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A Theology of Justice

Amy Sherman

It’s time for the Church to pay attention to justice, because justice is close to the heart of God. Doing justice is a critical part of every Christian’s vocational call. It is, according to Micah 6:8, something that “the Lord requires of us.” We need to see the centrality of justice in the Christian life, to understand God’s passion for it. And then, to honor and obey Him, we need to become doers of justice. To begin, we need a basic, Biblical theology of justice. This emerges when we pay attention to how often the God of the Bible speaks about justice. Scholars have and will continue to produce dense tomes on this subject (one of the better recent ones is Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book,  Justice: Rights and Wrongs). For us, a foundation built on the following five basic Biblical pillars offers a strong start.

1) God hates injustice and is committed to rescue and redress.

Scriptures reveal God as attentive to the groaning of the afflicted. Consider, for example, these representative texts:

  • Exodus 2:23b-25: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

  • Psalm 102:19-20: “The Lord looked down from His sanctuary on high, from heaven He viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”

  • James 5:4: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your field are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

But not only is God simply aware of injustice. He is committed to doing something about it. Jehovah is a God who rescues the oppressed. Psalm 35:10 says, “Who is like you, O Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them… from those who rob them.” And Psalm 103:6 refers to God as the one who “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.” It seems obvious that He wants us to share that passion. We, like our Heavenly Father, are to be people who are attentive to the groaning of the oppressed and willing to be actively involved in their rescue.

2) Delighting in justice and doing justice are essential, central characteristics of God.

God refers to Himself in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 like this: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty 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.” He calls himself “a just God and a Savior” (Psalm 45:21). Since time immemorial, and for endless ages to come, God is worshipped in the heavenly courts as the God of justice as the heavenly hosts sing “Just and true are all thy ways, O Lord” (Revelation 15:3). God delights in doing justice. He doesn’t just do it because it needs to get done. As Psalm 99:4 teaches, “The King is mighty, he loves justice – You have established equity, in Jacob You have done what is just and right.”

3) God connects justice with true worship.

God says plainly that the doing of justice is an essential part of genuine worship. In Isaiah 1, God tells the Israelites that their prayers, sacrifices, and festivals are detestable to Him. Instead, He tells them to “stop doing wrong; learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” In his important book, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice, Mark Labberton argues that, “The crisis the church currently faces is that our individual and corporate worship do not produce the fruit of justice and righteousness that God seeks.” Even worse, our worship often “foster[s] the self-indulgent tendencies of our culture rather than nurturing the self-sacrificing life of the Kingdom of God.” Pastors, Labberton counseled, need to leave the “worship wars” over musical styles behind them and get focused on what truly matters: avoiding the divorce between worship and justice that Isaiah 1 so powerfully denounces.

4) God connects the doing of justice to “knowing” Him.

At the heart of Christian discipleship is the pursuit of truly knowing God. All sorts of spiritual disciplines – prayer, fasting, solitude, generosity, Bible study – are devoted to this end. How often, though, have we heard that a critical way of “knowing” God is to do justice? This plank in our theology of justice is perhaps asserted most powerfully in a short passage from Jeremiah 22. In verses 11-17, God is commending good King Josiah for doing what was “just and right.” And then He drops the bomb. He says: “Is this not what it means to know me?”

5) The centrality of God’s heart for justice revealed in Jesus’ three-fold mandate for mission.

In His “inaugural address” in Luke 4, Jesus announces His top priorities. He reveals that He has come to earth to (1) preach good news to the poor; (2) restore the sight of the blind; and (3) rescue the oppressed. Gary Haugen, founder and President of International Justice Mission, says that Luke 4 tells us that Jesus’ “short list” for life and mission is about evangelism, compassion, and justice. If justice is in His top three, it needs to be on our “short list” of priorities as well. It’s not optional or peripheral: it’s at the heart of Jesus’ agenda.In order to “do” such actions, though, we need to “be” certain kinds of people.

The Hebrew term tsaddiqim, used multiple times throughout the Old Testament, is typically translated either “the righteous” or “the just.” In order to do justice, we need to be the tsaddiqim. (hyperlink to blog on Proverbs 9:11) The tsaddiqim, the “doers of justice” are marked by an attitude and posture of responsibility and solidarity. That is, they understand that they are knit into the social fabric, embracing their role in the community. God desires that His followers be the tsaddiqim: people who look to the needs of others and recognize that they do not exist for themselves alone. They accept that they are, indeed, their brother’s keeper.

In ancient Israel, important public business was conducted by the “assembly at the gate.” There, in what we today call “the public square,” societal leaders oversaw judicial proceedings. Deuteronomy 21 and 22 gave instructions to the Israelites about coming to the “elders at the gate” in order to settle family and legal issues. In Ruth chapter 4, we read of Boaz negotiating at the gate to become Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. In 2 Samuel 15 we read of Israelites coming to the gate “for justice.” Ideally, these elders were to be holy, reputable, faithful men. Proverbs 24:7 tells us that there was no place for a fool in the assembly at the gate. The prophet Amos indicates the righteousness of the elders by describing a wicked person as one who hates “him who reproves in the gate” (5:10 NASB). Job, the Old Testament character whom God himself called “upright,” was one of these elders at the gate (Job 29:7).

In other words, the assembly at the gate in the Old Testament was an assembly of the tsaddiqim. And that matters for Christians today. When the Apostle Paul sought a word to use for “church,” he chose the Greek word ecclesia. This is a notable selection since other Greek words were available to denote the idea of assemblies or gatherings. Ecclesia was the word specifically used in the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek) to mean the assembly at the public gate – i.e., the assembly of the tsaddiqim.[1]

This means that Paul’s word for church, the ecclesia, denotes an assembly of the people who are charged with matters of common welfare, to look out for the commonwealth, who are committed to the common good.In the past 100 years there’s been an imbalance, with neglect of justice by the church. For Paul, “church” was not meant to be a body of people concerned only with their own fellowship. The “church” was never meant to extract itself from the cares of the larger community, to form a “holy huddle.” No. The church – the ecclesia, the assembly at the gate – is to give itself for the life and flourishing of the community. This is what it means to “do justice.” This is an area where we have to be especially intentional; an area that affects greatly the common good of our communities.

[1] I am indebted to Steve Haynor, President of Columbia Theological Seminary, for this insight.