In this final installment of a series on Social Justice and the Minor Prophets, it is only fitting that we end with a picture of the End. Though Malachi was not the last biblical book to be written (Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles followed), there is a sense in which the prophetic voice gives a vivid culmination to the types of problems and solutions that a just community grapples with, that is really only a beginning. Sometimes the fight for justice becomes a self-perpetuating identifier in ways that indicate and perhaps betrays the notion that we just are not sure what a just world looks like. Would we know it if we saw one? This is the tragedy of secular social justice vis-à-vis non-biblical ideologies (e. g. Marxism, judicial activism, etc.). Those who are the proponents of these various views suffer from one of two dilemmas: they either have (1) visions of utopian grandeur that really provide no substantive solutions that mitigate equity and justice across all ideological, economic, cultural, and ethnic lines and are highly abstract or (2) practical solutions that end up silencing any other voices because it lacks transformative power, applicable universalism, and are typically intolerant of the role of faith in communal life.
Related Article: Justice, Ethics, and Adventism
The book of Malachi, while addressed to the exiles, particularly priests, who have returned from Babylon, gives us God’s picture of the trajectory of justice and its destination. I suspect where most advocates of secular social justice would stumble is precisely where Malachi says real justice is found. The apparent failure of all the pre-exilic prophecies of a just world where God is king, led some to quip “Where is the God of Justice”? (2:17). Ironically, Malachi is not given a message of a just world that would satisfy this skepticism about its viability; he is given a vision of a new world, a recreated world. You can imagine the problems this presents for those who deny creation by God, deny biblical eschatology, or seek primarily for solutions that are anthropocentric. Hence, where Malachi challenges the people of God is how justice at some point will reach its finality, while at the same time acknowledging God’s finale to all problems of injustice.
“But you say”: Subtle Doubts Kill Real Progress in Biblical Social Justice
The book of Malachi is structured around what are called “disputations.” There are six of these dialogues that follow a particular pattern. (1) God asserts His character; (2) that assertion is questioned by the people; (3) God give a historical example of how He is just and how the people lack faith. Here are the six disputes
- Is God’s love trustworthy? (1:2–5)
- Is God our Father in every aspect of life? (1:6–2:9)
- Is personal injustice/disobedience an impediment to God’s work? (2:10–16)
- Is God a God of justice? (2:17–3:5)
- Are God’s methods something we should really invest in? (3:6–12)
- Is it really worth it to trust God’s promised outcome? (3:12–4:3)
It seems to me that to the extent that we see our personal and communal growth in these areas that we would affect a more profound witness of God’s justice project in the world. Satan is a master deceiver and usually gets us to stumble in one of these areas. God is merciful and will forgive if we repent. Unfortunately, we are proud and usually instead of repenting and aligning ourselves with God’s plan we join on a bandwagon of either anti-religious social action or pseudo-religious social action. Both are problematic for various reasons, and what is interesting is that both approaches attempt to use the same vehicle to bring about their intended goal; political and judicial activism. Of course, I’m not suggesting that in some instances these are necessary measures to stem the tide of tyranny in its multitudinous forms. My point is that Satan’s objective is to get us to see the “other” as the problem and to use his method (force) to effect change. Because we do not live in a theocracy, many of the measures advocated in the Old Testament are not wise to try to implement (see Roy Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians). Jesus was radical, not in the popular sense today of being a “socialist” or “moral teacher,” but in the sense that he called us to keep each other accountable through the ‘power of love’ rather than the ‘love of power.’ It is just here where God begins His restorative justice project in the world with His people.
“I have loved you”—Justice Demands Love
Malachi 1:2–5 testifies to the fact that one impediment to submitting to God’s restorative justice plan is the tendency to question His faithfulness to His promises towards His people. Let us break this sentence down. First is the temporal aspect, “I have,” which indicates a historical past. This points to a community of faith that started from Creation—faith provides historical continuity. Injustice is usually “ahistorical,” in that its view of one’s “status” is not grounded in a temporal sequence of the expression of God’s covenantal love to all humanity from Creation up to the present moment (diachronic), but it usually myopic in its view of history as static and stationary (synchronic) from the perspective of the acquisition of one’s power, which could be relatively recent and short.
Related Article: Toward an Adventist Theology of Social Justice
“Love” here indicates more than an emotion or “feel-goodism.” When God says He loves, what this signifies is that God is faithful to the future He has promised. For Adventists, it is crucial to note that the future includes everyone from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people—all creation from Genesis 1 (Rev 14:6). Injustice typically operates in an isolationist, hierarchical, and monocultural context, that is disconnected from the reality that God is Lord of all people and active in all historical contexts independent of human activity. God’s choosing of Israel was missional. They, like many today, mistake God’s calling as evidence of their “goodness” instead of God’s call for witnesses to His justice. It is hard to be a witness of God’s justice while participating in a system of injustice or silently benefitting from it indifferent to how that system is detrimental to others.
Related Article: Hoping for a Better World Than John Lennon Ever Imagined
Note the dispute, “How have you loved us” is not a question about feelings; it is a question about actions. Their question betrays a self-centered perspective. What is God’s response to our question if He really cares? He points to the fact that His elect covenant people have benefitted from His grace and that He has acted in history in ways that affirm that unmerited favor. The ethos of justice is grounded in a Judeo-Christian ethic that affirms that all are created in the image of God and one group should not exercise the love of power but the power of the love of God in social dynamics. This leads to the next dispute.
“A son honors his father”—Justice Demands Humility
It’s interesting how economic valuation was separated from religious beliefs in Malachi’s time just as in ours. Last time (Haggai/Zechariah), we looked at economics and discovered that when priorities are aimed at maintaining social status rather than God’s project of restorative justice hubris is working at a high level. God’s question “where is my honor” is addressing a practical problem of economics. The evidence of honor was the support for a system that benefitted “all people” (cf. Isa 56:7). By hoarding the best for themselves, their actions dishonored the name of God. The nations were to see that God’s system of equity functioned with selflessness on a personal level and with social benefit for others at the communal level. Note how sustaining a system that honored God was considered “wearying” to the people to the extent that they brought the cheapest, ill-suited, most polluted sacrifices to the Temple that would effect communal purity. Humility is not simply walking around long-faced, not enjoying the gift of life. It is a commitment to God and His people (our brothers and sisters) so much that we are willing to make necessary sacrifices for their benefit.
“I hate divorce”—Social life and Social Justice
Despite the modern common rhetoric about “freedom” “personal choice” “individualism” and the like, a great impediment to God’s restorative justice plan is the moral failings among His people and its communal impact on wider society. It is an ironic dynamic, but in the realm of secular social justice, resistance to creating equitable policies often stems from so-called “moral reasoning”—i.e. associating socio-demographic disparities with “moral failings.” God actually turns this type of reasoning on its head by indicating the lack of witness to God’s justice in practical terms often stems from moral problems among God’s people. In the church, the divorce rate, statistics on spouse and child abuse, loveless marriages, marital infidelity, pornographic voyeurism, etc. testify that a bigger problem is that God’s people show little difference statistically in moral categories in their social life than the “lost.” If the church is no different from the world in these categories, it is no wonder that secular people do not think that a relationship with Jesus makes a difference.
Related Article: Social Justice, A Christian Duty?
The last three disputes all revolve around God’s justice, how we value it, and what we believe about its outcome. If we trusted that God was a “God of justice” it stands to reason that we would faithfully invest in His program of restorative justice because we trust that He is doing and will do what He promised. It is crucial for every Seventh-day Adventist to proclaim Jesus’ coming in the context of God’s justice. This familiar prophecy in Malachi 3:1–5 points in this direction. The finality of God’s justice is a purified people who render total worship to God in works of justice. The promise of the Messiah was an answer to the questioning of God’s justice. As much as I pray for equity and justice in the world for all mankind, what I want more is for every man, woman, boy and girl to surrender to God’s program of restorative justice. I’m worried that some want justice in a way that God never promised apart from Christ’s coming (first and second) and they are being seduced into a secular project that calls for no surrender to Jesus and His purifying work. I’m also concerned that Haggai’s critique of the people in his day applies to our time. There should be a unified voice in mission for justice in harmony with God’s plan for a gospel-centered mission of justice (e.g. Ellen White’s book Welfare Ministry and Ministry of Healing). Sadly, I often hear political and ideological (i.e. liberal/conservative) rhetoric couched in religious language to justify the acquisition and maintenance of power in society. Adventists have been given a mission that points people toward Christ’s work of justice for all humanity. The finale of God’s justice, given in the books of Daniel and Revelation, should encourage us to a wise application of the message of God’s judgment personally and collectively. If we, as a church, continue to utilize broken political and ideological systems that strive to create societies that can never occur in the terms they are laid out, the church in this country will continue to fracture. This, in my opinion, has more of a chance in splitting the church in North America than the conversation over women’s ordination. I challenge myself as I challenge my church, read the prophets anew with a view to see our great God high and lifted up in our efforts to proclaim His justice. If we do not, society will only see our church as another faith-based community peddling an irrelevant “spiritual” message bereft of any word of wisdom for preparing the world for God’s finale and finality to earth’s woes. May the Lord help us.
 I live in America, so that is the lens from which I view these issues. I recognize that other places have nuanced issues to grapple with and that is worthwhile addressing maybe at a later date.