This is the third installment in a series about how we care for one another. As we await the deliberations of our bi-partisan Congress regarding the federal budget and listen to the righteous indignation of our elected officials with one another, I am reminded of the meanings of the words righteousness and righteous in the ancient sacred texts of the Jews and their citations by Jesus Christ as recorded in the Christian Bible.
Since our politicians are invoking these words and sentiments -- righteousness and righteous so frequently, I thought it might help to understand what it really means to be righteous.
I will be paraphrasing or directly quoting from the book "Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and How They Can be Restored" by Marcus Borg. He also wrote "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time", an extraordinary revelation for anyone interested in the radical Rabbi, Jesus Christ.
Borg tells us that the words righteousness and righteous are associated with doing what is right. To say that God is righteous means "God does what is right." Moreover, "God is passionate that we do what is right."
Another primary meaning of the words righteous and righteousness refers to the way that a society is organized -- its political and economic structure, its distribution of power and wealth and their effects on society, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of nations and empires. In these contexts, righteousness is better translated justice. Righteousness and justice are so closely related in the Bible that they are often synonyms.
Most of us have heard the phrase, "But let justice roll down like waters," but may not have heard the second part of the admonition from Amos 5: 21-24, which continues, "and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
God is passionate about justice and righteousness, but not the kind that we hear so much about in America. We mostly hear about punitive or rehabilitative justice, which identifies, convicts and punishes those who commit crimes.
We also see a lot of this kind of justice and righteousness expressed as blame or shame or judgment of people who represent minority groups in our country -- single moms with babies, gay people, people without shelter or work histories, immigrants without official sanction, men of color who do not actively parent their children. You can add to the list with the group most often maligned in your home town or church or within your family.
God's justice means much more than singling people out for shame or blame or punishment, in fact God's justice is something quite different. God's primary passion is not the punishment of wrongdoers.
Most often in the Bible, justice and righteousness refer to the way we and the social order that we create, should be.
The wealthy and the powerful claim that the world is theirs and the treatment of the most vulnerable is often disgraceful. Most of what is happening in Washington, D.C. is a far cry from justice and righteousness as revealed in the Bible and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Unless our elected officials, all of them, come up with a solution that substantively cares for the least of these in our country, their solutions will not meet the Biblical description of God's passion which is: for a different kind of world where distributive justice prevails -- where the fair distribution of material necessities of life is top-of-mind for those in power... God created the world and it belongs to God, not to us.
The Jews and the Trouble-Causing Rabbi Jesus, known as the Son of God, Jesus, proposed some of the most radical economic, social and political laws in the history of the world.
"Blessed be the meek (the gentle) for they shall inherit the earth."
We have to believe that Jesus got it straight from God, right? Otherwise what was the point of His birth, life, death & resurrection?
Jesus focused on distributive justice, which is not charity. Charity is helping people in need out of our abundance. Distributive justice does not ask us to give more to charity, but rather asks us how is our system of caring for one another structured? Who benefits the most? Does our system benefit some more than others?
If so, change the system. Throw out the people in the temple who are making money off the backs of the poor.
Jesus and the Apostle Paul were not crucified because they advocated charity and taught that each of us must be righteous to inherit the kingdom of heaven. They were martyred because those in power thought they were a threat to the way things were -- that is, to the way that the wealthy and powerful had structured the world to gather most of society's resources for themselves.
None of the budgetary proposals on the table in Washington D.C. meet this test. Perhaps the reason our elected officials are so stymied is that they are simply using the wrong definitions of righteousness and justice. Maybe you can help. Send them an e-mail with a copy of this blog if you think they need a refresher course.
Perhaps they and many of us have simply forgotten the test of a great nation -- how it treats the most vulnerable in its midst.