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February 27, 2020
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March 12, 2020

From Divine Justification to Human Justice

by Wissam al-Saliby

My church in Geneva Switzerland is located at the Chapelle de l’Oratoire at 7 rue Tabazan. Outside of the church and in the main hall are two plaques commemorating a meeting by the Evangelical Society of Geneva, held on 29 June 1859, in which the first humanitarian mission was sent to care for wounded soldiers in the Battle of Solferino. A few years later this mission became the International Red Cross.

I am in awe that this church, where my family worships several times a month, mobilized a mission that has impacted billions of lives– lives saved, families reunited, disappeared found, soldiers treated, prisoners returned, and civilians spared. From here, men and women set out to save the lives of wounded soldiers regardless of whose side they were on.

Not being able to stop war, Henri Dunant, Gustave Menyier, Louis Appia, and others acted to reduce its toll on humanity. These were Christian, Evangelical and visionary people who believed in both the death and resurrection of Christ and the imago Dei of man as revealed in Genesis 1:27.

Fast forward to 1936. Theologian Karl Barth was instrumental in writing and issuing the Barmen Declaration against the Nazi regime and its attempt to control churches. Reflecting on the gospel in public life, Barth wrote that if divine justification has nothing to do with human justice, then churches would either become exclusively spiritual communities, ceasing to deal with societal problems, or they might become communities that work for human justice based on human law, devoid of the divine Word and revelation to humankind.[i]

Onwards to Sunday, 28 January 1940. Charles Malik preached a sermon at the Beirut National Evangelical Church titled “The Ways of Salvation.” In a sermon that still applies today, Malik eloquently argued that neither materialism nor socialism nor nationalism nor science and philosophy can save man from “the existential perplexes which tear his heart apart.” Only Jesus Christ, “who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and on the third day rose again,” can save. In 1948 Malik, now Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, became one of the five drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Henry Dunant, Karl Barth and Charles Malik, divine justification necessarily translated into public action for human justice.

Fast forward again to 2018. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dennis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and Pentecostal pastor, won the Nobel Peace Prize for treating women who survived rape by armed rebels.

Also in 2018 in Switzerland, pastor Norbert Valley, former president of the Swiss Evangelical Alliance, was leading a Sunday service at his church when he was interrupted by two policemen who led him away – under the incredulous eyes of the worshipers – for questioning at the police station. What criminal offense did he commit? He provided occasional food and shelter to a homeless man from Togo who had had his asylum application rejected.

In 2012, Bishop Elias Tabun, President of the then-Sudan Evangelical Alliance, flew to the United States to advocate with the World Evangelical Alliance and the National Association of Evangelicals in support for the establishment of an Arms Trade Treaty. A former child soldier, Tabun said, “I think that small arms and ammunition have done more damage and more lives have gone than the threat of nuclear weapons that we are so much concerned about.”

In February 2020, the Supreme Council of Evangelicals of Syria and Lebanon issued a statement condemning the “Deal of the Century Peace Plan” put forth by the Trump administration and called for opposition against it on the basis of the Biblical mandate of truth and justice.

That same month, in an Aljazeera News report on trafficked sex slaves in Lebanon, a couple embodied the relationship between divine justification and human justice at the “street level.” Married couple Paul and Ray, Jesuit Christians, reach out to sex slaves at the expense of personal safety because they believe it to be, as quoted in the news story, their “Christian mission to help.”

In my work setting, Christians, especially Evangelicals, are often accused of tribalism, violating human rights, supporting populist and autocratic leaders, and pursuing unprincipled political deals with those in power. In Mathew 5:16 Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” We need to pursue the good deeds of human rights advocacy for people to see and glorify our Father in heaven. But what can we learn from the deeds of Paul, Bishop Taban, Pastor Valley, Karl Barth, and the others?

Beyond nationalism. In none of the examples above do the protagonists say, “my country first.” To the contrary, they played the role of the Good Samaritan coming to the aid of the injured man who could not be identified with any group, only as a person in need.

Beyond domestic politics and policies. The challenge before Christians in every nation is to foster a political vision of compassion and justice for their society AND for all societies, for the nations. What is needed are foreign policies that strengthen the rule of law and the right to life all over the world. “They are our brothers, and Christ died for them,” affirmed Spanish scholar Las Casas, defending the strongly contested humanity of the Indians in the newly discovered Americas.[ii]

Beyond the life in the womb. The right to life encompasses, in addition to the life in the womb, policing and the use of firearms principles, laws of armed conflict that protect civilians, national and international arms control, peacemaking, fighting lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and other positions. We need to advocate as vigorously for the full scope of the right to life as we do for the rights of the unborn.

Beyond religious freedom advocacy. We need to move from the exclusive defense of religious freedom to advocating for a strengthening of the rule of law, human rights performance and anti-corruption measures. The rule of law protects religious freedom for all. In the previously mentioned Aljazeera News article, Paul is faced not only with trafficking but with the breakdown of the rule of law, which is manifested in the complicity of the security apparatus. Based on observations from my position in Geneva, most persecution of Christians today is the result of the breakdown of the rule of law in nations and the endemic corruption in political and legal systems. This is why the mission of the Geneva Liaison Office of the World Evangelical Alliance is to advocate for the rule of law, even though the majority of our work is for the right to the freedom of religion and belief.

Not unlike Solferino in 1859, today men, women and children are suffering and dying out of neglect, ignorance or complicity. The Body of Christ cannot and should not mirror such worldly attitudes and injustices. We are justified by grace. As Barth has written, because of our justification – the action of God on our behalf – Christians are called to defend the rights of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans and aliens.[iii]

[i]      Karl Barth, “Church and State,” in Community, State, and Church, 104, quoted in: Brettmann, Stephanie Mar. Theories of Justice: A Dialogue with Karol Wojtyla and Karl Barth, James Clarke Company, Limited, 2015

[ii] Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights-Origins and Persistence, 2 Nw. J. Int’l Hum. Rts. 1, 2004

[iii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2/1:386

1 Comment

  1. Kelly ODonnell says:

    Thanks Wissam for pointing out the underlying and overarching importance of the rule of law–even though specific laws may be unjust, or the application of “good” laws may be unjust.

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