Let me begin with an acknowledgment: I’m embodied as a white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, educated, Christian man. I embrace these identities while also freely admitting they have helped make injustice almost non-existent in my life. However, my friends in social groups such as the Black or disabled communities have experienced—and still experience—injustices that I’ll never fully comprehend. So, I hope to write with them rather than to them, recognizing my limited perspective. I write primarily to those who are embodied in ways like me; those whom our culture has prioritized so that the possibility of injustice is greatly reduced. We are indeed the most prone to complacency.
I can’t offer my personal stories of injustice. But what I can offer is my training in biblical studies. The reading strategies I’ve learned can help lead us to interpretations of the Bible that motivate us toward identifying and fighting injustice in the world.
Apocalypse Now (And Then)
The last few years have been difficult for our world. As a United States citizen, I can speak primarily to issues my country has faced. Here are just a few: a pandemic, consistent mass shootings, an armed insurrection at the Capitol, increased awareness of police violence against Black people, and a surge of racially motivated attacks against Jews and Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. In the aftermath, many have also experienced disappointing responses from family, friends, and faith communities. How did we get here?
In the centuries before the writing of the New Testament, a popular genre of literature emerged among Jewish writers that scholars now call apocalypses. When we hear that word, we might think of the “end times,” or the end of the world. This theme appeared in apocalyptic literature, but there were other features too. Authors using this style often told stories about God using dramatic events to reveal hidden mysteries to a human messenger regarding the corruption of the world, its leaders, and its systems. These writers used imaginative language. In an apocalyptic story, God suddenly breaks into history, unveiling and exposing how things truly are. The biblical book of Revelation is a great example—indeed, its title in the original language is “The Apocalypse of John.”
The last few years have felt apocalyptic. Just like in ancient religious literature, terrible events have unveiled and exposed the corruption of our world. It’s harder to pretend that evil is “out there,” when it now feels so close to home. What’s even more discomforting is that these tragedies have revealed who the people around us truly are—who we truly are. Many are thinking like the apocalyptic writers, asking, “What does God want us to do right now?”
God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life (But It’s Harder than You Think)
If we’re honest, many of us started our relationship with God because we wanted something. Things like peace, forgiveness, a fresh start, or spiritual fulfillment come to mind. Others might long for assurance that we’re going to heaven when we die, and that God has a wonderful plan for our lives in the meantime. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. But like all meaningful relationships, they must mature over time. There is more to be learned, and more responsibility will be asked of us as the relationship grows.
Think about it: Did God send Jesus solely so that we might know where we go when we die, and that God has a plan for our lives? What about biblical texts such as the Lord’s Prayer, which suggest an alternative vision for the Christian life? Jesus instructed his disciples to pray to God, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Notice that the focus is on heaven coming to earth and God’s intention for our world now.
If the primary concern during our brief lives is what comes after—and enjoying maximal comfort in the meantime—we’ll miss what God has for us. We can discuss complacency toward injustice, but it’s important to step back and ask what fuels it. At times, it can be a lack of experiencing injustice or having no personal relationships with those who do. But in Christian circles, I think it often goes even deeper. We can latch onto unhelpful theologies that lull us to sleep. Our Bible reading strategies can lead to interpretations that support the injustice of the status quo.
As writer and theologian Dante Stewart says, “We have to dismantle theologies that believe in freedom and love in heaven but tolerate injustice and oppression on earth.”1 What if God does indeed want to do something wonderful with our lives, but it’s harder than we think, requiring us to get involved with the world and its suffering?
Let’s use Scripture and some interpretive practices from Jewish and Black church traditions for help. Here’s a beautiful prayer that my Reform Jewish friends pray in their synagogue services:
“Standing on the parted shores of historyMishkan T’filah, a Reform prayer book, adapted from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution
we still believe what we were taught
before we ever stood at Sinai’s foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
The Jewish community I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing has learned to read their sacred texts—and in this case, the Exodus story—in ways that lead to community building, action, and undoing injustice in our modern world. Week after week, they imagine themselves as a community standing at Sinai, committing themselves to God’s commandments; that their location is “Egypt,” and that an ideal “promised land” is possible if people agree to travel through this wilderness of life, working together.
Without stealing from our Jewish neighbors, I firmly believe that Christians have the same responsibility to read our Bibles in ways that lead to the undoing of injustice. It’s an act of faithfulness to creatively map biblical stories onto our current world, and to see what they can teach us. We can reimagine them for new times and places. For example, consider the might of Pharaoh and Egypt from the Exodus story:
“Therefore [the Egyptians] set taskmasters over [the Israelites] to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”Exodus 1:11-14
Many American Christians understand themselves as a type of “Israel” who were enslaved to the taskmaster of sin, but have now been liberated by God, through Jesus, to the promised land of eternal life. This is evidenced in the lyrics of a popular worship song like “No Longer a Slave” by Bethel Church. This spiritual interpretation is fine, but what if we explore other options? What if we flip the script? Why do we never imagine ourselves as Egypt, and what would happen if we did?
The Black church tradition and African American theologians such as James Cone have read this story as if they were “Israel,” and America during its history of enslavement and displacement of Black and Native people was “Egypt.” Maybe re-read that Exodus passage again with that perspective. Does it feel a bit eerie now? As the story continues:
“. . . the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard theirExodus 2:23-24
groaning . . .”
Again, the Black church has understood this passage through the lens of their experience. For them, God has heard their groaning and cries for help. And those who support unjust systems—whether explicitly or implicitly—are on the wrong side. God continues to hear and act, raising up “prophets” like Moses within communities to inspire and help people undo injustice in the world. And just like with Pharaoh, the God of Exodus will go head to head with whatever injustice is thrown at them. Doesn’t this interpretation bring new life and potential to the biblical text? It helps us see that God uses Scripture to speak to all kinds of different communities, and that it’s possible to unlearn the eternal ways of “Egypt” in exchange for the ways of the “promised land,” where God’s justice reigns.
What can this brief example teach us about what to do when we feel complacent about injustice? There is no quick-fix solution, but I recommend these helpful ideas:
· Examine your life: Ask yourself in what ways you might be contributing to injustice in the world. Is injustice “out there,” or is it in you? What habits can you and your community start, or ways of thinking can you change, that might begin to push back on injustice?
· Examine your theology: Remember that the prayer Jesus gave to his followers in Matthew 6 was focused on bringing God’s kingdom to this world. This means Christians should be a people who are active in doing all kinds of justice work. Retrain your imagination and biblical interpretation skills by reading theology or biblical commentaries from writers who are outside of your tradition. I recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, Womanist Midrash by Wilda Gafney, and Acts: A Theological Commentary by Willie James Jennings.
· Get creative: Try creating a “Read and Resist” group with a couple friends. Pick a justice issue that you care about and read a book about the topic by an author or theologian working in that area. Discuss the book with friends and think of ways to get involved in the world. Can you pull together money that you can donate to an organization that is working for justice? Can you talk with your church and raise awareness about a certain issue?
1 Danté Stewart (@stewartdantec), Twitter post, May 29, 2022, https://twitter.com/stewartdantec/status/1530892543361163264, accessed October 24, 2022.
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Evan is a perpetual learner of all things Bible, Judaism, and Christianity. He is currently based in Cincinnati, where he is a Ph.D. student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Evan loves using his education to help others process questions and explore their faith from new angles. He is also passionate about promoting positive and informed relationships between Jews and Christians.