“The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of his unfailing love.”
Those of us who live in the ‘west’, or the so-called ‘developed world’ (how ridiculous is that?!), have for too long looked with a mixture of perhaps arrogance and confusion at what goes on in the rest of the world. Whether it’s conflict, corruption, tyranny, religious persecution, human rights violations, or poverty, it might be true that we have contented ourselves that such trouble doesn’t land at our door. Or, if it does, it’s a lot more subtle, and we are better at hiding. We are thankful that we live in such stable societies.
At least we were until 2016 ran its course! With the most divisive election campaign in US history, and the equally divisive Brexit issue in the UK/Europe, our quiet contentment has been replaced by fear and uncertainty. All of a sudden we have found ourselves debating, arguing, even fighting with each other over how we react to the situation and, intriguingly, opposing sides in debates have used the Bible to back up their arguments. Well, they can’t both be right!
We have an almost global refugee crisis and much of the current debate is focused on the one hand on how we bring help to those affected by turmoil in their homelands, and on the other hand how we stop them bringing their problems to our back yard! And again, Christians have lined up on opposite sides of the debate.
So, what does the Bible have to say about it?
Well, if we think the Bible is merely a book of religion and rules, we would not expect to find it speaking into our modern world. Indeed, that’s exactly what many opponents of the faith do say: it’s an ancient book with no relevance to our 21st Century world.
And yet, it is so much more! The release in 2016 of ‘God’s Justice: the Holy Bible’ (NIV), has helped us consider again just what the message of the Bible is for today’s world. This project, actually birthed in India, has challenged us to look beyond religion and rules, and to see the Bible as “the story of a God who sees disease and wants it healed, who hears the cry of the oppressed and is determined to make things right…The Bible tells the story of God’s amazing kind of justice, with love and mercy inextricably intertwined.”
When we hear the word “justice,” chances are we have a very narrow definition in mind: the idea of someone who commits a crime getting their proper punishment. We might, now and again, think a little wider and apply it to situations where people are unfairly treated by those in certain positions of power, and join in a fight for justice on their behalf. In both cases, we’re taking quite a legal perspective on justice.
But the Biblical concept of justice runs much deeper than either punishment for a crime or holding power in check. In fact, it goes right to the heart of God and his design for the world.
Very often we encounter “justice” in the Bible alongside its twin, righteousness. The verse at the head of this article is a perfect example, where we’re told that “‘The LORD loves righteousness and justice.” In many ways the two cannot be separated, and we encounter them in just about every type of biblical writing, especially in the Old Testament dealings of God with his people. In fact, another Psalm tells us: “The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad…righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:1-2). In other words, justice is fundamental to the very nature of God, and when justice is abused the whole creation will suffer. Justice is absolutely foundational.
In its Old Testament sense, according my fellow countryman and Biblical scholar, Chris Wright, “righteousness” refers to “something fixed, and fully what it should be…a norm – something by which other things are measured, a standard…it speaks of conformity to what is right or expected.” In a biblical context that means conforming to how God says it should be.
Justice in many ways puts that standard into practice: putting things right, fixing the problem, intervening where it has gone wrong either to confront and correct those in the wrong or deliver those suffering the injustice. Again, to quote Wright, “Justice is what needs to be done in a given situation if people and circumstances are to be restored to conformity with righteousness.” And it is important to note that, in the Hebrew, these were not abstract words, or something to think about; they were actions that need to be taken!
As we read through the story of God and his people we find that God’s compassion actually arises from his justice. Hence his call to his people to reflect his justice and act with compassion are integral parts of what it means to be the people of God. As such, we are called to play our part in his mission to the world, a mission that does not just involve preaching a gospel of future escape from the pain of a sinful world, and to right standing in our relationship with God, but to call others to God’s justice in order to put things right in our relationships with each other.
Once we start reflecting on these concepts we can see just how much the Bible speaks into the issues we face around the globe: poverty, people trafficking, war, terrorism, abortion, child slavery, corruption, physical/sexual and emotional abuse, disease, sectarianism, racism, the list goes on. All of them quite literally break that standard of what is right, what should be expected, and so justice needs done, not just talked about.
God’s Justice is a Bible with articles and study helps contributed by Bible scholars from every continent of the world, all challenging us to see just how God’s standards could make such a difference if we acted on them and called those around us to take them to heart.
This is not an optional extra for us today as the people of God: the biblical witness reminds us that our God is not just the God of his people but he is the God of the universe. If righteousness and justice are truly the foundation of his throne (Psalm 97) then “where such concern for social justice comes on the scale of our human values…is the measure of how much or how little we are in tune with the heart of this God, the God of the Bible.”
Quotes from “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God”: Christopher J.H. Wright (IVP books)