Easter Justice and a thirst for righteousness


One of last things Jesus said before he died on the cross was, “I thirst.”  It is hard to imagine the very Savior who promised a woman by the well (John 4) everlasting water being thirsty, but he was.  Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to this illusive Easter text.

We live in a desolate and parched time.  The government is gridlocked; ISIS is sweeping across Africa and the Middle East; a precarious presidential election has nearly nose-dived into the gutter.  Black lives matter; gay and lesbian youth are committing suicides at an unprecedented rate due to bullying and discrimination.  Income inequality is at its greatest since the Great Depression.  Businesses and churches are surviving against all odds.

I can’t understand why Jesus thirsted, but I know why I thirst.  I thirst because we still have to live in a world in which Jesus’ Kingdom-vision, one of peace, liberation, redemption, and embrace has yet to be realized.

Easter happened.  Jesus arose from the grave.  He promised eternal life to those who believe; but, we are still living in the times between Good Friday and silent Saturday of our own souls.  We haven’t experienced resurrection with our Savior yet.  We stand, instead, between death and Jesus’ Second Coming.

Until Jesus comes with a final trumpet sound to inaugurate once and for all God’s reign on heaven and earth, I thirst.

I guess that when Jesus said “I thirst,” he was referring to Psalm 69.  At least that’s what the notes in my Study Bible say. But what if Jesus had Psalm 42 in mind instead?

As a deer longs for flowing water, so my souls longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night” (v. 1-3).

What if Jesus said “I thirst” because he wants us to remember his Sermon on the Mount?   While we mourn at the cross, we may recall that Jesus’ Sermon mandated that we still have work to do, even in the midst of our own thirst: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Righteousness is a biblical term that means “to be in right relationship with,” and it is a benchmark of God’s activity on earth.  Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, God’s desire was to reconcile that ruptured relationship, to put things right.

Jesus must have thirsted for righteousness because his death was the next step in this process of reconciliation.

I too thirst for righteousness that includes advocating for justice and mercy and kindness in a world very much in need of repairing.

I thirst for righteousness because I want to fight for what’s right in the world in order to see balanced budgets, terrorism abated, peaceful conclusions to war, and a more equitable tax code and quality of life for all lives.

Before he was crucified, Jesus told parables and healed the sick and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He said that the reign of God–the very kingdom of God–had come to earth and was in our midst.

This reign was more than a fancy idea or personal wish; the reign drew heaven’s goal and earth’s future closer together so that God’s will would be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Although I thirst still, I am thankful that Jesus is indeed the Everlasting Water who gives us a chance to spread God’s righteousness even in the least expected places, like at the local halfway house or in Congress.

I thirst, but it is God who nourishes us with hope that one day even broken legislatures and warring enemies will eventually bow to His lordship.

Community Reconciliation and the art of truthtelling

fountainBy Joe LaGuardia and Karen Woods

When I was in seminary, a professor once opined that it takes three years for a church to trust a new pastor.  I politely told him that his information was out of date.  It takes about six years nowadays.

This was in the early years of the new millennium and, since then, I have experienced a growing deficit of trust in many sectors of society.  We no longer trust church, government, neighbors, and, in some cases, first responders.

We tell people that trust must be earned, but then we continue to label people according to stereotypes.  Distrust multiplies exponentially as a result.

In the last six months, we have seen how distrust can have a detrimental–even fatal–effect in community.  Protests, violence, and the killing of innocent citizens and police officers bear horrific testimony to the lack of trust, trust that people once took for granted.

In honor of Black History Month, this and next week’s column explores creative ways to enact reconciliation and collaboration in our own neck of the woods.  To do so, I have asked our Associate Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Karen Woods, to help write these columns.

Our question is a simple one: How might we be the “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in a time when distrust breeds disharmony and violence in community?

We believe that Rockdale County is effective at building harmonious communities, so we are already at an advantage.

We’ve seen collaboration among churches, nonprofits, and governmental agencies come together. Family Promise of Newrock, for instance, is a non-profit ministry that effectively bridges various divides by combating homelessness in our neighborhood.

We also had many conversations with clergy and lay leaders who value peacemaking over and against fear-mongering and exclusion, like the one on race relations hosted by Discover Point Church last month.

Even in the midst of this hard work of bridging racial, religious, and economic divides, however, there is more work to be done.

Ambassadors of reconciliation are in the business of “truth-telling” and “truth-listening”: The events surrounding Ferguson, Staten Island, and Minister Woods’ birthplace, Cleveland, demonstrate that more effort is needed in our communities to foster mutual conversation that encourages understanding and level-headed dialogue.

Trust cannot become a community’s most cherished value when people insist on keeping one another at arms length and talking over each other.  For far too long, neighbors have stereotyped one another and formed opinions based on those caricatures.   Truth-telling based on reality, not vitriol, breaks down barriers.

Listening sows seeds of understanding and respect.

Dialogue deals with how we describe changes in our community; which, when done so negatively, perpetuates division between neighbors who are more alike than they think.

For instance, we have heard it said, quite negatively, that Rockdale County is becoming like Dekalb County.  These comments have racist undercurrents that unfairly connects a growing minority-majority population in our community with random crime and controversy we read about in the newspaper.

The assumption is that the more African Americans move into the county, the higher the crime rate.  This assumption is unfounded; in fact, crime is lower now than in years past.

A false perception is based on stereotypes that damage people of color and cast a shadow of fear and distrust on hard-working families who are buying new homes, opening creative businesses, and participating in a wonderful school system.

It increases fear among the entire populace and sows seeds of discord even in the midst of valuable relationships.  We simply fear what we do not know, and the fewer relationships with have with our neighbors, the more violently we will react based on stereotypes rather than facts.

An effort to enact biblical reconciliation, however, overcomes this temptation and provides truthful ways of deepening–not widening–relationships in a local community.

Trust, therefore, begins when we tell the truth about evil actions that include: (1) stereotyping people who are different, (2) spreading vitriolic beliefs that have racial undertones, and (3) perpetuating fear by promoting falsehoods that do not honor all people who are made in God’s image.

Karen Woods is associate pastor of missions and outreach at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.


No such thing as a “Righteous War”

Post-WW I artist Otto Dix captured the horrors of war and the Great Depression soon thereafter.

Post-WW I artist Otto Dix captured the horrors of war and the Great Depression soon thereafter.

This week marks the centennial anniversary of the First World War’s beginning.  For many, it was the war to end all wars; and for powerful clergy that shaped religious and political life in America at the time, it was the very war by which God would usher in His Kingdom.

In his book, The War for Righteousness, historian (and my one-time professor), Richard Gamble, argues that the fervor and idealistic hopes that surrounded the Great War stemmed partly from a liberal theology that promoted war as a way to wage peace.

Little did these progressive pastors know that the war would not only breed more conflict, but would also uncover the misguided notion that the church could successfully align with the state when the state undermines the sanctity of all human life.

To understand the clerical involvement in the Great War, one must understand the roots of progressive theology: The progressive movement began during the Industrial Age in which theories surrounding scientific evolution were applied to society.

There was a belief that institutions and civilizations–not just individuals–evolved over time, and that progress made for a better society.

While Christians debated the biblical merits of evolution, progressive clergy turned from a heavenly vision of things to come to a this-worldly social gospel that brought reform and regulatory legislation.

This powerful theology–and the legislation that ensued–shaped everything from America’s labor laws to its immigration policies.

Progressive clergy, hailing from northern elitist circles, made friends in high places from  the likes of Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, and presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. They applied Christian ethics to curb economic disparity, urban sprawl, and ecological degradation.

And although contemporary progressives are well-known for their pacifism, those progressive stalwarts of yesteryear preached war in advancing God’s Kingdom.  Wars may be waged, according to Gamble, in order to bring “permanent peace.”

At the turn of the century, Christians aggressively applied their social ethics to the mission field and church.  They intended to “Christianize” the nations and form a more perfect union on a global scale.

The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted this idealism, but made for a new way of progress to come about.

Progressive clergy seemed triumphant about their religious worldview and God’s participation in the war, but they underestimated how the violent ripples and human cost of this Great War–with all of its technological weaponry–would impact history.

Although the “God is Dead” movement resulted from the Holocaust, notions of God’s “absence” came much earlier.  In fact, Christian theology was so closely aligned to political and social movements during the Great War, that people’s faith in God and the church waned once the death tolls starting coming in from Europe.

An entire generation of artists, poets, politicians, and theologians lamented the violence of war and ongoing unrest.  Instead of righteousness, the war birthed chaos. Instead of beauty, war cast a gruesome, surrealist shadow.  Instead of the coming Kingdom, (in the poetry of T. S. Eliot) “The Iceman Cometh” instead.

Instead of fiery sermons affirming war, progressive clergy repented for mixing religious conviction too closely with political conflict.

It was Harry Emerson Fosdick, progressive preacher in Manhattan, who penned the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory.” The third verse asks God to “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to Thy control.”

Yet, even today, 100 years after the war, some of us have failed to learn what those progressives soon realized:  It is rarely expedient to mix church and state so closely in times of divisive debate and conflict, lest the church be caught up in the state, a man-made institution, and forget the Great Commission.

Also, it is dangerous to side with any nation during a time of war, no matter how “moral” a nation’s intentions may seem to be.

Rather, we would do well to avoid war, discern and fight the real spiritual battles that are at the heart of every conflict, and be “peacemakers” that stand up for nothing other than the sanctity of human life and peace on all battlefronts.