Let us think of a plant. We’ll give it the unlikely name “righteousness.” Long cultivated by pulpit thumping legalists and in backroom prayer sessions, this plant now has a declining reputation. It’s out of style, but not out of style enough, not old enough to have achieved heritage status. Not weird or warted enough to be hip, not vintage, not classic—righteousness is still around but it isn’t loved or bragged about. Photos of righteousness never show up on social media. Righteousness is as valued as volunteer squash whose fruit will need to be plunked in the backseat of someone’s unlocked car at work.
The prophet Amos (5:6-15) was interested in righteousness though. Amos, that voice from the sheep country, that voice that could peel paint; Amos couldn’t help but speak of righteousness because it wasn’t growing. “Seek the LORD and live,” he growls, “or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire . . . .” God is righteous, of course, but Amos is talking about righteousness in the covenant community. Righteousness was nowhere to be found—they had thrown it to the ground.
Walter Brueggeman, scholar of the First Testament, says a useful way to think about righteousness is simply as loving God and loving one’s neighbor. That encapsulates both halves of the Decalogue; that is both halves of the Ten Commandments, the first of which deals with our relationship to God. It is the second half that concerns our relationship with other people. The righteous person, Brueggeman says, is one who “invests in the community, showing special attentiveness to the poor and the needy” (RoF, 177). Let’s think of righteousness as a plant with roots of gratitude and flowers of justice.
Gratitude is the theme of our recent the holiday weekend, but Thanksgiving should feel a bit redundant to Christians. When we come to Thanksgiving we should feel like the marathoner who goes to work and is asked to participate in the company 1k walk/run to reduce risk of heart disease. We’re happy to participate but we do ‘thanksgiving’ all the time. In the Christian way of life giving thanks is clipped to the tick marks that divide up our day. It’s there when we offer thanks before we eat and when we take the time to notice the beauty of autumn. It’s there in the praise we offer through worship. It’s there when, with the prophet Amos, we contemplate the astral clutches of the Pleiades and Orion or the turning of deep darkness into morning. It’s there too when we see the harvest of gardens and fields, the product of inputs solar and terrestrial, mounded in fecund satisfaction.
This beauty, this abundance is too much to be contained in the caverns of our thoughts. It ferments and bubbles and pours forth in music and dance and painting. It pours forth in words. Here is an example: these are the words of a fifth-century Christian bishop from North Africa:
“[W]hat discourse can adequately describe the beauty and utility of the rest of creation, which the divine bounty has bestowed up on [human creatures] to behold and consume . . . ? Consider the manifold and varied beauty of sky and earth and sea; the plenteousness of light and its wondrous quality, in the sun, moon and stars and in the shadows of the forests; the colour and fragrance of flowers; the diversity and multitude of the birds with their songs and bright colours; the multiform species of living creatures of all kinds, even the smallest of which we behold with the greatest wonder—for we are more astonished at the feat of tiny ants and bees than we are at the immense bodies of the whales. Consider also the grand spectacle of the sea, robing herself in different colours, like garments: sometimes green, and that in so many different shades; sometimes purple; sometimes blue. And what a delightful thing it is to behold the sea when stormy . . . . Is there any limit to the abundant supply of food by which we are everywhere fortified against hunger? Or to the variety of flavours available to our fastidious tastes, lavishly distributed by the richness of nature, quite apart from the skill and labour of cooks (CoG, XXII.24)?”
On and on Augustine goes extoling the beauty and wonder of the world. Whoever says the Christian faith ignores creation, whoever says the Christian tradition has no appreciation for its beauty and fruitfulness, whoever says those things speaks in ignorance. We have not even broached the Psalms, the book of Job, the beginning of Genesis or the lofty claims of Colossians, Hebrews or Revelation.
This biblical gratitude is the root of righteousness. “Give thanks,” says the writer of Chronicles. “Give thanks,” say the poets of the Psalms again and again. Jesus gives thanks before breaking the bread that is his body and sharing the cup that is his lifeblood. To inhabit the biblical world is to live in a cosmos jeweled with praise. The contemporary writer and activist Mary Jo Leddy tells us that “Radical gratitude begins when we stop taking life for granted. . . . Gratitude is the foundation of faith in God as the Creator of all beginnings, great and small” (RG, 7).
Gratitude is the root of righteousness.
And from this root righteousness consistently pushes forth blooms of justice. Mary Jo Leddy again: “[Gratitude] awakens the imagination to another way of being, to another kind of economy, the great economy of grace in which each person is of infinite value and worth.” (RG, 7) From the roots of the recognition that what we have—our friends, our food, our homes, our finances, our city—are all loaned from God, from these roots concern for those who lack life’s necessities inserts itself into our lives.
And here we must return again to Amos. Scholars of the book do not agree on whether Amos was a farmer-peasant or a farmer-merchant. They do not agree on whether Amos herded hoofed creatures himself or ran an agro-business. This is a helpful ambiguity. We don’t know if Amos himself was rich or poor but his words are clear. He says,
Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
The end of the list of these charges against the unjust wealthy comes in verse 24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We can’t hear that line anymore without thinking of how Martin Luther King wielded it in his famous speeches (i.e. “I have Been to the Mountaintop” and “I have a Dream”). King was called an extremist, and in turn he passes the charge on to the biblical authors, calling Amos an “extremist for justice” and Jesus an “extremist for love” (“Letters from a Birmingham Jail”).
The quest for justice is one of Christianity’s great contributions to the world. That is not to say that Christians have always lived up to these biblical ideals. Certainly we are guilty of colluding with the powerful and self-interested to perpetuate a status quo where some are rendered voiceless, powerless, even considered person-less . . . until they get a haircut or a real job. We know this in our own country through the stories of indigenous communities. Among other things this holiday should remind us to be thankful for all that these first peoples have given the rest of us.
We have not always lived up to our ideals, but to be a Christian is live with gratitude and to joyfully pursue justice. It shouldn’t surprise us then that economic justice is not a new concern for Christians. We see it in the polemics of Amos sure, but in other places as well.
Near the end of the fourth century the great preacher, John Chrysostom of Antioch gave a series of sermons on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Here are a few lines from one of those seven sermons: “[W]hen you see on earth the [person] who encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune. . . . Need alone is this poor [person’s] worthiness. . . . I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft form the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs” (Justice, 61). Notice what this ancient preacher is saying: when we have much and others lack the necessities of life, we are stealing what is rightfully theirs! It might not need to be said, but a Christian view of justice is not a generic one.
The rich young man asks Jesus about inheriting eternal life (Mark 10:17-31). Jesus responds by listing half of the Ten Commandments: don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, and so on. The young man responds by saying that he has kept these since he was young. But here’s what we might not notice right away about the exchange. The commandments Jesus listed are from the second half of the Decalogue, the part that deals with our interaction with other people. Jesus didn’t ask him about anything from the first half, the part related to our interaction with God. He gets at it, though, by suggesting the fellow sell his things and give them to the poor. Perhaps, just perhaps, the fellow’s wealth had become to him a god more significant than the Creator—a violation of the first commandment. You see, Christian convictions about how we approach others are grounded in something deeper than the worth of an individual; they are grounded in the worth of God.
The problem with desiring things more than God is that things are finite. Our desires, which can never be fully satisfied by things we can possess, propel us on the treadmill of acquiring and consuming. In a world of finite resources this fuels an economy of scarcity. When things are limited or scarce we gather and hoard because we worry there may not be enough for everyone. We believe that acquiring something at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing is unavoidable because there isn’t enough to go around—and we just have to have. The cheap shirt made in an unsafe factory, for instance, the sweetener cultivated with forced labour or the phone with toxic components handled by children. We desire that thing and we believe there isn’t enough to go around, so we try and ignore the implications of our purchases—the death we deal with the swipe of a plastic card.
Gratitude undercuts this because it requires us to profess the truth, which is that in God’s kingdom there is more than enough. An infinite God can give and give and give; only an unending God can satisfy our unending desire. Gratitude and desire for what God gives bear fruit as all such mutual desire does—in love.
But gratitude does something more, it allows us to recognize the goodness of the things we have. We look at this produce, at these baskets and at the friends or family gathered around us and we are thankful. Our desire to acquire and consume, on the other hand, always pushes us to seek more, for it is fueled not by what we have been given but by what we do not possess. Gratitude allows us to be satisfied with what we have and from there to concern ourselves with how the things we buy implicate us in the lives of others. Our hope, of course, is that our participation in the marketplace allows others the freedom to live in a way that befits their status as divine image bearers. The dollars we spend and the jeans we wear are votes on the value of other people.
In the coming month Ottawa Mennonite Church will host the sale of Ten Thousand Villages items in our church. The skeptic could say that what we’re doing is just assuaging liberal guilt and offering wealthy consumers a chance to purchase the Mennonite equivalent of an indulgence. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” That was how a sixteenth-century salesmen put it. Instead, the point of our sale, as I understand it at least, is to come to grips with the fact that our purchasing links us to other people whom we help or harm, love or use.
Of course Christians aren’t the only ones to question unjust economic practices. And Christians aren’t the only ones to insist that the goods they buy enhance instead of detract from the lives of others. But as Christians we do bring something special to the table, for we insist that what is at stake is not just the modern convention of human rights but our respect for God. It is God who commands that exchanges must be conducted with balanced scales and forbids partiality and bribes. It is God who commands land owners to leave a portion of their fields for the poor and who institutes the jubilee to prevent perpetual poverty. And so Christians believe that to withhold due honor and respect for the persons our eating, driving and clothing connect us to is to withhold due honor and respect from the one who has given us everything.
Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. He’s speaking hyperbolically and compares the wealthy’s chances to a camel going through the eye of a needle. Other ancient rabbis spoke of an elephant trying to do the same thing. It’s hard to imagine that the specifics of the animal species matters much; the point is that it’s pretty difficult. If Jesus or Amos were speaking to us today they would probably remind us that by global standards most of us are pretty wealthy. And that would be a fair standard to judge us by since the things we purchase connect us to people around the globe. Why wouldn’t our financial situation be compared to those who make our things? Aren’t their lives connected to ours? Aren’t they in effect our neighbours?
And so here we are a bunch of camels looking through the eye of a needle. Before we see this as impossibly critical let’s remember that it was the wealthy who supported the apostles. It was the wealthy in Corinth and other places who took up a collection to support the poor believers in Jerusalem. Among all our relatives in the Christian family, Mennonites have been more embarrassed by power than most. That means we’ve been quite vulnerable to abusing it. I think God calls us to do better. So let’s mark this time of year as one where we express profound gratitude for God’s provision, and let’s mark it too as one where we recognize the power we have and commit to using it to see justice bloom. Let’s be extremists for love and for justice.