Defining Justice

Defining Justice

The church has been so poor at defining what we mean by justice over the years that we have left it to others in the media and politics to define it for us. Unfortunately they have usually defined it the wrong way. We must do a better job at getting to the heart of what God means by justice.

The Hebrew word for “justice,” is mishpat. It occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament and means to treat people equitably. The can include punishing people but it also means giving people without power protection and care.

But to understand God’s definition of justice we must also understand the Hebrew word — tsedeq. This word appears over 100 times in the Old Testament. It’s the Hebrew word translated as “justice,” “rightness,” or “righteousness.” It refers to being in right relationship with God and therefore in right relationships with others.

These words help us understand the difference between social justice and biblical justice. Social justice is much like mishpat meaning to do the right thing by treating people equitably. There is no question that social justice is good and something close to the heart of God.

But God calls us to more than just social justice.

Biblical justice asks the deeper questions such as, “To whom do we belong?” and “How should we live together?” Jesus’ prayer gives us a good vision of what this could look like when he teaches us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Until we have a vision of Heaven, we can’t have an understanding of how things are supposed to work here on earth.

While Dr. King worked tirelessly for social justice by mobilizing our country to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he didn’t stop there. If King just stood for social justice his work would have been done. But King had a vision for biblical justice so he kept marching on.

Dr. King talked about the beloved community. He knew that we as a nation had to change the way we lived together. He knew just because there was integration did not mean there was reconciliation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa also is a good example of a vision for biblical justice. When apartheid ended and they had the parade to inaugurate Nelson Mandela as President, Desmond Tutu didn’t go home afterward and retire. He set up the Reconciliation and Truth Commission because he knew that even though the laws had changed, hearts must change as well. He has dedicated his life to this work.  

God’s vision for justice is not simply a legal one. It’s not something that is just rooted in the law. God’s vision for justice is also about right relationships. It’s about how we live together.

Aaron Graham serves as lead pastor at The District Church in Washington, DC. This piece was adapted from a message preached Sept. 9, 2012 titled, "Justice as an Act of Worship." Listen HERE.

Photo credit: "Justice" by Mike Gifford via Wylio