What Does the Bible Say About Justice?
“Every one should get what they deserve.”
If a teen studies, works hard, and succeeds in high school, then that teen should be allowed to go to college.
If a woman goes to work everyday, gives her best effort, and accomplishes the requirements of her job, then she should be able to provide for her family.
If a man doesn’t steal, doesn’t kill, and works to keep the law, then he should be able to live relatively free of legal trouble.
At the same time, if a man kills his neighbor, then he should go to jail.
If a woman robs a convenience store, she should be arrested.
If a teen cheats on a test, he should flunk.
“Everyone gets what they deserve.” This is our culturally informed understanding of “justice.” It stands on two pillars: merit and rights.
Merit is what an individual earns. It is not his from the start. It is something he obtains through effort.
It is just that the athlete is selected to play in the game, because he has worked harder than everyone else in practice during the week.
It is just that the doctor is paid a higher wage than the waiter, because the doctor first completed a decade of school before beginning his profession.
It is just that the valedictorian give a speech at graduation, because she studied harder than everyone else in her class.
We see things as just when someone has earned the reward.
Rights are what an individual is given. They are basic needs of humanity we expect every person be provide.
It is just for a blogger to speak her mind about the government, because she has the right to speak freely.
It is just for a man to attend the religious ceremony of his choosing, because he has the right to determine his own belief system.
It is just for the man of an ethnic minority to pursue the career of his choosing, because he, like those of the majority, have the right to hope and happiness.
This merit and rights based understanding of justice serves our culture well until we cannot decide what is a right, what is not a right, and what must be earned.
Is marriage a right? If so, then preventing people from becoming married, regardless of their gender, is unjust.
Is computer ownership a right or a privilege? One could argue that a computer is basic necessity in our society for success and happiness. For someone to not have one then, because they were born into poverty, would limit their ability to pursue their desired future. It would thus be unjust for only the teens of wealthy parents to have computers. It is just now, it is fair today that every child in school have access to a computer. This was not a justice issue twenty, fifteen, even ten years ago. As our understanding of what we deserve as a right changes, so must what we consider to be just.
Injustice occurs in our cultural understanding when an individual’s rights are hindered or a person receives a status they do not deserve.
It is unjust that the child who grows up in poverty goes to bed hungry.
It is unjust that the woman who works as hard as her male counterparts does not receive the same salary.
It is unjust when a man walks into a bank and takes what he did not earn.
We are angry when the bankers of Wall Street profit while others suffer. It isn’t fair. It is unjust that they have rigged the game so they never lose and we believe they should be punished.
When we find someone profiting from injustice, we punish them. This punishment reestablishes the status quo and serves as a deterrent to others who might seek to profit in unjust ways.
In summary, contemporary culture defines justice as “each person getting what he or she deserves” either through merit or basic human rights. Injustice must be punished to restore the status quo.
This cultural understanding of justice is radically different than Biblical Justice.
Biblical Justice is “doing unto others as you would have them do to you.”
In Biblical Justice each person lives sacrificially for the betterment of his neighbor.
This justice does not have the needs of the individual at its core. It does not stand on the pillars of merit and rights. Rather, this justice is about the success of the community. It demands the individual put himself aside and instead seek what is best for those around him. It requires of practitioners an empathetic eye and a compassionate heart.
Injustice occurs when someone misuses power for personal gain.
Injustice is present when one is made low so another might be elevated.
Injustice happens when one person or a group of people are subjugated so another person or group might advance.
I’ve found that when I read passages in the Bible with my contemporary understanding of justice, everything is thrown out of whack and God does not make sense.
This week I will begin examining passages of scripture in which an understanding of Biblical Justice is critical for understanding the story because contemporary justice mucks it all up.
As we continue this conversation about justice, let’s apply the two definitions I laid out in my last post to a case study – Saul’s Conversion.
CASE STUDY #1: SAUL’S CONVERSION
In Acts chapter 9, Saul (soon to be renamed “Paul”) is traveling to Damascus to rid the world of Jesus followers. As far as we know, Saul never slit anyone’s throat. Still, he did some terrible stuff. When he recounts the story in Acts chapter 26, he makes it clear that he was responsible for imprisoning many innocent people, and even voting for some to die. A few chapters earlier, for example, Saul was responsible for the stoning of a man named Stephen.
Let’s apply our first definition of “justice” at this point in the story. Saul has overseen the killing of an innocent man. He has imprisoned many others. He is on his way to kill and imprison more.
If justice is, as we’ve been taught by culture, “every person getting what he/she deserves based either on his/her merit or his/her rights” then what should happen next in the story?
Maybe Saul will be unjustly imprisoned?
Maybe he will be stoned?
Maybe it will be a rock slide that takes him down? A kind of “divine stoning.”
Of course, this is not what happened. Saul meets Jesus on the road in a bright light. He is blinded. Jesus then sends a man to heal him. After regaining his site, Saul begins to share the message of Jesus with the world and becomes the most powerful Christian evangelist and apologist of history.
Paul will later explain salvation, his included, as an act of “grace.” It is an unmerited gift. Something the receiver does not earn or deserve by right. For example, Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul explains, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
GRACE VS JUSTICE
What then are we to say of the relationship to grace and justice?
If we hold to our contemporary understanding of justice, then grace is a rebuttal. It is a refusal to see justice done. It is a diversion from what “should” happen if things were right in the world.
By our definition of justice, it is unjust that Saul is converted. The desires of justice are not fulfilled. They are denied by grace.
And in turn, God, the author and distributor of grace, is the one responsible for denying justice. He is the one who does not give Saul what Saul deserves. Rather he brings Saul into a the community Saul persecutes. In place of rewarding Saul with the pain and suffering Saul has earned, Jesus provides Saul with a new life.
What then are we to make of God’s calls for justice through out the prophets? Has God changed his mind? Did he decide justice was no longer necessary? Justice gone. Now there is grace?
I don’t think so.
I don’t believe God has exchanged justice for grace.
Rather, I think we misunderstand justice.
GRACE THAT BRINGS JUSTICE
What if we apply our other definition of justice to the case of Saul’s conversion. Rather than our contemporary understanding, what if we understood justice as “each one doing to others as they would have others do to them.” What if we take a communal focus on justice? Justice is not the individual getting what he/she deserves so that the status quo can be protected. Rather, justice is all people living in right relationship, in true loving kindness, in authentic community with one another.
If justice is not about restoring the status quo, but building authentic community, then Saul’s conversion brings justice. Saul doesn’t simply join the community, he becomes it’s biggest champion. This moment of reflection and redemption is not what Saul deserves, but it is what creates a loving community. Justice is served through Saul’s redemption.
In this approach, grace and forgiveness are not abstractions from justice. They are the tools that bring it about. Grace and forgiveness are two paths toward justice.
And God has not changed his mind. He is doing what he did in the prophets. The justice of Saul is the same justice of Amos. It rolls, it flows, and in its wake all things are made new.
Next, a more difficult case study – Sodom and Gomorrah.