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Cities of Social Justice

This week’s study guide makes an obvious point: that, like the Israelite cities of refuge, Christ is our City of Refuge. But while that is a popular analogy in evangelical theology, the establishment and operation of cities of refuge were very complex and life in Christ gets a lot more deep than just feeling better about being a sinner.

A city of refuge was a place where people who were accused of murder could run to for safety, while a determination of guilt took place. This allowed a running chance to escape the traditional Ancient Near Eastern practice of blood feud, in which relatives were culturally, even legally, bound to avenge family deaths. It was extremely dangerous to be suspected of transgression. In fact, there is evidence that the roads to the priestly cities were supposed to be twice as wide so that the accused wouldn’t be slowed down on the way to safety. Making an unmissable connection, the Adult Sabbath School Lesson Guide writes, “Though the cities of refuge were to be used by those accused of murder, these symbols illustrate our critical need of refuge in Christ. How does this illustrate the seriousness of our sin?”

However, cities of refuge, or at least the idea that the places of priests, whether cities or sanctuaries and temples, or even objects like altars, provided a safe place, was a common idea throughout Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Greeks allowed escaped slaves to hide from their masters in their temples. By leaping straight to the OT type/NT antitype message, might we be missing other readings of this text? Is it always just one-to-One?

Beyond the cultural ubiquity of holy/safe places, let’s look a little closer at the Israelites’ actual practice. In doing so, the praxis of urban refuge and the life of Jesus might actually reveal a deeper guide for Christian life.

First, the analogy falls apart, because if one knowingly committed the murder, one was not allowed to seek refuge in the city. That fails to fit with Adventist soteriology, as Christ reconciles us, even if we have previously knowingly sinned.

Second, I’m not clear on what would happen if someone was accused of murder while inside a city of refuge. Was anywhere outside the city then a safe zone for city-of-refuge citizens? Did they have to run to another city?

Third, a man who caused a death through negligence was considered guilty, but not guilty enough to be killed by the blood feud. (An example might be someone’s tent collapsing and smothering someone, all because he forgot to pound all the stakes into the ground.) So, while it is established that it was not his direct fault, he still must spend either the rest of his life, or until the high priest died, in the city of refuge. If he ventured out, he could stiill be legally killed. It’s not clear to me how this fits with the Christian life, or Jesus’ command to forgive seventy times seven.

Trying to create an analogy between the cities of refuge and Christian penal substitutionary atonement seems on the right track, but also seems to be pulling up short. Both are concerned with guilt. Both are concerned with redemption and a better life. But there seems to be something deeper that drives both. Could it be Justice?

Justice, which is synonymous with the meaning of “righteousness” in much of scripture, is an interesting concept. Clearly the cities of refuge are concerned with justice. And Christ’s work is one of in parting a greater sense of justice whether in parables of rich men and Lazarus or attacking the lenders trying to turn a quick profit in the temple.

In fact, this whole section of Number 33-36, from the command by God to eradicate the indigenous peoples of Palestine, to the division of the land according to those with “more” and “less,” as well as the cities of refuge, all raise very rich (and sometimes unsettling) question about the meaning of justice in the context of being settle, being a society. What then is social justice?

While I was an undergraduate at Andrews University, I received a few scholarships to work with seminary professors on their research. One such opportunity was a minor role assisting Roy Gane as he researched and wrote his NIV Life Application Commentary on Leviticus and Numbers for Zondervan. It was a fantastic experience.

Last month I was reminded of that, while at the Society for Biblical Literature meetings in which the Adventist Theological Society and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies shared a Friday night of fellowship. Now the president of the Adventist Theological Society, Roy Gane gave a paper entitled, The Gospel According to Moses and Elijah. In it, Gane writes, “Like Moses, Elijah was concerned with social justice. When Ahab and Jezebel abused their royal power to seize the ancestral inheritance of Naboth through judicial murder, it was the prophet who issued divine condemnation (1 Ki. 21).”

This sense of prophetic social justice stems from both Moses’ and Elijah’s relationship with God and to others. In fact, the gospel was one of both personal and social justice, as driven by God. Gane lists several points and the fifth one applies helpfully to the idea of justice as presented in Numbers 33-36. Gane writes, “Because God had delivered his people, they were responsible for passing the kindness of his justice and mercy on to others, including vulnerable poor persons and debt-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident aliens (e.g., Lev. 25; Deut. 10, 15, 16, 24; cf. Matt. 18:21-35). Divine laws even protected vulnerable animals and trees (e.g., Deut. 20:19; 22:6-7, 10).”

It’s clear. A concern for social justice is part of the gospel. When ATS presidents preach it to ASRS amens, it’s clear that the jury is no longer out and that Justice, both personal and social, is part of the Advent message.

Now, what does it mean?

In his City of God, St. Augustine, defines justice as, “when he seeks to use things only for the end for which God appointed them, and to enjoy God as the end of all, while he enjoys himself and his friend in God and for God”.

In his A Theory of Justice (1971), the philosopher John Rawls, who is probably most responsible for establishing the contemporary American discourse around justice, writes:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.

With this he dismissed the utilitarian tendency of humans to mistake money for value or the greater as always more important than the individual.

Based on moral philosophy, Catholics since the nineteenth century have worked to define social justice, in part as a third way between the old fights between capitalist and socialist ideologies. Here there are two parts to a definition of social justice.

One, it affirms the dignity of human life above all material concerns.

Two, it includes the famous Preferential Option for the Poor, noting that Jesus clarifies what’s important in the end of all things, the eschatological Day of Judgment.

When it’s all said and done, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). This includes not just personal actions, but also church and public policy actions as well. When we take care of the least of these, we will be taking care of ourselves for eternity.

In an article on the mountain-moving doctor, Paul Farmer, Jeffery Sachs writes:

Farmer’s moral stance is grounded in what the liberation theology movement calls a “preferential option for the poor,” a principle of Roman Catholic social teaching that enjoins the rich to offer dignity and material support to the poor. Farmer’s key epidemiological insight is a powerful, if ironic, twist on this moral dictum: pathogens such as the ones that cause tuberculosis and AIDS also show a preferential option for the poor. What Farmer is saying is that disease, too, follows class lines, tracking down and killing the poor with particular ferocity. Not only do the poor lack access to effective health services, he points out, but they are also systematically forced to live in circumstances that undermine their health and all too frequently claim their lives.

From HIV/Aids to climate change, to immigration, to healthcare reform, folks are dying and they need refuge.

In the end, that seems to be one of the lessons of the cities of refuge. They are best conceived not as a type of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but as an early form of social justice in practice. Instead of just leaving justice up to the freedom (and whim) of the aggrieved individual or family, cities of refuge were an early way for a society to treat the individual as more than an action or a situation or an economic class. In fact, by taking refuge, one was not allowed then to pay off the bloodthirsty relatives, which seems to have been a way to equalize justice for the rich and the poor.

We could probably learn a few more things from the Bible. And I’m not sure that it, or Rawls or Catholic social teaching, are the total word on the subject. Perhaps there’s room for a Seventh-day Adventist theory and praxis of social justice.

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How might we create a 21st century City of God that is also a city for refuge for the least of these?

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