What is “justice?” As we set out over the next several weeks to explore what the Bible teaches about “justice,” we first need to back up and make sure we know what we are striving towards. As we begin to ponder what the Bible teaches about this rather nebulous idea, we must first make sure we have the right concept of what the Bible actually is.
The Bible tells a story, in all its parts. Narratives, possibly the most prominent genre in the Bible, embed deep and rich theology in the drama of stories, of narratives. Individual stories (e.g. David and Goliath) are set within larger stories (the introduction of kingship in Israel and the division of Israel into South and North), and further set in the whole biblical story in its unfolding. The narratives of the New Testament present Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this Old Testament story; the four gospel writers offer presentations of Jesus Christ that unite in their conviction that the polyvalent story of the Old Testament has found its conclusion in the promised Messiah. The narrative of Acts paints for the reader the growth of the story of Jesus not only to the Jewish people, but to the nations of the world.
Further, the poets, sages and prophets of the Old Testament look at this story and offer inspired reflections and commentary on both delights and pains, the successes and the failures, in the experiences of Israel and her people. The letters of the New Testament, written to real followers of Jesus in the real world of the Roman Empire, answer pastoral questions and give inspired instruction on following Jesus faithfully in a world of opposition.
In other words, the Bible is not just about an individual and his/her life. Nor is it a book of rules and certainly not a book of some abstract religion. The Bible tells a story in very earthy ways, in the down-and-dirty world of human existence: joys, pains, successes, failures, obedience and rebellion. And coursing through this immense story is a thread of restoration, of shalom. Of justice, so defined.
In his wonderful little book Simply Christian, N. T. Wright identifies “justice” as one of the “echoes of a voice” that drive many contemporary people to explore more deeply, or possibly for the first time, the truths of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. At its very core, this drive to explore comes from the very basic, gut feeling, that something is not right with the world; that there must be a better way. Arguably, Wright’s other three “echoes” – spirituality, relationship and beauty – might be understood as subsets of this one overarching echo: justice. Something is just not right. Consider the following.
Corruption. Infanticide. Despotic rulers. Refugee crises. Wars. Violence. Crushing poverty. Sex trafficking. Addiction. Greed. The abuse of the environment. You can easily add to this list from wherever in the world you are reading this. You can feel it. Something is just not right, something is out of kilter, as they say.
In other words, the world as we often experience it is not the vision of the world as it ought to be, as it was created by God to function. And not just to function, to just get by, to barely make it, but rather to flourish, to blossom. Imagine the world being and becoming increasingly a place of beauty, integrity and fellowship.
This brings us to our first-order question, to define justice. You may have a definition of this concept of “justice,” even if you are not conscious of it, that centers on the punishment of the wrongdoer. We might call this definition of justice “punitive” and it may conjure up images of a courtroom being the context for the proper execution of a law code. Certainly, this concept of justice is present within the teaching of the Bible, where the victim may make his or her case to those in authority and await a judgment (see Isa 59:4). But let’s explore a bit deeper what this idea of “justice” might mean.
The Hebrew word commonly translated in English as “justice” is mishpat. In many instances in the Old Testament this word is paired with another word, tsedaqah, which translators ordinarily render as “righteousness” (for example, Isaiah 1:21 and Amos 5:24). So we might understand mishpat, justice, not just in a punitive sense, but in a way that is exemplified by being right in the world, by acting, thinking and being in accord with God’s right desire for his people and his world. In this regard, “justice” is not simply about punishing the wrongdoer, but also concerns bringing life, wholeness and flourishing to all of creation. This state of affairs is often seen in the Bible as shalom, usually translated “peace” in English. But shalom envisions so much more than an absence of conflict. Rather, shalom captures God’s desire that all of creation – human to God, human to human, and human to nature – be in harmony (see here Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Until Justice and Peace Embrace).
Not surprisingly, the Bible also links these two words mishpat (justice) and shalom. For example, in Isaiah 59:8 the prophet brings an indictment against those who shed innocent blood, pursue evil schemes and act in violent ways, ostensibly toward the poor and the weak. These will not know shalom; their cruel behavior denying the weak of their basic humanity brings the perpetrators out of harmonious relationship to all of creation. To know shalom is to do mishpat.
So perhaps as we set out to define “justice” more robustly, we ought to begin at the very beginning and build our reflections on a foundation. And so next week we will explore the biblical creation narrative as a narrative of “justice.” This may perhaps be outside the parameters of what you might normally consider the concept of “justice.” But I believe that as we build on the creation narrative, and then explore the outworking of this concept in the history of Israel (and finally and most importantly in the presentation of Jesus Christ as the One who brings justice, shalom, for the world), we will be drawn into a deep calling of our own place to follow Jesus in his Spirit-led and Spirit-powered work of bringing justice, shalom, to all of creation.