Christ and Contemporary Culture

Our Longing for Justice and Where It Can Be Found

Image for Our Longing for Justice and Where It Can Be Found
Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

We all have a deep sense that there is such a thing as justice and a way that things are supposed to be. When we hear about vulnerable people being mistreated or read stories of powerful people abusing their position, it provokes a strong reaction. We know instinctively that there are some things that are flat out wrong, unfair, and unjust, and they need to be made right. We dream of justice. Yet despite all of our passion, or the energy that we might expend in pursuit of justice, true justice often seems to slip through our fingers, leaving us wondering why. The topic of justice is inherently complicated, potentially contentious, and personally challenging. Justice is not easy to define and even harder to achieve. Many people have very different ideas and strongly held opinions about what justice entails. And personally, the topic can unsettle us and even make us feel a little bit uncomfortable because we know that the more that we explore it, the more it might reveal our own apathy or complicity in injustice.

Defining Justice
Though justice may prove elusive, it remains a central aspect of the Christian hope. But what exactly do we mean by the word 'justice'? There are almost as many definitions of justice as there are people. Some people think of justice in terms of fairness or the right use of power. Others may define justice as the equitable distribution of both benefits and burdens. Perhaps one of the most basic definitions of justice was first put forward by Aristotle who said that justice is giving every person what he or she deserves. But therein lies the problem. How do we determine what each person deserves? Who gets to decide what is right, or fair, or equitable? From the standpoint of Christianity, people often say God is a God of justice or God is love, but the British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin once said that terms like ‘justice’ and ‘love’ are not self explanatory and need to be defined. 

The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests that we need to think of justice in at least two different senses—first order justice and second order justice. First order justice is justice in our relationships with one another. It means to treat one another justly, as colleagues and companions, community members and fellow citizens. Second order justice comes into the picture when there has been a violation of first order justice, and it usually entails some kind of penalty or punishment. This is what would constitute retributive or restorative justice.

From a biblical point of view, first order justice—justice in our relationships—is grounded in the concept of rights. The Scriptures tell us that every single human being, without distinction, is created in the image of God, and therefore, every human being, without exception, is imbued with inestimable dignity, value, and worth. That means that every human being has an inherent right to be treated in accordance with their worth, regardless of the color of their skin, or how much money they have in their pockets. This is the consistent refrain throughout the Scriptures. For example, consider Psalm 8. The Psalmist can hardly contain himself when describing the value of human beings. He says human beings are just, “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honor.” Every human being possesses this inestimable value and worth because they are created in God's image. 

Why Justice Matters
We could never flourish as human beings without justice because we were made for it. That is why justice is so closely connected to the concept of shalom in the Scriptures. Oftentimes the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ is translated as ‘peace’, but a far better translation is ‘flourishing’. Peace does not simply mean the absence of conflict or hostility, but the presence of wholeness, harmony, and delight in all of our relationships—first and foremost with God, then with others, our physical environment, and even within ourselves. In a word, Shalom captures God's design for the world. There's no peace without justice, and there's no justice without peace. Injustice is the impairment of shalom. Justice is the restoration of shalom. God loves justice because he desires each and every human being to flourish.

Not Every Right is a Good
It's important to address that although every right is a good, not every good is necessarily a right. For example,  I love Van Gogh's painting Starry Night—everything from the brushstrokes to the story behind it—and I have a replica of it hanging in my office. It would be a good thing if the Museum of Modern Art decided that I could hang the original in my office, rather than a replica. It would bring me satisfaction and joy. But though it would be a good, I don't have a right to that painting. MoMA is not wronging me by telling me that I can't hang the original in my office or depriving me of something to which I have a right. So what are the things to which we all have a right? At a minimum, if every human being is created in the image of God—regardless of who they are, what they've ever done, or what they believe—then every human being has a right to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Every human being has a right not to be insulted or demeaned. Every human being has a right not to be abused, or mistreated, or tortured, or enslaved. 

Jesus and Justice
We read in Luke 4 that while teaching at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus for the first time reveals who he is and what he’s all about, and he deliberately chooses Isaiah 61 to do so. He says that he has come to proclaim good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, and to inaugurate the year of the Lord's favor. The significance of Jesus' words would not have been lost on his audience. God's ancient people knew the Hebrew Scriptures and even had large sections of it memorized. They knew that the Messiah would usher in a new age where justice and compassion for the poor would prevail. They would have immediately understood that Jesus is claiming to be the one anointed by the Spirit in order to usher in God's reign of justice, or in other words, the kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God had now come and that God's reign of justice was now a present reality in the person of Jesus. 

If Jesus is not merely the peace broker but the shalom bringer, that means that our longing for justice is not some vain, idle wish or silly fantasy. Jesus embodies the passion for justice that lies at the very center of God's heart. Jesus entered into our world in order to proclaim and to embody a completely different conception of justice than the world has ever seen before. But the powers that be pushed back. That is why when we experience or witness injustice, we can turn to Jesus who was himself a gross victim of injustice. Jesus was falsely accused and wrongly condemned, even though the authorities knew that he had not done anything deserving of death. Jesus entered into our world as the one who would lift the downtrodden, yet he himself was pressed down and crushed into the ground. Jesus is the one who is of infinite value, the one and only Son of the Father, and yet he was treated as if he had no value at all. That would be deeply ironic and tragically sad if it weren't for the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is merely the middle chapter in a much larger story. 

Where Justice Reigns
The good news of the gospel is that mysteriously, Jesus voluntarily accepted the way of suffering, not only to identify with us in our own suffering, but also to substitute himself for our wrongdoing. On the cross, Jesus took our place, so that as God brings his justice to bear against all human injustice and wrongdoing, he can condemn injustice without condemning us. Jesus establishes God’s justice by absorbing the consequences of our wrongdoing into himself through peace, and that's how he establishes his shalom. But the cross of Jesus is just the beginning because three days later, God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the first step towards the new creation. In other words, God is not merely entering our world in the person of Jesus in order to forgive us for the wrongs that we have committed in the past, but he is actively seeking to put everything right in the future. His goal is not merely to restore us and forgive us, but to bring about a whole new world where his love and justice will reign, and where we as human beings can finally flourish in the way that God intends. Jesus is the only place where we can find the true and lasting justice for which we all long.

From “Jesus + Justice: Jesus’ First Inaugural", adapted by Mary-Catherine McKee