Justice and the Christian: What is Justice?

Smith Hopkins | January 20, 2018

This series of posts is drawn from a teaching series at Oliver Creek on Wednesdays in Winter 2018. Join us! Much of this series flows from chapter 1 of Timothy Keller’s Generous Justice

It’s inevitable: we’re going to disagree about how to do justice. It has been the subject of thousands of years of writing and exploration across nearly every culture of human history. The greats of history—Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant—engaged in the discussion. More recently in our culture, the debate has been democratized—everyone gets a say in their vote, not least on their social media page.

Before we get to what we disagree on, I'd like to offer a shared portrait of biblical justice to serve as something like a baseline for the rest of the conversation. I’d like to unite around a vision of “justice” found in the OT.  

Doing justice?

For starters, as followers of Jesus, we may disagree on how to do justice, but we can agree that we are called by our Creator to do justice. Micah’s (only?) well-known line is a good starting point. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

Do you feel that? It's momentum. We're still on the same page! We agree that are to do justice.

So what is justice?

(Is it true that you lose all momentum the moment a Hebrew word shows up? Asking for a friend.) Justice in Hebrew is mishpat. (Uh oh, stay with me.) It occurs hundreds of times in the OT. It’s most basic meaning is something like to give people their due or to treat people fairly.

Ok, justice is about giving their due in fairness. We’re still good. Most of us realized this when we were two years old. But what do we mean by fairness? The idea is rooted in humanity's status as image bearers of God, sharing in equal value and dignity. Does that just mean treating all people the same? Yes, sometimes. For example, the justice system of Israel is to have the same mishpat for the foreigner as the native (Lev 24:22). They are to be under the same rules and laws. If they are to be just, cases and judgments must be evaluated based on its merits and evidence, not on the race, status, or wealth of the persons involved. It means keeping your oaths, refusing bribes, and not giving preferential treatment to some and not others.

But justice in the Bible is not simply treating all people the same. Sometimes—many times in the OT—justice is actually about preferential treatment in the name of fairness. How can this be? Isn’t that unfair to give special treatment to one person or group over another? Yes, sometimes. But in other cases, no.

Perhaps an example will help. The “quartet of the vulnerable” in the OT include the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor. These groups of people are disproportionately disadvantaged. They are vulnerable, at least more so and more often than other groups. They have little social power or influence. They live a subsistence life. Over and over the Law, wisdom, and the prophets offer and command special protection and treatment for these groups because of their inherent disadvantages.

  • Deuteronomy 27:19 ‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
  • Proverbs 31:8-9 Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
  • Zechariah 7:10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.

Justice with an emphasis on the vulnerable is not just a particularity of the Bible. The point of doing justice in this way is to give the world an accurate reflection of the God in whom justice is derived (read Deut 4:6-8). Justice with a special concern for the vulnerable is based in the nature of God himself. Here are a few beautiful description of this reality:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
  • Psalm 146:7-9 [The Lord is] who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

In his book Generous Justice, Timothy Keller brings the point home, “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”

God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’
— Timothy Keller, Generous Justice

Justice is about restoring and relationships.

With these passages in mind, it’s clear that justice is about restoring. In some sense justice is corrective. In my experience, this is how most people use the word justice today. Justice, especially on a societal level, is about punishment for the guilty and protections for the innocent. Justice is about retribution for wrongdoers and reparations for victims. This two fold picture of restoration is central to justice. Justice brings down those who step on others to get ahead, and it lifts up those who were stepped on.

Ultimately, however, justice is about relationships. We must not let our vision of restoration stop with punishment.Doing justice means acting toward relational flourishing. To do justice is to acknowledge a problem (namely, that someone is out of alignment with another, or that someone’s path to flourishing is weighted against them) and to act to correct it.

In the OT, the relational side of justice is especially clear where misphat (justice) is connected with tsedeqah (righteousness). (Keller argues that the best translation of these two words in tandem is “social justice.”) Righteousness in the Bible is not primarily about private morality or spirituality but about relational morality and spirituality. Righteousness is about conducting all relationship with fairness and generosity. Righteousness, to put it simply, is to be in right relationships with God and people. It’s what the world would look like if everyone loved God and neighbor well. Obviously, not everyone does. The world is full of unrighteous people and so it is full of injustice. Justice and righteousness, then, are the work of bringing re-alignment, re-integration, and restoring flourishing to people.

Job is a great biblical example of this social justice in action. Here’s Job 29:12-17: “I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness (tsedeqah), and it clothed me; my justice (mishpat) was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous and made him drop his prey from his teeth.”

Justice is generous.

Did you notice the nature of justice in action according to Job? In our categories today, Job is at the soup kitchen, the orphan’s home, the courts, the funeral home, the nursing home, the hospital, and the volunteer police force. Justice isn’t just about keeping laws. It’s not even just about treating people fairly. To Job, justice is much more to do with treating people generously. These are acts of mercy, sure. They are acts of love and charity. But in the biblical framework, they are acts of justice. To fail to act in mercy, charity, and generosity is not to fail to do some good optional thing; it is to fail to do justice. (See also Job 31:13-28.)

Job has seen disintegration, so he works for re-integration. Job notices those whose path to flourishing is weighted against them, and he does something about it. He uses his preferred position not for self-advancement but for the advancement of the vulnerable. This is biblical justice and righteousness. But isn't this also biblical charity and mercy? Yes, exactly. 

Here’s Keller once again with a great summary of biblical justice. “[I]f you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.”

Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God.
— Timothy Keller, Generous Justice

Finally, for all of us visual learners, check out this video from The Bible Project where they explore a biblical framework of justice. Stay tuned for the next post where we begin to dive a little deeper into the nature of God and of justice.