Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court Considerations

John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

The process of selecting a Supreme Court justice, who serves on the bench for life, is critical to our nation’s health and stability. It’s one of those things we simply must get right. Maybe because the pressure to get it right is so great, we always seem to get a little crazy when that time comes around, although we’re not always crazy in the same way.

A couple of decades ago we wanted our justices to have no personal opinions at all. Then over the last decade it shifted and we insisted they have partisan preferences so they could qualify to replace either a liberal or conservative judge who came before them. Now there’s a new brand of craziness and people are questioning whether it is appropriate to look for a Supreme Court justice with empathy. Hello? Isn’t that the difference between administering the law and administering justice?

Because one of the main Scriptural metaphors for God is that of a judge, and because biblical leaders were also generally called upon as judges, people of faith have an interest in these matters—or should. The best-known Old Testament judgment is the case of the two women claiming to be the mother of a single baby, a case that was brought to King Solomon.

In a case hailed forever after as a sign of Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon uses his experience of a mother’s love to decide the case. He orders that the child be cut in half, with half a baby given to each. When one of the women cried out to spare the child and give it to the other woman, Solomon knew he had the real mother and gave the child to her. One example of empathy at work, resulting in justice.

We only see Jesus acting formally as a judge once, in the opening verses of John 8. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery (although oddly enough they could only manage to bring the woman and not the man for judgment) and the Pharisees bring her to Jesus to judge, reminding him that the punishment dictated by the law is death by stoning. Jesus makes his judgment based on his ability to connect with and understand people—empathy. More than that, he brings about justice by calling those present to empathize with the woman as well. They are all reminded of their own sins and only those who have no sin are allowed to administer what the law requires.

It works, and nobody throws the first stone. Then Jesus, arguably the only one there who could have thrown a stone under the rule, does not. He recognizes her sin and tells her to shape up. But he lets her go, as the Pharisees had obviously already let the man go. What Jesus continually objected to in the Pharisees was their lack of empathy in administering the law. They were legalists, caring only about the technicalities of the law and not the broader concerns of justice. They were concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The “Good News” of the New Testament is that our ultimate judge is Jesus and not the Pharisees. We get the guy with the empathy not the one with a literal interpretation of the law. There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about a potential judge, for the Supreme Court or otherwise; but if empathy becomes an impediment to someone's selection, we could easily become a nation of Pharisees, leaving us all in danger of being stoned to death.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fair Balance

2 Corinthians 8:13-14a “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

Friday night I was at an event co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society and the Boston Faith and Justice Network. It was called “The Gratitude Economy” and featured three people who told about the ways they have adjusted their lives to increase their giving for the poor.

One woman explained that she has joined with a group of thirty other women who all pledge to give 1% of their income (over and above their tithe) to a cause they would select jointly. That group gives $35,000 - $40,000 per year, living frugal lives to enable their giving. The next speaker was moved by a photographer’s exhibit of 70 orphans to render those photographs as oil paintings. He painted 70 oil portraits and sold them for $70 each, money that was contributed to services for orphans. More than that, each purchaser was required to pledge $70 per year for the remaining years of his or her life to that same cause. All 70 were sold and so he painted another 70.

The third speaker, a well-paid technology executive, told of his family’s decision to live on the income of the average American household and to give the rest away. When they began, that average income was $38,000. Today it is closer to $50,000, but he makes $200,000. They give away about $150,000 per year, and live in a poor area of one of California’s poorest cities to make ends meet. They find themselves in ministry in many ways in that setting, from leading Bible studies for gang members to taking neighbor children to school.

The most notable thing about the evening, however, was not the stories of any of the speakers. It was the audience. We were in a room at a local Lutheran church with about 80 chairs set up. Not only was every chair filled, but people lined every wall and were jammed in so tightly that some couldn’t even get in the door and strained to listen from outside. This to hear about how to live simply and give more. But (as they say in cheap advertising) wait! There’s more! Not only was the crowd spilling out the door, I was one of only about 5 or 6 people in the room over 30. That’s right, it was young people, many of whom have joined economic accountability groups themselves through the work of Boston Faith and Justice in order to address the concern Paul speaks about above—the “question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” When the third speaker cited a Bible passage, about a third of the young people there pulled out Bibles.

As I sat there in the midst of this sea of young faces, I thought of the many, many churches that have trouble attracting people under 60, let alone under 30. In fact, even churches with healthy numbers of 30-50 year olds have significant gaps in under 30. “What do they want?” our committees moan, often spiraling down into conflicts about whether or not to change the worship style. While worship styles are not unimportant, Friday night’s event taught me that the under-30 crowd wants relevance. The world they are inheriting is spiraling out of control and it will be up to them to right it. They organized in massive numbers to bring change to government, and they are taking seriously the need to live balanced and just economic lives. Maybe there wasn’t a bigger over-30 crowd because we might feel too threatened. We make too much.

The Bible has much to say on this topic. In fact, if you cut out all the economic passages in Scripture, you would be left with tatters. The passage above is just part of two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians that Paul devotes to urging the churches across Asia Minor to support an offering for the poor of Jerusalem. While his goal is specific to the time, his urging is straight from the prophets. There is abundance in God’s economy. God has created a world where there is enough for everyone. But if some of us keep more than our fair share, others will experience scarcity. While we have seen through history that legislating that balance leads to abuse, the way of God is different. These two chapters in 2 Corinthians are where you find Paul’s famous statement, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Our economic crisis has already caused great pain. But it also provides great opportunity for people of faith to get back to our roots in God’s economics. It is up to each of us to figure out “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” We need the help of our religious leaders and institutions both to learn what that means and to have the courage to live it out. Our young people, at least, are hungry for it.

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