Seeking Justice

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

With those words, we conclude our often recited Pledge of Allegiance.  In America, we have made liberty an art, a philosophy, or maybe even a religion.  It pervades every part of our lives.  We jealously guard our rights to maintain our liberties, and we fight wars in the name of freedom.  It is right and good that we do these things, because freedom is the foundation for the realization of human potential.  That which threatens liberty threatens life and happiness, the triad of virtues embraced by our founding fathers.

Justice is another story.  From early on, we hear of the concept of justice, usually in the context of making the guilty pay for crimes against the innocent.  The statue of blind justice stands in our courthouses, her balance raised for meting out equitable and appropriate retribution.  Our popular culture is full of justice memes, including the band of superheroes that make up the Justice League in one particular comic book universe.  The old westerns are filled with tales that warn against the dangers of vigilante justice; the more recent ones embrace it as we celebrate the anti-hero.

But there is more to justice than fair scales and white hats.  In a recent article titled “What Is Biblical Justice?” in Relevant Magazine, Presbyterian minister Tim Keller made some excellent points about the character of justice.  Specifically, in the Old Testament, there were two words that were translated as “justice.”  The first word, mishpat, occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament, and is probably closer to our understanding of justice.  It roughly means to treat all fairly and equitably, judging on the merits of a case, regardless of personal, political, or cultural bias.  It is essentially “blind justice,” but can also be viewed in terms of a society’s justness.  Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as being the helper of the poor, widows, orphans, and any who would be considered among the most vulnerable in society.  If a society will not take care of its own, it is guilty of lacking mercy, but more forcefully, guilty of defying and violating this idea of help for the helpless.

The second word, tzadeqah, which is also translated as relating to the quality of “being righteous,” is sometimes translated as “being just.”  This manifests in a righteous life, which, if displayed by more in society, would likely render the justice that rights wrongs, the rectifying justice, redundant.  If we all expressed the inner righteousness, we would do the right things, and there would be no need for righting a social injustice or deal with a criminal incident.

If mishpat and tzadeqah were tied to each other, the concept in modern usage would be something along the lines of “social justice.”  This idea has been explored by numerous religious groups with varying levels of success.  The point of social justice is to make the distribution of advantages and disadvantages in a society more equitable.  Many of the staunchest capitalists would probably not like the idea, since it rings a little too close to socialism for their tastes.

But to be “disadvantaged” is often a matter of uncontrollable circumstance, an accident of birth or geography.  Some children face tremendous challenges simply because they live in inner cities or remote rural settings.  Jobs may be scarce, educational opportunities may be lacking.  With the deck stacked against them from the start, many of these children are condemned to remaining in the cycle of poverty into which they were born.  Certainly, some will rise above it and succeed despite those obstacles.  The success stories, though inspiring, are all too often the exceptions and not the norm.

Whether social justice is palatable to the rich is irrelevant to the need for it.  Over the years, the divide that separates wealth from poverty has grown significantly.  Hunger is rampant in the streets of the inner city as well as the mountains of Appalachia and the high deserts of the southwest.  The cotton fields and tobacco fields and textile mills and sewing factories of the South were once populated by the working poor, but with mechanization, the decline of tobacco, and the rise of outsourcing, human labor has become an unnecessary surplus, at least in some areas of the domestic market.

In the past, our government has taken steps to provide a means of dealing with the inequities that mar the sociopolitical landscape and maintain the status quo in terms of advantage and opportunity opposing those of little means and little or no voice in government.  Former Secretary of State, retired General Colin Powell, was once interviewed and asked about his views on Affirmative Action, the legislated protocol to deal with racial inequities, and he said he was indeed a supporter, but not just for the “poor black kid from the inner city”, it should be extended to anyone who is in any way disadvantaged, including the “poor white kid from Appalachia.”  That is the true spirit of equity, allowing the system to level the playing field for all.

While government plans have met with varying degrees of acceptance and success, other institutions have historically dealt with issues of social justice successfully.  From the earliest records in the Judeo-Christian tradition, people of faith have been called to action to deal with these very issues.  Throughout the Old Testament, the call went forth over and over from the positive decrees of the Mosaic Law, through the earnest admonition of the Psalms and forcefully through many examples in the pages of both the Major and Minor Prophets.  The thoughts were echoed in the writings of John and James in the New Testament, and the guiding principles of mercy and love for neighbor were expounded over and over by Jesus himself in his various teachings.  The conclusion that one must reach from all of these calls to action is unmistakable: any who claim to be children of God must be caring people.

Citations like these called the erring people of Israel to return to what they had once embraced:

Isa 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.

Jer 22:16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; Then it was well. Was not this knowing Me?” says the LORD.

Psa 82:3 Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy.

4 Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked.

Have we changed so much today that we are not subject to that call?

But some may say, “We are not under the Old Testament Law.  Those don’t apply to us.”  John says, in 2 John 5, “And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another.”  Those calls were never rescinded, any more than the fundamental commandment to love each other was rescinded.  If anything, the emphasis was strengthened, and the call to justice, indeed righteousness in the expression of justice, is central to the concept of love.  But instead of caring for others, too often we devote hour after hour to divining the tedious minutiae of tenuous doctrines that divide.  We piously fold our hands and congratulate ourselves for getting “it” right, whatever “it” may be, while others continue to suffer.

For Christians, the one whose name we humbly wear modeled the life of a compassionate servant, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and performing the lowliest tasks for his disciples in acts like washing their feet.  We must be willing to do whatever we can to emulate that attitude of humility and service.  Certainly, we cannot miraculously feed a crowd, but we can provide a meal for someone in need.  We cannot miraculously heal any sufferer, but we can see to their comfort.  We do not have to wash the feet of weary, sandal-footed travelers, but our attitudes should spur us on to the same level of willingness to accept lowly service if it is required of us to see to the needs of another.

Early Christians understood their responsibilities to those in need, and collectively dealt with the issues at hand.  Around 155 A.D., the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr wrote in his letter to Emperor Antoninus Pius explaining and defending the worship practices of the newly minted Christian faith, “The wealthy, if they wish, contribute whatever they desire, and the collection is placed in the custody of the president [one who presides over the worship].  With it he helps the orphans and widows, those who are needy because of sickness or any other reason, and the captives and strangers in our midst; in short, he takes care of all those in need.”  The emphasis of these early Christians was not on maintaining an elaborate building, high tech instructional technology, salaries for ministerial staff, or expensive media and advertising presence.  It was on helping people, both body and soul.  In too many cases today, we have lost that focus, to our very grave misfortune.

It is sometimes difficult even to talk of such issues, because we face a difficult balance.  Jesus spoke of doing acts of charity in secret, so that we can be sure that we are not doing them just for public recognition and praise.  Whatever praise you get for doing such deeds with that goal in mind is the only reward you get.  God sees that as a wash.  Good was done, but perhaps for dubious motives.  More than anything, this is a firm reminder to keep the heart in the right place.

Seeing the good that we can and should do whether on a large or small scale, we should be trying to find ways to get it done instead of making excuses and hiding behind the deafening peal of silence.  Exactly how we do such things is a matter of controversy among different wings of religious bodies.  Some groups place this responsibility solely on the shoulders of the individual while others use their church as a ready-made framework for organizing benevolent efforts.  Who is right?  I am not going to pass judgment on either side, as that is neither my place nor inclination.  The main issue is that the good is done.  If we elect to make this purely individualized, we had better encourage everyone to be busy doing what we can, every man, woman and child.  If we make this a matter or corporate activity, then we had better make sure all have an opportunity to be involved to the level of their abilities.  The focus is not on receiving praise for good deeds, but giving thanks for the good blessings we enjoy and for the opportunity we have for being able to share what we have received.

As we think about our responsibilities, there are principles that bear consideration as we engage in any acts of good will.  There is strength in a unified effort, both among people, and within each person.  In each regard, the words of Koheleth still ring true, “…a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) As we consider the nature of a triune God, we may see that mirrored in the three dimensions of body, mind and soul comprising the completeness of the human.  To deny any of the three persons of God is to lose the balance and fullness of the divine.  To neglect the body in deference to the mind or soul will weaken the man.  It is quite reasonable then, to consider the enterprise of Christianity as having a threefold nature: to challenge the mind with study and meditation, to strengthen the soul through worship and fellowship, and to serve physical needs in support of the mind and soul.  To practice a religion that is only concerned with the spiritual, stifling the intellectual and denying the physical will fail because it fails to recognize the complex reality of the human, who is made in God’s image.

Faith calls us to look upward, and to seek to do the will of God, but it also calls us to look outward and forward to seek the good of our fellow travelers here in this life.  We are not lonely disembodied spirits or wayfaring ghosts.  People are flesh and blood with needs and cares that must be addressed if their souls are to be served and saved.  Those who have been blessed with more of the world’s goods should share willingly, not because of a fear of punishment, but out of love.  Faith expressed through just, righteous love must serve the whole person, expecting nothing in return.  The irony is that in doing that, we gain the greatest reward of all: the approval of a kind and loving God.  And that never grows old or loses its value.


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