Tonight we along with a small group of friends are hosting a fundraising dinner for the International Justice Mission. It is our goal to raise enough money through this one evening to fully fund at least one rescue operation, providing freedom, skills training and education to an individual or family caught in slavery. In honor of our event we have some thoughts on justice to share.
PS If you would like to donate to our cause, you can do so here.
The Bible makes it clear that God deeply values justice and calls us to pursue justice (and not just charity). For example, Isaiah 58 calls us to
“to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke”
And of course this is not limited to this passage. We treasure and praise God for whom,
And Psalms 89:14:
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne”
However, the topic of justice can be vague and confusing because there are multiple types and motivations of justice. Virtually everyone wants justice, but they can mean radically different things when using the word “justice”. In this post, I wanted to consider the different definitions of justice, and what God says about these and how and which He has called us to pursue. As we consider the types of justice to pursue, we want to consider what types of justice the God of the Bible treasures and how. The Bible leads to trust in God’s justice, yet also calls to do justly. This has important implications in each understanding the different types of justice. Further confusion can arise, because the Bible also has several key concepts that are often translated into different words, justice, righteousness, and judgment, that have a poor correlation with English words of precisely the same meaning.
First, we will consider “punitive” justice, the punishment of wrongdoers. The most foundational and rudimentary concept of punitive justice is “retributive”. In this form, justice is action against a perpetrator for a past crime, giving a criminal what they are “due” for their wrongdoing, on the basis of “deserving” punishment. In regards to this form of justice, the Bible is clear, God states in no uncertain terms says “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”, both early in the OT (Deut 32:35), and reiterated again in the NT (Rom 12:19). When it comes to the natural instinct to desire harm to those who have harmed us, our role is clearly to trust in God, and not to act. We are not to seek recrimination, but actually bless our enemies, and feeding and giving them water.
This is more than an isolated message in the Bible, this is a central concept to the core message of the Bible, the gospel. While we were yet sinners, enemies of God, deserving punishment, God forgave us, made peace with us, and even blessed us, immeasurably. he then calls us to do the same. The heart of the Bible, the gospel, must be our foundation for justice. Without a gospel-centered justice, our concept of justice is fundamentally no different than the world’s idea of justice, perhaps only differing by a few goals.
Saying that vengeance belongs to God precludes retributive justice may sound like a claim that we should never punish criminals. However, that is not the case. With a gospel foundation, let’s now consider “deterrent” justice. Deterrent justice does is the effort of creating an negative incentive for crimes. Here we do punish crimes, but the motivation is key (which can have important implications for how it is pursued). The goal is not to get back at, or revenge the crime, but rather to protect future potential victims. With this pursuit in mind, we begin to move our focus away from negative punishment, and instead focus on how we can positively help the victims, protecting them through prevention.
In our culture, we often hear the phrase that “justice was served” after hearing that a criminal was apprehended and/or sentenced. The interested aspect of this is that the implied object is always the perpetrator, and not the victim. Our concept of justice clearly seems far more focused (or mis-focused) towards the criminal than the victim.
The next form of justice is restorative justice. One part of restorative justice is reparative justice, in which the offender “repairs” the damage they have done, returning stolen money or goods, for example. Like deterrent justice, our focus should be on the protection of victims (not vengeance), the difference being deterrent justice protects future victims, whereas reparative justice protects and restores past victims.
But restorative justice doesn’t stop at restoring the victims. Like the grace of God, who sought to restore us, the offender, the goal of restorative justice isn’t to harm the offender, but rather to heal and redirect them in a positive direction.
When Isaiah 58 talks about loosing “the chains of injustice”, we can participate in carrying this out as we seek to protect those who might be oppressed and past, present, and future, from harm and offenses, while still trusting in God to be the ultimate and final judge and executor of retribution.
These forms of justice we have looked at primarily responses to offenses, they represent only the negative actions of justice. However, justice, both in historic and Biblical meaning, goes much broader. We must also consider “distributive” justice, which considers how to fairly distribute goods and services in society. This represents the positive, proactive side of justice. While there are many crimes in this world, the majority of people spend far more time in productive work, and buying goods and services than they do in committing crimes. Therefore understanding what the Bible teaches about distributive justice is tremendously important, it affects our entire economic structures. Everyday we are frequently interacting with our economy, the effects of distributive justice are impacting us all the time, and how we pursue distributive justice affects virtually everyone on the planet.
Also distinct from the earlier forms of justice, is that injustice, in the distributive sense, may not be directly linked to any certain human perpetrator. Injustice may be the result structures that are unfair, or even lack of structures that permit or promote activity that leads to poverty, inequity and other maladies. The Bible has numerous examples of justice requiring that such structures be removed, modified, or added to promote justice. And Jesus demonstrated proactive justice, there doesn’t necessary to be a villain, Jesus points us towards a vision of positive proactive justice that is more just and beautiful than simply an absence of evil. Distributive justice, therefore, can be confusing to some who think of justice only in terms of punishing bad guys.
Once again, let’s look to what Bible says about this form of justice. And again God has given some critical principles to shape our understanding of the pursuit of distributive justice. First, we should consider that Hebrew word that the Bible frequently uses to describe the goal of right human living: tsedek. Historically, in the King James, this word was translated to “justice” in the English, and the meaning of this word is best described as doing the right and equitable actions. As the colloquial meaning of justice in English has shifted towards the negative punitive form, modern translations have accordingly shifted to translating tsedek to “righteousness”, although the connotations of this English word are still not a perfect fit for the concept associated with this Hebrew word.
Next, we have numerous verses that can shape our understanding of Biblical justice by what God defines as the injustice. Several verses establish a theme of injustice being defined in terms of the forces of society binding or holding people back. God has given every person gifts and talents that can be used to be productive. Isaiah 58 itself describes injustice and wickedness in terms of a yoke and oppression. We give (positive, distributive) justice to people when we give the freedom and opportunity. Freedom is highly prized value in America, but like justice, it is can mean very different things to different people. And like justice, freedom can misalign with the Biblical justice if misunderstood. Freedom means that justice is more than just meeting needs, it is about empowering people to be use their God given gifts. However, the pursuit of freedom and justice, as defined by the Bible is also limitless. Sometime the pursuit of freedom is be limited to preserving negative freedom (only specific proactive actions of others that physically bind us), but Jesus’ Kingdom stretches to every aspect of society. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!” Likewise, any aspect of society that stands in the way people reaching their full potential needs to be challenged, whether it be cultural, racial, gender-based, economic, generational, or otherwise.
The next theme of distributive justice that the Bible communicates is that the special attention needs to be given to the weakest, poorest, and neediest. And those that have the greatest responsibility to meet these needs belong to those that have the most capability to help them, the richest, strongest, and most powerful. Several key examples of this include:
Ezekiel 16:49: Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
1Jn 3:17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
2 Cor 8:14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality
And Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) also clearly condemns those that who had the opportunity to help the beaten man and passed by. Poverty itself is never described as injustice, but when poverty exists alongside wealth and power that could alleviate it, God’s condemnation is clear. High levels of inequality are clearly contrary to God’s vision of a just society, as indicated by the Biblical definition of justice, as well as Jesus’ parables and Paul’s goal quoted above.
This type of justice gives us far clearer direction in how we are to love and offer mercy. To simply be merciful to some one at some time, doesn’t require much consideration, and we often easily do love those near and dear to us, which according to Matt 5:47, Jesus isn’t all that impressed by. To pursue this concept of Biblical justice is to go beyond random acts of kindness, and purposely and intently look to see who is in need, and even evaluate who is in greatest need and who we have the greatest capacity to help. This love coupled with justice leads deeper into the heart of God and his ways of righteousness.
Paul often appeals to the analogy of a body. We naturally are driven to take care of our own body, and when we have an injury we try to remedy it. However, our focus on our body’s needs is not just random. If we have a paper cut and open wound with a severed aorta would we ever choose to find a band-aid for the paper cut first and deal with blood gushing out of our neck later? Of course not, we naturally focus on our greatest need first. Likewise, we may pat ourselves on the back for loving those in our family, but a true concern for all those that God loves, seeks to love those in the greatest need as priority, even if they are not close to us.
This discussion of justice intentionally flows from the basic form of retributive justice, the elementary and instinctual foundation, towards the proactive and positive forms of justice focused on freeing and empowering the weak and the oppressed, and even restoring the guilty. This path of discussion, I believe, follows the trajectory of the Bible, where God begins by setting forth the principles of retributive justice, and how we are deserving of punishment. The Bible then slowly moves towards the climax of the cross where God satisfies this justice with His Son and points us towards a deeper, grace-oriented perspective of justice. Often the cross is only viewed as a satisfaction of justice, as if the cross was just getting justice out of the way, diminishing the affect of justice, but to the contrary, the cross leads us deeper into God’s beautiful justice, giving us a wonderful new justice, empowering us, restoring us, and setting us free! This is gospel-centered, Christ-led, Kingdom-oriented justice. It makes our love and mercy meaningful, it seeks first the Kingdom, and brings glory to our God!
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.