Several weeks ago, nearly five thousand people gathered in Philadelphia and various simulcast sites across the country for The Justice Conference, an annual pilgrimage convened by World Relief and Kilns College for justice workers, students, and learners from all over the world. The topics covered a broad spectrum, from abolishing modern day slavery, to bringing peace in the Congo and confronting urban poverty. Some say justice is merely fashionable today, a luxury of the rich. Others say justice belongs to politics or the courts. Some say justice waters down faith. But the thousands of pilgrims in Philly and across the nation beg to differ: faith without justice is dead.
Two words are used for justice in the Tanakh, the Old Testament of the Bible. The first, mishpat, means “rendering judgment,” or “giving people what they are due,”[i] and is sometimes referred to as “rectifying justice.” The second word, tsedequa, means “the right thing,” or especially, “right relationships,” and is referred to as “primary justice.” These words are often paired together in Scripture as “justice and righteousness” and, in some instances, one means the other [ii]. Taken together, mishpat and tsekequa present a relational definition of justice: justice is about right relationships—relationships that work. Injustice is about relationships that don’t. This is illustrated by what some call the “the Quartet of the Vulnerable”[iii]—the orphan, widow, immigrant, and the poor. Injustice occurs when these people are left out, oppressed, or exploited. Justice happens when they are included.
The Hebrew vision of justice converges in the life and message of Jesus. Jesus not only teaches justice [iv], he becomes justice. To fully follow Christ means we must seek justice among the oppressed, the vulnerable, the left out. We must live and breathe justice as he did.
Last year I joined a delegation of faith leaders at the Capital in Washington, D. C. to discuss our government’s commitment to fighting poverty. An Orthodox Rabbi seated near me whispered, “tsedequah.” He said, “In our language justice and mercy share the same root.” In Mother Theresa’s words, “Justice without love is not justice, and love without justice is not love.” For the Gospel to truly be good news, justice and mercy must both be present.
But for those who suffer, justice is deeply personal. Madame Odile (pronounced “o-deel”) devotes her life for Congo’s mothers, sisters, and daughters; women who are raped every 60 seconds as weapons of war in one of the greatest tragedies ever to disfigure human history. Her generous smile hides the suffering around her. As she embraces and cares for the 15-year-old who escaped terror in the Virunga forest, her mission of justice is to work with the community so that one day the rapes will stop.
For Madame Odile and the women of Congo, justice means surviving war. For millions of others, justice means overcoming chronic hunger, conquering malaria or HIV/AIDS, or escaping modern day slavery. “We know what justice is,” shouted a group of Latino women during a conference on poverty, “it is bread for our children!”
When we live out justice in our relationships, we give witness to the person of Jesus and affect change. When we help others become the hands and feet of Christ in their own communities, justice becomes tangible and accessible. For a 15-year-old victim of violence in Congo, justice wears the skin of Madame Odile. For a woman who cannot feed her child, justice comes in the form of a community banker offering a microloan, or an agronomist teaching techniques to increase her crop yield. For a refugee, justice comes with a hospitable heart and an open home.
Neighbor to neighbor. Tribe to tribe. The wealthy to the poor. The poor to the wealthy. Governments to their citizens. God to his people and his people to creation. These relationships, when stitched together justly, weave a tapestry of hope that fundamentally changes society for the better, and touches every citizen of the world.
We are experiencing a radical redefining of justice today. Justice is being reclaimed, stolen back from social and political camps, and rediscovered. What is emerging is something beautiful; a new and ancient justice, anchored deeply within the person and sacrificial love of Jesus, and inseparable from the very essence of the Gospel. As we recover its biblical meaning, we encounter a God who loves justice, demands justice, and executes it for the needy.[v] With such a glimpse, “how can we be deaf to its cry?”[vi]
[i] Keller, Timothy, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 2010 (Penguin Books: London), Chapter 1.
[ii] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. 2008 (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey), Chapter 3.
[iii] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. 2008 (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey), Chapter 3.
[iv] For example, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled. Matthew 5:6.
[v] See, for example, Isaiah 61:8, 9:7, 42:3; 30:18; Psalms 11:7, 33:5, 37:28, 99:4, 140:13; Jeremiah 9:23; Deuteronomy 16:20; Is; 58:6; Matthew 25. , and; Micah 6:8.
[vi] Newbigin, Leslie. “Whose Justice?” 1992, Ecumenical Review, 44, p. 308.