Justice and Grace in the ELCA

Welcome to the Fire Escape everyone. I’m David and we named this place after the fire escape outside my back window where Mike and I would have many a discussion.

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for those who don’t know)  has been making a pretty big social justice push for the last couple years. It has been bugging me for a little while because of the vocabulary we use. This is ELCA’s statement on the issue:

What is justice and how does it relate to your faith?

Justice is love applied to many neighbors. It means more than acting out of a sense of charity, or making a donation or volunteering our time.

“Doing justice” means addressing inequities in political, economic and social systems. It works to restore relations among people and with the earth to the way God intended them to be. It means challenging ourselves to step outside our comfort zones…

Here is the thing: if justice is love applied then it is, at best, the kind of love you show toward that family member that really annoys you. It’s the kind of love that says, when invited to a birthday party, “can’t I just send a card instead.”

Central to the idea of justice is concept of giving people their due. Being part of the community, and/or being human, means that people deserve to be treated a certain way. This is why the word “require” is used in Micah 6:8 in connection with justice. The psalmists are constantly repeating some variation of the theme “give justice to my cause.” This is effectively appealing to the notion of what is deserved. Justice, therefore, is a bare minimum. At the very least we are supposed to aid people in distress, care for those whom society ignores, and be on the side of the poor.

All of this is good. Justice is a call that society definitely needs. Our world spectacularly fails at living up to the minimum standard of Isaiah 1:17. Many awesome and wonderful prophetic voices have worked at reminding the world of the bare minimum that people deserve.

HOWEVER, I think we are selling ourselves short. We Lutherans talk about “grace” probably as well as anybody and I think that grace is word that calls us to a much higher standard. Paul writes this in 2nd Corinthians 8 –

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.  So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.  But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

See how everything relates back to the grace found in Christ. Grace is more than just the bare bones requirement for Paul. Notice what Paul says: that because of the grace of God the Macedonians “gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” That is far and beyond giving people what they are due. For Paul, grace is seen in Jesus. Christ become poor for us and so we have seen the “incomparable riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7).

Instead of moving toward “justice” language I think we Lutherans already have a wonderful vocabulary for living out God’s love in the world. When the ELCA uses the word”Justice” the Church is frequently trying to guilt people into acknowledging the bare minimum people deserve. Sometimes people need guilt as a motivation, but I think that we might get further if we eliminate the guilt talk and start talking about what amazing things we can share. God has given us everything so let’s share that abundance. Instead working toward the bare minimum, what would it look like if we tried to totally give of ourselves as Christ gave? Instead of a spirit that asks “what do people deserve?” how about a grace filled spirit that asks “is this all that I can give?” Instead of telling people what they must do we could share with the people that “overflowing Joy”

In short: instead of talking about the bare minimum we could try and “excel in this grace of giving.”

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