Quick: give me a Bible verse on social justice. What comes to mind?
Was it Micah 6:8? Isaiah 1:17? Zechariah 7:9-10? Jeremiah 22:3? Chances are it was from one of the Old Testament prophets. Or perhaps it was from Psalms (e.g. 82:3), or one of the Torah passages about justice for widows, orphans, and foreigners (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
What about New Testament verses? The NT is full of calls to social action (e.g. to love God and people, or the Good Samaritan). But it doesn’t tend to label these things as justice. There’s a couple of OT quotes about justice, and a few stories about people not getting justice, but few commands to do justice. Why so different to the OT prophets?
Aren’t we called to “speak truth to power” as the OT prophets did? Isn’t that the kingdom of God in action? Shouldn’t we call the leaders of our nation to account as the prophets did in Israel long ago? Isn’t that kingdom work?
Please consider the assumptions undergirding that approach. Is it appropriate to compare our nation and our leaders to the nation of Israel and its leaders in OT times? Israel was a theocracy, a nation ruled by God. He gave them their laws, including many laws about social justice. They did not elect a king: the Davidic family was divinely elected to represent their heavenly sovereign on earth. But many of the kings of Judah and all of the kings of Israel failed to represent the heavenly king properly: they “did what was evil in YHWH’s sight.” So YHWH sent prophets to confront the rulers who misrepresented him.
It is completely inappropriate to transfer that framework to our nation. We are not a theocracy. The nation of Australia is not called to represent God to other nations. Malcom Turnbull is not a divinely appointed king representing on earth the king in heaven. Consequently no Christian “prophet” has any divine mandate to confront him or his government for failing to accurately represent the God he is not representing. That’s just bad exegesis, misapplying the Bible.
That should be obvious when you read the NT. When did Jesus prophetically confront Herod? How many prophetic messages did Jesus send to Caesar, or to his local representative Pontius Pilate? John the Baptist lost his head over a critique of Herod, but Jesus avoided Herod. Jesus prophetically engaged the Jewish leaders for misrepresenting God, but he did not critique the gentile rulers for failing to provide social justice.
What about Paul? When Paul said “Jesus is Lord,” was he implying that Caesar is not? A number of NT scholars discuss that question in Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic, 2013). Paul’s message implies that earthly rulers will lose their power when everyone bows to Jesus’ name, and Paul does want to proclaim Jesus’ kingship to rulers (Acts 9:15; 28:31). But Paul never critiques Roman rulers on matters of social justice. He never instructs Rome on how to run the empire.
The Book of Revelation contains strong denouncement of the empire (Babylon/Rome), but the prophecy is addressed to the churches, not to Rome. Its warning is that the people of God must not be deceived by the beastly empire. They must guard against the false prophet that pretends to represent the Lamb but is actually deceiving the churches by speaking the beast’s message. Revelation is speaking prophetic truth to the church, not “speaking truth to power” if by power we mean the political system.
The kingdom of God is not making prophetic announcements to the current system. True prophets neither proclaim or denounce Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They proclaim Jesus and his reign as the only salvation for the planet. They don’t attack the present political system; they embody an alternative one — the kingdom of God.
“Speaking truth to power” sounds attractive, especially as it implies nonviolent confrontation. But is that what we’re called to do? Denouncing the dark powers that currently run the world is a waste of effort. Proclaim Jesus and embrace justice. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Don’t confuse our democratic right to protest with our mandate from God. Our divine mandate is not to denounce the rulers of this world; it’s to be the kingdom of his Son. Don’t try to drive the darkness out; be the light.
What others are saying
Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 10:
There are deeply problematic things about the model of truth-speaking-to-power.
Examples of authors calling us to “speak truth to power”:
Thomas B. Slater, “Context, Christology And Civil Disobedience In John’s Apocalypse” in Review and Expositor 106:1 (2009) 63:
The Revelation to John is the earliest form of Christian civil disobedience. It is a biblical warrant to speak truth to power.
Russell D. Moore, “From the House of Jacob to the Iowa Caucuses: The Future of Israel in Contemporary Evangelical Political Ethics,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 11:4 (2007) 19:
American evangelicals—as long as they are rooted in a biblical worldview—understand supporting legitimate authority, even as they understand speaking truth to power. As long as this is the case, American evangelicals will support the Israeli state …
Carl Trueman, “Uneasy Consciences and Critical Minds: What the Followers of Carl Henry Can Learn from Edward Said,” Themelios 30:2 (2005): 45:
We need Christian [Edward] Saids who will not waste time on junk but rather will dare to speak the truth to power in all circumstances and however uneasy it might make our consciences.
Robert Allen Warrior, “Response,” Semeia 75 (1996) 209:
The post-colonial, on the other hand, seems for now to be the location from which to speak truth to power and to find like-minded people who seek ways to address the conditions of suffering under which our planet’s majority exists.
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