Why must we wait for justice?
by JOHN KOESSLER
IN A SERMON PREACHED to the Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles on June 16, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a promise. It was a prediction, really, framed in the lyrics of what might be considered the anthem of the civil rights movement. “We shall overcome,” he said. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In two years, King would be cut down by an assassin’s bullet while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty-plus years after King uttered those words, many of those for whom this promise was intended continue to wait.
Justice has not yet come. But it has come into its own. Once considered to be the concern of liberals, social activists, and people on the margins, justice is now a byword among evangelicals. Churches that used to talk only about evangelism and missions now talk about what it means to “do justice.” The language of justice is just as commonplace outside the church. But a common definition of justice is hard to find. For some it means racial reconciliation. For others it speaks of economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth. Those who serve meals in homeless shelters, those who work with victims of human trafficking, and those who disrupt traffic on the expressway to protest police shootings all see themselves as working for justice.
It is easy to see how anger might be directed toward those we perceive to be the agents of injustice. But we are just as likely to direct it toward God. Like the prophet Jonah, hunkered down on the outskirts of Nineveh, we wait impatiently to see what God will do. We may even try to force God’s hand. Sometimes we do this by prayer, trying to wear God down with our words. Or maybe it’s by bargaining, offering to give God something in the hope that we will get what we want in return. We engage in extreme acts of devotion in a vain effort to attract His attention. And sometimes we take matters into our own hands by exacting revenge on those who have hurt us. All such strategies are really a kind of dare. They offer a challenge to God. But they also reflect a shred of hope. It is the hope that the moral arc of God’s justice will eventually complete its long course and land with full force on those who have wronged us. Instead, we find that we cannot force God’s hand. We cannot bend His will to ours. We cannot accelerate His timetable. Like it or not, we are compelled to wait.
HEAVEN IS WAITING
We are not the only ones. The Scriptures tell us that heaven itself is waiting for God to act. When the apostle John opens a window on the worship of heaven in Revelation 6:9-10, he offers us a glimpse of souls who have been slain for the Word of God and for their testimony. Their struggle is over. They are at rest. Yet even in this blessed state, they cry out to God for justice. John says, “They cried out with a loud voice: ‘Lord, the one who is holy and true, how long until you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?’”
What is God’s reply? “Wait,” God says. “Wait a little longer.”
Revelation 6:11 says: “So they were each given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow servants and their brothers and sisters, who were going to be killed just as they had been.” Justice, it turns out, is the unfulfilled ambition of heaven.
What does this mean for our quest for justice? Given the fact that we can’t force God’s hand or speed His timetable, we might be tempted to question whether it even makes sense to work for justice. The answer of the church to this question down through the centuries and the answer of Scripture itself is a resounding, “Yes!” It is the certainty that the moral arc of God’s justice will finally complete its course that makes it our obligation.
“Christians do not shut their eyes to the world’s cruelty in themselves or others,” Eugene Peterson observes. “No other community of people has insisted so consistently through the centuries on calling evil by its right name.”
JUSTICE IS COMING
Martin Luther King Jr. was right. Justice is coming. Justice is inevitable because the moral arc of God is long “but it bends toward justice.” Yet in the meantime, we must wait. We are sometimes frustrated by this because, like Jonah, our eyes are on the city. Our perspective is limited both by experience and by time. We make our judgments about what constitutes justice based on our personal circumstances. We focus on the here and now.
The eyes of the martyrs under the altar, on the other hand, are upon God. Justice is coming. The Scriptures tell us that the relentless approach of God’s judgment is as inevitable as death. But grace comes first. The day of justice is coming, but today is the day of salvation. (See 2 Cor. 6:2.) The arc of the moral universe tends toward justice, but there is another arc that shapes God’s actions in the world today. It is the arc of His love.
When we look at these two arcs from the perspective of God’s nature, it is clear that they are parallel to each other. Yet when we look at these same two arcs from the perspective of our sin, we see something different. There we find that one rises to meet the other. If the arc of the moral universe is long and tends toward justice, the arc of God’s love is even longer and tends toward mercy. It is there — at the point where the two intersect — that we find ourselves. It is there that we find the cross. We crave justice, but what the world needs most is mercy. God’s mercy.
JOHN KOESSLER is a member of the faculty of Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (InterVarsity Press). He and his wife, Jane, live in Munster, Indiana.
This article originally appeared in Mature Living magazine (March 2018). For more articles like this, subscribe to Mature Living.