A concern for justice or fairness is one of the most deeply ingrained human values. Kids very quickly cry out “It’s not fair!” when they receive (or perceive) unequal treatment. Politicians know that if their policies get tagged as unfair or unjust, then they’re halfway to losing the public relations battle.
But if everyone and their dogs are claiming the mantle of justice or fairness, how should Christians judge what is just?
The Old Testament gives us two words often translated “justice”. The first, mishpat, refers to giving someone their due, or protecting people’s rights. Judges and rulers are expected to render this kind of justice, with equity and fairness. “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits,” says Exodus 23:6.
The other word, tsedaqah, is often translated “righteousness” – which in English often sounds like it only means personal integrity or private morality. In Scripture, however, tsedqah includes personal morality, compassion and generosity, but goes further to describe a state of fairness and integrity, peace and wholeness, at all levels of society. It means right relationships – marked by fairness, generosity and compassion – across an entire community.
Again and again, the Bible brings these words together to paint a picture of what we might today call “social justice”. Just and generous relationships in society backed up judgements and actions to protect and restore the rights of all, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. Jeremiah, for example, praises a King who did “justice and righteousness (mishpat and tsedaqah) and “who judged the cause of the poor and the needy” Jeremiah 22:155–16.
Oh, by the way, the Old Testament often throws one other word into relationship with these two terms: hesed, meaning “steadfast love and faithfulness”. So much for the idea that justice and love are opposed or incompatible.
In short, social justice is Biblical justice.
1) Our understanding of justice comes from the heart of God.
Those words for justice didn’t make it to the pages of the Bible by accident. They come straight from God’s character of justice, righteousness and steadfast love. God is not just an impartial judge who impartially enforces His rules. God also actively takes the side of those who are most vulnerable to injustice, so that justice can be restored or established. “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, might and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17–18).
2) Our understanding of justice is shaped by God’s plan for His world.
We know that all people are made in God’s image. Each of us has inherent dignity and priceless value. Not only is this true for each person, but God intends all people to experience peace and wellbeing at every level in communities and in society and His good creation.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.”
So every act of oppression or injustice is something that distorts God’s image, debases the dignity God has given each person, and denies God’s plan for each person to flourish in God’s world. Little wonder, then, that God is not merely grieved, but angry at indifference, injustice, and inaction which consigns people to violence and vulnerability, struggle and despair, and which stunts and prematurely ends the lives of tens of thousands of poor people every day.
“Cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. “
3) Our understanding of justice has a priority for the poorest and most vulnerable people.
If it isn’t already clear, Biblical justice isn’t quite the same as that other symbol of justice seen in front of law courts – blindfolded justice weighing judgements and punishments impartially. Impartiality and fairness is a core concept in Biblical justice, certainly.
However, Biblical justice recognises that the poorest and most vulnerable people are the most likely to experience injustice. It knows that they are the ones who will be denied the abundant blessings God has gifted for all, if and when the wealthy and well-connected pursue their own self-interest without regard for others. For these reasons, God (and everyone concerned with Biblical justice) must ensure that they actively stand with the most vulnerable.
In Biblical times, a handful of groups are singled out as particularly vulnerable – orphans, widows, strangers (migrants and refugees) and the poor. They are those who live in economic insecurity, who lack protection and support in support. The Bible affirms both that God is passionately on their side. He “watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow,” says Psalm 146.
4) Our understanding of justice must lead to action.
Biblical justice is not a spectator sport. It’s not a made-for-TV Law and Order style drama. It demands our active engagement and intervention. As we’ve already seen, God is on the side of people who are oppressed, or vulnerable or marginalised. So too, God’s people must share the same passionate concern and work together to overcome injustice and to ensure that the rights of the poorest people are protected.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor’” (Zechariah 7:9 – 10).
This call to do justice is not just for Christians. It’s part of God’s intention for all people to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
I’ll write more about what it means to do justice in a future post, in the meantime, Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice, is a great place to start exploring Biblical justice and its implications for Christians today.
Be inspired and equipped for speaking out for justice and a world free from poverty at Micah Australia’s Voices for Justice National Gathering in Canberra (November 19-21). For more details and to register visit the Micah Australia website.