When someone harms someone else, they should be punished.
This is perhaps the most basic and instinctive description of justice, and virtually everyone, every culture, every religion would agree with this notion. As Christians we are called to pursue justice, but we face the common trap of simply allowing our definition of justice to be defined by our culture. The Bible calls us to a much deeper and nuanced understanding of justice.
To put it in simple logical terms, justice is a battle against injustice. When see injustice in the world, it is our natural instinct to try to find the perpetrator and punish him. And indeed, this is extremely valuable. But, we must not think this is the end of the battle against injustice. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul makes one of the profound and powerful statements about the real source of evil and injustice:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Paul clearly articulates our natural instinct, that our fight against injustice is against specific individuals, and then directly refutes it. Quite simply, Paul says, fighting injustice by merely fighting against specific individuals is misguided. There is someone else to blame.
This by no means easy or natural. Our instinctive appeal to justice is naturally drawn toward finding blame with someone, some individual that we can point a finger at, accuse, and punish. When the Bible refutes this instinct, it goes against our instincts. And it is always hard to go beyond our intuitions, and look deeper. While it is certainly true that restraining individuals is critical part of pursuing justice, it is important to understand, from scriptures, that the primary forces of evil aren’t originated in individuals schemes, but the systemic and pervasive strategies and schemes of powers and principalities.
Not only does the human tendency towards blame-based injustice point the blame in the wrong direction, it can also lead to wrongly dismissing injustice. As many voice the frustrations and pain of pervasive and systemic injustice that has been sown, a frequent response is to distill this down to individuals. When others look for individual perpetrators and their intentional acts of evil and can’t find them, then they can easily and wrongly assume that injustice must not exist. This, according to scriptures, is a false conclusion. The vindication or condemnation of individuals and their acts of injustice can neither verify nor confirm the much more widespread and insidious reality of systemic injustice.
So does this mean the battle against injustice is hopeless? Without being able to fully address injustice by tracking down and punishing villains, are we without any real concrete means for bringing greater justice and righteousness into the world? John provides further insight, that points to where we go from here, in 1 John 3:8 (b):
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
To understand this verse, imagine for a bit that there was a developer that was having a new housing development built, but realized it was being built with rotten wood that would not stand. So he hired a demolition crew to come in, and destroy the house. Now imagine the developer shows up to check on the demolition crew and finds them sitting around looking at the building, and so he asks when they are going to start tearing down the building. They respond saying that their approach is to carefully avoid adding any more rotten wood to the construction. The developer might say that is well and good, but he wants it torn down. The crew again responds that they don’t want to actually tear anything down, that the problem was the improper building materials, and so they think the best thing to do is to make sure they don’t add anymore faulty materials to the building. Of course at this point, the developer would naturally fire this crew, and look for someone that would actually destroy the building and not just avoid causing any further problems.
Likewise, let’s consider what John is saying about Jesus’ purpose. He doesn’t say that Jesus came to *avoid* the devil’s work. John’s description of His purpose is completely different than suggesting he came to try to get people to avoid contributing to the devil’s and encouraging people to avoid sinning and harming others. This isn’t even remotely close to what John says. John says that Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. This isn’t just avoiding complicity, it is actively undoing and destroying and tearing down the fruit and consequences of the devil’s labor, work, and efforts.
So what is the devil’s work? To be clear, it is not simply some abstract offense against God. It is the real pain and frustration we experience in our lives and in our world. If we are willing to listen attentively, it is not hard to see the depths of the devil’s work of injustice around us. If we are paying attention at all, we should hear the pain and frustrations of racism, inequality, abuse, and violence.
Combining these two teachings should reorient our perspective on justice, on how we respond to these cries of frustration. The natural instinct to find someone to blame and give up if we can’t find a villain is misguided. Systemic injustice won’t be solved by finding a particular police officer, politician, or other leader to blame. Or even worse, it certainly won’t be addressed by blaming victims of injustice, accusing them of just getting what they deserved.
The reality is that the enemy’s strategy is pervasively and insidiously woven into society. Let’s consider the devil’s work in racism. As John Piper recently said, “Racism is part of the seamless fabric of sin in human life.” The truth is that today, most people are not intentionally engaging in racism or perpetrating inequality. And this is an important distinction to make: we generally are not actively engaging in malicious acts of racism. However, at the same time, as humans we are all prone to making imperfect judgments. We are all prone to having our judgment slightly clouded by stereotypes and fears. Of course we aren’t aware of these tendencies, we aren’t making malicious judgments, but the subtle nature of our racial tendencies is exactly why we can’t see it. We are all racists to some degree, because we are all sinners. I am racist, you are, even the greatest champions of equality have bits of racism. And we have also inherited bits of racism here and there in our society.
These slight bits of racial inequalities may seem so subtle as to be completely innocuous in isolation. But our society consists of innumerable layers. Slight differences in education, culture, family life, geography, civil treatment, inherited wealth, and so on, gradually add up. After the collective impact of dozens of layers of subtle inequality add up, the reality of racism becomes real and substantive. The final impact of these layers can easily be measured and verified and the pain and frustration of that experience are deeply grounded in reality.
Is our ability to recognize and respond to injustice, constrained by our desire to identify the perpetrator of the injustice? Again, our response can be to enter into the blame-game, and find someone to blame that will befit our ideological tendencies. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy the works of the devil. That means undoing and tearing apart the results of racism. The devil has worked to leave many minorities in the state of disadvantage and hardship. We undo and destroy that work when we work to advantage and benefit those that have been on the painful side of these disadvantages. When we defend and lift up those that society has stacked the odds against, we are destroying the devil’s work.
When we see injustice and seek to blame, we are letting powers and principalities continue their strategy. But every time we step beyond this, helping those that we might otherwise accuse, defending those that are victims of the systems and schemes of these powers, we are undermining their work and strategy. Helping those who have the odds against them is an act of destroying the devil’s work.