If the Church wants to trumpet its dedication to social justice, it does not take much effort to locate a prophetic text that is utterly retweetable by believer and nonbeliever alike: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). The Gospel of Luke has long been my favorite because he seems to consistently evoke this prophetic call in his account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Luke’s (and, by extension, Mary’s) Jesus has a word for the downtrodden and the oppressed: “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52)!
But is that all that the prophets have to say to us? Are they merely the forerunners of the non-profits, God’s agents of social improvement in the lives of those who need it most? Are the prophets the basis for ecumenism in its broadest sense, a place where people of varied beliefs can unite under a banner of human aid? Are they merely the means by which we might begin to rehabilitate the public image of Christianity in a world that sees us as close-minded and concerned only with the age to come? After all, John Oliver doesn’t write ridiculing monologues for Last Week Tonight about Christians who give schoolbooks to needy kids.
Let me be clear. As someone who benefitted as a youth from the compassion of justice-minded Christians, I have no intention of belittling those who read Isaiah and put his call to justice into practice. Please keep helping, keep marching, and keep shouting that #blacklivesmatter. Keep saying, without apology, that too many black lives are lost at the hand of those who are supposed to protect us.
Nonetheless, this call to justice is only truly Christian when it is linked to the rest of what the prophets have to say to us. A distinctively Christian case for social justice is necessary because, as important as it is for the oppressed to know that we are with them, it is even more vital that they know God is with them. When I speak of God I refer to the Trinitarian God made known in the Scriptures who sent his Son to die for our sins that we might live. I speak of the God who has more than compassion for the poor, he has a desire that they might know him and enter the Kingdom of his beloved Son.
While the culture might issue a vague call for justice, that justice, in the end, is not linked to a full and robust account of what it means to be human. Yes, black lives matter, but why? What happens if the poor make the long climb from poverty and instead of meeting the living God at the end of that journey, they take their place alongside their middle-class brothers and sisters who are consuming and entertaining themselves to death? That is not freedom.
I speak from experience. One of my most profound experiences of God, the one that set me on the path I now travel, occurred in college. After I had left a neighborhood that drowned out the dreams of many, I found myself trapped in the midst of a swanky, upper middle class college experience, struggling to answer this question: What happens when you have everything that you ever wanted but that is not sufficient to bring you joy? It is that question that returned me, broken yet hopeful, to the Cross.
Put differently, the prophets do not only inspire our social action. They challenge us to place that social action in the context of a lively faith in the God of Israel finally fully made known in the person and work of his Son. This is a justice that reaches beyond itself and brings the author of justices into streets, homes, churches, city councils, police departments, and neighborhoods throughout America.
What then would it look like for a church to actually love the prophets? In true biblical fashion, I offer seven principles, six of which are drawn from the giant of the Old Testament, Isaiah:
- A church that loves the prophets is unashamed of the God who inspired the prophets: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1–4).
- A church that loves the prophets understands the need for the forgiveness of sins: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:17–18).
- A church that loves the prophets knows that this forgiveness came at great cost: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
- A church that loves the prophets is able to couple a call for personal repentance with a consistent critique of structural sin and institutional injustice: “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land,” and “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” (Isa. 5:8, 1:23).
- A church that loves the prophets recognizes the need for moral transformation: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them” (Isa. 5:11)
- A church that loves the prophets longs for the coming of the king and the establishment of true justice: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isa. 11:1–4).
- A church that loves the prophets knows that when we have failed in all these tasks, we are still deeply loved and forgiven: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Depending on your context, loving the prophets might require recovering different aspects of the prophet’s message. For example, it is simply not prophetic to stand before a left-leaning congregation and encourage them to preach the gospel (by helping the poor) and, if necessary, use words. A truly prophetic act might be a reaffirmation of the utter uniqueness of God in a pluralistic culture that demands platitudes of their religious leaders: climate change, “Yes,” the blood of Jesus, “No.” Along those same lines, it is not inherently prophetic for a pastor in a right-leaning congregation in a decidedly pro-life state to proclaim (rightly) that all lives matter from conception to natural death. It might be prophetic to guide that congregation to a deep understanding of and local engagement with the institutionalized discrimination that still impacts the lives of minorities. Those same politicians that we call upon to protect the lives of babies might also be asked to address unjust sentencing practices or driving while black. They can multi-task. This work is not easy ,and we should not add it to yet another list of things that pastors ought to do better. Instead, loving the prophets speaks to different ways in which the Church testifies to the coming kingdom in which God will be all in all.
 I do not imply by this that only those who are morally upright deserve justice. Quite the opposite, the imago dei is not located in an if-then statement. It is unequivocal. Nonetheless, I also reject the strange claim that all discussion of the moral transformation can be waved away with the catch-all phrase “politics of respectability.” Jesus brought good news big enough for personal and corporate ethics.