Justice in All Its Parts: Responding to Thabiti Anyabwile – Part 2
Before I wrap up my review of Anyabwile’s three posts on justice, I want to go back to where I left off on part 1. I ended that post with the following observations:
- The lexical data is distorted by way of an inappropriate and inexcusable expansion of the semantic range of the words justice and righteousness.
- Texts are lifted out of context, such as Zachaeus, and used illegitimately as a model. Peter nor Paul issued commandments around giving. It was always an appeal to the individual’s love for Christ and others.
- The laws of the Mosaic Covenant are inappropriately applied to civil courts governing secular society. This is clearly a misapplication of the Old Testament text. The model is not far removed from theonomy and if one really wants to be consistent, it is theonomy. Why should we stop at these commands to Israel? Why not apply the commands of stoning as well?
Now, I want to move to Anyabwile’s third post on the subject (part 2 of Justice in All Its Parts). Anyabwile says the following, “But I’m trying to include in the definition not only a sense of outcomes (punishment or reward) but also a sense of well-being (restoration) and process.” Now, there is no question that in the ancient theocracy we call the nation of Israel, the old Mosaic covenant made legal provisions for those situations in which someone took advantage of another person. The offender was to restore what they took from the victim plus 20% and if the victim was no longer living, the restoration took place between the guilty and the victim’s next of kin. That is where it ended. I think anyone would dispute that even in our own culture, the laws are very similar, operation on similar principles. But one has to keep in mind, America is not a theocracy, nor is it a Christian nation. One of the mistakes modern Christians make is to think of American government like they think of Israel. They read these old laws and come up with this misguided idea that these laws ought to be implemented in American society. What is worse is that they seem to believe that one of the ways that church obeys these old laws is through political activism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The church needs to see ancient Rome when they see America, NOT ancient Israel.
Now we come to one of the most glaring problems with Anyabwile’s theology. Regarding distributive justice, Anyabwile says,
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“A common simple way of defining distributive justice is “making sure everyone has their fair share.” Distributive justice does not require equality of possessions or outcomes. Nor is it simply defined as fitting the thing to be distributed to those who deserve it or are best for it. Neither is distributive justice a matter of everyone keeping what they’ve earned.”
Notice the beginning sentence and then the ending sentence of this paragraph. Distributive justice is making sure that people have their fair share and it is not a matter of everyone keeping what they’ve earned. Here is see the elements of Marxism creeping into Anyabwile’s theology. T concerns me that between these two very wrong sentences, Anyabwile includes at least one statement that is correct. It does not require equality of possessions or outcomes. But one has to wonder, in terms of possessions, what does he mean by “fitting the thing to be distributed to those who deserve it or are best for it?”The issue I have with Anyabwile and others is that they lace in language that is right with language that is far removed from the biblical concepts of justice OR mercy and this is confusing at best and could be interpreted as deceptive at worst. We would say that the one who deserves the paycheck is the one who did the work. The one who deserves the book is the one who purchased it with money he earned legally. And we would say that those who deserve it are the same as those who are best for it where the sense of justice is concerned.
SIDEBAR: 30 Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is hungry; 31 But when he is found, he must repay sevenfold; He must give all the substance of his house. (Prov. 6:30-31) Those who are hungry are not viewed in Scripture as having a right to the possession of others. Not only this, justice mandates that if someone does this, there will be penalties. The mercy is seen in the fact that he is not hated like a typical thief would be because of his reason for stealing. Nevertheless, biblical justice does not let him off the hook. I say this because if we are not careful, mercy can impugn justice if balance is lost. These two principles must be kept in balance. A imbalanced view of justice can translate into a lack of mercy and an imbalanced view of mercy can translate into a lack of justice. Both of these situations remove us from godliness where these principles are involved.
Anyabwile calls on Deut. 15:11 to support his idea of distributive justice: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’ This text is preceded by a warning to those who are tended to be close up their compassion for their brother in need when the Sabbatic year approaches. This is because of the practice to release debts and such during this year. It should be pointed out that there is a distinction made between those who are brothers, fellow Israelites, and those who are not. This text is talking about a brother, not a foreigner. For theological purposes, a foreigner is for us, an unbeliever and a fellow Israelite would be considered a fellow believer. Not only this, the poor’s gaps were to be filled, not their wants. Don’t ask me to pay your cell phone bill, your cable bill, or any of these other American luxuries. We all have them. To fill gaps in luxury is not the biblical principle of mercy. To meet genuine needs, be they food, water, shelter, clothing. We lose sight of the fact that Scripture is talking about essentials for life! Luxuries we consider to be essentials is not the biblical principle.
“Another disturbing spin on the text takes place with Anyabwile’s use of Lev. 19:9-10: 9‘Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 ‘Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God.”
Now, Anyabwile says this about that text: Leviticus 19:9-10 commands the people of Israel to redistribute by leaving gleanings in their fields at harvest time. To use the terminology of redistribution in this context is clearly misleading. Immediately, people will think that Scripture supports the socialist idea of the redistribution of wealth when Leviticus is teaching nothing of the sort. The text is instructing wealthy land owners to leave something behind for the poor. Do not let your greed choke out love for the misfortunate. For Anyabwile to use such terminology is irresponsible.
From Deuteronomy to Leviticus Mr. Anyabwile takes us into the New Testament to Ephesians and makes a second claim that the NT employs his view of distributive justice: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Again, there is nothing in the semantic range of the words for justice or righteousness in the Old or New Testament that even hints at compassion, mercy, or charity.
Finally, Anyabwile asks what he calls the ‘key’ question: The key question with distributive justice is, “Does what I am seeking and calling ‘justice’ provide for the needs of the vulnerable?” notice that up to this point, Anyabwile has done nothing from an exetetical standpoint to justify his definition of distributive justice. He gave us his own definition for an expression that appears nowhere in Scripture. There is no biblical reference to distributive justice. There is no lexical data to justify attaching the meaning to the term as Anyabwile does. He makes the term up out of thin air, take his modern, newly invented expression, and imports it into the biblical text, waves his eisgetical magic wand and magically, we have a new concept that all Christians are now obligated to understand and practice.
In his conclusion, Anyabwile makes the following observation and application:
“We cannot hope to “do justice” as the Bible commands without understanding the various aspects of justice. We must keep an eye on outcomes as well as process. We must be concerned with justice not only in legal and political matters but also in personal and business dealings. The biblical notion of justice aims at our entire life. We cannot delegate it or diminish it to only one aspect.”
Notice that Anyabwile uses the first-person plural pronoun four times. We have to accept his various aspects of justice if we are to do justice. We have to keep an eye on the outcomes. What outcomes? If you read this paragraph rightly, you will feel the weight of responsibility on the part of the church for policing the civil authorities. We are responsible for taking the principles of the ancient theocracy and making sure they are carried out in American society; in politics, in foreign policy, and in business practices. This is how “we” in the church do justice.
- There is nothing in the lexical data to support Anyabwile’s definition of distributive justice. It is literally invented ex nihilo.
- Just as he did with Zachaeus in part 1, in part 2, Anyabwile leaves us with the expectation that we are to obey Deut. 15, the context of which involves regulations around the Sabbatic Year. Does Anyabwile really believe that Deut. 15 is still applicable today?
- The fact is that the NT Church never attempted anywhere in its literature or practices to continue the laws of the ancient theocracy even within its own communities.
- The NT Church never made any efforts to transfer the laws governing the ancient Israelite theocracy to the new arrangement in the new covenant in Roman society. Jesus nor any of his closest followers, the Apostles, never made any effort to impose the Israelite theocracy on Roman society. But for some reason, that is exactly what we are supposed to do.
- It should not escape one’s attention that Anyabwile calls on a text to support his argument that, in the very same context of that text, slavery is practiced and not condemned. I wonder if Anyabwile would be okay if someone employed those texts to defend the morality of slavery. Anyabwile quotes Deut. 15:11 and in the very next verse slavery is discussed.
In conclusion then it follows that Anywabile’s interpretation of these passages in support of his concept of justice is seriously flawed. If the lack of any lexical data to support his view of distributive justice wasn’t bad enough, he also illegitimately and arbitrarily I might add, expands the semantic range of the very words he is attempting to use as his grounding for his argument. Not only that, his obvious ignoring of the context in which these passages appears witnesses against his argument, not for it. And finally, in the grand scheme of things, it is simply not the case that the NT Church is called to impose the old laws of the ancient theocracy on American society or any other society as far as that goes. The Christian community takes care of her own widows in accordance with Paul’s criteria in 1 Tim. 5:1-16. The same holds for caring for our orphans. If you are interested in a little more detail and a more biblical perspective in its proper context, I would encourage you to listen to my podcast here: The Reformed Rant – Biblical Justice vs Social Justice.