If I have learned anything from working on biblical justice over the last two years, it is that the word “justice” can be confusing. The problem, I believe, is that the Bible means something different by the word than we typically do in contemporary English.
In our language, justice has two components: fairness, and just desserts. That’s the way we want it in a courtroom: everybody gets treated the same, and everybody reaps what they sow. If you are a criminal, you should pay. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, you should be held liable for your crimes and be punished accordingly. Victims should be compensated, where possible.
Similarly, outside the courtroom, we want treatment to be equal and rules to be enforced. The teacher should grade every kid by the same standard. Cheaters should be punished. That’s justice.
Of course, that’s a pretty limited view. It focuses on today’s classroom, but it ignores whatever happened before class began. There’s no way that a kid born to a poor single mother has the same chances to do well in school that my kids do. In reality, life isn’t fair, and injustice begins before birth.
We may acknowledge that injustice, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It happens. You can’t prevent it. You just try to be just and fair where you have an opportunity. If that disadvantaged kid shows up in your workplace, you make sure he gets every opportunity to succeed. But you can’t change the conditions he grew up in, nor do you feel responsible for them.
Justice is an ideal that shapes our society to an extent, but we’re also pretty comfortable shrugging our shoulders at injustice.
The biblical idea of justice is a lot broader. It includes our ideas of fairness and just desserts. Again and again, God promises to pay back evildoers for what they have done. They will reap what they sow, he promises. But God’s justice also demands something more than fair play. A just man takes care of his hurting neighbors. Charity and mercy are part of justice too.
Listen to Job:
If I have denied the desires of the poor
Or let the eyes of the widow grow weary,
If I have kept my bread to myself,
Not sharing it with the fatherless—
But from my youth I reared them as a father would,
And from my birth I guided the widow—
If I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing
Or the needy without garments,
And their hearts did not bless me
For warming them with the fleece from my sheep,
If I have raised my hand against the fatherless,
Knowing that I had influence in court,
Then let my arm fall from the shoulder,
Let it be broken off at the joint.
For I dreaded destruction from God,
And for fear of his splendor I could not do such things. (31:16-23)
Job is defending his character, but he is not exactly totaling his credits. His rhetoric suggests that what he did for the vulnerable were not acts of charity—deeds done above and beyond the call of duty. He implies that he owed such behavior. Had he not sheltered orphans or provided clothing for the needy, God would have rightfully punished him. No, more than punished—destroyed him.
This approach, which is consistent throughout the Bible, is very puzzling to our modern thinking about justice. By our narrower definitions, to act mercifully has nothing to do with the demands of justice. When we donate food to the poor, we go beyond the demands of justice. We don’t owe it; we give it. When we forgive someone who did us harm, we actually forswear demanding justice. Justice and mercy are not the same thing at all; they are competitors.
That’s the chief complaint about affirmative action: it’s unjust to those who don’t receive it. To treat anybody better than they have earned may be very nice, but it is not justice, as we think of justice.
But that’s because we want to limit justice to the here and now—not delve into the unfairness of our births. Affirmative action tries to take a deeper history into account.
The biblical approach goes a step further, considering not just the injustice of our births, but the liberating justice done for us long before our present situation.
It’s perfectly caught by Jesus in his parable of the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:23-35) A king forgives a huge debt to one of his servants, who promptly goes out and throttles someone else for the debt he owes him. When the king learns what has happened, he is furious. He punishes the unforgiving servant in the most severe way. Jesus comments, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
That last line always made me uncomfortable. I wanted Jesus to say: “God has forgiven you a lot, so out of gratitude you should forgive others. God will be pleased if you do.” But in Jesus’ telling, forgiveness is not optional. You have to forgive or you will be severely punished. That is because forgiveness is justice. It is absolutely required of you. It is not charity.
Why so? Simply because you have been forgiven a lot. The justice situation changes after you have a huge debt forgiven. For you to be forgiven a lot and then fail to offer the same treatment to others would be unjust.
Actually, this is not really an original idea Jesus had. It is entirely congruent with the basic stance taken repeatedly in the Old Testament. The Law is prefaced by the statement of the mercy God has shown. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Deut 5:6,7) The Law demands, among other things, that you treat the poor and vulnerable with great kindness. It is not an option; it is the law. If you fail to do it, you will be punished. What is the logic for this demand? God brought you out of slavery. His act of liberation has altered the justice situation. You must treat others the way you have been treated. Grace is the antecedent for everything required of you.
For the same reason, foreigners must be treated just the way you treat the native-born. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:23) God has treated you far better than you deserve; so you owe love to foreigners. Not, “it would be nice.” Rather, “you must.” It is a matter of justice.
In this formal sense, justice is altered by God’s acts of mercy. However, there is a much broader sense in which justice is transformed in the Bible. That is because demands for justice are embedded in a narrative. That narrative begins with the whole world in trouble. Sin has created a situation so bad that it would be right and proper—perfectly just—for God to destroy everything. “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.’” (Genesis 6:6,7)
Instead, he set out to remake the world, beginning with Noah, going on to Abraham, and of course, finally to Jesus. That is his justice: setting the world right. God’s justice is not fundamentally in punishing wrongdoing. It is in setting the world right, remaking it to match God’s original intentions. And so when we act to set the world right—by fighting evil, or by displaying kindness and mercy—we do God’s justice.
In a future post I’ll point out some of the implications of this.