The great righteousness-justice divide

A mighty river

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“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

Righteousness and justice are inextricably linked. We cannot simultaneously choose for one and against the other.

The Old Testament repeatedly connects the two terms, affirming them as complementary qualities of God’s nature and of people who walk in his ways:

  • “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps. 89:14).
  • “Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep” (Ps. 36:6).
  • “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (Ps. 106:3 ESV).

Further, the New Testament includes both concepts in the same Greek word. Made righteous in Christ, we recognize righteousness and justice by the Holy Spirit. Cooperating with the Spirit, we live right and just lives.

So why do we in the US church often try to split the two? Why do we divide into camps that attempt to champion righteousness or justice, without recognizing that neither can survive alone?

Exploring the history of the church in the Deep South, I’ve gained startling insights into the US evangelical church culture. Pursuing research that culminated in the book, We Confess! The Civil War, the South, and the Church, I’ve realized: Sometimes we can see ourselves more clearly in the light of another time and place …

Two events profoundly impacted the settling of the Deep South: the creation of the cotton gin, and the Second Great Awakening.

Invented in 1793, the cotton gin enticed throngs of white settlers, for decades, into a region whose soil and climate seemed ideal for cultivating “white gold.” Over time, Southerners came to view their corporate identity and personal status in terms of cotton and its “necessary” companions, land and slaves.

In their eyes: Acquiring land meant removing the peoples on it. Growing cotton meant buying people and forcing them to do it. Ever seeking more cotton, land and slaves meant constantly moving, disregarding the pleas of lonely wives, many of whom knew their husbands were sexually exploiting the slave women.

The Second Great Awakening started in New England in the 1790s, hit Kentucky in 1801 and swept through the Deep South for the next three decades. In the churches that sprang up all across the cotton kingdom, people who had confessed Jesus as Lord gathered regularly to worship. In their hearts, they heard the Holy Spirit teaching right from wrong.

When the Spirit (and some of the preachers) began to denounce slavery, huge inner battles raged. Ultimately, collectively, the white Southern church quenched the Spirit’s voice in order to embrace the society’s values. The church began to preach – and to try to live – a righteousness unencumbered with justice.

The results?

Injustice was hidden in plain sight. After closing their hearts to the Spirit for a generation, Christians could no longer even see the wrongs of a cruel slavery system, much less the injustice in brutally removing Native Americans and systematically demeaning women.

Righteousness was distorted. Scripture-quoting preachers called slavery “biblical” and labeled those who disagreed, “heretical.”

Unrighteousness began to be associated primarily with outward actions. Transgressions such as dancing, cursing and drinking became the sin issues preached against. The mistreatment of whole groups of people went unacknowledged, as did the attitudes that spawned injustice – attitudes such as greed, pride, fear and a determination to control.

Agreeing together to redefine righteousness, my ancestors began to count theirs a superior righteousness.

With white dissenters silenced – and the oppressed given no voice – the struggle to end slavery moved North. Even then, abolitionists pled with their fellow Christians to stand together against the slave system. (See Sarah Grimke’s courageous “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States.”) Tragically, the mailings sent out by such “radical,” “incendiary” abolitionists were typically burned, rather than read. Subsequently, the abolition movement (and later the women’s suffrage movement) veered toward legally forcing change.

It’s crucial to seek and to make just laws. It’s also important to see what resulted when Christians sought justice in terms of the letter of the law, but not the Spirit:

Justice was distorted. For half a century, every legal inch gained toward freeing the slaves was counteracted by those determined to maintain slavery. Only a bloody civil war, with huge loss of life, changed the laws. Even then, Southerners found ways to subvert and overrule the new laws and so to maintain a system of racial injustice very akin to the slavery system.

Righteousness was dismissed as unattainable. When antebellum Southerners cried, “Work conditions in Northern factories are as bad as slavery!” Northerners said, “There’s no comparison!” When Southerners said, “We can’t get rid of slavery. Our entire economic system is built on it,” Northerners shrugged, “That’s your problem.”

When national denominations decided, “We won’t send practicing slave owners as missionaries,” Southern pastors protested, “You’re calling us sinners! You’re denying our rights! We’ll just secede and form Southern denominations!” Northern leaders responded, “Okay.” (See Readings in Baptist History: Four Centuries of Selected Documents, pp. 109-115, Joseph Early Jr., ed.)

Neither side urged, “Let’s get on our faces before God until we can hear his voice clearly. In his power, for his name’s sake, let’s help each other see where we’re missing the mark. Let’s help each other find ways to walk in right paths.”

The choice of Christians to separate, rather than to humble themselves, receive correction and search together for righteous solutions, seemingly worked so well that, 15 years later, when Southern state governments began threatening to secede, Southern pastors were among the loudest voices calling for the break.

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

“The Lord loves righteousness and justice” (Ps. 33:5).

In Christ Jesus, our God has given us the capacity and the responsibility to love and to unleash both qualities so foundational to his rule.

Yet, looking at the US evangelical church today, what evidences do you see that we’re still trying to split justice and righteousness – and to champion one or the other, without recognizing that neither can survive alone?

Thank you, Natasha Robinson, for inviting me to write this post and publishing it first on your blog, A Sista’s Journey.

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