Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
In January, as we commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., we begin a new series on biblical justice and advocacy – to help us stay grounded in why we do what we do as advocates. You can look forward to posts about different aspects of biblical justice as well as practical, biblically-based approaches to advocacy, which is one of the primary ways we can seek justice. Today, we begin our series with one response to the question: “What is biblical justice?”
Justice is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals,” and most of us understand justice in this way – something that’s served, something that’s deserved, something that sets the universe right, even if only in a small way. But how is biblical justice related to, or distinct from, this modern concept?
The major Hebrew and Greek words for justice appear in scripture over 1,000 times – at least 10 times the number of references to sexual sin. On many of these occassions, the Hebrew word for justice is paired with the word for righteousness, indicating that “righteousness” is about more than personal piety; it’s a sense that things are right for the communal whole – a sense of justice and rightness.
Here’s a brief look at three characteristics of biblical justice for us to consider as we advocate for the poor in the coming year:
- Biblical Justice Witnesses to God
If we’re looking for a picture of justice, it looks like God:
“For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (Deut 32:3-4).
As Chris Marshall so wonderfully puts it in The Little Book of Biblical Justice, “Justice is not something God aspires to; it is the heart of who God is and what God does” (p. 22). And so, because God is justice, our own involvement in making justice visible in the world makes God himself visible. Unfortunately, most of our missional activity in the world prioritizes conversion and compassion, bearing witness only to God’s mercy and salvation, to the exclusion of God’s justice. But biblical justice also witnesses to God – to his fair judgement, his integrity, and his inclusion of all people in His kingdom.
- Biblical Justice is a Key Responsibility of God’s People
Because God had dealt fairly and justly with the Hebrew people when he rescued them from Egypt and established them in the wilderness, they too were to treat each other justly and ensure that their newly established systems were just and equitable for all. As soon as God formed them together as a collective unit, he gave them the responsibility of doing and ensuring justice. Because he rescued them from the hand of an oppressive leader, their government systems were to be free from oppression. Because he cared for them when they were aliens in a strange land, their social system needed to protect and care for foreigners, too. Because he provided for their needs in the wilderness, their economic systems needed to ensure that wealth distribution remained fair for all and that everyone’s basic needs were met.
When God’s people prioritized other religious practices and offerings, at the expense of the practice of justice, the pious worship no longer pleased God, but angered him:
“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:15-17).
Biblical justice is not reserved merely for activist types – it’s an obligation and expectation for us all.
- Biblical Justice is About the Big Picture
If we are to reflect God’s justice to one another and to deal with one another as God has dealt with us, it is clear that biblical justice is about relationships. However, it is also clear in scripture that biblical justice extends beyond interpersonal interactions. To some degree, it may be helpful to think about justice as compassion on a larger scale. Where compassion is concerned that my neighbor has enough, justice is concerned that every neighbor in the community (be it global or local) has enough. Where compassion forgives and releases a grudge, justice ensures punishments are fair and offenders have a chance at restoration, if possible. Where compassion mourns with the mother who miscarried, justice mourns that many mothers around the world do not have access to simple quality health care.
In the new heaven and the new earth that is pictured in Revelation 21, God says that he is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NRSV). All things. Not just our souls, though they need newness. Not just our relationships, though many of them need restoration. Not just our bodies, though they are fragile and need healing. All things. Our governments, our government leaders, our financial systems, our corporations, our judiciary and health care systems, our environment. Biblical justice, at its heart, is participation with God in making all things new.
Will you join us this year?
Photo: In Ecuador, Manuel studies the Bible every morning. ‘God’s word is food for the soul.’ © 1994 World Vision
Biblical justice is clearly dear to God. Its deficiency in society is a moral issue of equal importance to abortion and sexual immorality, however it has been little championed in the U.S. by many in the Christian community, especially if it involves the government helping to create fair social and economic systems so that the basic needs of all are met, and is often called welfare or socialist and a threat to personal freedom. It may mean less convenience for some and there are sure to be opportunists, as there are at all levels of society, but this call for biblical justice will result in a net benefit to society, especially when all interested parties are able to contribute: the Church, governments (which the Bible indicates are established by God), NGOs and so on. The Christian focus should be less on personal comfort and prosperity and more on the Kingdom of God which is furthered by biblical justice. Meeting the basic needs of people through biblical justice helps open the door to their establishing a relationship and reaching their potential with God.
Great post! I’ve really enjoyed Christopher Wright’s thoughts on justice and righteousness. I love how he talks about them as something you do:
For sedaqah and mispat are concrete nouns, unlike the English abstract nouns used to translate them. That is, in Old Testament thinking, righteousness and justice are actual actions that you do, not concepts you reflect on or an ideal you dream about.” – Christopher Wright