Want to make people uncomfortable? Just bring up the topic of justice in American culture today. There will be immediate reactions of every conceivable type. Some will cry out about the level of injustice with claims that America has never been concerned about justice and that the entire enterprise is rotten to the core. Others will shout about this being the greatest country in the world and a near approximation of God’s heaven on earth. And of course there is everything in between. It is a debate that seems to be tearing at the very fabric of social interaction and connectedness and threatens to push us into barbaric tribalism over disagreements that are often ill defined and misunderstood.
The church of Jesus, both at large and on the local church level, is not immune to the division. A recent article by Michael Graham, The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, (1) brilliantly describes the breadth of ideologies that are overtaking churches and the lack of charity in dealing with the disagreements. While we might assume the fracturing is over theological issues, at the core it is really over how we approach social and political issues and wrap them in theological garb.
What has become apparent in the debates about justice is that first and foremost, Christians are often not starting with what the Bible has to say about Justice, at least not a fully orbed view of what the Bible says. Rather, both on the political right and left, many are starting with unexamined world views they have long held, and making the assumption that they have the Bible and Jesus on their side. Any pushback on those views is automatically assumed to be an attack on what the Bible and Christianity teaches. That is a dangerous assumption.
Something that adds to the discord is that the topic of justice has rarely been dealt with in a comprehensive way by preachers and teachers within Christianity. One result of this lack of teaching is that older Christians have functioned under a malnourished understanding of justice and not engaged the issues of the world from a wholistic biblical framework. Younger Christians on the other hand have been confronted with the various injustices in the world and the churches failure to engage. Often times they end up latching on to secular approaches to justice that distort the biblical approach and serve to cause more division.
One Christian author has clearly explained the current situation.
In the Bible, Christians have an ancient, rich, strong, comprehensive, complex, and attractive understanding of justice. Biblical justice differs in significant ways from all the secular alternatives, without ignoring the concerns of any of them. Yet Christians know little about biblical justice, despite its prominence in the Scriptures. This ignorance is having two effects. First, large swaths of the church still do not see ‘doing justice’ as part of their calling as individual believers. Second, many younger Christians, recognizing this failure of the church and wanting to rectify things, are taking up one or another of the secular approaches to justice, which introduces distortions into their practice and lives. (2)
The Bible Is Loaded with Teaching About Justice.
Even a cursory glance at the Bible is going to reveal that it speaks about justice a bunch. The words Just and Justice appear more than 500 times in English translations of the Greek and Hebrew. That doesn’t even take into account that Righteousness is often synonymous with Justice in the Bible and it shows up more than 800 times in its various forms. At the heart of it all is the fact that an attribute or characteristic of God’s very nature is that He is just. He is a God of justice because at the core He is a just God. That in itself should move Christians to dig into the question, what is biblical justice and not take simple, surface answers as the end of the matter.
When we do the hard digging we find that biblical justice of far more robust, rich, and nuanced than our sound bite arguments can accommodate. Often times when we engage complex topics we recognize that there are two sides to the coin. It is a way of saying there is another aspect that needs to be considered and it is integral to the whole piece. When it comes to understanding Biblical Justice it gets a bit more complicated because there are actually two coins in the treasury of Biblical Justice and each of the two coins has a flip side to it. Our tendency as people is to latch on to one side of one coin and miss the other three sides. At best we might see both coins but still only see one side of each. One of those coins is what I call the punishment/protection coin. The other is the individual/communal coin.
The Punishment/Protection Coin
That the Bible speaks of punishment for wrongdoers as an aspect of justice is not news. If anything it is the most often examined side of the justice coins, at least among American Evangelicals. We understand that sin is wrongdoing against God and others, and justice requires that it be dealt with. Preachers have rightly declared for centuries that human beings are sinners deserving punishment from a holy God, but in His mercy, the Father sent the Son into the world to take that punishment for those who would trust in Christ.
What we often miss is that justice is also about protecting those who are wronged, Amos chapter 5 is but one example. In that chapter the prophet chastises the people of Israel because they are doing grave injustice by having rulings in their court system that favor the rich, who have given them bribes, and ruling against the poor, the widow, and the orphan who have no resources to spare in bribing judges. This is one example of injustice and Amos is calling for people to seek justice, which would include protecting those who are most vulnerable in society.
Throughout the scriptures we see four classes of people who we are to protect and provide for if we are to see justice. Zechariah chapter 7 makes this clear and is one of many times this shows up.
Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor. Zechariah 7:10–11 (ESV)
True justice requires assuring that the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, and the poor, are shown mercy and compassion and are not oppressed. We may differ as to the remedies for showing justice to those who are vulnerable, but there should never be any doubt among followers of Jesus that justice in God’s eyes is BOTH punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the one who is wronged. Most often those wronged are those among us without the resources to protect themselves, like the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.
There is a long history favoring this side of the justice coin in American culture. One needs to simply look at any list of western genre movies and you are going to find the theme of justice as protection and provision for the oppressed. Think of movies like, The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven, High Noon, Tombstone, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, even Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos. They all had a theme of someone or a group of someones who are being oppressed by bad guys. We look at that and say to ourselves, “That’s not right”. Then the hero or heroes comes to town and make things right and we cheer. That is a full expression of justice. The bad guy is punished AND there is relief and vindication for the oppressed. Both are required for true, biblical justice to exist.
In law enforcement we see this same theme played out. On the side of many police cruisers you will see something along the lines of “To Protect and Serve”. Just who are the police protecting and serving? It is those who are potential victims of injustice. We don’t need to be reminded that the police are there to bring wrongdoers to justice. No police cruiser has “To Apprehend and Punish” on the side of the car. We don’t need to be reminded of that side of the justice coin. But we do need to be reminded that justice is also about protecting and serving the vulnerable.
The Second Justice Coin – Individual and Corporate Responsibility
We can wrap our minds around the notion of justice being both punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the vulnerable. What gets really dicey is when we get to the next coin. This is the coin of individual AND corporate responsibility for justice. Again going back to Amos 5 we see this as part of God’s call for justice.
Amos 5:24 is one of the two or three key verses that were part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in America.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24 (ESV)
The word justice in this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word Mishpat. Righteousness is the Hebrew word Tsadek. At first glance we might think that Amos is talking about two different things here, justice and righteousness. In fact they are the same thing. This is an example of Hebrew parallelism in poetry. It is using similar yet slightly different words to speak of the same thing. In this case, justice and righteousness are both to have a quality of water flowing. When we get to the Greek New Testament, there is one Greek word, dikaiosune, that is translated as BOTH justice and righteousness. Biblically speaking both justice and righteousness are closely connected.
But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters,
and righteousness (tsadek) like an ever-flowing stream,
So what is the point of all this word study? Mishpat is one side of justice from a Hebrew perspective and Tsadek is another. Tsadek we can understand. It is the one to one relationship between people. I need to treat you justly and you need to treat me justly. We are each responsible for our actions and need to do right by one another. The more politically conservative you are, the more likely you are to understand and call for individual responsibility when it comes to justice issues.
However, the Bible also understands that there is a communal or corporate side to justice. Going back to the issue of bribery in the Hebrew court system of the city gate we see this corporate, or mishpat aspect. If we only thought of tsadek we would say, it is a corrupt judge. While that is true, mishpat would also be concerned about the fact that other people obviously knew about the bribery and at best turned a blind eye to it and at worse, received a cut from the corrupt judge. This is what is meant by systemic injustice. In this case, the community bears some responsibility for the injustice. Certainly not as much as the corrupt judge, but their hands are not clean either.
I find that this is where the serious pushback and arguing begins. We don’t want to share in the blame for something that we did not directly do. This is where our western French enlightenment individualism, clashes with a biblical understanding of the communal nature of life. But we are not without examples of times when we instinctively accept the communal aspect of guilt.
Parents seek to raise their children to live rightly and do the right thing. When children go off the rails in some way, parents can feel a certain amount of responsibility for what their children do and may even apologize on their behalf. Of course it works the other way around as well. Children can find themselves apologizing for their parents behavior. Why? The answer is simple. We understand that we are connected to our family and the actions of family members reflects on us in some way. Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures understand this. The Bible was given originally by God to a Middle Eastern people and if reflects how God values community.
Sins of Commission and Omission
As western individualist we tend to focus of what the reformers of the 16th century church referred to as sins of commission, those sins we committed. Whenever the question of communal or corporate responsibility comes up there is a quick reaction that says, “ I did not do that”. We think of sin as only being something we have done wrong.
But the Bible regularly points out sin that is the result of us NOT doing what is right. In fact, NOT doing what is right could be said to be the most serious of sins. When Jesus was asked by a religious leader, “What is the greatest commandment,?” he replied to “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God and neighbor calls for us to DO something that is loving. It is not just about not stealing from your neighbor or not slandering your neighbor. It is also a call to do things to care for, serve, minister to your neighbor. Failure to love your neighbor in those ways would be sins of omission.
As a follow-up to the question who is my neighbor, Jesus tells the story of Good Samaritan. Two religious Jews walk by a man who has been beaten and left for dead. A Samaritan stops and cares for the man and serves him. The point is clear. The Samaritan is the one who loved his neighbor. By failing to love their neighbor, and care for the beaten man, the religious leaders committed sins of omission. They didn’t beat up the man, but they also did not do anything to help him in his plight.
This notion of sins of omission is imbedded in the historic liturgy, or worship structure, of many churches. There is often a time of prayerful confession followed by an assurance of God’s pardon or forgiveness. That prayer is said corporately as an expression that we are all in this together.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
How often has that prayer been recited without considering how our failure to provide for and protect the vulnerable is actually a sin of omission?
But why should I be held responsible for what someone else has done?
One of the most difficult stories in the Bible is the story of Achan in Joshua 7. The Hebrew people had just conquered Jericho, a mighty fortress. The next town on the march was Ai. They thought it would be a pushover. They were defeated badly and cried out to God for an answer. The result was that Achan had stolen booty from the defeat of Jericho, in direct violation of what God had commanded so the whole nation was defeated in the battle at Ai. The short version of the story was that not only was Achan punished for this offense against God, but his whole family was well. To our modern, western ears this seems horrific and unjust. Yet, God clearly sees a connection between the guilt of Achan and his whole family being involved.
As hard as it may be to accept, Achan’s family were complicit in his sin due to their failure to call him to account. Theirs was a sin of omission. It was just like the people in Amos’ day who knew that widows and the poor were being denied justice in the city gate and did not come to the defense of the oppressed. That sin of omission was a failure to love their neighbor.
What we need to wrestle with as followers of Jesus is to what extent do we see corporate responsibility being taught in scripture. To what extent is mishpat to be experienced. We cannot deny that it needs to be part of the equation. The error of denying it exists, along with the error of blaming everything on systems and accepting no individual responsibility is equally wrong. That is why I use the illustration of two sides of the coin. The Bible holds both individual, (tsadek) and corporate, (mishpat) together as a wholistic approach to justice. To stress one over the other is to have what amounts to a counterfeit justice.
Asking the Why Question
My hope is that followers of Christ will wrestle with and come to grips with what the Bible says about justice and ask WHY does it say what it says, before trying to argue the “what” or “how” of dealing with injustice. Simon Sinek points out our propensity to only ask what someone has done or how they did it, without asking the important question of why. You cannot come to a biblical solution to the problem of injustice by getting stuck on what or how. If we do not know why God cares about justice we will never understand true, wholistic justice. Without that we will never have real justice in our society. We also need to understand that this is not a secondary issue. It is of primary concern. God cares deeply about justice. His very nature and character is to be a God of justice.
,Arguments over things like reparations, or affirmative action, or wealth redistribution, or securing the borders, are dealing with “what” questions. What should we do? Those are important questions. They rarely ever get to the how of things, other than to tax some people more or give some people more or just let everyone in, or no one in. Asking why we do something is crucial. Asking why something is the way it is may be even more crucial.
A great example of the need to start with why, is to look at the highly controversial statement, Black Lives Matter. Is there a more polarizing phrase today? The immediate response is to say things like, All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. Those are certainly true statements but they don’t get to the heart of the issue. Another reaction is to immediately dismiss the statement because the organization Black Lives Matter has roots in political and philosophical ideas that would be contrary to scripture. But what we really need to ask is why. Why would a 25 year old black male feel the need to say, Black Lives Matter. Is it possible that he says that because in his experience he has come to believe that his life really doesn’t matter to some people, or even most people?
Why do I as a 63 year old white male not feel the need to say white lives matter? The simple reason is because I have never been made to feel as if my life did not matter. I have never had to wrestle with a history that says people of my color only count as 3/5ths of a human being or that people of my color were not allowed to drink from certain water fountains or swim in certain public swimming pools. While those things are mostly things of the past, they are part of our collective, mishpat, history. The effects of which still linger.
I would not be one to say things are worse than ever when it comes to justice issues in our culture. I have been around long enough to know that in fact things have gotten way better, not worse. The short sighted view of history that sees only our contemporary situation and deems it worse than ever is possible only if we ignore history. We practically burned the country to the ground in 1968 in response to the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What we saw in Portland or Minneapolis recently was played out in every major city in the country for an entire summer, if not longer, in 1968. We have made huge strides since then. We have had a person of color as president and currently as vice president. That was beyond imagination in 1968. Things have gotten much better but there is still much to do.
The only way to really move forward is to understand and adopt a biblical view of justice. It was just such a view that drove the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and needs to be what drives us today. The secular answers to questions of injustice will always fall short for the simple reason that they are not rooted in the character of God. We only care about justice because of the latent sense we have within us that justice matters because it is a character trait of God. We must be willing to adopt a biblical view of justice, even when it clashes with our politically left or right notions. And in fact a biblical view will conflict with both in different ways. Neither the political left or political right has all the answers and the correct foundation when it comes to justice. Only justice that is rooted in who God is and what God has done, will ever fully satisfy our desire and need for justice.
1 The Six Way Fracturing of American Evangelicalism. Michael Graham
Mere Orthodoxy Blog June 7 2021
Gospel in Life Quarterly. Special Edition 2020