07 January 2019

Owing Nothing to Anyone

by Hohn Cho

or my handful of regular readers, I apologize for the extended silence. November and December are always my busiest months of the year, and this year it was even more hectic than usual. Happily, things are calming down quite a bit, and I'm determined to keep calm and blog on. And lately, I've been meditating quite a bit on Romans 13, both the first seven verses on the topic of submitting to government, and for the topic of this post, Romans 13:8, "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law."

On a horizontal level, precisely because of this verse, my desire is to owe nothing to anyone except love. This is something which the Scriptures command and exhort us to do. And thus it is—at least conceptually—something possible for us to do, to some extent. Now, when I say that my desire is to owe nothing to anyone, I don't say this in an arms-folded, "I got mine and everyone else can go pound sand" kind of way, but rather in an earnest way that makes the paying of debts and the fulfilling of commitments an affirmative burden on my conscience.

And so it is that the (increasingly rare) occasions I have an empty inbox and task list are a source of great satisfaction for me, as is my gradually dwindling list of financial obligations. Accordingly, it is at best disconcerting when certain people point their fingers at me, and others like me, and claim that we owe them something, when to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I owe nothing to these folks. In many cases, I've never even met them before!

How and when does this happen? Well, in the United States, we often see it in the context of discussions about "privilege" and social justice. The vastly simplified argument goes something like this: Some people were born into more privilege than others, and some of the folks with the least privilege (with ethnicity being the most common category cited by many "social justice" advocates here) even have the deck systemically stacked against them by society. This is fundamentally unfair, and so the ones with less privilege are owed something, with the payors being society, or the more privileged, or both.

My response to these arguments has been that they appear to be based (whether knowingly or unknowingly) on concepts borrowed from secular Critical Race Theory rather than drawn from the Bible. I think Kevin DeYoung said it well in a blog post last year:

I have my concerns with the term "social justice" and with all that it connotes. But what if we press for a less culturally controlled and more biblically defined understanding? Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God's care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you (emphasis added).

Having independently studied many of the same Scriptures and concepts, I agree with DeYoung's conclusions entirely, and in considering what "doing justice" means, it's important to note that his entire list consists of individual actions and not systemic or societal or collective actions. And most of those individual actions are quite mundane, such as following the law, neither breaking the law nor taking advantage of people, and as we also see in Romans 13:8, paying what you promised, what you actually owe.

But wait wait wait, you say, DeYoung also mentions showing impartiality, aha, what about that? Well, I've written on this issue before, and the great majority of the secular attempts to address past partiality, such as affirmative action, are prime examples, in and of themselves, of unbiblical partiality.

The reality is that all of us are born with certain privileges, or to use a more biblical word, blessings. Similarly, all of us are born with certain trials. God has assigned those blessings and trials, and as a Christian, I'm called (in James 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, and elsewhere) to be joyful and thankful for both the blessings and the trials. Now, if God has especially blessed the circumstances of a person's birth, there's certainly a Scriptural argument to be made that that person is more accountable before the Lord for his or her blessings (see, e.g., The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30, and Luke 12:48b, "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more"). But being held accountable by the Lord for one's blessings is entirely different from being held accountable by a stranger who claims you owe him or her something.

And this brings us to the second half of Romans 13:8, on love. As I strive to love my neighbors, my desire will always be to do so proactively and lavishly, and particularly toward the people for whom I'm most responsible. Scripturally, that's my immediate family per 1 Timothy 5:8. It's my fellow Christian brothers and sisters even more so than non-Christians per Galatians 6:10. It's the specific believers in my own local body per Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2. It's the people who cross my path per Luke 10:30-37. It's the people who actually ask me for help per Luke 6:30.

That last example reinforces the point I'm trying to make, I believe. An earnest request for help, genuinely needed and without expectation or presumption, is a humble act. And my loving desire will certainly be to help that person, within the bounds of capacity and wisdom. Perhaps I can meet the need fully, perhaps I can meet it partially, perhaps I can't meet it at all. Regardless, I'm going to be much more inclined to help a person like that, because God gives grace to the humble as we see in 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6, and in His rich mercy, God often chooses to use His servants to provide that grace.

In contrast, an angry demand, a sense of entitlement, or even a false claim that I owe someone something, when in fact I owe that person nothing except love, are all signs of pride, which God opposes with military fervor in those same verses of 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6. And while I might not (although perhaps I might) send even that person away with nothing at all—because after all, I am no better than that person, and God was gracious to me even when I was His enemy—anything I give would be an unmerited act of grace and mercy and charity. What it would not be, however, is an act of justice, or a discharging of a debt or obligation.

Understanding this very key difference between justice and mercy is of great importance to the "social justice" debate, along with other distinctions such as the Gospel itself versus an outworking of the Gospel, and the line dividing an appropriate attempt to exhort others via Scripture from a pharisaical attempt to bind others' consciences on a matter of Christian liberty. Regardless, if I haven't borrowed from or made a promise to someone, if I haven't directly wronged someone giving rise to an obligation of restitution to that person, I don't owe that person anything, even if he or she was born in a far less advantageous position, or has fallen upon hard times of late. Even if I might have been assigned five or two talents by my Master, while the other was assigned only one. No, the only thing I owe that person is love. It's not a small thing, certainly, but neither is it a guilt-inducing debt under the law. And as we conclude Romans 13:8, we see how that very same love actually destroys the law's burden of shame, "for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."

So when strangers try to tell you that you owe them something, a helpful question to ask in response might be, "How, specifically, have I personally wronged you?" And if the answer is a bunch of spluttering rhetoric about indirect systemic catchphrases, I can say with some degree of confidence that you probably haven't wronged them at all; they're merely trying to sell you something, specifically a sense of guilt and shame for circumstances of birth completely beyond your control, all of which has been fully paid for on the Cross in any event, for those truly purchased by the blood of Christ.

As I've written before, the Word is crystal clear in places such as Acts 23:1, Acts 24:16, Romans 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:4, 2 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Timothy 1:19, 2 Timothy 1:3, and 1 Peter 3:16 that a Christian is capable of maintaining a clear conscience toward certain people and on various issues. By all means, ensure your conscience is properly formed by the Scriptures, take care to examine yourself, and don't just blithely give yourself a pass. But if your conscience is indeed clear on matters such as these, heed Galatians 5:1 by not letting any person subject you again to a yoke of slavery, especially when Christ has set you free.

Hohn's signature


Jim Pemberton said...

This is precisely what's at stake here:

Justice demands punishment for wrongs done. It seeks social equilibrium at the expense of the guilty.

Mercy, particularly of the gracious kind, seeks reconciliation at the expense of the innocent.

Justice cannot reconcile. It can only equalize. Mercy doesn't try to equalize. It demands sacrifice. The resultant reconciliation in forgiveness is far greater than equality.

God's plan satisfied his justice while giving mercy in the form of reconciliation to those who wronged him. We are called to live out God's plan. Even as we bear wrongs done to us as Christ's ambassadors and willingly give even more in the attempt to proclaim God's reconciliation through Christ, so we receive the joy in him that mere justice can never afford.

Hohn C said...

Jim, thanks so much for reading. Of course, nothing that I or you wrote precludes the thought of pursuing and "doing" justice, but it's important to remember the distinctions between justice, and other things like mercy, as we both point out. Thank you so much for your thoughts, which I appreciate!

trogdor said...

Reparations are the new indulgences, and a lot of people who should know better are competing to be Tetzel.