Defining Justice, Part 2

As I’ve thought about this post over the last few days, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into – justice is a complex idea that is not easily boiled down into a formula. I’ve read different articles by Christian theologians, and have also read your comments with interest – thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Most of all, I’ve spent time re-reading Good News About Injustice, a book by Gary Haugen, the president of IJM. It sort of serves as the founding document for why IJM exists and what we fight for. So, much of what I have concluded while on my search for the definition of biblical justice comes from him. I highly recommend that you read his book, if this topic interests you!

First of all, I should acknowledge that there is, of course, the sort of divine justice that we refer to when we talk about God’s justice as a holy God who judges all those who rebel against him. But the type of justice that we’re concerned with at IJM refers more to justice within human relationships (which perhaps could be called social justice, although I’d really rather stay away from that terminology altogether). So, here are three statements about justice that most fully explain my understanding about this type of biblical justice and our calling to seek justice in the world today (again, these conclusions are essentially a paraphrase from what I’ve read in Good News About Injustice.)

1. In the broadest sense, justice describes what occurs when power is used in accordance with God’s standards of moral excellence.

    In the Old Testament, justice and righteousness are two concepts that are often paired together (see Psalm 89:14).  The distinction that I find most helpful between these two terms is this: while righteousness indicates personal adherence to God’s moral standards, justice is more specifically concerned with the appropriate use of power in accordance with God’s moral standards. Conversely, Gary Haugen defines injustice this way: “Injustice occurs when power is misused to take from others what God has given them, namely, their life, dignity, liberty or the fruits of their love and labor” (Good News, p. 86).

    2.  Because God is a God of love and justice, He suffers with those abused by injustice and desires to see them avenged.

    I think too often, people see God’s love and God’s justice as characteristics that counteract each other – but this is not necessarily true.  We know that God is a compassionate God, and the word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” This means that when humans suffer from injustice, when power is abused and used to hurt someone, God stands with those suffering and suffers with them. (see Psalm 12:5).  God’s compassion is where his characteristics of love and justice meet.

    3. God actively responds to injustice and rescues those abused and oppressed by calling upon His people to seek justice.

    This is perhaps the most crucial point for Christians to understand. American evangelicals have long understood the need to preach the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation, recognizing that God has given us this responsibility as His ambassadors. As Romans 10:14 says: “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” The same principle also holds true for God’s cry for justice: His plan for rescuing victims of injustice involves the church. Through the prophet Isaiah, God lets His people know that the type of service and fasting He desires is this: to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free. (Isaiah 58). But in the next chapter, justice for these victims is still nowhere to be seen. “The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (Isaiah 59: 15-16).

    I think this is why Jesus spends so much time berating the Pharisees who have used their power for personal gain, why he spends so much time loving the outcast lepers, healing the downtrodden women who are shunned because of their status – so that His disciples would know and understand that their God is a God of love and justice who calls His followers to continue on with this active pursuit of justice for the most abused and vulnerable within society.

    So, there you have it. In summary: As a God of love, compassion, and justice, God is concerned with justice as a right exercise of power according to his righteous moral standard, he suffers with those abused by injustice, and he calls the church to respond and fight against injustice.

    I have not presented a comprehensive view of Biblical justice, by any means, but hopefully it’s given you further understanding into why IJM does what it does, and why I believe so strongly in the mission of IJM. And if I’ve piqued your interest at all, please, pick up a copy of Good News about Injustice so you can continue learning more!


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    3 responses to “Defining Justice, Part 2

    1. Krista, have you ever seen the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? I have a copy of it in the office. It was put out by the UN in 1948 and has 30 articles that say things like, people should have the right to live in a safe place, own property, work, vote, worship, not be tortured or enslaved, have enough food, clothes, and a house, be educated, participate in the arts and sciences and get credit for their work, and (interestingly) marry the person of their choosing, among other things. It’s a nice outline of what a just society might include for its citizens, though many countries don’t afford it’s citizens all of these things.

      I would guess that most of these are in line with “God’s standards of moral excellence,” although I am not a bible scholar, I think your #1. definition is a very good one. But it’s also interesting to have a secular document that people of different faiths might agree on, especially with so many diplomacy issues getting wrapped up in religious differences these days.

      Anyway, your thoughts are interesting. Are you considering being a pastor? You’d be good at it.

      Here’s another interesting article for you that my friend posted on Facebook, about cultural tolerance vs. injustice within cultures that don’t necessarily observe some of these basic human rights.

      Anyway. Back to work trying to do justice to our upcoming harvest dinner…..I’m sure you will do great work in Uganda.

      • Thanks for your comments, Katie! I have read the UN Dec on Human Rights – we talked about it in some of my Int’l Studies classes. While I like most of what it has to say, I think the biggest downfall is that it doesn’t really define what ‘rights’ are, or what moral/ethical basis they have for establishing the concept of rights. This leads to the list of rights being so extensive and open-ended (like the right to have paid vacation days every year), that it almost loses its effectiveness. People dismiss it more easily (thinking it’s too idealistic), and governments have no real obligation to fulfilling any of the articles in the declaration. I do think it’s a good place to start, especially, as you say, in a world where a secular document not based in any particular religious tradition will be better received by most of the worlds’ countries and peoples.

        As for being a pastor – well, I think I would go crazy preaching from the pulpit, with no feedback! I would be happy to continue talking about such issues, but think that I would enjoy being a teacher much more, with the discussions and mutual learning that happens in a classroom environment.

    2. jan

      Well written! This is also a great 3-point sermon (in case you’re ever asked to share from the pulpit. )

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