Defining Justice

How do us Christians define ‘justice’? How is it defined in our churches (whether explicitly or implicitly)? How, in turn, are our actions defined by our understanding?

It seems to me that many Christians use the word ‘justice’ without necessarily understanding what (biblical/Christian) justice is all about. I sometimes hear Christians talk about justice in a way that makes it sound tangential to the gospel message at best, downright distracting at worst. Others speak of justice like it’s another passing fad, soon to be left behind by ‘the next big thing’. Others situate justice as a kind of subset of the Good News, or something that Christians might be involved with as a kind of add-on to the more core elements of their faith (or, perhaps, just give lip service to).

I don’t think that any of these options will suffice, and here’s why.

1) The ‘Justice’ of God refers to nothing less than God’s wise rule in action.

In the biblical material, justice is integrally linked to God’s righteousness and wise judgment. God, the truly righteous one, has set forth a plan for seeing creation operating at its full potential. This plan, or these judgments, cover every facet of our lives: our relationship with the creator, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the rest of creation. Justice, then, is what flows from God’s wise rule being put into action. It is relationships (as defined above) set right, and operating in a way that sees life and wholeness flourish.

Through the testimony of those who have encountered God throughout salvation history we have a record of the way in which the people of God should work towards living out God’s wise rule in their communities and in our world. God has made it clear what these communities should look like. They are to be places where those who are not able to protect themselves are protected, where the vulnerable are cared for. Indeed, this has always been one of the defining features of the people of God! These are communities where the powerful are boldly confronted for ever daring to exploit or oppress others. These communities are also to care deeply for God’s good creation, recognizing humanity’s integral connection to the rest of creation. We are not, therefore, working towards something that is unclear or not yet defined; God’s plan is not hidden!

And this is most evident in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in Jesus that we see what God’s wise rule truly looks like. Through Jesus’ life and work, the kingdom of God (which is nothing other than the place/s where the wise rule of God is acknowledged) has broken powerfully into the present, and by the Spirit of God we are empowered to continue the same work. Our goal is quite simple: to model our own lives on the life of Jesus and to see God’s wise rule worked out through the whole of creation. This is what justice looks like.

This is certainly not, therefore, a subsection of the Good News of God in salvation history; it is the fullness of God’s wise rule being worked out in the whole of creation. Justice is what the kingdom of God looks like. It is shalom being achieved.

And this leads directly to the second point.

2) Justice must be demonstrated.

The concept of justice means nothing unless it is embodied or incarnated or demonstrated. Discussing of theory of justice will not do; for justice to be justice it must be worked out in concrete examples in our communities.

Where the vulnerable are being exploited or oppressed, it means standing in solidarity with them and challenging the oppressors. It sometimes means confronting and seeking to overturn significant ‘structures of sin’.

Where the dignity of those who are made in the image of God is denied, it calls for rebuke.

Where God’s good creation is used and abused for greedy gain and without thought for future generations, it means standing up for creation care and changing unhelpful habits.

It means challenging racism and classism and sexism and all the other walls of hostility that divide us up into warring tribes. It means feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and asking how it is possible that there are those who are hungry and naked in our world in the first place.

Basically, it means embodying the values of the coming kingdom in the present, living out an alternative way of being that holds at its very core the flourishing of the whole of creation.

But it means nothing unless it is demonstrated. It remains a fading dream unless it is embodied.

This, I would suggest, is a more helpful definition of justice. The question is, will we let our lives be defined by it?


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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