Mandate for Justice: Inside and Outside
Our Mandate for Justice: Inside and Outside of the Seminary
By Rev. Rodney Sadler, Ph.D.
The Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation was conceived with a view of the church in the world. As an organ of Union Presbyterian Seminary, it has an internal commitment to helping our Seminary faculty, students, and staff consider where the Reign of God intersects with the issues of justice in this world. But our focus is not unidirectional, for our commitment also extends to groups engaged in justice work in the larger world, and helping them conceptualize where God’s interests might intersect with the work that they do. We intentionally have an internal and an external focus.
Our internal focus serves as a reminder to our Seminary constituency that we have work to do in this world. Perhaps better stated, God has a stake in what happens in the larger world. As Psalm 24 proclaims, “The earth is YHWH’s and all that is in it, the world and the ones dwelling in it.” This brief statement at the beginning of a familiar psalm reminds us of a truth posited throughout the Bible and subsequent Christian tradition: The world belongs to God…everything ultimately finds its beginning, end, and purpose in the Lord.
That being said, when we think about our teaching of biblical studies and the theological disciplines, our consideration should not be relegated to concerns of sanctuary worship, doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and creeds disconnected from our lives in the world. No, the scope of our pedagogical concern brings the God of creation to bear on issues pertinent in this world. The disciplines in which we in the seminary instruct our students are not intended to be theoretical abstractions imagined for a sacred sector of our lives; they inevitably involve a pedagogy that reminds us that every dimension of our lives is subject to the will of God.
I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture in this regard. At the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus speaks potently about the impact of the life of faith. In a line most of us rarely emphasize, Jesus proclaims quite simply, “May your Reign come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our concern as Christian community is in part the realization of God’s will. I am sure that comes as no surprise to anyone. What is perhaps more surprising is the second part of this phrase, that calls for God’s will to be done not in Heaven, not on some future day in a distant ethereal realm…but on earth!
Yes, our faith is grounded in the manifestation of God’s Reign on earth and this evidenced as the will of the Lord being done in the here and now.
It is in this regard that the CSJR seeks to bear witness to such work in this world by Christian community, bringing God’s will into conversations about worldly issues. God has something to say about human rights, poverty, racial disparity, gender discrimination, creation care, incarceration, immigration…God has something to say about the way that we treat each other. There is nothing that is beyond God’s purview. We as people of faith are called to remember this and to boldly proclaim it to those to whom we minister and to those whom we encounter in this world.
This again resonates with our twofold commitment to those within and those outside of the contexts of our Seminary community. We remind those within our Seminary community of our obligation to proclaim “thus says YHWH” not only in our sanctuaries, but also on our streets and in the suites of power. We remind those outside of our Seminary community (and even those who have imagined a false faith vs. world dichotomy) that God has something to say about the way that we address issues of justice in our world.
If we consider externally the work justice-based organizations in our world, we might note that there are undeniable fingerprints of faith on many of the issues of emphasis. We cannot think of healthcare and not consider the role of Jesus as a healer and that churches throughout time have founded hospitals and been instrumental in providing medical care. We cannot truly focus on climate devastation and environmental justice and ignore notions of Creation care that extend as far back as the first two chapters of Genesis. Nor can we ponder immigration and ignore the instructions of Leviticus 19:33-34 or Matthew 25:35.
These are just a few examples that attest that issues of justice being done in this world are not new concerns; they are age-old matters that God has asserted time and again. Considering these issues in such a context gives us a biblical / theological basis for policy decisions in this world, reminding us at least that God is concerned about these matters and suggesting what the Lord’s will in these matters might be.
I am certain that I have been unclear in this expression of our dualistic commitment to the Seminary and to the world in this short essay, for essentially it is a false dichotomy. It is this inside-outside binary that is necessary for faithful Christian expression of church rooted firmly in the world. The Center serves both to encourage those in the faith community to recognize our obligation to bring the will of God into conversations in this world and to remind the world that God is watching and that what we do in this world is consequential to our Lord.
Let me close by raising one additional point—one that might serve as a disclaimer, if you will. The Center deals with “discomfort.” Part of our work is to make the church uncomfortable in a world riddled with injustice, to trouble our souls in the tradition of prophets of old with a word of God’s discomfort with an unjust status quo. Another part is to make the world uncomfortable—reminding it that the current “reality” in which we live is far from a realization of the Reign of God, asserting an ideal that disturbs our commonplace acceptance of things as they are.
We provide the church and the world with a necessary theologically based alternative vision of what is possible: how we can live, what we as human beings as co-workers with God might accomplish that serves as an ideal toward which we all can strive. Better stated, if we are not making the Seminary and society a bit uncomfortable, then we are not doing our job.
Rodney S. Sadler Jr. is an ordained Baptist minister and is Associate Professor of Bible and Director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary. His teaching experience includes courses in biblical languages, Old and New Testament interpretation, wisdom literature in the Bible, the history and religion of ancient Israel, and African American biblical interpretation. His first authored book, Can A Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible, was published in 2005. He frequently lectures within the church and the community on Race in the Bible, African American Biblical Interpretation, the Image of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is the managing editor of the African-American Devotional Bible.