Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.

– Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

My younger son’s kindergarten class is doing a unit on farms this term and they’ve been learning about chickens and cows and pigs and the like. The other day he came home and said, “Did you know that a baby chick has to peck its way out of its own eggshell to be born? And that afterward, it is … [pause for effect] … JUST EXHAUSTED?”

I was brought up within a philosophy that nearly deified personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. If you were poor, well … what did you do wrong that allowed that to happen? This intermingling of capitalism and prosperity preaching bled over into my spiritual life, leaving me just exhausted, thinking that the job of being “born again” was my doing. I remember one sleepless night in my late teens that I spent agonizing over whether to remain a Christian because it felt so hard–practicing a daily half-hour quiet time, attending church at least three times a week, maintaining the behaviors listed in the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, and Beatitudes–manifesting my belief in my life.

Things changed, hallelujah–and the TL;DR version is that my own self-forged identity fell apart, which gave grace the space to move in and show me that it had never been about me in the first place, but about what had been done on my behalf. This process began in my early twenties and, I’m starting to suspect, continues as long as I inhabit this earthly realm. The deconstruction of my former religion in favor of my current faith is more complicated and invasive than I ever imagined, because the Sin that permeated my heart is more pernicious than I ever knew. It shows up in corners of myself I haven’t visited in years and upends long-held persuasions in the arenas of politics, relationships, culture … everything, really. 

What I’m confronting right now is the work it’s doing on my ideas of justice. Because back in my (increasingly former, I hope) days of iron-fisted, individualistic, self-perpetuated Christian life, I never knew the inseparable connection between God’s righteousness and his justice. And I had no idea how my own actions and ideas ran counter to that justice.

In The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge’s chapter on justice could not be more timely these days. I’ve returned to her words nearly daily as I’ve watched the news from across the world with my eight- and five-year-olds and clumsily tried to explain to them what racism even is. The fact that there is a timeless God in heaven who has an agenda for dealing with injustice is not only helpful right now–it is what keeps me going. 

Justice, she writes, is an indispensable part of God’s righteousness:

… these two words, ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness,’ not semantically connected in English, are the same word-group in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and in the Greek of the New … [righteousness] is much more like a verb than a noun, because it refers to the power of God to make right what has been wrong.

This is not a faith that demands self-salvation. As Rutledge writes, “the New Testament writings all presuppose that the fallen human race and the equally fallen created order are sick unto death beyond human resourcefulness.” 

I believe this is where Jesus upends our philosophies: on a cross, dying a slave’s death, for everyone who could never pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and realize full justice themselves–which is to say, all of us. So where do we come in, if we are to be Christians in the face of injustice and racism without turning our backs on them, or our efforts into a works-based gospel? Well, I think that the way we involve ourselves in the justice of God on earth is to enter his mystery–to follow where he leads.

I came across neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel’s writing recently while seeking emotional intelligence for my kids and mental well-being for myself. He gets into quantum physics in one of his books, which I largely skipped over, but I did notice how his description of it and its mysteries overlapped with Rutledge’s words on God’s righteousness:

Initially formulated about a century ago, quantum physics explores the nature of probability in the universe, rather than the certainties apparent at the macrostate surface studied by a Newtonian or classical view of the world […] every quantum is a wave–a disturbance–in a field […] Put simply, quantum insights reveal the verblike nature of reality based on potentials or probabilities; classical physics focuses on a nounlike certainty of objects interacting in the world.

Notice that difference between verblike and uncertain on the one hand, and nounlike and certain on the other. This is a picture, in the scientific world, of certainty versus mystery, that makes me think of the spiritual dissonance between a god many believe in–a safe, predictable, static one (the one I believed in as a kid, btw)–and the real One, who is bigger than we can define, less predictable than we’d like, and surrounded by mystery we can’t contain. Oh, and active.

Too many of us worship a god whose beliefs mirror our own–he would be a member of our own political party and special interest groups, he would vote how we do, give to the charities we support, watch the same news channels we are fixated upon. But a god who agrees with us at every turn is a god of our own making, and the God I’ve known in my life is not afraid to send disturbances–quanta–that upend my long-held views in favor of something less familiar than what I clung to before. The justice of God is a gift that empowers and frees us from our inertia.

This God invites us to tread new waters and walk new lands without a road map, with only his light guiding us. And I think one way he does that is by asking us to enter into the stories of people who are not like us and see the world, and its injustices, from their perspectives. “The beginning of resistance,” writes Rutledge, “is not to explain [ed. note–see every Facebook post comment section ever], but to see. Seeing is itself a form of action.”

To see properly is to recognize the difference between God’s justice and that of the world. In seeing, we are moved by God, and being moved we follow where this God leads. Leaving our static comfort, we proclaim as Job did to his staid friends, “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.” 

When the newly-liberated Israelites traversed the wilderness, sans road map other than fire and cloud, toward the Promised Land, God fed them manna–a wafer-like food they’d never seen before whose name literally means “what is it?” He was feeding them with mystery from his own hand; they were being served something they’d never known and needed it to survive. May we hear his voice calling us to live beyond our own warm blankets of certainty and enter into this relationship-filled, Spirit-led mystery.