Culture At Large

Gun Violence and God’s Justice

Roger Nelson

My father was murdered in a church parking lot in Chicago on a Sunday afternoon. My wife and I spent the hours after looking at mugshots and pacing the halls of a police station. Gutted and reeling from shock, I remember thinking that it was all a knotted mess—a mess of drug addiction, poverty, access to health care, race and racism, a culture of violence, joblessness, education, guns, gangs, rage, hopelessness, affordable housing, prisons, etc. I remember a deep sadness for all of us, for we all intertwined. I remember a deep sadness that out of that knot Clarence Hayes shot my father point blank in the side.

There is little clarity about how to loosen the knot. You don’t know which thread to pull. To pull one thread to the neglect of others can seem pointless. The knot is too complex, too intractable, too tight, too big, too old, too knotty.

Three decades later, at the end of a year in which Chicago saw more gun deaths than any other city, that image of a knotted mess stays with me. With the news of another senseless shooting, with the lament of another child gunned down, with the urgency of another prayer vigil, it feels frustrating and futile.

Because of my calling as a pastor or my place as a victim, I’m often asked about gun violence in Chicago. How can we untangle the knot? To tell you the truth, I am often at a loss. It is overwhelming. Stay safe. Stay away. Not about me. Why bother?

The justice that God loves is more than law and order and protecting the status quo.

But then I read the prophet Isaiah and I’m reminded that the will and way of God is too loosen the knot. Isaiah 61:1-11 is littered with infinitive verbs: to bring, to bind up, to proclaim, to release, to comfort, to provide, to give. All of which culminate in the proclamation: “For I, the Lord, love justice.” The deep desire of God’s heart is that creation know shalom—the webbing together of God, humans, and creation in right relationship and mutual delight. “Justice” is the administration of that shalom.

According to the prophets, justice is what God loves and justice is what God requires. It’s the way in which love takes shape and becomes more than sentiment. Justice has to do with concrete practices, policies, and prescriptions in this concrete world.

That’s where this starts to get dicey. If the administration of shalom means practices, policies, and prescriptions, that sounds political. And that makes us nervous. I don’t think Scripture gives clear guidance about any particular political philosophy. Yet Scripture is unequivocal about God’s concern for justice. Scripture is unequivocal about God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, foreigner, or refugee. Abraham Kuyper, in a speech in 1891, put it this way:

When rich and poor stand opposed to each other, Jesus never takes his place with the wealthier, but always stands with the poorer. …Christ, and also just as much his apostles after him and his prophets before him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury and for the suffering and oppressed.

The mess just got knottier; or the knot just got messier. Surely God doesn’t take sides. Surely God is on “our” side. Surely Scripture’s concern is spiritual justice, not economic, or racial, or political, or social justice.

Yet I think we’d be hard pressed to read the grand sweep of Scripture and not notice how God aligns himself with the outsider, the oppressed, and the prisoner. I think we’d be hard pressed to read the narrative of Scripture and not at least be unsettled that the administration of shalom is measured by how the last, the lost, and the least fare. We can spiritualize Scripture all we want, we can make it about heaven and a salve for the sin-sick-soul, but in doing so we also diminish what God loves.

One month later Clarence Hayes was arrested two blocks down the street. When the case went to trial the state’s attorney sought the death penalty. After weighing the evidence, the jury verdict, the impact, the senseless nature, the criminal history, and the scales of justice, the judge sentenced Clarence Hayes to death. A few years later, when the sentence was overturned on appeal, we asked that he be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

How is shalom administered? How is justice done? How is the knot loosened? I don’t have many answers. But I think the justice of God involves more than locking up one more criminal for a lifetime. I am not suggesting that Clarence Hayes should be released or that biblical justice doesn’t include concrete consequences. Butthe justice that God loves is more than law and order and protecting the status quo.

Note how Isaiah 61 surfaces in the story of Jesus. In particular, consider Eugene Peterson’s translation of Luke 4:16-21 in The Message:

He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,          

God’s spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

The justice of God is embodied in Jesus. In the pursuit of creation’s shalom, God finally put skin in the game. From cradle to cross Jesus of Nazareth embodies the will and way of God. In response, may we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice