Justice and Righteousness
Towards the end of 2016, I was asked to consult with an ethnically homogeneous church that was looking to diversify their team and begin the process of reconciliation. A few weeks in, I was asked to meet with their (then) current youth pastor, who I’ll call John. John and I were tasked with discussing the church’s vision for the youth ministry, as well as some of its challenges, in order to create a game plan for a transition. We met at a fast-casual Greek restaurant within walking distance of the church office, and we stood at the counter making small talk until we got our food. As soon as we sat down I was caught off guard by a question. He asked me what I thought about “all of the race stuff in the news.” With the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July and the presidential election (which is always a divisive time in our country) underway, 2016 was a big year for the race debate. Generally, I don’t have a problem talking about race with people, that is, with people who actually care to listen and learn, but there is a difference between people who ask to learn and those who want to prove a point or find an “agreeable” Black friend to affirm their own beliefs. This was the latter. Typically, I see conversations with people who fall into the second category as a waste of time and energy, but I’d been working on a curriculum on race, reconciliation and the church for a year, and I was curious to see how he’d respond to it.
We spent the next two hours talking about race, systemic injustice, bias, inequality, and other reasons why people of color often feel the need to continue the dialogue about race. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Well I can’t argue with you because you clearly know more about this stuff than I do...I guess I can see some of this injustice stuff that you’re talking about, but should we really care about as the Church? I mean in my experience, talking about that just causes division and distracts us from what really matters.”
We never did end up talking about the youth ministry, but I still walked away from that meeting feeling as though it was a fruitful time. I realized that no matter how well you could break down America’s historical and current injustices, it would be for naught unless people believed that the church should care about justice. For me, that was so obvious that I never considered that Christ followers would or could reject that, at least not while they were trying to honor God. To my surprise, however, John wasn’t alone in his understanding of ecclesiology. There is a great divide in the church, between those who believe that God cares about social justice as well as individual righteousness, and those who believe, as one Christian leader put it (as he fought against the Civil Rights Movement), that "Preachers are not called to be politicians," and that "Christians, like slaves and soldiers ask no questions."
Before we can talk about social justice’s legitimacy as a Gospel-centered issue, with relevance for the church, we must first determine how the Bible defines this word “justice.” To do so, we’ll look first to the prophet Isaiah - one of the most important books for
ancient Israel, as well as the early church.“ The Hebrew word mišpāt’ (justice/judgment) is found in all of the major prophets and several of the minor prophets, but the interwoven themes of justice and righteousness are most prevalent in the book of Isaiah, as evidenced by the use of both terms throughout the book.” The word “mišpāt” is used 26 times in the book of Isaiah, and of those 26, it is paired with a form of “tsedeq” (righteousness) 12 times. “Most frequently “mišpāt” is translated as “justice,” although the semantic range includes concepts of judging and judgment, rules and ruling, and being just and right. The term is used to describe legal situations, particularly when found in parallel construction with the forensic root “dyn” (judgment). It is also used to evaluate and critique social and economic relationships within the covenant community (Is 1:11- 17; Jer 22:3, 15-16; Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8). Forms of “tsedeq” can be used to describe the righteousness of God, a society, or an individual. The use of this term to refer both to God and to his people highlights the relational nature of righteousness: even as God is righteous, so his people are to be righteous. Additionally, even as God is the arbiter of justice, so are his people are to exhibit justice in their relationships with one another. When mišpāt and tsedeq/tsedeqa appear as a word pair, they form a particularly significant hendiadys pertaining to the right ordering of society within God's covenant community.”
"As God is the arbiter of justice, so are his people to exhibit justice in their relationships with one another."
- "Justice, Righteousness." In Dictionary of the Old Testament, 466-467.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for righteousness (tsedeqa) is probably more closely aligned with a typical understanding of justice than the word more often translated as justice (mišpāt). In a literal sense, the word “mišpāt” could translate consistently to “right judgement.” It’s helpful to know that the word is often translated as “the ordinances of God.” In other words, mišpāt is anything that has been deemed by God to be right. That’s what makes it a right judgment, whether that judgment is an individual’s choices, a court verdict, or a social order. It represents the ways of God. Tsedeqa, on the other hand, could be translated consistently to “right” and it has to do with things being as they ought to be. These two words are inseparable. They are regularly paired together and ought to be understood in light of one another. Righteousness is rightness, or things being as they should be, and the things that God has judged to be right/just are righteous. The Old Testament doesn’t give much room for a dualistic vision of righteousness as some spiritual idea, separate from the physical world of justice. Righteousness in the Old Testament is physical as well as spiritual, and it cannot exist without justice. Part of the reason for the prevalence of the sort of gnostic Christian dualism that elevates the spiritual to such an extent that it loses any social application, has to do with our understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Even in the labels that we’ve given them (old and new), there is a bias against the Old Testament. Old things are outdated and replaced by new, better things. Unfortunately, that is how many of us understand the Old Testament – as something that is outdated and unimportant. The Old Covenant has been replaced by the new one, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with the old one, right? The problem with that sort of thinking is that there is another important covenant in the Old Testament. There’s the one that we're all familiar with: The Law of Moses. We forget, however, the covenant that God made with Abraham.
Notwithstanding Jesus’ own words stressing the importance of the Law (Matthew 5:18), Abraham’s covenant alone would have made a connection between the Hebrew Bible and the divinely inspired writings that came after Jesus, that maintained the relevance of the Old Testament as authoritative for Christian life today. In Genesis 22:16-18, an angel appears before Abraham and tells him, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring, shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
The importance of this promise is seen in a number of places throughout scripture. One is in the various places where we are told that God remains faithful to Israel because of his promise to Abraham (Romans 11:28-29). Second, and most importantly, is that this covenant is about God’s promise to bring salvation to all nations through Jesus (Galatians 3:16). It is through God’s covenant with Abraham, by faith, that we are granted the saving status of Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:7). So, rather than one testament replacing the other, in the New Testament, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise. It’s not one story then another, it’s just one progressive story. We ought to remember that God is still the same unchanging God now, that he was in the Old Testament. It was he who gave the Law out of the depth of his character. We are no longer required to fulfill the requirements of the Law, but the Law is still good and holy (Romans 7:12), and the Old Testament still holds great significance for the church today.
Even if this weren’t the case, simply using Calvin’s interpretive logic would reveal the interconnectedness of justice and righteousness as seen in the Old Testament. Calvin believed that since the Scriptures were written by human authors, human means (such as logic and reason) could be used to interpret them. Applying that logic to the Greek word for righteousness (dikaiosune), if “dikaioo” is God’s justification, then the byproduct is that the recipient is made to be “dikaios” (just/right). He/she that is just will do “dikaiosune” (justice). And what is just are the ordinances of God (dikaioma). For the New Testament church, as the Greek indicates, these words were interconnected. At some point in the English translation of the New Testament, we lost that connection. The English New Testament is the only translation that translates dikaiosune as righteousness almost exclusively. The Spanish translation for example simply translates it as justice. In doing this we’ve lost the significance of the word righteousness as a physical reality as well as a spiritual one. The spiritualized translation of dikaiosune as only righteousness only happens when studying Biblical Greek. When studying classical Greek (Plato’s Republic for example), the word is always understood as justice. When studying Biblical Greek, even though there is only a 200-year difference, it is, as I’ve stated, translated almost exclusively as righteousness.
“The prophets understood God to be the model and origination point both for being just and righteous. By extension, God's people, who were called to be holy as God is holy, were expected to conduct themselves with justice and righteousness in all spheres of life. For the Israelites, proper worship and effective community leadership were the expected manifestations of a flourishing relationship between God and his people. ” Israel was to be a just community because they represented a just God. When they failed to reflect God’s justice and righteousness, they made a statement to the nations around them about their God’s character. The church too, is called to be holy as God is holy. Although we are no longer under the requirements of the Law, our burden to live as a community that reflects God’s character is even greater than ancient Israel’s. We are the body and bride of Christ, and fullness of God (1 Cor. 12:27; Rev. 19:7; Eph. 3:19). To be called the body of Christ has major implications. If the church is Christ’s body, then what the church does – how it defines its purpose, role and relation to the world – makes a statement about who Christ is, for the body does what the head wills. The question then, is who Jesus is. That should inform our ecclesiology.
Something to reflect on:
"[God] 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?"
- Micah 6:8
A Practical Step
Restoring Justice provides legal and social services to those who have been accused of crimes, but can't afford an attorney. At the heart of their ministry is their Adelphoi (the Greek word for sibling) program, which pairs lay individuals with the accused to walk with them, visit them, and encourage them as they go through the legal process.
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The Indigent Defense Timeline by Ellie Ashby