Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needyProverbs 31:8-9, NIV
The last few weeks have been worrisome. Following the senseless death of George Floyd and the unrest and havoc it has prompted, I think it has become imperative that we talk about justice. During recent weeks, racial, economic, and social justice have been getting a lot of attention, yet it remains unclear what action should be taken. It is easier to point out the sin and injustice of others than to engage injustice itself. The way of justice is not easy. In fact, Jesus gave His life for it. In demanding justice, we too often lose compassion and patience for anything that does not serve our particular agendas. The Bible calls us to pursue actual justice, not the replacement that has become the shrill demand of “privilege me.” The justice worthy of human pursuit takes character, integrity and sacrifice. We should learn how to effectively stand up and act on behalf of justice. We can learn much from Jesus, who does not use destructive or self-defeating methods but a powerful approach that successfully subverts oppression and cruelty, bringing hope to the entire world. How might we approximate His example?
I think the modern-day Christian can learn a lot from the story recorded in Acts 16, in which Paul and Silas are mistreated and wrongfully thrown into prison. We learn that they have just come to the city of Philippi, where they deliver and heal a slave girl involved in divination. Fearing financial loss, the merchants who have profited from her fortune-telling accuse Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace, labeling them with racial slurs. “These men are Jews and are throwing our city into confusion” (16:20). The crowds are roused against Paul and Silas to get the magistrates’ attention, and a riot soon threatens to break out in the city. It is amazing how quickly mobs can emerge and violent activity can take advantage of a good cause. In all the commotion, Paul and Silas are arrested and brutally handled by the police. Orders are given to beat them and throw them into the deepest prison under strict watch of the local jailer. The cold jailer fastens their feet in stocks, a painful and humiliating treatment. When Paul later recounts the incident, he admits that he thought he was going to die.
Every movement they made in prison must have made their eyes swell with tears, yet Paul and Silas speak no threats, crude insults, or harsh complaints. Instead of cursing and calling divine vengeance upon their oppressors, they pray and sing praises to God as the other prisoners listen. At midnight, there is a powerful earthquake that shakes the foundations of the prison, miraculously unfastening the prisoners’ fetters and flinging the doors wide open. Paul has made such an impression on the prisoners, however, that he can prevent a jail outbreak and saves the jailer’s life.
The way Paul and Silas behave is as earthshaking as the earthquake that delivers them from their chains. Their impeccable integrity and courage dramatically affect the cold, hard jailer. We see his character transform as he cleans the wounds Paul and Silas had received the night before—not only treating them with tenderness and compassion but caring for them as his honored guests. He knows they are different, and he wants to discover what they have that he doesn’t. The oppressor and oppressed are thus reconciled in the midst of injustice. It’s a remarkable and beautiful testimony about bringing God’s reign to earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Through God’s work behind the scenes, the Philippian authorities drop the charges, ordering the police to free Paul and Silas. The jailer rushes to tell them they can go in peace, but Paul refuses to leave peacefully. His civil rights as a Roman citizen had been violated, and he challenges the smug magistrates by calling them to justice! Paul demands that the authorities offer a public apology and provide a personal escort. He says, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out” (Acts 16:37, ESV).
I am sure that when the officers relayed Paul’s words to the authorities, they feared the consequences should Paul choose to report their abuse of political power. I can imagine the trouble that would befall them for illegally beating and imprisoning Romans citizens without due process. The point that is often overlooked, however, is that Paul reminds the authorities that they have God-given positions. Justice demands a proper response to those in power. Paul calls upon the authorities to account for their actions, so how can we do less? Justice is about accountability and it includes all levels of society, from leaders to the people in general. Acts of injustice happen every day—in our homes, workplaces, churches, and communities by domineering bosses, manipulative co-workers, abusive leaders, and oppressive spouses. It is effortless to take the easy path, letting such injustice go when it does not directly affect us. Many will even join or minimize an injustice by telling themselves the victims must have deserved it or failed to act properly. We should care a great deal more about justice.
We must remember, however, what we need to do when we stand for justice. If it were easy, most of us would succeed. Paul is not reckless. He acknowledges the legitimate authority of others over him. He has great respect for the police officers called to serve and protect. Paul understands the biblical tradition of God’s raising and deposing kings and other rulers (Daniel 2:21; 4:25, 32; Proverbs 8:15, 16). Should such leaders be held accountable when they abuse their God-given authority? According to Paul, while they are authorized as God’s servants to keep order and punish wrongdoing, that power does not belong to them. They are answerable to God, and as His servants, they can expect to be held accountable (see N.T. Wright’s Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 2009, pg. 78). Paul’s interest in justice has little to do with identity or partisan politics and everything to do with holding leaders responsible for what they do with their power. When authorities abuse power, God finds it necessary to hold them accountable for their actions. Therefore, in the name of human decency, we too must speak out against atrocities such as George Floyds death and wrongs done to African-Americans and take proper action to bring about justice and reconciliation.
What I think is so incredible about this story is that the magistrates do apologize. It also must have reformed police relations with the local Church, now that the jailer was involved, but had Paul not endured his hardship with dignity, patience, and faith, he would not have had the leverage to achieve this outcome. Actual justice and reform comes from integrity not hatred and violence. Paul’s revolution is about being like Jesus—angry at injustice while demonstrating and calling for love. Many today, however, would rather look nice on social media than develop a heart for true justice. It’s easy to post the hashtag “activism” but not so easy to actually stand for justice when the moment demands. Standing for justice requires courage and fearlessness in the face of intimidation, yet the payoff is worth it. It’s not about seeking control over a situation or retribution against perpetrators of injustice (which often comes from no longer believing in the ideal of justice) but rather courageously bearing witness to what the world is intended to be and what it shall be when Jesus is Lord of all.
Such a revolution calls for better and deeper justice—not mere outrage followed by a swift return to normal life but a persistent, everyday grounding in the way of love. Bearing witness to God’s justice involves patent, intentional, and unwavering engagement. It is costly, and one may even have to choose suffering and even martyrdom over subjection to oppression, but a faithful witness of justice never engages in anarchy or mayhem. In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the way of love without hypocrisy (12:9), overcoming evil with good (12:21), and doing no harm to our neighbors (13:10). Without dictating behaviors to those who feel oppressed, each of us must adapt the way of love to develop creative solutions that speak truth to power and address modern injustices. Paul supports compassionate, patient, and faithful truth-telling without violence or distain. If we come to know and understand the power of God, perhaps we too could sing from the jail cell. There is something that can be said for the joy of enduring when our eyes are set on a greater reality than ourselves.
It is clear that Jesus is a kind of protester, one who calls people to rally publicly around His message to demonstrate God’s overflowing and unceasing justice breaking into the world (Amos 5:24). Echoing the cry of the prophets, it’s time to “do justice and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8). In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the well-known story about how every act of justice and mercy toward the “least of these” becomes an act done “unto Him.” The most profound message we can take away from this is that God looks like a disadvantaged and despised man. He looks like a rejected man of sorrow. He looks like a criminal condemned to die. He looks like a slave, degraded and bruised. He looks like an impoverished man with everything taken from Him. How else do you expect Jesus to look (Philippians 2:6)? We can affirm the human pain that rang out through His cry of forsakenness, yet looking at the world through His eyes we also see the intrinsic worth of every human being. It doesn’t matter if George Floyd had a criminal record or sordid past; it doesn’t matter if he was destitute or imprisoned because every act on behalf of justice in Jesus’ name is done unto Him. This truth means that no person is cheap or less than. It means every man and woman, every boy and girl, is worthy of the greatest honor and dignity. This is the sort of justice we are called to engage in. We pursue justice because it is beautiful and worthy of human pursuit. May we have the heart and courage to do so.
I close with Jesus’ prayer that we all may become one new humanity, standing equally under the unselfish, compassionate love that God has for each of us:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:20–26, NKJV).
This love is the only thing that can positively impact society.
Craig Ashton Jr.