(Basis of a talk given to FOCIG [Fellowship of Christians in Government]- Bacolod City)
I’d like to thank you for inviting me to speak before you this afternoon. This is really a privilege. I am encouraged to know that I am addressing brethren who are part of a nationwide organization that believes in the importance of Christians letting their light shine in government, which is where God has put you. I do hope that you will find what I have to share with you this afternoon profitable as well as stimulating.
I intend this talk to be an exercise in theological reflection on a topic which will be of interest to you: “Vocation and the Problem of Injustice.” As Christians in government many of you occupy positions that deal with issues of justice at close range, at least closer than do many private citizens. Thus, for many Christians in government, justice is not merely a general issue, it’s a vocational issue. And it surely would be helpful to know what the Bible has to teach us regarding our vocation, since so much of our lives has to be lived out in the context of our vocation.
The focus of my talk, however, isn’t on justice per se, but on its reverse side: injustice. And here I will be inviting you to meditate on the words of Ecclesiastes 3:16 – 4:1, which will serve as the basis of this talk. From this passage we learn that injustice is a reality, injustice is a tragedy, and injustice is a mystery.
So first, injustice is a reality. It’s part of this fallen world. It is inevitable and inescapable. You see it everywhere and you meet it wherever you turn. What is injustice and where does it come from? Many definitions can be offered but I’ll go with the biblical one: it is the righteous getting what the wicked deserve and the wicked getting what the righteous deserve. It’s the world in a state of disharmony. It’s life not being what it should be. It’s paradise lost. And how did it happen to be this way? Well, it all started with our first parents eating the forbidden fruit, not realizing what terrible consequences lay in store for them and their posterity. But why such terrible consequences for a small misdemeanor in the class of disobeying a no trespassing sign? Well, it wasn’t a small misdemeanor. It was a crime of cosmic proportions because by eating the forbidden fruit in an attempt to be like God they were actually trying to displace God. There can by definition be only one God, you see. But to displace God is to in effect desire wittingly or unwittingly his death. What Adam and Eve were guilty of was actually deicide: killing God – which they could not do in reality, but which they did in principle. And the result was chaos, disharmony, injustice: in their relationship to God, in their relationship to the world, in their relationship to one another, and in their relationship to their own selves. Their sin was actually a declaration of independence – the assertion of their right (?) to pursue happiness in their own way. For just like a rogue planet loosed from its orbit around the sun, man is now free to wander in spiritual darkness.
Secondly, injustice is a tragedy. It is a tragedy because it is often without solution. We are simply helpless before it. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” (4:1) Moreover, injustice is a tragedy because we often find it in the most unexpected places: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.” (Ecc. 3:16)
And finally, injustice is a mystery, because although our text says “God will judge the righteous and the wicked,” (v. 17) justice seems so long in coming. We are therefore tempted to ask, “Why is it taking so long? If you, O Lord, care about justice, why don’t you act now?” Injustice is a mystery because we know that God is just and that he cares, but there seems to be so much evidence to the contrary.
So in the face of all this – the reality, the tragedy and the mystery of injustice – what are we called to do? How, now, shall we view our vocation? The answer which is offered will probably surprise and even perplex you. Some might even find it outrageous.
“So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” (Ecc. 3:22)
Rejoice in my work – in the face of so much injustice? Isn’t that downright unchristian? Isn’t that selfish and an abdication of our duty to love our oppressed neighbors as ourselves?
Before we condemn this answer as a non-solution let me suggest to you that the key to understanding this verse is in the phrase: “For that is his lot.” But allow me to digress; I promise to come back to this.
The temptation that faces Christians and non-Christians alike when confronted with the problem of injustice is to take matters into our own hands, to pit power against power, to look for a political solution, i.e., a solution that works. Without our knowing it, we gradually shift our confidence in God to something else.
This is not to say that political means of alleviating the plight of the oppressed are off-limits to Christians. All I am saying is that at the end of the day our trust is not in them. Let me cite a few verses:
Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy. (Hosea 14:3)
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Ps. 20:7)
The weapons of our warfare, after all, are not carnal. They are first and foremost spiritual – and powerful at that. But that is not how it appears to the world. To the world, Christianity, which it classes with all other religions, is merely the opiate of the people. And what could be more powerless and unproductive than prayer? And what could be more foolish than the preaching of the gospel?
But here is where faith takes its stand. We believe in prayer precisely because it seems so weak. We believe in the preaching of the gospel precisely because it seems so foolish. More than that, we believe that our strength lies in weakness and that victory is found in defeat. And we believe this because we believe in a God who makes use of the foolish to shame the wise and who makes use of the weak to shame the strong so that no flesh may boast in his presence. We believe this because we follow the Crucified Christ – a monumental failure as a political messiah in the eyes of the Jews; a weak and insignificant nobody in the eyes of Rome. But who would have guessed the monumental victory that was being achieved through the weakness and foolishness of the cross?
But now it is time to return to the point from which I digressed. God also makes use of our ordinary callings to accomplish his purposes in this world, which includes that of establishing justice and righteousness. When the Bible says that in the midst of great injustice we are to rejoice in our work for that is our lot, he reminds us that after all God is still sovereign. He is in control of the armies of heaven and earth in the fight against injustice, and he assigns to each one his or her place in this war. It will not do for the army cook to throw down his kitchen utensils in favor of taking up a machine gun. I think he will be making a more significant contribution to the war cause by concentrating on his work in the kitchen. Soldiers need to eat and that is why we need cooks who rejoice in their work for that is their lot. The same goes for radio personnel and army medics. You get the picture.
St Paul says, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (I Cor. 7:17). John Calvin comments on this verse: “Every individual’s sphere of life, therefore, is a post assigned him by the Lord that he may not wander about in uncertainty all the days of his life….No one will then be tempted by his own boldness to dare to undertake what is not compatible with his calling, because he will know that it is wrong to go beyond our limits. Anyone who is not in the front ranks should be content to accomplish his private task, and should not desert the place where the Lord has put him.”
Thus the problem of injustice entails the problem of vocation. The issue can be put this way: Shall we take matters into our own hands and act in unbelief, or shall we remain in our calling and act in faith? For the Christian the answer is clear: The just shall live by faith.
I close with two quotations, which have to do with faith as the answer to the twin problems of injustice and vocation.
First, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
“Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach…. Now, for a moment, his own fate…ceased to trouble him….[P]utting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
And lastly, here is the famous Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”