catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 17 :: 2004.10.22 — 2004.11.04


Act justly?


But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:24

What is justice? We read the word in scripture and we hear it thrown around a lot in everyday conversation — bringing individuals to justice, social justice, criminal justice, justice served — but how often do we take the time to figure out what God is requiring of us in Micah 6:8: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” What does it mean to act justly?

Most often we come to the conclusion that justice essentially implies fairness or rightness. We use the title “Justice” for those who attempt to arbitrate disputes in a fair manner; we say “justice has been served” when a criminal has served a sentence equivalent to his crime; we refer to social justice issues when we’re discussing fairness in equality before the law.

While this definition is certainly part of the answer, I don’t think it represents a distinctly Christian view. While entire books have been written on understandings of biblical justice, I’m only going to explore an idea that has proven helpful in my understanding of justice and what it means to act justly.

As illustrated above in the often-quoted verse from Amos, justice is almost always paired with righteousness in scripture. Such a pairing immediately adds a layer of meaning to our culturally inherited definition of justice as fairness. Righteousness and justice dovetail with one another, each requiring the other for completion.

Righteousness can most easily be defined as right relationship with or obedience to God. Justice, then, can be understood as right relationship in community. It seems these understandings purposefully parallel Jesus’ summation of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Once again, obeying one command is only possible if obeying the other.

We can see these understandings of justice and righteousness at work throughout scripture, most notably in the law and Israel’s attempts to faithfully adhere to their covenant responsibilities.

God gave the law to the people of Israel to identify them as a distinct covenant community; the law outlined how to maintain right relationship with God (righteousness) and how to maintain right relationship with others in the community (justice). The marginalized in the society — the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner — are given special protection under the law (ex. – Deut. 14:28-29) and strict adherence to these provisions is demanded (ex. – Deut. 27:29). Later, when Israel fell into the hands of oppressors, the prophets were quite clear on the reasons for such calamity: Israel had ignored God’s requirement of justice for the marginalized. Right relationship to God and community had not been maintained.

One of the most intriguing sections of the law is the description of the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25), a celebration of sorts that was to occur every 50th year. In that year, among other things, every family was to return to the property originally allotted them upon entrance into Israel and all debts were to be cancelled. The law even stipulated that debtors could not refuse requests for loans in the 49th year, even though they would know that they wouldn’t ever collect.

God included such a strange regulation in the ordering principles of the Israelite community as a check to insure that relationships weren’t severed between the wealthy and the poor. By returning each family to a level playing field every 50 years, God was providing a mechanism to counteract the usual cycle wherein the wealthy continue to get wealthier while the poor continue to get poorer. In this cycle, it becomes easier for the wealthy to, as Amos puts it, “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (2:7) because they no longer have a relationship with those people. In fact, they often don’t recognize the existence of the poor at all. When relationship is severed entirely, justice is no longer possible. It should be noted that Israel never practiced the Year of Jubilee, leading them into the cycle of oppression punished through exile.

This is only a brief exploration of the kinds of relationship biblical justice requires, but the importance of justice cannot be underestimated. As I’ve already noted, the Old Testament makes clear God’s demand for justice. Moses highlights the matter clearly in his farewell speech to the people, saying, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20). Jesus reiterates the law, stressing that living obediently demands right relationship with God and right relationship with others.

Understanding the notion of justice as right relationship should completely transform our approach to justice issues. Many issues we view as merely political take on a new context and a new importance when viewed in this light.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, but several difficult questions have already presented themselves. How are we living in right relationship with those in our community? How are we building just communities? In our increasingly connected global neighborhood, how are we living in right relationship with those around the world? How are we contributing to a just world?

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