Why a Story of Justice?

I (Chester Wood) grew up as a Christian in mid-west America. I had very little understanding of what biblical justice was beyond a justification by faith through faith in Jesus and the Ten Commandments.  Even the burning issue of my day – the civil rights movement for African-Americans in the 60′s – had little impact on me and my faith. But years later in 1976 when I arrived in the Philippines with my wife and three young daughters and began work as a missionary teacher at Asian Theological Seminary, my faith and my understanding of biblical justice were confronted for the first time with the reality much of the world lives in: massive poverty.

The poverty we saw in the Philippines was overwhelming. We lived in metro Manila where nine million of the eleven million Filipinos living there survived on less than a dollar a day. Some of them became our neighbors and friends. We visited them in their shacks. We spoke haltingly in their language. Eventually, we came to realize that the systemic roots of poverty were nourished in the soil of injustice.  Although I had earned all of the appropriate degrees to address such matters from a biblical perspective (BA, BD, THM, PHD) and had attended the “right” colleges and universities, I had no useful understanding concerning what God thought about poverty and injustice. I did not understand what he had done and was continuing to do about injustice in our world.

What to do about injustice

There are many well thought-out ways to address the issues of poverty and injustice. Some plunge in and try to put matters right by working in schools, social services, hospitals, relief organizations, development programs, etc. Others try to reflect on justice through the lens of economics, politics and sociology. Still others work biblically, producing materials on biblical ethics and social change. All of these are surely part of the answer to poverty and injustice. But what has proved to be foundational for us was to return to the Bible, to listen again to God speak and to watch him act on behalf of the poor and needy and for the cause of “putting things right.” This is justice. (In the talks, I shall try to give a detailed definition of the broad term justice.)

So in 1979, at age 36, I decided to begin tackling this matter by starting at the beginning,   in Genesis, and asking the question, “What does God say and do concerning poverty?” And that led to the question, “What does God say and do about injustice?” Or put another way, “What is the biblical story of justice?”

As a Bible teacher and researcher, I have discovered that in spite of all the articles and books written on poverty, injustice and justice, few seek to tell the Story Of Justice that begins with Creation (Genesis) and ends with the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation).  For many of us, a story-approach rather than a more organized, abstract approach is more easily remembered and its message carries more weight. This is at least true for me, and I have found it to be especially true among the non-Western cultures I have encountered throughout my life.

This website, In Paths Of Righteousness , seeks to tell in simple language the Story Of Justice beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden and ending with the restored garden full of rivers and fruit trees in the New Jerusalem. We shall seek to explore all of the major texts—and there are many—which speak to the issue of justice and righteousness. I understand justice and righteousness to be closely linked (Genesis 18:19 for the first occurrence together). We shall pay attention to the narrative setting of each text that speaks of justice/righteousness, the literary structure of each passage and also its social world. Finally, we shall try to develop as we go along a Bringer of Justice Model. God, and his manifestation as Jesus, is of course the ultimate Bringer of Justice (Isaiah 42:1-4; Matthew 11 & 12), but he has chosen to work through humans such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua and others. One of the keys to making this journey successful is allowing yourself to truly get into the story and read about justice from within.

Characteristics of the Story Of Justice:

  • The Story Of Justice is a long journey, at least 2,000 years.
  • For modern readers, it is a story that takes us across cultures, because the story takes place in a traditional/ancient world. The vision of a just society which is developed in this traditional world setting does not always sit well with the varied visions of society that dominate the modern and modernizing world.
  • It is a disturbing story because the values of freedom and security, often labeled as “national interests” and referred to in the Bible as peace (shalom), take second place to justice.  In the biblical vision for society, justice precedes and results in prosperity and freedom/safety (shalom).  “The fruit of righteousness will be peace (shalom)” (Is 32:17).
  • It is a complex story because justice has at least six distinct but interlinked facets. To illustrate this point we will develop a Star of Justice that has five major points with fairness in the center.  In the midst of the complexity of diving into the text it is easy to focus on just one or two aspects of justice and miss the others. It is Biblical justice as a whole which properly speaks to the human condition of injustice.

I am now 72 years old as I write this line (2013). Looking back, I thank God daily for graciously altering my life and the life of my family through the biblical story of justice. How are we to invest our limited resources of time, imagination, giftedness, creativity and energy so as to achieve a just society?  How shall we live in light of God’s call to his people “to follow justice and justice alone so that you may live….” (Deut 16:20). How are we to obey the words of Jesus who said “Put at the very center of your life the kingdom, which consists of righteousness/justice” (Matthew 6:33)?

About the format of the Story of Justice

This is a story which takes the form of a grand drama and is divided into eight major acts. The acts are subdivided into scenes, just as in a theatrical play.

The origins of In Paths Of Righteousness

“In paths of righteousness” is a line out of the familiar “The Lord is my Shepherd” psalm (23:3). The whole sentence reads “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” “In paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” has been chosen not only just because it is familiar and therefore memorable, but also because it expresses in a very compressed way what is central in the plot of the story of justice/righteousness. From creation onward, as the plot of the story of justice unfolds, the vision or goal of God is to create and to sustain (“he guides me”) on earth a just society (“in paths of righteousness”) of his people who will be a witness to his just character, thereby bringing glory to God (“for his name’s sake”).  Therefore, the creation of a just society of his people is both God’s goal and his means to reaching out to the world so that they too may become his people and part of that just society.  I realize that this assertion cries out for explanation. That explanation is what the website seeks to provide in the story of justice.

About Chester (Chet) and Dolores Wood:

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana–the firstborn in a family of three children. My parents raised me in a Christian home that honored God and his Word. For this I am profoundly thankful. My loving Mom is now with the Lord. My father, 98 years old and still sharp as a tack, was a lawyer by training and taught me by example the importance and price to be paid if one pursed justice in the business world. My parents were very conservative in every way, and I value that foundation.

I had a profound encounter with Jesus at age 17 which turned my world upside down. My goal in life was to be a rich medical doctor. I loved science and math. I disliked literature and languages. At almost the same time that I became a Christian, I was called by God to be a missionary. I started out as a chemistry in a pre-med major at Wheaton College and transferred to Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) with the intention to learn a bit more Bible (literature and languages!) before returning to chemistry and medicine at Wheaton. But I never made it back to Wheaton or chemistry.

The academic years

At CBC (1960-64) I was blessed to be a student of Rev. James M. Hatch, who, without any doubt, is the best Bible teacher I have ever known. Many of my classmates agree. I am pleased to acknowledge my debt to Mr. Hatch for instilling in my young heart a desire to understand the story of God. At CBC, I met the beautiful Dolores Garippa who was called by God to be a missionary in Southeast Asia. After much convincing on my part, we finally became life partners in missions! Dolores came from a first generation Italian immigrant family of thirteen children of which she is the eleventh. She grew up in Garfield, New Jersey and, like me, had never been outside the US.

We both graduated from CBC in 1963 and went on to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where we spent three years (1964-67), with plans to transition on to the missionary field in Southeast Asia.  In those days TEDS numbered about 100 students, but while there we encountered many figures who would come to be influential figures in our lives.   Dr. Kenneth Kantzer was a marvelous Dean and set an example for me of what a good dean ought to be. Dolores worked for a time as Dr. Kantzer’s secretary.  We often thought of his example and that of his wife, Ruth, when I became a dean many years later. Drs. Richard Longenecker and John Warwick Montgomery stretched our minds to the breaking point. Dr. Walter Kaiser made the Prophets come alive for us. The first of our four beautiful daughters (they all look like their Italian mother), Elisabeth, was born at Trinity.

After graduation from Trinity, Art Glasser, who was at the time the Overseas Missionary Fellowship American Director, advised us to do some teaching in America to prove our gift (an internship of sorts) and to get, as he put it, a “good PhD” – because we would need that in Southeast Asia. So for three years we had the privilege of teaching Bible at John Brown University (1967-70). Our second daughter, Rebekah, was born in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. While at JBU, Mr. Hatch asked us to do a year of substitute teaching at CBC (1970-71).

After teaching at CBC, we took our first small, but significant, cross-cultural step, and moved to a farm ten miles outside of the small town of St. Andrews, Scotland, where I enrolled as a PhD student. Ruth Abbey, our third daughter, arrived that autumn as I began the four-year march (1971-75) of writing a dissertation on “the Use of Psalm Two in Jewish and Christian Tradition of Exegesis” (unpublished) under the kind guidance of Professor Matthew Black, the Principal of St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.  St. Andrews Baptist Church made us most welcome in Scotland.

Our “second conversion” in the Philippines

From Scotland we returned to the States to become candidates with Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly China Inland Mission of Hudson Taylor fame). Our home church, Faith Missionary Church, Indianapolis, greatly assisted us in getting quickly to the Philippines. We owe a huge debt of thanks to the people of Faith Missionary Church and our many friends and supporters scattered across the US.

First in Singapore and then in the Philippines we did a year and a half of cultural orientation and language learning (Tagalog) before we started teaching at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. ATS met in a house right in Manila and had a student body of about 50.

About half way through our time at ATS (1976-81), we had a second conversion. The students frequently asked about poverty, injustice, participating in a revolt against President Marcos, evil spirits, dowry for a bride and on and on. I had not had any classes in college, seminary or university on any of those topics! We lived in the middle of Manila in an ocean (9 million souls) of poverty. Beggars knocked daily at our gate. Some of the poor worked for us. We called them by name. Spoke to them in our broken Tagalog. We had neighbors whom we could see out our widow who work hard in the blazing sun ten hours a day, six days a week, and lived on less than a dollar a day. We were shocked! The poor were not lazy. We could not adequately sandbag ourselves against the rising tide of this reality. The second conversion overwhelmed us. We decided to stop teaching the Greek text of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and switch to the narrative text about Jesus in the book of Matthew1. Our hunch was that the answers to poverty and injustice were to be found in narrative materials, about which we knew very little, not in expository materials (letters). We thought Jesus probably had more to say about justice and righteousness than Paul. In retrospect that was a good move, but we do understand that Paul also has a heart for the poor and for justice, but we did not know that Paul then.

Dolores and I began a year-long seminar (1979) with a dozen gifted Asian graduate students on the text of Matthew. Instead of standing and lecturing to students sitting in rows, we sat down around a large table in a dialogue with the Matthew and with each other. Dolores and I became learners together with our Asian students. It was humbling. It was exhilarating.  We concluded that Jesus came not just to die for our sins, but that he also came to “put things right”, to bring justice. He challenged the powerful political-religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, about their interpretation of the Law, the standard for justice. For this they killed him (Matt 12:14). We learned to connect the death of Jesus with the life of Jesus and to read Matthew as a story of justice.

If one reads Matthew and Jesus who constantly cite the Scriptures (OT), eventually one ought to read Deuteronomy, Psalms and especially Isaiah. These are the books most often quoted by Matthew and Jesus. Although my PhD thesis did start with Psalm 2 in the OT, the focus was the use of Psalm 2 in the NT. My PhD is in NT, not OT. So I have been stretched to learn the whole Bible, especially the OT. Also I have tried to understand the Bible as a whole. During our days at ATS I was just beginning to rehearse with the students the story of poverty beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. In 1979 I became Dean of a special ThM (first year of PhD) for fifteen Asian students with a view to developing an Asian faculty at ATS. Bill Dryness was my partner in this venture. (Bill later returned home to eventually be Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary.) Seven of the fifteen students became faculty members at ATS. We had worked ourselves out of our jobs. As we were leaving Manila in 1981 we had a surprise: Deborah, our fourth daughter, was born!

The call to Africa

We returned to the States and applied to become part of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Nairobi, Kenya. In 1982 it did not appear that NEGST would open anytime soon. So reluctantly we accepted a position at Bethel College (now Bethel University), St. Paul, MN, as associate Professor of Biblical Studies. As soon as we had moved to Minnesota, bought a house and settled in, a letter arrived from NEGST saying “Come”. So for ten years (1984-1993) I was part-time at Bethel and part-time at NEGST. Thanks to Bethel and especially the Dean, Dr. Dwight Jessup, and my department chair, Dr. John Herzog, for their kindness to me in those years.

In May 1984 I taught all five students in the first class at NEGST. It was wonderful. In 1986, Light of the World Ministries, Inc., was founded to support the efforts at NEGST. My father, Clarence Wood, was the first chair of LOWM, followed by Dr. Phil Johnston, MD. He was strongly supported by his wife Margaret. Don Hardamon, from the first day, was treasurer. Other friends, too many to mention here, joined as board members. In 1993, Dolores, Deborah and I moved to Nairobi leaving behind our three adult daughters and our extended family.

At NEGST, I taught Hermeneutics (Bible study methods), Greek exegesis, Matthew, Theology of Poverty, and eventually, A Biblical Theology of Justice in a two course sequence, OT and NT. Dolores taught OT Survey, Bible as Literature and English as an additional language for the wives of students. However, most of my time and energy was spent in administration as department head, Dean of MDiv, Provost, the first Dean of the Doctoral Programs and Executive Director of LOWM, which raised funds for faculty development at NEGST. Our goal was Africans teaching Africans in Africa. One of our greatest joys in life has been to see our former students become colleagues and later serve as Principal, such as David Kasali and Douglas Carew. With the launch of the first cohort of thirteen PhD students in Bible and Bible Translation studies, we knew our work was finished. We returned to the States in 2007 to care for my aged parents and enjoy our children and our six grandchildren. NEGST has recently become Africa International University (AIU).

Walking on that path

Now at age 70 (2011), I find myself up every weekday morning before 5 a.m. struggling to fill in all of the gaps in the story of justice. You will see that this is very much a work in progress. Your prayers are appreciated. We hope that the story of justice speaks to you as it has to us. The biblical story of justice provides us with a roadmap for life. It seeks to rehearse God’s vision of the establishment on earth of a just society of his people and their witness to the nations. The desired outcome of all of this is that we may daily “walk in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” guided and inspired by the story of justice. Thanks be to the LORD for all of his mercy and kindness to us in Jesus, the Bringer of Justice.

In Paths of Righteousness