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!