Justice in Public Life
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“Remove your evil deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16b-17)
Over the last few years, religious people and institutions have been at the center of the political upheaval in our nation. There is a deep distrust of and dissatisfaction with institutions that many people are inclined to abandon or tear them all down, including the church. Anger and anxiety permeate spiritual spaces such that religious people cannot be counted on to inspire the public to care for the poor, do justice, or welcome strangers. Even the folk who attend church faithfully and consider themselves highly observant of spiritual practices appear to be more beholden to their ideology than they are to their God. As a result, our public life is in trouble.
In describing Isaiah’s prophetic utterances to Israel, the theologian Walter Brueggemann has suggested that not reflecting God’s will in public life will lead to trouble in public life. Not only is there trouble in our public life, but it also appears that religious people have ceased to be exemplars of the grace, mercy, and justice to which the biblical witness testifies as central to God’s character. The words, worship, and presence of religious people in the public square may arguably reflect less what is important to God and more often what is important politically. If you look at how the religious show up in public life, you’d think God only cares about abortion, protecting the right to bear arms, closing public restrooms to trans people, and Supreme Court nominees. Our songs, prayers, and liturgies talk about a God who cares about the poor, justice, and loving our neighbors. Yet, when the church shows up in public life, it is mainly silent or hostile when it comes to doing justice.
I recently saw a book in the religion section of the bookstore with a title that suggested that social justice is anti-God, anti-biblical, and destructive to the church. But according to Isaiah, doing justice is an undeniable, non-negotiable part of being in relationship with God. Taking care of the most vulnerable is not a suggestion for God; it is imperative. Isaiah prophesied to Israel that God didn’t want to be flattered and did not share the gifts of worship and covenant for their sake alone. Israel failed, and its public life shattered. Yes, we are experiencing trouble in public life. We are engaged in a heated and frenzied struggle over the future. However, I hope we double down on seeking justice in response. May we all do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. May it be so.