Action—clear, simple, costly action—makes all the difference in the world
Our language is riddled with quirks. It abounds in ironies. Fat chance and thin chance mean the same thing. To raise a building and to raze a building are opposites. To be sold out and to sell out describe, respectively, utmost loyalty or ugliest treachery.
And then there’s the word just. As an adjective, it means true, right, fair, noble: a just man, a just cause, a just action. As an adverb, it means (sometimes) merely, only, barely: it’s just me, I’m just asking, let’s just pray. The first just is robust, the second tentative. The first has fierceness, the second timidity. One asserts, the other apologizes. One declares, the other mumbles.
The irony has seeped into our thinking about what is just. Our justice—mine, at least—has become hesitant. It’s become timid and apologetic. When the prophet Amos cries out, “Let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:24), a part of me leaps up and shouts, “Yes!” But another part shrinks back and mutters, “Umm… would it be okay if justice just dribbled out like a leaky faucet?”
This hesitancy, no doubt, has much to do with our culture’s fuzziness about ethical touchstones and its nastiness about discussing them. We live in a world of competing ideologies. Everyone has their own version of “the good, the true, the beautiful,” and the one sin left in our time is to impose your version on someone else. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Your truth is your truth, mine is mine.
In such a world, few of us want to say, with clarity and authority, this is right and this is wrong (and those who do often say it with such rancor and anger that their tone obscures their meaning). We fear speaking out against anything lest we arouse the vengeance of the mob. Every burning social issue—GMOs, gay rights, food security, genetic therapy, stem cell research, the legalization of prostitution and recreational drugs, and more—is a house of booby traps and tripwires: who dares wander in? These issues are so polarized, our options reduce to one of two things: stay quiet, or argue loudly.
But is there a third way? The way, not of debate, but of action? Can we just be just?
The Apostle Paul, in several places, calls us to inhabit this messed up unjust world in ways that both subvert the world and win it. In Philippians, he calls an entire Church to “shine like stars in the sky” as they “hold firmly to the word of life” in a “warped and crooked generation” (Phil. 2:14-16). In Romans, he calls a whole congregation to not be “overcome by evil“ but to overcome “evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). This shining and the overcoming are not accomplished through debate, or legislation, or digging in our heels. They’re accomplished through action— clear, simple, costly action.
Just being just.
Jesus gives a vivid picture of what that looks like at street level. It’s in Luke 10. A Teacher of the Law wants to hang Jesus up in an abstract debate about justice. “Who is my neighbour,” the lawyer asks him. That question’s been doing the rounds. It addresses a burning—and deeply polarizing—issue of the day. Learned men spend hours, days, weeks, eons arguing about it: Can non-Jews be neighbours, or only Jews? Should apostate Jews be included, or only faithful ones? And who decides the standards of faithfulness? The Pharisees? The Sadducees? The Herodians (no, surely not them)?
They argue at such length, with such vehemence, that none of them ever actually has to find a neighbour and love him as they would themselves.
Jesus doesn’t argue. He tells a story—we know that story as The Good Samaritan. Samaritans were the last people on the lawyer’s list of possible neighbours. They were the last people any Jew would call “good.” They were scum, riffraff, dregs. The only good one was a dead one.
Jesus makes this one the hero. This Samaritan doesn’t sit around debating terms of reference. He doesn’t split hairs over ethical models. While the priest and the Levite in the story avoid doing anything, the Samaritan—spontaneously, it seems—commits a clear, simple, costly act. He helps, at great risk and great cost, a victim of injustice.
That Samaritan shines like a star in the universe. He overcomes evil with good. He just acts justly. And at that time, in that place, for that man, justice rolls on like a river.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. It’s often that simple, and that hard, to make all the difference in the world, if even for just one person.
Just be just.