Police memorial statue vandalized in Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia
Image credit: Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch
In Genesis 4:3-8 we are presented with what many would consider the first occurrence of injustice in all of human history.
The text describes how Cain and his brother Abel, the two children of humanity’s first parents (Genesis 4:1-2), willingly presented to God what they deemed to be an acceptable offering of worship to Him.
The offering each brother rendered to God was in a manner befitting his respective vocation. Cain, a farmer, gave to the Lord of the fruit of the ground (v.2b) Abel, a shepherd (v.2a), gave to Him of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.
Whose Justice Anyway?
Notwithstanding the historical and even contemporary theological debates that have occurred over the years about why God chose to accept the offering of Abel and reject that of Cain, suffice it to say Cain was not pleased that God had granted such deference to his younger brother (vv.4b-5a).
In fact, the original Hebrew describes the anger Cain felt as being of such intensity that he was seething inside with rage. Cain wasn’t just someone who was upset or disappointed about what had transpired, he was utterly furious over it.
But in the midst of his self-justified righteous indignation, what Cain failed to realize is that his emotions were being fueled by his own preconceived notions of what “justice” is.
When Cain’s self-defined standard of righteousness was not met by God, it was then that his “countenance fell” and he became angry (v.6b).
It was not God who caused Cain to become angry.
Nor was it his brother Abel.
What crime did Abel commit to warrant such a violent response from his brother? Conversely, what offense had God committed in favoring the offering of one brother over the other?
Even if Cain was justified in his actions, the question must be asked by what moral or ethical standard would such a determination be made?
These, and other questions like them, may appear rhetorical but I assure you they are not. For as we consider them we ultimately are led to undertake an even more serious inquiry, one which, in my humble opinion, is the most crucial of all inquests, particularly in light of recent events involving incidents of violence between police officers and minorities.
It is a question whose implications and ramifications are equally germane both to victims of injustice, as well as those who would be moved toward actionable responses to it.
The question is: by whose standard of righteousness should we live?
How you answer that question affects every aspect of your life.
What Lies Beneath
At the root of Cain’s indignant reaction to God rejecting his offering, was the assumption that what he perceived to be an injustice gave him the unmitigated right to impart upon a sovereign, self-existent, omnipotent God his own subjective paradigm of what is just and right and fair.
So what did Cain do?
He protested by murdering his brother.
Protesting as a response to a perceived injustice is really nothing new. Long before there was #BlackLivesMatter there was #AbelsLifeMatters.
At its most fundamental level all protests, for good or ill, are rooted in pride to one degree or another.
Pride has such a capacity to alter and distort our perspective of situations, that we respond even to legitimate instances of injustice in unjust ways.
Hence the truism: two wrongs don’t make a right.
“The natural life in each of us is something self-centered, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left to itself: to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than it, anything that might make it feel small. It is afraid of the light and air of the spiritual world. It knows that if the spiritual life gets hold of it, all its self-centeredness and self-will are going to be killed and it is ready to fight tooth and nail to avoid it.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
When you think about it, particularly in light of the current state of race relations in our nation, are you and I not equally guilty of making the same assumptions as Cain?
The question is not to suggest or infer that Christians should be unperturbed or aloof concerning the incidents we see occurring all too frequently in our society today.
That is not at all what I am saying.
Nevertheless, is a mandate that is a two-edged sword.
The world today offers unfettered access to technology that enables anyone to freely capture and broadcast to the world images of what may appear to us to be unwarranted acts of police-involved violence.
For the Christian, however, this freedom comes with the biblical responsibility of guarding our hearts in such a way as to ensure that our voracity for justice is not rooted in an ungodly thirst for vengeance, regardless how egregious the offense may seem on the surface.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:9-21
There is no experience in life that brings us face to face with the reality of what it means, in practical terms, to confess the name of Christ than when we are treated unjustly (Leviticus 19:15). For it is in those moments that we are challenged to live up to the demands of what being a “disciple” of Jesus requires of those who follow Him (Matthew 16:24-25; 1 Peter 2:20).
Contrary to what generally is espoused by pontificates of the so-called “prosperity gospel”, the gospel of Jesus Christ is first and foremost a gospel of crosses not Cadillacs, of self-sacrifice not self-empowerment, of reconciliation not recompense.
It is a worldview in which we who profess to believe in Him are required to die moment by moment and day by day – to ourselves and to the world around us – encompassing all that we are or think ourselves to be (Galatians 6:14), realizing that:
“On the cross, by both demanding and bearing the penalty of sin and so simultaneously punishing and overcoming evil, God displayed and demonstrated His holy love; the holy love of the cross should characterize our response to evildoers today.” – John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 302
As Christians we must accept the fact that there are no asterisks or loopholes in the gospel.
Search the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation and you will find no fine print, no exception clauses, no situational stipulations that allow for blocking traffic on freeways, or firing weapons at police cars, or using code words that ostensibly encourage the murder of police officers (e.g. “pigs in a blanket”), or any other form of malevolent and noisome protestations.
“A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.” – Proverbs 16:29
What this means for believers is that in every situation – irrespective of circumstances – we willingly adopt Christ’s character, we take on Christ’s mindset, we embrace Christ’s attitude (Romans 13:13-14), fully trusting that an altogether holy and righteous God will someday redress every injustice, either in this world or in the world that is to come (1 Timothy 5:24).
This is not to suggest that Christians should adopt an attitude of passive inaction when we encounter injustice, but that whatever action(s) we endeavor to undertake must be representative of Christ and of His gospel.
The world probably won’t understand you for it.
In fact, I can assure you it won’t.
But, then, if the world understands you at all, you’re probably not doing the gospel right anyway (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Injustice demands a response.
A biblical response.
“The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” – Augustine of Hippo
The battle we fight today is a battle over hearts not hashtags.
We must never forget that on His way to being put to death on a cross Jesus, the Son of God, who came into this world of His own volition to take upon Himself the penalty of the sins of all who would believe in Him, was blindfolded, mocked, spat upon, beaten with fists, and slapped in the face (Mark 14:64-65; Luke 22:63-65; Matthew 27:27-37; John 19:1-7).
Yet He did not retaliate.
“Forgiveness is a dynamic concept of change. It refuses to be trapped into a fatalistic determinism. It acknowledges the reality of evil, wrong and injustice, but it seeks to respond to wrong in a way that is creative of new possibilities. Forgiveness signals an approach to wrong in terms, not of peace at any price, nor of a destructive intention to destroy the wrongdoer, but of a willingness to seek to reshape the future in the light of the wrong, in the most creative way possible.” – Dr. David Atkinson, Peace In Our Time, p. 167
As followers of Christ, our impetus for exposing and responding to injustice must never be to exact some degree of “targeted” revenge, but to declare that God’s standard of righteousness has been transgressed in that one human being who was created in His image has been devalued by another human being who, likewise, is created in His image (Genesis 1:27).
Christians are to work to defend those who are created in the image of God. Yet we must remember to reflect the image of God in doing so.
Never in anger.
But always in love.
Humbly in Christ,