Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Biblical meaning of Making It Right

I'm sitting in my favorite coffee shop in New Orleans, and I just finished reading the estimable local newspaper, The Times-Picayune. The town is abuzz with talk of tonight's charity gala at the Hyatt Regency, with megawatt celebrities and expectations of raising $4 million. The beneficiary is Brad Pitt's worthy Make It Right project, which is building new low-cost houses in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. I read the story of one couple who are thrilled with their new house. The wife says, "Thank you, Lord, for putting us back in a home." The photo of the middle-aged African-American couple does indeed look very happy and very thankful. Good for Brad Pitt! He probably doesn't know it, but God is using him.

However, I began to think of the years that couple lost and the ordeals they endured. Not even Brad Pitt's fame, money, and connections can "Make It Right." There is no earthly power that can restore what was lost in Katrina or in the recent tornadoes in the heartland of our country. I've just delivered an endowed lecture on The Lord of the Rings at LSU, and reviewing that subject has reminded me of Tolkien's urgent concern to illustrate the cost and losses incurred in the struggle to be humane in life's struggles against inhumanity and catastrophe. He was determined to show that there was no happy ending to this story. There can be healing, but the wounds will remain. There can be restoration for the next generation, but health and youth cannot be restored to the generation that bore the worst of the battle.

This brings me to a subject that is as close to my heart as any: the full meaning of St Paul's word dikaiosune, usually translated "justification." The best Pauline scholarship of the past 50 years has greatly increased our understanding of this term, most commonly known in the phrase "justification by faith." What exactly did Paul mean by it?

More often than not, the ordinary Christian has understood this to mean that no matter what sin a person has committed or been involved in, the death of Christ has wiped it out, cancelled it, obliterated it--and consequently that person is forgiven, pardoned, and restored. This promise is indeed true, but it does not go anywhere near far enough to encompass all that God has done and will do in Jesus Christ. The word dikaiosune is best translated in English by the word "rectification," which includes all of the above but goes further. It is a word of incomparable power and cosmic reach, involving not only individuals but the whole created order. The word means "Making It Right." There is no earthly power that can do this. It is impossible for human beings to restore what was lost, to make right what was wrong, to create an altogether new reality. Miroslav Volf has written about "the end of memory"--the end of the terrible nightmares that victims of crimes, disasters, torture, and war must live with. The promise of God is that these memories will be "rectified"--made right--as they are replaced by the victorious life of the Age to Come.

When Paul speaks of "justification" he does not mean a declaration of amnesty for sinners. He means the remaking of the world. The book of Revelation illustrates this in pictorial language. (Beware of Elaine Pagels' uncomprehending new book on Revelation, which misses the unique qualites of this Biblical book as she conflates it with various gnostic messages. ) The message of the New Testament and indeed the entire Bible is that there is a God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--who loves this world, who has a purpose for it, and who alone has the power to Make Right What Has Been Wrong.

And just in case there is any misunderstanding, the calling of Christians in this life is to discern what God is doing and to join him in his work of rectification. That work can only be imperfect and incomplete in this present Age, but every human action, even the most humble, undertaken for the sake of the world's redemption is a sign of the coming Age of the eternal God.