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A Bible study on justice and human flourishing.
God is spoken of in Deuteronomy as the one who ‘executes justice’ (Dt 10.17 – 18). Although often couched in other language (such as ‘judgements’ or ‘righteousness’), the Bible is full of the language of justice.
It may refer to the character of God. ‘The Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he.’ ( Dt. 32.4).
God’s justice then becomes that standard by which to measure human justice: ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6.8).
‘Justice’ is used of the appropriate punishment for sin (‘the due rewards of our deeds” Lk 23.41), and also of the vindication of good and right behaviour. It is in this sense of vindication that some strands of the OT see the justice of God as victory: ‘O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory, he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.’ (Ps 98.1-2). God’s justice seen in his vindication of right in the face of evil.
In human terms, we often speak of justice in terms of and ideal of ‘fairness’ (as the writer John Rawls famously does in A Theory of Justice (1971) ), or in terms of ways of deciding how to live more justly as Amartya Sen puts it in The Idea of Justice (2009). Michael Sandel explores philosophical approaches to the meaning of justice in Justice: what is the right thing to do? (2009).
But with God, justice gives more than human justice requires. Divine justice merges into love and grace. Divine justice becomes redemptive. Passages in the Old Testament speak of how God acts in justice to redeem. Isaiah speaks of ‘a righteous God and a Saviour’ (Isa. 45.21).
The qualities of justice (mishpat), righteousness (tsedeq) and mercy (hesed) are, though at first sight distinguishable in meaning, never separable in fact in God’s action towards the world. God’s justice is permeated by righteousness and mercy. The New Testament speaks of God’s faithfulness and justice precisely in God’s forgiveness (1 Jn 1.9), and in his grace (cf. the parable of the labourers, Mt 20.15).
Punitive and redemptive justice come together in the Cross of Christ. As Paul says ‘he himself is righteous and..justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3.26); he ‘justifies the ungodly (Rom.4.5) because he is righteous (Rom 3. 26). God’s holy and just nature is expressed in the justice which includes forgiveness and merges into the grace which goes beyond the demands of law.
God’s justice is seen in God’s passion for the needs of the poorest and the oppressed (e.g.Isa.10.1-2; Amos 5.12). The Messianic King will deliver the oppressed (Ps 72.1-4; Isa 9.7). The day will come when the mighty are put down from their thrones, and those of low degree are exalted (Lk 1.52). In God’s new heaven and new earth ‘justice dwells’ (2. Pe 3.13). In that Day, God’s wrath will be revealed as his righteous judgement against evil (Rom 2.5), and fire will test what sort of work each has done (1 Cor 3.13).
It is within such a context of the justice of God that human justice is to be expressed. Our human relationships are meant to express something of this aspect of God’s nature. St Paul says as much in 2 Cor 8 and 9. He reminds his readers of God’s concern for the poor, and calls on them to share their financial resources ‘that there may be equality’ (2 Cor 8.14).
Karl Barth sums this up in this way:
‘The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience, the righteousness which according to Amos 5.24 should pour down as a mighty stream – has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans and aliens. For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege, and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.’ (Church Dogmatics II/1 p. 386).
It is ‘with justice and with righteousness’ that God’s kingdom of peace is established (Is 9.7). The OT word shalom, often translated ‘peace’ means much more than the absence of conflict. Shalom includes everything that God gives for human flourishing in all areas of life. It means well-being in the widest sense of the term. When the Lord brings peace, there is prosperity (Ps 72.1-7); there is health (Is 57.19); there is conciliation (Gen.26.29); there is contentedness (Gen 15.15; Ps 4.8). When the peace of the Lord is present, there are good relationships between the nations and peoples (1 Chron.12.17-18). God’s shalom has a social as well as a personal dimension. ‘Seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile’ writes Jeremiah, ‘ and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ (Jer.29.7).
Righteousness and peace are often bracketed together, and the psalmist looks forward to the day when ‘steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.’ At that time ‘God’s glory will dwell in our land’. (Psalm 85, 9,10).