma to be “preaching to the choir.”
Boy, was I wrong!
As a member of the so-called “social justice” generation, I opened the book feeling a bit smug. After devouring it cover to cover, I closed it feeling humbled, challenged, convicted, exhorted, and more energized than ever about properly understanding and working to bring about God’s justice on earth.
I really appreciated Wytsma’s definition of justice. Rather than giving a clichéd, catch-all definition, Wytsma submits that biblical justice is a concept and way of life that describes the divine rightness of the world, the harmony between all relationships, that God intended. While things such as love, mercy, charity, and righteousness are all aspects of justice, Wytsma starts off the book by cautioning against mistaking individual applications of justice for the entire concept. Understanding this concept helps bring about the realization that justice is interwoven throughout the Bible as an integral part of God’s message. In fact, Wytsma opened my eyes to the fact that justice is not just a part of God’s message, but justice (which includes salvation as an integral piece) is the Gospel that Jesus the Messiah came to proclaim. I admit, while I have believed as long as I can remember that God’s commands to act justly are an integral part of what it means to be a Christian, I don’t know that I ever explicitly thought of justice as being what Jesus specifically came to institute. However, Wytsma diligently explores the Scriptures to clearly point out the extent to which this is true. In fact, one of the things I appreciate the most about this book is how central Scripture is to Wytsma’s arguments, and how frequently it is integrated into the text. Wytsma closes every single chapter with a Scripture passage that applies to the chapter’s topic. While Wytsma is clearly a great thinker who has been blessed with many spiritual insights, I really applaud the fact that he overtly submits to the Bible’s authority in his writing.
One of the most powerful things Wytsma does throughout this work is give clear examples of areas in our 21st century life where we can rethink our approach in order to practically apply biblical justice. Growing up in the inner city, creation care was never high on my list of things on which to take action (though I definitely firmly believed Christians were called to steward God’s creation responsibly); however, I found myself moved by the passages describing the need to connect with the land, with our food, and to display gratitude. As an African American, I found myself specially convicted by the statement that it is easy to condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves and doing little to stop slavery, yet we so often fail to take meaningful action to liberate the up to 27 million people currently enslaved around the world. Of course, I really appreciated the section on immigration, where Wytsma calls readers to empathize with the 5,000 foster children whose parents have been detained and to shed the alienating labels by which we often identify immigrants.
I found Wytsma’s repeated emphasis on action to be particularly powerful. Something that strikes home for me is the intersection of two concepts he discusses. The first concept is the idea of politics as an arena in which God’s justice can be implemented. While human political institutions will always be imperfect, Wytsma reminds us that the solution to injustice does not lie in abstaining from politics due to the imperfections thereof. If a particular party or piece of legislation is attempting to implement justice in a manner in which we don’t agree, the proper response would be to try to come up with a better solution and work together toward the common goal of justice. However, it makes no sense to discard the end simply because we disagree with the means! I find this particularly poignant because of the increasing political discussion surrounding comprehensive immigration reform. Just because Christians may disagree with current or proposed policies does not mean they should give up on the idea of seeing just immigration legislation passed.
The second concept is the idea of being willing to suffer and be persecuted for Christ, and to get over our fear of what will happen when we live justly. Again, I was reminded of the current comprehensive immigration reform discussion. When we combine the call to implement justice through politics with a godly fearlessness, we get a Christian church that is not afraid to speak up and tell our legislators that we want justice. While interacting with politics can be a scary thing for churches and pastors for reasons ranging from fears of being associated with a corrupt institution to fears of pushback from congregants, peers, and leaders, we must overcome our fear when it is keeping us from being a part of bringing about justice. Many pastors throughout the country, spurred by the truths they have encountered while participating in the “I Was a Stranger…” challenge, have begun to do just that by advocating to their legislators for just immigration reform.
This book is ultimately powerful because of its holistic understanding of justice. It grounds its understanding of justice in biblical teaching, opening readers’ eyes to the fact that justice is a dynamic concept that encompasses empathy, charity, personal purity, evangelism and salvation, and many other good things Christians have been taught to practice and cherish. However, it also complements this fact with a clarion call to action, putting to rest once and for all the false dichotomies Christians have drawn between the spiritual and the physical, between faith and works. If we are to know God, Pursuing Justice contends that we must live justly. Awareness and empathy must lead to engagement and education; this formula will produce effective action. Action is important and mandatory because, as Wytsma notes, if you aren’t actively bringing about God’s justice and shalom, you are opposing it.
Pursuing Justice is just what is needed to mobilize Christians everywhere to be a part of bringing God’s justice to the world in which we live. I look forward to reading this book again and to learning even more from it. I really hope this book and its lessons are spread far and wide; those who read it will surely feel the call to justice tug at their heart as it did mine! I sincerely believe this text can be a game-changer in how Christians understand the call to justice, and I look forward to seeing my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ begin to awaken to the necessity of its theme of “living and dying for bigger things.”
Daniel Watts is the G92 Coordinator at World Relief.
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