According to the New Oxford American Dictionary “social justice” is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society”. Aristotle, in The Politics, said ‘justice’ ensured that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles and received what was their due from society. Over the years, these benefits and rights have come to include public education, access to health care, social security, the right to organize, and a broader spectrum of other public services, progressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity, equality of outcome, and no gross social injustice. A progressive tax structure and regulation of markets have been developed to help distribute wealth more equally and give more people access to property ownership and job security
Joseph Joubert, a French moralist and essayist, said “Justice is truth in action”.
Who could be against justice? If there’s one thing that the laws and prophets – especially Jesus – agree on, it’s justice for all, regardless of background or social status.
According to N. T. Wright, in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, our longing for justice “comes with the kit of being human.” Unfortunately, although we all strive for justice, we often fail to achieve it. As Wright further states,
- “You fall off your bicycle and break your leg. You go to the hospital and they fix it. You stagger around on crutches for a while. Then, rather gingerly, you start to walk normally again … There is such a thing as putting something to rights, as in fixing it, as getting it back on track. You can fix a broken leg, a broken toy, a broken television. So why can’t we fix injustice. It isn’t for lack of trying.
And yet, in spite of failures to fix injustice, we keep dreaming that one day all broken things will be set right. Wright contends, “Christians believe this is so because all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live [with a dream for justice]. And [followers of Christ] believe that in Jesus that voice became human and did what had to be done to bring it about.”
The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor — those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
In pre-modern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest. Today, this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this group is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”
Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. The biblical writers introduce God as
a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows (Psalm 68:4-5).
This is one of the main things God does in the world: identify with the powerless, take up their cause.
Indeed, we should have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the biblical idea of justice than that. We get further insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated both as “being just” and “being righteous” – for in Hebrew, understanding to be one is to be the other. The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.
When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.
These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.”* Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it practiced in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship with everyone else, and God.
Examples of rectifying justice or mishpat, would mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit and rob poor women. It could also mean respectfully putting pressure on a local police department until they respond to calls and crimes as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part. Another example would be to form an organization that both prosecutes and seeks justice against loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices.
Primary justice, or tzadeqah, might mean taking the time personally to meet the needs of the handicapped, the elderly or the hungry in our neighborhoods. Or it could mean the establishment of new non-profits to serve the interests of these classes of persons. It could also mean a group of families from the more prosperous side of town adopting the public school in a poor community and making generous donations of money and pro bono work in order to improve the quality of education there.
When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times in the Hebrew Bible. The English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.”
Some Christians believe that justice is strictly mishpat — the punishment of wrongdoing, period. They would insist that helping the needy through generous giving should be called mercy, compassion or charity — not justice.
In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness,” as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law. In the book of Job, we see Job call every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendor (Job 31:23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (Job 31:28). Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of one’s goods as belonging to himself alone. To not ‘share his bread’ and assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God – a violation of God’s justice.
Despite the effort to differentiate between “justice” as legal fairness and sharing as “charity,” numerous Scripture passages make radical generosity necessary to live justly. Just persons live a life of honesty, equity and generosity in every aspect of their life.
If you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs but practicing generosity and an interest in social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus angrily challenges the religious authorities, mocking them for their self-aggrandizing, self-promoting ways. He alienates the elite by spending time with and showing favor to the poor and marginalized; he talks to women, eats without regard for the dietary rules, he heals those considered unclean and returns them to wholeness. He questions current laws and challenges the status quo. And as a result he becomes the target of those in authority. Ultimately, those authorities kill him.
Nevertheless, Jesus showed us that there are times when we must stand up and express ‘truth to power’ in constructive, meaningful, unyielding ways despite the possible consequences. Consider how often, and in how many ways, Jesus expressed anger in the Gospels. He was clear and direct, bringing about justice or revealing malice or ignorance. He made no personal attacks, but sought to uncover the evil behind the actions. There is no record of Jesus being angered by a personal offense no matter how wrong, unjust, or violent it may be. He lived and taught that the one who is persecuting us is also created in the image of God and loved by God, and in that reality we can love our enemy.
Just as God is righteously angered over oppression and injustice, so should we be. Learning how to balance these teachings and actions is a lifelong process for those who choose to follow his ways. The Good Samaritan wasn’t good because of his origins or because he was traveling. Instead, he looked around him, around where he lived and worked and traveled, saw a human in need, and got involved. He gave up time, money, and most likely status and respect in doing so. As he went about his day, he loved someone and righted an injustice.
There are many ways people of faith can be involved in helping set things right. We can advocate for stricter, common-sense gun laws, or work toward offering much-needed services for those suffering with mental illness; we can encourage our governments to shelter the homeless; we can feed those in poverty, visit women or men in prison, help to clothe children in need, serve those with special needs; we can work with youth who need an adult mentor. The needs are endless, the injustices everywhere.
As we near a new ecclesiastical year, it is a good season for each of us to ask ourselves: How can our sense of outrage at injustice be channeled into loving action? We, as members of the Diocese of Southern Ohio have an obligation – no, a mandate – to work for social justice, just as Jesus did. We must be angry at instances of injustice, speaking truth in love to our friends, our neighbors, our legislators, our nation and the world.
When we witness wrong done to others, particularly those who do not have the strength or means to defend themselves, then as people of faith we need to express the anger of love — the anger that gives us boldness and outspokenness to defend what is right and just.
Jesus’ example and teachings reveal to us that anger, channeled and directed in love, can redirect our anger and encourage positive acts. We open ourselves to the guidance of the spirit of peace to determine how best to express our moral anger, and in all matters, how to speak and act in love.
This kind of direct action is risky because it involves other people, who are also made in the image of God. People about whom Jesus said,
- “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:45)
The Jesus who said,
- “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
We need to remember what Micah 6:6-8 says:
- With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Prayerfully consider whether your anger at injustice is calling you to become a member of the Social Justice & Public Policy Network. The Good Samaritan was one person, one person who made a difference in the life of one man. Think about what a group of Christians could do if they combined their time and energy to right the injustices in the world.
Are you ready to take those steps needed to carry out the teachings of Jesus?
Are you ready to ‘strive to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God’?
* Tim Keller, What is Biblical Justice?