Some notes from a recent staff meeting, this time we talked about justice and its place in mission.
What is justice?
People think of justice in various ways
- What is correct or right and people receiving what they deserve.
- Fairness in the way people are dealt with (the opposite of oppression).
- The system of law in a country that judges and punishes people
- The process of finding out the truth.
There are several words that are used in Scripture to speak of justice. The two most important words are:
Misphat most often translated justice or judgement. The idea of giving what’s deserved. Both in the sense of punishment, but also in care for poor or orphan. Often justice here is used to think of restorative justice, not to punish the wrong doer but to restore and give back what was taken from the person wronged (so sometimes this is linked to the idea of charity), including giving people their rights.
Tsedeqah most often translated righteousness. This is about right standing or right behaviour including the idea of an ethical standard of right relationships between people. Consider in Hebrew court there was no Crown Prosecution Service, the two sides came before a judge and made their case. One would be found to be in the right and the other not. But the judge was also to be in right standing with the law and to judge fairly. The Old Testament prophets were very harsh on people who did not use fair (just) weights when trading.
These are words that are understood in relationship to God, the one who is righteous and holy, the one who can judge. And in our covenant relationship with God, the Old Testament Law gives us insight into how God intended his people to live out this covenant relationship (eg: 10 commandments).
Justice means God will keep his promise to make relationships right for his covenanted people. For us it is about living in a state of moral good, not making right decisions but restoring the relationship and living in it.
Generally Biblical ideas of “justice” mean “to make right.” Justice is, first & foremost, a relational term — people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. Linking to the New Testament we see how justice means loving our neighbour as we love ourselves and is rooted in the character and nature of God. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love.
The overall picture is based on relationships, on a social dimension, in which individuals and the wider community are called to live in ways that are faithful to God and reflect his character. A life of fairness, but also of generosity and care for others.
Some examples of these words used in Scripture:
Genesis 18:19 “To keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just”. God had a call for Abraham and his descendants, a plan for how they should live. This involved living in right relationship with God and doing what is good.
Psalm 89:14 “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, love and faithfulness go before you“. Both righteousness and justice are foundational to our understanding of God’s character and linked also to faithfulness and love. This was true from the creation of Eden and remains true of God even after the fall.
Psalm 82:1-4 “God presides over heaven’s court; he pronounces judgment on the heavenly beings: “How long will you hand down unjust decisions by favouring the wicked? “Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless; deliver them from the grasp of evil people.” Here we can see that justice is in defending the cause of the weak and fatherless. Conversely, not doing that is to perpetuate injustice. A demonstration of God identifying with the powerless and taking their side.
Jeremiah 22:3 “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.”
Micah 6:8 “O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.
This combination of justice, righteousness, faithfulness, love and mercy continue to be seen in the New testament and particularly in the cross; it is not just about forgiveness but is about putting things right and bringing things (people) into right relationship with God.
For God justice is a verb – justice and mercy show how love shapes justice, how putting right what is wrong is about bringing into right relationship again.
What about us
The Bible’s encouragement is not so much to think about justice but to do right – to mend what is broken.
- How might justice and mission be related? Does mission include a call to put right what is wrong?
- How far does a call to justice involve politics and campaigning, or is this just about helping people in need with acts of mercy?
- How would you respond to the argument that Mission Organisations should focus on helping the poor, on charity and should avoid getting involved in questions of justice?
- What injustice grieves you the most at the moment? What do you think God feels about it?
- Where do you find hope when surrounded by injustice?
If mission is about global witness to Christ then it needs to take questions of justice seriously; to argue that these are secondary to the need to proclaim the gospel, evangelise or plant churches is to misrepresent the God we claim to make known and risk siding with the forces of injustice.
There are some who would argue that social justice is a field filled with ideas from secular culture and sociology which are distorting the Biblical witness (take a quick internet search if you don’t believe me). But justice is about the character of God, and what is true to him. Justice is about human dignity and the intention God has for his creation. Justice is about the work of Christ in his earthly ministry and his work on the Cross. You can’t claim to be seeking human dignity, or loving the least and the lost without being wiling to engage questions of justice. And this is not something which is primarily about us telling other people and cultures how they should live, but looking to our own and seeking to be agents of change and restoration. We can start with taxation, trade justice, racism and the treatment of people who society ‘leaves behind’.
Other resources include:
Just love, a student orientated group which calls Christians to a life of social justice, talks about justice here.
The Bible project have several things about justice on their site, including this video.