Justice: The Paradox of Power and Humility

Amy Sherman

How we do the work of justice is characterized by a particular attitude of the heart. In order for us to be people who steward our power for a lifestyle of justice, we have to understand that we do it with a healthy, deliberate, studied recognition of the paradox of our power.

What is the paradox of our power? It is that, on the one hand, it is easier for people of power, wealth, and status to ‘do justice.’ They have access into the corridors of power, they can make things happen, they have resources needed to redress situations of injustice, the technical training or legal know-how that may be needed to rescue the oppressed. On the other hand, having power, wealth, and status can diminish our functional reliance on God. We can begin to think that it’s us accomplishing the good that occurs, rather than it being essentially God who is doing the work.

1) We need to be clearly cognizant of what power and position can enable you to do i.e., you need to fully understand your own potential and the value of the power God has given you.

a) The power that comes from possessing a unique skill. Joseph had the ability to interpret dreams – even really complicated ones. And notice how he employed this power: to bless and benefit the lowly (fellow prisoners) as well as the high (the king). For whom are we employing our skills?

b) The power of citizenship. Paul asserts this in Acts. American citizenship alone is toolkit for doing justice. IJM and Baroness Cox find it helpful to have American citizens along on trips to meet with foreign officials. This is wrong and unfortunate but it’s a reality, until systematic change occurs.

c) The power of wealth. King Josiah had wealth and used his wealth to enable worship. 2 Chronicles 35:7-9 shows his personal generosity to provide the national feast for celebrating Passover and his example spurred other officials in his court to voluntarily give of their wealth toward this end as well.

d) The power of leadership. This is the power that comes when you have influence: followers, loyal people who are eager to serve you and do your bidding – ‘willing to follow you into the battle’ so to speak. David had such power, shown through the story in 2 Samuel 23:8-17. Three of David’s mighty men hear him say that he is longing for a drink from the well at Bethlehem. The three risk their lives to cut through enemy lines and get water from that well and bring it back to David. It is a very daring exploit and one that would have energized David’s warriors. But when they gave it to David, he refused to drink it – instead he poured it out as an offering to God. In that act, David was pointing his men back to God saying it was God who had protected the men and it is God on whom his warriors should rely, not get overconfident about their own skills. He led the mighty men in a new paradigm of warrior – the one who relies on God.

e) The power to mobilize. Nehemiah was successful in catalyzing the Jews of Jerusalem to do something about the ruined wall, which had been ruined for 141 years already. At any point along that timeline, the Jerusalemites could have done something about it. But they didn’t. They needed a Nehemiah catalyst (see Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power).

f) The power to advocate effectively. In Nehemiah 5, Nehemiah confronts the Israelite nobility about their usury and oppression of the peasants. These nobles had lent money and grain to the people with high interest and had taken their lands and even their children as collateral. Nehemiah is able to use his influence and persuasiveness to make the higher classes stop this oppression.

g) The power of access to power; the power of ‘entre.’ Nathan the prophet has access to the King. And how did he employ it? He was courageous and he ‘spoke truth to power’ as the African-American church has often put it. Nathan used his influence to restrain the King from doing evil; to confront misuse of power.

h) The power to legitimize; to vouch for someone. Barnabas had good standing with Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, so was able to introduce the Apostle Paul to them.

i) The power to call forth potentiality. God’s calls Gideon a mighty warrior. Jesus’ changes Simon’s name to Peter. This is the power to recognize another’s potential.

j) The power of giving away power. This is the Jesus model. In Luke 9 Jesus called the Twelve together and “gave them power and authority to drive out demons and cure diseases;” to advance the Kingdom. Jesus equipped them to go out and do what He commissioned; namely, to “preach the Kingdom of God and heal the sick.” Jesus didn’t hoard His power. He gave it to others not based on their merits (the disciples, like us, were a bunch of screw-ups). And He promised that because of the power He would share, the disciples would do even “greater things” (John 14:12).

But there is paradox of power. There is another side we must consider.

2) We must fully understand our own limitations. The very fact that we have so much power at our disposal can cause us to become overly reliant on it and to forget God. We can become proud because of our power. More than this, the ugly reality is that it is often the powerful who are the oppressors. Power corrupts.

So what steps can you take to remind yourself of your limitations, to cultivate a humble, God-reliant heart?

a) Recognize that God often speaks through the marginalized and weak. Naaman the Aramite, the commander in 2 Kings 5, has leprosy and ends up getting healed through Elisha, who tells him to bathe in the river Jordan. He is a very powerful and influential man, but he listens to the counsel of an Israelite slave girl to go to Israel and then listens to his own servants when he’s angry at Elisha. If he had been unwilling to listen to these ‘lowly’ people, he would not have received the healing.

Another example is when Saul listened to the teenage shepherd boy David and David smote Goliath (1 Samuel 17).

These are examples of the folks on the bottom of society – the poor, the enslaved, youth, women – seeing the truth, the insights needed for the occasion. If the powerful had failed to listen to the marginalized they would have missed out on that wisdom. God’s promises include “and a little child shall lead them” (picture from Revelation) and the Joel promise of the Holy Spirit falling “on your sons and daughters” and “young men seeing visions.”

This principle implies that there is a lot of value in being open to the insights of the marginalized but also to having a personal relationship with someone who is poor or marginalized.

b) Follow a deliberate pattern for your philanthropic work on behalf of the poor and victims of injustice. Deuteronomy 26:1-15 outlines the pattern for the giving of the first fruits and the special third year tithe that was designated specifically for the Levites and the “widows, orphans, and strangers.” It teaches the ‘haves’ to know how to give to the ‘have-nots’. The highlights in the pattern are to reaffirm that:

  • Everything you have is a gift from God: the Lord gave the land that produced the crops that are now being given;

  • Before God’s intervention we were lost, outside the Kingdom, God’s enemies, under the oppression of Satan, had no merit;

  • God was our rescuer. He intervened to rescue us from slavery, oppression, hopelessness, and death.

This pattern should humble us and give us a bridge of solidarity to those we are seeking to benefit through our charity. We are reminding ourselves that they are not different from us; we are not different from them.

c) We need an intentionality about the timing of our actions. Sometimes a crisis of injustice calls for immediate action. But at other times, we should be careful about a premature deployment of our power. Nehemiah chapters 1-2 indicate that there was about six months between Nehemiah’s first hearing of the crisis in Jerusalem with the broken down wall and asking permission of the King to go to Israel. That is, six months between “hearing the groaning” and taking action. Robert Linthicum writes in his book Transforming Power:

Martin Buber, the famed Jewish mystic of the early twentieth century, once wrote, “When a man grows aware of a new way in which to serve God, he should carry it with him secretly, and without uttering it, for nine months, as though he were pregnant with it, and let others know of it only at the end of that time, as though it were a birth.” Buber reminds us that if we are to be led by God, we must allow time for God to do work in us. A new insight must be given time to incubate. The pain of a people must be given the opportunity to grow within us. Relationships must be carefully nurtured. We must not be so caught up in obtaining results that we do not give God the opportunity to do the greater work that must be done in us if truly systemic change is to take place in our society.” (Linthicum, p 98)

Doing justice requires a sea change in the attitudes of our hearts about the oppressed, the power we possess and the limitations of our power. Ultimately, however, we must take comfort and encouragement from the fact that in this battle for justice, we are on the winning side. In Luke 12, when Jesus casts out the demon, he says that he has already bound the strong man, and is now plundering his house. Jesus achieved victory over Satan when he was tempted by him in the desert. At the cross and resurrection He achieves victory. This is described in Ephesians as making a spectacle out of the enemy.

The end of the story is the consummated Kingdom, a place of perfect peace and justice, where there is no more oppression, no more slavery or warfare or torture. There is safety and plenty and shalom in this Kingdom. All evil is extirpated.

To any of us whom much has been given, much is required. And part of what is required is thinking through, in an intentional and systematic and thoughtful way, what kinds of power we possess and how we might use that power to advance the Kingdom – and specifically to advance justice.