Since Roman Catholics have probably had more opportunity to think about and act against heresy than anyone else, I will defer to a helpful definition of heresy they have used. Several Catholic internet sites define it this way, “A heresy is not the total rejection of the Christian faith but a distortion of it. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth.” Within the context of this Catholic understanding of heresy, I want to explore the heresy of “It’s totally about love” Christianity.
The “love is enough” heresy is certainly guilty of misguiding folks about biblical theology. Whether packaged in the recent book Love Wins or in slogans that interpret Christianity only through the 2nd Great Commandment (Mark 12:31), the problem is evident. The central importance of “love” is sometimes exaggerated at the expense of an equally essential truth like justice.
My own intuition tells me that love trumped justice, at least in the Christian West, because sermons about love were not as threatening to the powers of society, organized religion, and the church as justice were. The American Civil Rights Movement seems to provide a good demonstration of this evaluation. If I am correct about this “love” and “justice” dichotomy, then Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring true. When speaking at the Holt Street Baptist Church regarding the Montgomery Bus Boycott he stated,
“Let us be Christian in all of our actions. But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”
Certainly most Southern bigots and segregationists went to churches where love was preached. Nevertheless, the emphasis on John 3:16 and God’s love for everyone that was found in most segregationist congregations and denominations seems to prove that believing in “love” was often not enough since it also allowed them to remain in and argue for their segregationism in the face of John 3:16.
Since most of the “rich and powerful” in the West have not experienced the brutal edge of injustice like many others do in various parts of God’s world, it has been easier to marginalize this central biblical theme of justice. What has made this strategy of “It’s totally about love” heretical is not its diminution of just another central biblical doctrine like justice (which would be bad enough), but, rather, it is its desecration of God’s very character and person.
Let’s appreciate some of the evidence for the pervasiveness of justice in the plans of God for this world through his people.
There is God’s election of Abraham so that YHWH could have a people “to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19),
There is God’s legislative guidelines through the Mosaic Law, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15; cf. Deut. 1:15-17)
There is a prime directive for the regal leader of Israel, “then a throne shall be established in steadfast love in the tent of David, and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right” (Isa. 16:5)
There is the sacred hymnal that lauds YHWH, the “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Ps. 99:4)
There is a prophetic oracle that reveals YHWY’s requirements of his elect, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Truly, the biblical narrative is unintelligible without a clear appreciation for the role of justice in this story. Even a cursory knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals that it was the neglect of justice that frequently led to God’s punishments of Israel as well as pagan nations. The prophet Jeremiah is exemplary of this perspective. After listing a series of injustices found in the land of Judah Jeremiah records, “Shall I not punish them for these things? says the LORD, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?” (Jer. 5:29). And later in the same prophetic work, “Thus says the LORD: Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn, with no one to quench it, because of your evil doings” (Jer. 21:12). Israel paid for these errors of injustice with the razing of Jerusalem, massive deportations to Babylon, and the destruction of their civilization as they had known it for centuries.
What you ask, does all this have to do with the book of Revelation and John’s theology? This acknowledgment of the importance of justice is crucial in the demonstration of the superficiality of evaluating the theology of Revelation solely in light of love. If one’s criteria for evaluating Revelation in light of the message of Scripture does not include issues associated with justice, then one’s conclusions will necessarily be ill founded.
In fact, it is John’s own awareness of the centrality of justice to the biblical message and story that leads him, in my opinion, to depict God’s treatment of Rome and her oppression of believers in light of God’s justice. A stream of scenes reveals that John’s theology is nurtured and shaped by this biblical concern for justice:
- the martyrs’ prayer, “avenge our blood” (Rev. 6:10)
- the lyrical affirmations that “Just and true are your ways, King of the nations” in the “Song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3)
- a talking piece of furniture [try that in VBS] proclaiming, “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments” (Rev. 16:7)
- the conquering Christ judging and waging war “with justice” (Rev. 19:11).
As I wrote in my commentary (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible, p. 158),A biblical theology of the justice of God and God’s defense of the oppressed were rightly employed by John in this particular prophetic ministry to the congregations of western Asia Minor. . . . If the Old Testament teaches anything, it teaches that YHWH is a defender of the oppressed and the victimized and especially when the victims are the elect of Israel.
It might be that a better title for a book about God’s judgment in Revelation would be Justice Wins rather than Love Wins. It seems, after all, that Martin Luther King Jr. was also correct when he restated an earlier idea with these words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”