To my mind, not so many years ago, “justice” merely meant “what is right” or “what is fair,” or maybe “what is deserved.” I thought of judges and laws, of punishment and discipline.
I became fully aware of human trafficking in college, though I can’t remember which semester or which year. Whenever it was, that time, I began to actually consider the word. Justice? Some words have meaning in their very sound, before you even know the definition. And as I learned more about human trafficking and as the stories became realities that seeped into my core and scraped at my skin, the sound of the word “justice” put shivers in my spine.
At some point, I think my junior year, a miraculous thing happened. It was as if my mind wiped clean and was new –
As I left one of my writing classes, someone said the word again. Justice. Like I’d never heard the word before, my heart began to pound. It ached so that I felt it physically; a wave of…emotion…overtook me. I wanted to do more than cry, I wanted to weep. And it all seemed unprovoked. Only the sound of that word.
Before you dismiss me as melodramatic, think. Think it over slowly and wholly. Justice.
I believe it tore into me as it did simply because I’d never known its gravity. I believe God knew that was the right time for me to see. It’s not, now or ever has been, about judges or law, or punishment. It’s not even “what is deserved;” though these are ways humankind commonly views justice. Nor is it righteousness or “moral rightness” alone. But because we see it this way, when a child is stolen we want their kidnapper put in jail. It’s why when a mother is murdered, we want to see the killer strung up. And when we discover thousands, millions, forced to work fields not their own and others made to dress up only to be raped over and over – we are wrathful. Our insides burn with fury; we want these captors and violators abused and attacked. We want to see them understand just how utterly filthy and disgusting they are. Because it’s what they deserve. Because we want justice.
But that isn’t justice. It never was. That kind of response is merely revenge, a one-dimensional reaction that can never fulfill or make up for a wrong. Compared to justice – revenge is brittle.
I can’t assume to know everything about God. Why did He seem, as many have put it, so ruthless in the Old Testament but then give us Jesus and refuse to fight the Romans even while they oppressed His chosen people, in the New Testament? I can’t address all of that, but I can tell you what I’m learning.
The Lord your God…administers justice to the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger… (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
Justice isn’t used there to discuss discipline or punishment. He uses it to describe the brokenhearted and the poor, those alone without community. The word is used to describe how He cares for them; justly. Justice is food and clothing for those without either.
In the same book and in the famously detailed laws of Leviticus, God also outlines a judicial system that is closer to what we imagine as justice. A requirement for government (of sorts) without partiality or bribes (something our judicial system is rarely without) & one that ultimately rests within God’s sovereignty. But what makes justice, true justice, so miraculous and so of God is the rest of it.
In Deuteronomy 29 God speaks of His anger at His children who, like an unfaithful spouse, have left Him. We are the unfaithful. We deserve our own short-sighted view of justice! But in 30:3 the Lord will bring you back from captivity, & have compassion on you, & gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. God administered discipline, but He knows punishment alone couldn’t fill us or make us whole again. Discipline, consequence, must happen to make compassion worth anything at all. And Justice is being brought back in…merciful compassion.
Our Lord is not naieve; He is compassionate but does not preserve the life of the wicked, but gives justice to the oppressed. (Job 36:6) This deep, complete justice of God, which I believe Christians are indisputably asked to live out, is beautiful for its passion.
Lord, you have heard the desire of the humble; you will prepare their heart; you will cause their ear to hear. To do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, (and here’s the powerline) That the man of the earth may oppress no more.
When we consider justice in that old way, the way that merely equates it with revenge, do we often think of passion? This isn’t about a driving need to get someone back, it’s about a passion (a zeal, a fervor, a movement) to find the oppressed and the oppressor, and releasing BOTH from captivity. Real justice understands what’s at the core of oppression (sin) and that a whole lot of sorrow and pain surround every creature involved. So as “the Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,” so we ought to be.
Hand-in-hand with these elements of passion and empathy is dedication. Whole justice is not merely a campaign for God, but part of His very being. Psalm 140:12 says the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor. He gives food to the hungry, the LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. As we try to follow God, real justice should become more than a flag we carry for a while. It’s another way we follow God. A way to live.
And the Lord does speak to us.
[This is getting long!…Part 2 tomorrow.]