Note: If you are only interested in my dissertation topic, jump to the end.
How I came to my topic
In 2020, three events occurred that changed my life.
First, around May 5, I watched the horrific video of Ahmaud Arbery being hunted down by two armed men in a pickup truck. I lost count of how many times I replayed the video. It wasn’t out of a sense of voyeurism, but rather there was a part of me that still believed this couldn’t be real. This was 2020. Such things weren’t supposed to be part of our contemporary reality. When I showed this video to one of my sons, we both wept.
Second, the entire world watched the equally appalling video of George Floyd’s murder. Despite the pleas from the crowd, which included a paramedic, Officer Chauvin kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. We witnessed his life drain away.
Something changed in our society. Fear and sorrow gave way to anger, then rage. Protests broke out all over the world. While the overwhelming majority of these protest were peaceful, others de-evolved into grim acts of violence and destruction.
Counter protests ensued. Even in a northern state like Michigan (where I lived at the time), Confederate flags appeared overnight on pickup trucks, T-shirts, and front lawns. Movements like the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups marched, often with the intention of clashing with Black Lives Matter protests. One the one hand, Marxist groups were burning down buildings and attacking police officers, on the other hand neo-Confederates were pouring even more hate onto the fire.
In the midst of all of this, I watched my conservative Evangelical tribe struggle with how to respond. I know many Evangelicals who were equally horrified by Chauvin’s death and the underlying racial injustices that caused it. However, other voices…angier voices…seemed to be winning the day within the Evangelical community. The schisms within the surrounding political world now overtook our local churches (though perhaps they always had and I just didn’t see it). One one side, Evangelicals concerned about justice were accusing anyone who supported Trump as being white nationalists. On the other side (and statistically the far greater percentage of Evangelicals), accusations of “Marxism” were leveled at anyone who spoke about social justice or believed in systemic racism. Words like “woke” and “MAGA Republicans” became labels to attack other believers.
We had lost sight of the unity God has gifted to us and which he commands that we “preserve with diligence” (Ephesians 4:3). Christians are a family, regardless of how we vote politically or how we assess America’s history regarding racism. We had also lost sight of our ministry of compassion to the least of these. In an effort to force our assessment down others throats, we shouted over the lament and pain of those trying to speak about their suffering and oppression. Compassion gave way to defending a political ideology, and political ideology displaced doctrinal orthodoxy. It was no longer enough to share Christ, we could now only be unified if we shared a political outlook or view of American history.
Third, in the midst of these first two events, God provided me a third life-changing experience. God had already blessed me with significant close friendships within the African American church community. Though these men were grieving by what had happened, several of them graciously met with me repeatedly. God used these meetings, phone calls, and emails to get me to ask myself questions that had never previously occurred to me.
- What was the African American experience?
- What is systemic racism and what proof is there that it exists?
- Does America have a racist history?
- If so, can this history be objectively proven?
- Am I really willing to dismiss the experiences and perceptions of millions of African Americans, many of whom are faithful Christians?
Ultimately, one question rose above all others: What is justice? As a committed believer in Jesus Christ, I believe that God’s word is the answer to the most significant problems faced by humanity. It is God’s divine truth meant to rule and guide our lives. While I fully understand why many Evangelical pastors and leaders were rejecting non-biblical definitions and approaches to justice, I was confused why there was so little discussion about what God’s word had to say about justice. While many pastors were thundering in their pulpits against the evils of social justice, precious few bothered to teach what the Bible actually says about justice. It seemed we were more interested in protecting America’s reputation or defeating Marxism than with identifying with the poor, suffering, and disenfranchised.
My Ph.D Journey
To answer this fundamental question, I turned to Scripture. It quickly became apparent that formal education would provide the best format for this discovery process. Even my cursory reading about justice in the Bible revealed it was a serious issue, and therefore it deserved serious attention. I approached my wife and asked her to pray with me about pursuing a Ph.D.
In my very first doctoral seminar, I stumbled onto a quote from Isaiah in Matthew’s gospel. Tucked in the middle of a conflict Jesus was having with the Pharisees, Matthew writes in 12:17-21,
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.”
While I had read that passage many times before, I never made the connection to justice. Yet, here Matthew was clearly telling the entire world that Jesus is the one God has sent to bring His promised justice to the nations!
I instantly realized two things: First, those contemporary movements who sought to define and solve justice apart from Jesus were utterly doomed to failure. Second, those Evangelical voices that were denying racial injustice (among other forms) were clearly not speaking for Matthew or Jesus. God understood our world is full of injustice and that Jesus is the only solution. To deny that injustice exists is to deny one of the most significant reasons Jesus entered into our lives.
From the moment I first read that passage, I knew this was going to be the central focus of my dissertation. For months, I studied the Gospels and the entire New Testament corpus to see how justice was discussed. Then, for nearly six months, I focused almost exclusively on Jewish writers from the Second Temple period. I wanted to understand how ancient rabbis and Pharisees understood justice, and whether or not this impacts our understanding of Matthew 12. Then I jumped back into the Old Testament, first studying methodological approaches generally and then engaged in a significant independent study of Isaiah, the source of Matthew’s quotation. Of course, there were other seminars as well and each of these revised my thinking.
My dissertation is tentatively titled “Justice and Conflict in Matthew: Intertextual Considerations on a Messianic Theme.” My goal is to answer the question, “What is the purpose and function of Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4?” My tentative thesis is that Matthew not only incorporates Isaiah 42:1-4 into his narrative but, more importantly, consciously sets his narrative within the overall text-plot of Isaiah. Specifically, Matthew sees his narrative as a then-contemporary outworking of Isaiah’s rebuke of Israel’s leaders for failing in their Covenantal mandate to pursue justice and the subsequent promise of God to send a divine son/servant who will fulfill this Covenantal obligation.
If this topic is of interest to you, please reach out to me.