Teaching social justice in comfortable congregations

Seminary professor: ‘We have to teach our people and bring them along’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Rebecca Davis (Photo by Union Presbyterian Seminary)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Justice is at the very heart of who God is, Professor Rebecca Davis of Union Presbyterian Seminary said during a Thursday workshop at the annual gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. And justice is not a political issue — it’s a biblical issue. “We must come to grips with that,” she said to an overflow workshop crowd, “if we are going to be faithful to the witness of the church.”

Davis called her workshop “Teaching Social Justice in Comfortable Congregations.”

Covenants — think Noah, Abraham and Moses — are the primary way God deals with us, she said. They explain how God relates to us and how God expects us to relate to one another. And in the Old Testament, there’s no concept of individualism, she said.

“It’s always communal. God’s liberation is not for one person,” she said. “Jesus, I dare to say, was a Jew. The individual was not a concept to him. You may have a personal relationship with Jesus, but you don’t have an individual relationship with Jesus.”

What’s found in the books of the Old Testament that people of faith don’t read very often, such as Deuteronomy? Verses including “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20) and “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut. 15-7-8).

And when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, his answer is not original to him. It comes from the Torah — love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. “It is woven into what it means to be a covenant community,” Davis said.

For the educators and pastors in the room, Davis offered three Hebrew words valuable for teaching about social justice:

  • Mishpat, the word for justice, which Davis defined as “God’s best intention for the world. It is the moral standard by which society is supposed to live,” including a concern for social welfare.
  • Tzedek, which means righteousness, “doing or being or bringing about what is right in the sight of God,” she said. “It’s about societal relationships, not personal piety. It bubbles up when you do justice and it compels us to do more justice.”
  • Hesed, defined as kindness or steadfast love.

“I am here to give you some scaffolding,” she told those in attendance. “You can’t teach social justice unless you have vocabulary.”

It also helps to have a succinct mission statement. Jesus himself had one, she said, and it’s found in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“Jesus was not subtle,” she said. His message was, “This is who I am and this is what I’m going to do,” Davis said. “People were shocked when he did it, and it got him killed.”

She advises modeling “a posture of openness,” and one way to do that is to engage in Bible study together, she said.

“We live in a society that doesn’t want to admit that it’s wrong,” she said. “It’s more powerful to say, ‘Let’s look at the text together.’”

“You don’t have to mention politics,” she said, “to talk about living in the covenantal community.”

APCE’s annual gathering, which has attracted about 650 attendees, runs through Saturday.

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