Towards a Biblical Understanding of Justice

Here is an essay I wrote attempting to briefly summarize the Bible’s understanding of justice.

When surveying the Bible on the topic of justice one is introduced to a vast and complex subject that can take up to a lifetime to contemplate. However, there are a few helpful guidelines to keep in mind when trying to establish a theology of God’s justice as revealed in Scripture. In this essay I will try to briefly summarize these guidelines and introduce the reader to broader themes of what it means.

When justice is thought of in theology it is usually referenced in a theory of atonement that pits God’s justice against his love by demanding satisfaction for wrongdoings. We become familiar with this idea of justice through Romans 3:25-26 where we learn that God put forward Jesus Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement” to “demonstrate his justice” because of sins previously committed were “unpunished.” But this is only a facet of what we learn from what the whole of what Scripture teaches about God’s justice. Love and justice often overlap and are not antithetical to one another. In fact, justice can be viewed as part and parcel to God’s grace in that it follows from the fact that he is always against evil and that he distributes benefits to those according to their need.

The important distinction to keep in mind here is that God’s justice is distributive as well as retributive. It is partial to those who are downtrodden when it is distributive, and it is impartial to those who persist in sin by oppressing others or challenging the authority of God himself (e.g. seeing God’s authority over life as “oppressive”). So “justice” is not simply wrath against sin, and “love” mercy for the sinner. Justice without love is not justice, and love without justice is not love.

The distributive understanding of justice is first revealed when God takes action to set Israel free from the oppression of Egypt. YHWH shows concern for his people suffering under the misery of Egyptian slavery and rescues them miraculously (Ex 3:7-8). This concern is not arbitrary or a historical anamoly, but something that derives from the nature of God which naturally seeks the establishment of justice for all creation (Ps 99:1-4). YHWH works “righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” and “made his ways known to Moses” showing “his deeds to the people of Israel” in his acts of deliverance (Ps 103:6-7). His justice is to be emulated by his people by imitating the same concern for the “fatherless and the widow” as well as “foreigners” that reside among them. In a passage that demonstrates that love is closely related to ethics of justice YHWH reminds his people they are to love the vulnerable members of society since they were at one time themselves vulnerable (Deut 10:18-19). Similarly the poor are to be helped in the same way a foreigner would be helped so that they may continue to thrive within the covenant community (Lev 25:35).

The second way in which we see God’s distributive justice revealed is through the prophetic calls to repentance he makes to his people for disregarding it. To be sure, the prophets warn of judgment that is surely retributive, but the basis of judgment is for failing to be properly distributive. Isaiah reveals God’s displeasure over the lack of justice found among his people (Is 59:15-16). The denial of justice to the poor was surely an exercise of partiality to the rich and powerful (who could afford a bribe) that YHWH never fails to prosecute (Ex 23:7). God upholds the cause of the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sustains the fatherless and the widow, and promises to frustrate the ways of the wicked (Ps 146:7-9). And this most certainly applies to Israel in there failure to uphold what God upholds (Am 2:7; 3:2; 5:7; 5:12-15; 8:4-6).

Therefore, to do justice (Micah 6:8) one must be concerned with what God is concerned with. Our justice corresponds to his justice as our mercy corresponds to his mercy. And just what does it mean to partake in God’s justice? What could that practically mean? In searching for an adequate answer it is important to keep two things in mind—one that is corporate in general, and one that is specific to the individual. First, to do justice means to build and sustain community. Distributive justice creates community and retributive justice sustains it. Without justice there can be no community. The Kingdom of God is more or less the society of God’s people whom God reigns over. This community was created and is sustained by God, and is particularly concerned with the “poor” (Luke 4:16-20; 6:20-26; cf. Matt 5:3). Second, members of the Kingdom of God are to be particularly concerned with restoring humans to both God and others. Scot McKnight articulates this well in his book The Jesus Creed in that the duty of human beings is to love God with everything they are and to love others as themselves. From this duty it follows that justice is construed as the restoration of persons to live out this duty. Jesus’ ministry is marked by such a concern in his parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Unmerciful Servant. We learn from his example of how he treats the Samaritan woman at the well, those whom he heals, and how he interacts with the Pharisees. His concern is for seeing “outcasts” restored to God and that his challenge is to those who stand in the way of restoration.

What we can conclude from this is that God is impartial in judging people in exercising justice that he himself seeks to uphold. He holds us accountable to help those in need, and extends his will of justice through us when we act in accordance with it. Love overlaps justice in that it implies that people are of unsurpassable worth making the recognition of human rights and equal treatment obligatory. Justice overlaps love in that it makes love available not only to the lovely, but also to the unlovely. Justice does not merely preserve order, it creates order. Our gratitude towards God’s generosity ought to compel us to generosity so that God’s graces may be available to those “scattered abroad” (2 Cor 9:9-10). Since God will never forget to be just we can have hope, and those who work for justice in the face of injustice must work from hope (Ps 9:18).

Essential Reading:

Biblical Ethics and Social Change (1982) by Stephen Charles Mott

Good News About Injustice (2002) by Gary A. Haugen

The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (2004) by Scot McKnight

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3 thoughts on “Towards a Biblical Understanding of Justice

  1. Jack says:

    Very well done! I am discussing with teens Micah6:8 this month on Wednesday evenings. I loved the clear paragraph on what it means to carry out Micah’s call to “do justice”.

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