by Julie Weatherford
Four words are prominently displayed on walls of my church’s main meeting hall: LOVE, PEACE, HOPE and JUSTICE. On a recent Sunday, a relatively new sister in our church family said to me, “I know why LOVE, PEACE AND HOPE are there. But why JUSTICE?”
I stumbled through a brief explanation of how the theme of justice is threaded through Old and New Testaments, a central focus of Jesus’ teachings, and a necessary, concrete component to authentic love, hope and peace. My friend expressed appreciation for my explanation, and the conversation shifted. But I came away wishing I had done better. When asked again, I wanted to offer a clearer, brief yet adequate articulation of why justice is integral to God’s loving intent for humankind on earth.
In the evangelical conservative church of my youth, justice was never spoken of as anything but judgment on people who hadn’t accepted Christ, their “just de-serts” for evil nature and bad behavior (hardly something that we’d partner with LOVE, PEACE and HOPE on our Brethren in Christ church walls!). So, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why my friend had asked, “Why JUSTICE?” But, having been part of a BIC church for decades now, having been influenced by years on Mennonite Central Committee boards, and having recently completed seminary training, I had come to understand justice more fully. I hoped that my life and actions spoke, however inadequately, of its importance to me. And, I wanted to strengthen my understanding in order to tighten my skill at offering a brief, cogent, and compelling reply to the question, “Why JUSTICE?”
I knew that I needed some reminders myself of why justice was as integral to God’s ways as love, peace, and hope. I went back to writings of some of the authors and teachers from whom I had learned through the years, who had studied scripture deeply and whose lives exhibited a commitment to the kind of justice that I had come to embrace, yet struggled to express to my friend. Here’s what they reminded me of about justice:
Jim Wallis, author and founder of the Sojourners intentional Christian community in Washington, D.C., writes:
The clear meaning of ‘justice’ is ‘what is right’ or ‘what is normal’ — the way things are supposed to be. The fairness of laws coupled with fair and equal treatment under the law are common biblical concerns. Throughout scripture, God is the defender and protector of the poor, the alien, the debtor, the widow, and the orphan….
One of the clearest and most holistic words for justice is the Hebrew shalom, which means both “justice” and “peace.” Shalom includes “wholeness,” or everything that makes for people’s well being, security, and, in particular, the restoration of relationships that have been broken. Justice, therefore, is about repairing broken relationships both with other people and to structures — of courts and punishments, money and economics, land and resources, and kings and rulers.
The biblical words for justice all relate to the fairness, judgment, love, and healing of God…. Justice, most simply, means putting things right again — ﬁxing, repairing, and restoring broken relationships. And doing justice restores our relationship with God and makes our worship of God authentic. And it is clear that justice is also part of our worship of God. Listen to the prophet Amos:
‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:21–24, NIV)
This is some of the strongest language in the Bible about worship and justice, and it clearly makes a connection between the two. God ‘takes no delight’ (as some other translations say) in the ‘noisy’ worship of his people if their worship is disconnected from justice — from making things right for those who are poor and oppressed. Exuberant worship can even distance us from the realities of an unjust world, creating a distance from the God of justice, who is passionate about the world he has made and about all of his children.
Even worse, we have seen how worship can serve as a cover-up for injustice, how we can act in our religious gatherings as if everything is all right… And that is likely what the prophet means when he says that such false worship is a ‘stench’ to God….
That should be our justice lens for viewing any society — looking at what’s wrong and ﬁguring out how to make it right. Justice is as basic as that. And acting for justice shows that we love and worship the God of the Bible, who is a God of justice (www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2014/06/06/how-the-bible-understands-justice/32339 adapted from The (Un)Common Good by Jim Wallis, accessed 2018-01-15).
Thomas Keating, Catholic contemplative and author, suggests that Jesus’ “beatitude that hungers and thirsts for justice urges us to take personal responsibility for our attitude to God, other people, the ecology of the earth, and the vast and worsening social problems of our time…” Keating suggests that contemplative prayer provides an avenue for the development of the gift of fortitude that in turn leads to the hunger and thirst for justice ( http://wawalker.com/thomas-keating-on-contemplative-spirituality-and-social-ethics/, accessed 2018-01-15).
Stuart Murray, Anabaptist author, theologian and church planter, hones in on economic justice in this passage:
In both the Old and the New Testaments, spirituality and economics are interwoven. The obligations of the covenant between God and Israel, spelled out in the Law, contain many detailed economic principles and practices. The prophets constantly remind the people of Israel (and especially their political leaders) that their prayers would not be heeded if they did not pursue justice. Their worship services would be offensive to God unless they cared for the poor and needy. [Murray notes that classic texts are Isaiah 1:11-17 and 58:1-14.]
Jesus insists that ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21), and the Gospels are full of parables and instructions about wealth and poverty, the use and abuse of possessions, and the demands of community. Not only are economic issues prevalent in the rest of the New Testament, but the book of Acts introduces us to the first church in Jerusalem, in which the sharing of resources was inextricably linked with faith and discipleship” (Naked Anabaptist. p. 118).
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
(Quotes accessed 2018-01-15)
Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and theologian, writes in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context:
…the four words for justice (two in Hebrew, and two in Greek) appear 1,060 times in the Bible. Hardly any concept appears so often. By contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear about 90 times. Yet we skip over the huge biblical emphasis on justice as central in God’s will…
…Jesus’ identification with the prophets, his attack on the temple system and his proclamation and practice of the reign of God all linked him inextricably to a content-rich proclamation and practice of justice. Justice is one of the central virtues in Jesus’ teaching as well as in traditional virtue theory. It is one of the basic convictions in holistic character. It is thickly embedded in the biblical narratives. It is at the heart of God’s will. It is crucial for relating love and Christlikeness to a public ethic that can reflect the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Christ over all of life. It is pivotal in present-day struggles of our society…
Jesus often cited the prophet Isaiah, which speaks several times of the kingdom or reign of God… Sixteen of the seventeen kingdom-deliverance passages in Isaiah announced that justice was a key characteristic of God’s kingdom… If we look carefully,* we discover that justice has four dimensions: (1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience; (2) lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence and establishing peace; and (4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and the refugees to community” (pp. 345-349, italics mine).
“We count forty times in the Synoptic Gospels, not including the parallel passages, when Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his day. In addition, Jesus performed practices and gave other teachings which, even if not explicitly identified as confrontations of authorities, surely challenged the theological ideology of those in power. In our study of Jesus confronting authorities, we asked, ‘What are the themes of Jesus’ confrontations? What wrongs does Jesus focus on when he confronts the powers and authorities?’ We have found that the answers to these questions embody four themes and that these themes are remarkably consistent with the four themes of justice that we saw in Isaiah’s deliverance passages…
Paying close attention to Isaiah’s deliverance passages helps us compensate for the reductionistic biases of our individualist culture and helps us notice the four themes of justice in Jesus’ confrontations of the powers and authorities of his day; it gives us a new appreciation for Jesus’ depth and compassion (p. 357, italics mine).
Seeing how directly Jesus taught, embodied and fulfilled the prophet Isaiah’s four themes of justice gives us a dramatic new appreciation for the concreteness of Jesus’ passion for delivering justice. Jesus died for our sins, including our injustice. His confronting the injustice of the powerful was a major reason why they wanted him crucified. When we see his concern for justice – for an end to unjust economic structures, unjust domination, unjust violence and unjust exclusion from community – we cannot help but rethink our entire picture of what Jesus was about in his preaching and teaching. We cannot help but think that if he was that committed to justice in his context, we are required to be just as concerned about justice in our own.” (p.365, italics mine).
Newly reminded, perhaps I’ll do better the next time I’m asked, “Why JUSTICE?”
*If you, too, want to look carefully, Stassen suggests these Isaiah passages, for starters:
Isaiah 11:1-4; 26:2-10; 32:1, 6-7, 16-18; 33:5, 15; Isaiah 42; 51:1, 4-7; 53:7-9; 54:14; 56:1; 60:17-21; 61:1, 3, 8, 10-11.
Julie Weatherford serves on the leadership team of the Peace and Justice Project, and attends Madison Street Church in Riverside, CA.