Longing for Justice in an Unjust World

In Canada, between 1857 and 1996, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their parents and their family homes and forced to attend residential schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their own culture. Living conditions at the residential schools was sub-standard and many students experienced emotional and physical abuse and some experienced sexual abuse.  Some children died at the schools, others ran away.  When their time at a residential school came to an end, the children could no longer function in the aboriginal culture and they were not properly equipped to function in an urban culture.[1]

In 1971, Donald Marshall was given a life sentence for the murder of his friend Sandy Seale in Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Marshall was released from jail in 1982 after RCMP reviewed his case.  He was exonerated in 1990 by a royal commission that “…determined systemic racism had contributed to his wrongful imprisonment.  The seven-volume report pointed the finger at police, judges, Marshall’s original defence lawyers, Crown lawyers and bureaucrats.”[2]

Duccio di Buoninsegna - Slaughter of the Innoc...
Duccio di Buoninsegna – Slaughter of the Innocents (detail) – WGA06764 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two thousand years ago, in a small village called Bethlehem, about 20 baby boys were ripped from their mothers’ arms and murdered because the king of the land wanted to eliminate any possible rivals. These children died and their families were devastated only because Jesus was born in the same place and at about the same time as they were.

So what does justice look like for the people impacted by Canada’s residential schools, for Donald Marshall, for the families who lost a son in Bethlehem?  What does justice look like for you?  Today we are going to talk about justice:  what it is, how to do it, and God’s perfect justice applied perfectly.

What is justice? The Oxford Dictionary defines “justice” as “just conduct, fairness.”  It is commonly thought that justice means people getting what they deserve.  But the biblical understanding of justice is bigger than that.  The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the Hebrew word that is often translated in English as “justice” is mishpat. And mishpat has a broader meaning than the way our English word “justice” is commonly used.  Yes, it does mean making sure that people get what they deserve, as in Exodus 23, when God gave the following instructions to Moses:

“Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, …

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.  (Exodus 23:2, 6)

But mishpat justice also means more than making sure that people get what they deserve.  It also means “divine law,” which includes both the declaring and the administration of that divine law.  In Deuteronomy, chapter 10 we read,

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.  (Deuteronomy 10:17-21)

Justice, you see, is rooted in God’s character.  God is just. This passage is telling us that God, as a perfectly just God, shows no partiality and accepts no bribes (v. 17).  To the first hearers of the book of Deuteronomy in the Ancient Near East some 14 centuries before Christ, God is saying, “I am not like all the other gods of your neighbours who can be bought with a bribe or a promise.  I do not relate to people the way that the world tends to relate to people where people tend to get extra benefits because they have friends in high places.”  God is saying, “I am truly just with people and I relate to all of them in the same way.”

God does not pervert justice by having one standard of justice for his buddies and another standard of justice for his enemies.  As Christians, we sometimes think that God has a different standard of justice for us Christians than he will for people who are not Christians.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What would we think if there was a judge in the Canadian legal system who gave his friend, who was found guilty of a crime, merely a reprimand, and, in the very next case, this same judge gave someone he did not know two years in jail for the same crime?  We would say that judge is unjust and should be removed from his position because he or she is no longer impartial in the way that they apply justice.  God is telling us that he is perfectly impartial towards all people.

This passage from Deuteronomy not only tells us something about God.  It also describes for us what justice is really like.  Justice means defending the cause of the orphan and the widow.  Justice means loving the foreigner who lives among us.  You see, in biblical times, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner and the poor had no power in society and, as a result, those with power often took advantage of them.  Doing justice has both a negative and a positive aspect to it.  Doing justice not only means not taking advantage of others with no power, it also means using our power and resources to correct the injustices that the powerless are experiencing.  We do it because that is what justice is, according to God.  Justice is God’s divine law.

Further broadening our understanding of justice is the fact that, in the Old Testament, mishpat justice was often paired with righteousness, as in Psalm 33:5, The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5).  The Hebrew word behind our English word “righteousness” is tzadeqah, which, as Timothy Keller writes in his book Generous Justice,

…can be translated as “being just,” though it [is] usually translated as “being righteous.”  …tzedeqah… refers to a life of right relationships.  Bible scholar Alec Motyer defines “righteous” as those “right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.”

This means, then, that Biblical righteousness is inevitably “social,” because it is about 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.[3]

Our understanding of justice is enhanced further because of the biblical teaching that all human beings bear the image of God.  In Genesis 1 we read,

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

What this means is that, in the process of creation, God made all human beings in such a way that each one is inherently precious to God.  Just as a coin which is stamped by a die perfectly fits with that die and reflects the image of the die to all who see the coin, so also each human being was made for and finds fulfillment in a relationship with God.  Just like a coin, every human being has worth because of the image that he or she bears.  And just as a coin reflects the image of the die to all who see the coin, so also every human being reflects the image of God out to the world.  The image of God has been tarnished in us human beings because of sin, but we still seek to do justice on behalf of others because those other people, the marginalized and the powerless, are valuable to God.  And if they are valuable to God, then they are valuable to us too.

So how do we do justice?  It starts with recognizing each day that we are unjust.  We are not in a right relationship with God because we do not give Him the honour, respect and worship that He deserves.  We are not in a right relationship with the people around us because we use our power and resources to take advantage of other people and we fail to use what God has given us to correct injustice.  And third, and perhaps this is a difficult thing for many of us, we fail to recognize that we participate in systems that cause great injustice to others. Through decisions we make in a grocery store about what kind of chocolate or coffee to buy, we can be part of a larger system that forces people on the other side of the world into economic slavery.  By turning a blind eye towards injustice in our own community, we become part of a system that perpetuates that injustice.

Recognizing our own unjust actions and nature, doing justice means that we confess those sins to God and ask for His forgiveness.  Because of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, our heavenly Father forgives all of our sins, including our sins of causing and supporting injustice.

In response to the forgiveness that God so freely gives us, we ask Him to help us learn more about what justice looks like His perspective.  We seek to live in a right relationship with others by treating them with fairness, generosity and equity.  We ask God to give us eyes to see injustice where it exists.  If you want to discover injustice, ask a person who is marginalized or powerless.  They will tell you about the injustice that they experience.

And when we become aware of injustice, we use our power and resources with discernment to correct injustice.  I say with discernment, because there are con artists and criminal organizations who seek to defraud people of their money.  You and I do not help these people when we give them what they ask for and we have less to give when we encounter a genuine injustice.  I suggest that you discuss what you are thinking of doing with a mature Christian who has the gift of discernment to see what advice they give.

In cases of genuine injustice, we seek to do what we can, individually and working with others, to remedy the injustice that has been caused.  In chapter 2 of the book of Acts, we hear of how the New Testament Church did justice:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

As we become more aware of the gap between ideal of God’s justice and the reality of injustice in our world, the burden in our hearts can become overwhelming. But take heart, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for God’s perfect justice has already been accomplished and will, one day, be revealed for all to see.

To help us understand this, let’s think of the history of the world as a four act play.  It starts with Creation when God made everything that exists and all of creation, including the first humans, were perfect in every way.  Following Creation was the Fall, in which sin entered into the world through human disobedience and all of creation, including human beings, were estranged from God and corrupted by sin. That sin-corruption is reflected in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

But after the Fall comes Redemption when God the Son entered into His sin-corrupted creation, wrapped himself in human flesh and fulfilled God’s perfect justice for the sake of all humankind.  Jesus, who was fully human and fully God, did this by living one perfect human life that counts for all humanity.  Then Jesus willingly went to the cross to suffer and die to pay the full cost of forgiveness for the whole world.

Whenever you forgive someone, there is a cost to that forgiveness.   Let’s say, that I am playing ball hockey out in front of your house and I wind up to take a slap shot, but the ball goes off the heel of my hockey stick and smashes your living room window.  I go to you and say, “I am sorry, I broke your window playing road hockey, and I know that your window is probably very expensive, but I cannot afford to replace it.  Will you forgive me?”  If you say, “Yes, I forgive you” it costs you to say that.  It costs you the price of replacing the window.  It costs you the right to take vengeance on me.  It costs you the privilege of holding what I did against me.  Forgiveness always comes with a cost and that cost is usually expensive.

Jesus paid the cost of forgiveness for all of your sins and mine and for all the sins all of people in the world.  In living a perfect human life and in suffering and dying on the cross, Jesus was able to serve as our replacement because he was fully human.  And what Jesus did, both in his perfect life lived and his death on the cross, has infinite value because he was fully God.

Jesus forgives you all your sins.  You do not deserve that forgiveness.  You did not earn that forgiveness.  Jesus gives it to you as a free gift simply because he loves you.  Jesus has justified you, that is, he has satisfied God’s perfect justice perfectly for you, and through Jesus, you are in a right relationship with God.  As you live life with Jesus, in that right relationship with God that he has given you, Jesus works in you and through you to act out of care and concern for others because they bear the image of God, to conduct all of your relationships with fairness, generosity and equity, and to use your power and resources to correct injustices experienced by the marginalized and powerless in our society.  As Romans 3:24 tells us, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:24)

There is more of God’s perfect justice to come.  In this life, we recognize that all human attempts at doing justice will be imperfect and incomplete.  But in the fourth stage of human history – Restoration – God’s perfect justice will be revealed for all to see.  One day in the future, Jesus will return to this world to set all things aright.  Justice will be administered perfectly – people will get what they deserve.  All injustice will be corrected.  The powerless and the marginalized will be lifted up. Those who abused their power and position will be brought low.  The prophet Isaiah describes this future day of perfect justice revealed when Jesus returns:

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:3b-5)

We long for justice in an unjust world.  But because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we enjoy perfect justice in our relationship with God right now.  And we look forward with joy and anticipation to that day when Jesus will reveal God’s perfect justice for all creation.  And in the meantime, we serve as God’s agents of justice in this unjust world.  Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on December 29, 2013.)

[1] “Residential Schools,” Government of Canada:  Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (Internet; available at:  http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1302882353814/1302882592498; accessed Dec 28, 2013); “A history of residential schools in Canada,” CBC News (Internet; available at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-history-of-residential-schools-in-canada-1.702280; accessed Dec 28, 2013).

[2] “Canada’s wrongful convictions,” CBC News (Internet; available at:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-s-wrongful-convictions-1.783998; accessed Dec 28, 2013).

[3] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice:  How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Penguin, 2010),10.

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