Irwyn Ince—pastor and author of The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best—explains why beauty compels us to pursue justice. The harmony and goodness of beauty reflect God’s creation as it was meant to be. Redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers should pursue justice because it foreshadows the coming perfection of beauty in the new creation.
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Irwyn Ince: I expect that you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of people who say that they don’t care about justice at all. No one wants to admit to be a supporter of injustice. We might not agree on what justice looks like in any and every situation, but none of us want to be experiencing personal injustice in our relationships or in systems and structures. None of us want to be on the receiving end of injustice. I dare say that, to some degree, all of us are passionate about justice.
The reason that justice matters is because of beauty. More particularly, the reason justice matters to us is that we were created by and for beauty. A year ago, First Things published a video by poet, Dana Gioia. Among other things in that video, he said this about beauty. He said, “Without beauty, there’s no practical way to change the world, no universal means of communication and inspiration that will suffice, no equally powerful way for humanity to know and love what is good and true.”
That’s a big claim, but I think he’s right. All beauty in the created world has God as its source. God is, in himself, the beautiful one in his triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck put it, the Trinity reveals God to us as the fullness of being, the true life, eternal beauty.” God is the one who created the world in, and for, beauty.
Well, what does this have to do with justice? Well, let me tell you. I want to share two things with you. I want to talk about the story of beauty and the story of beauty’s restoration. I don’t know how you to this point have thought about the way the Bible begins in Genesis 1 with the creation account up to this point, but I want to submit to you that the Bible itself begins with a story of beauty in its literary form and content. Here’s what I mean.
One facet of beauty is harmony, things being well-ordered, things being in right relationship, things being the way they ought to be. The Hebrew Old Testament uses the word Shalom to get at this concept, this notion of harmony and right ordering and wholeness and proportion. Essential to beauty is the bringing of order out of chaos, setting things right. After the first verse of Genesis 1 tells us that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the second verse gives us a problem statement that is in need of a solution.
Genesis 1, in verse two, says the earth was without form, and void and darkness was over the face of the deep and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. The literary pattern in Genesis 1 is God forming and filling, bringing order and harmony out of chaos in poetic fashion. This is the pattern of the creation account, a poetic story of beauty, bringing order and harmony out of chaos, by God forming and filling on parallel days. Forming the light on day one and filling the light what he formed on day four with the sun and the moon, and forming the sky and the seas on day two and on day five, the parallel day, filling what he had formed, the birds of the heaven and then the fish of the sea, of forming the dry land on day three and filling what he formed on day six with land animals and with the crown of creation.
This is a beautiful story. When God is done, everything is how it ought to be. There’s no disorder, there’s no disharmony. There is Shalom, peace and wellbeing. There is beauty, and one of the ways we know it is because of a second aspect of beauty or facet of beauty that keeps on showing up in Genesis 1. A second aspect of beauty is pleasure or delight, and not a self-centered delight, a decentered delight. We find this sense of delight repeated in Genesis 1 seven times, with the word good. The Bible keeps saying that when God saw what he had made, he saw that it was good. It was good, it was good, over and over and over again, until we hear on day six that God saw all that he had made and it was very good.
What we are hearing God delighting in the creation of the world. What we are hearing is God’s pleasure in the creative world. Pleasure and delight are an aspect of beauty. Why do we care about justice? It’s because we were created by and for beauty. We want there to be harmony and right order and right relationship in the world. We want things to be the way they ought to be.
When you find people passionate about environmental issues and the way we treat the environment and the unjust ways we abuse the created order, the way we go about destroying the world, when you find people passionate about that, it’s because we were created by and for beauty. When we see order and harmony created from a chaotic situation, when we see justice done, what happens? It gives us joy, it gives us pleasure. It gives us the light because we were created by and for beauty.
Sin, our greatest disorder as human beings, has messed up the whole cosmos. As a result of the pervasive nature of sin, the gruesome aspects of the human predicament, the unjust aspects, are often more prominent to us than the glorious aspects. But the Bible doesn’t begin with the fall, it doesn’t begin with death, depravity and injustice, it begins with a more true reality about the world and about humanity than our sinful condition. It begins with this truth. As we image God who is eternal beauty and who specializes in bringing order out of chaos, beauty, as Dana Gioia says, again, is our connection to the essential harmony of creation.
The Bible begins with the story of beauty and what unfolds in the history of redemption after the fall of humanity and the world is a story of beauty’s restoration. Maybe you were in church on Easter and you sang the hymn, Crown Him with Many Crowns, on that Easter Sunday. When you sang the third verse of that hymn and you melodically voiced these words about our resurrected savior, Jesus Christ, words in that verse that say, “The rich wounds yet visible above are in beauty glorified,” what, if anything, went through your mind?
The marks of our sin, or our unrighteousness, our injustice, are indelibly marked on the body of our resurrected savior, Jesus Christ, indelibly marked on his glorious and ascended body. Those rich wounds, visible in glory, permanently fixed to his body, are not gruesome. They are beautiful. The scars he bore for our injustice have been transformed and they explode in the beauty and majesty of Jesus Christ.
At the fulcrum of beauty’s restoration is Jesus’s taking on himself our injustice, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of God’s new covenant promise through the prophet Isaiah, prophet Jeremiah rather, that he would remember our sins and our lawless deeds no more. Prophet Isaiah tells us that he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him, but he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities upon him, was the chastisement that has brought us Shalom.
With his wounds, we are healed. Divine justice was satisfied at the cross of Jesus Christ, through which we receive restoration and renewal into the beautiful image we were created to be and we are called into this same pursuit of beauty in our world. You see, because the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, what it did, it secured, the Bible tells us, an eternal redemption. That redemption was not just about the saving of individual souls, it was the securing of the renewal of the entire cosmos. The new heavens and the new earth will be the perfection of beauty. As Jesus says in Matthew 13:41, “All sin and all law breakers will be removed, and the coming kingdom has broken into the present world.” As kingdom people, kingdom people who are renewed by and for beauty, we pursue it now. We pursue beauty, and that means pursuing justice now.
As artist Makoto Fujimura puts it in his book, Art+Faith, “The body of Christ provides the Christian ecosystem for teaching the new creation, and this can happen if the church once again becomes a place of making the heart of beauty in the world and a witness to mercy.” We were made by and for beauty, which means that we were created to image God in bringing order out of chaos, seeking and working for Shalom to the glory of God. All will not be made right, all will not be set in order, every injustice and wound will not be healed completely until the Lord Jesus Christ returns. Yet by being renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator, we are invited to pursue justice right now, trusting that he will give us glimpses of glory and beauty along the way.