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Tim Stafford

Why Justice Divides Us

And how it can unite us.

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Forty years after the historic Lausanne Covenant, American evangelicals remain muddled and divided on the question of evangelism and good works. The word “justice” acts as a catalyst, either attracting or repelling. It divides us.

For the past three years I have been involved in a writing project bringing together 55 scholars and activists from the global church, the majority from non-Western countries. The aim was a study Bible with notes on the theme of justice—introductions and verse-by-verse notes for every book in the Bible, aiming to show how each part of the Bible contributes to the historical story of God’s justice. God’s Justice: The Holy Bible was an idea born in India over concerns about caste and gender mistreatment, and it expanded into a global endeavor under the direction of Biblica, the international Bible translation and distribution agency.

Working with this global team, reflecting deeply on the whole Bible (and not just selected texts), I reached the conclusion that justice should not divide evangelicals. Rather, it should unite us—but only if we learn to think of justice in the way the Bible writers think of it. The Bible’s “justice”—God’s justice—means something quite different from what we usually think.

What do people in 21st-century America hear when we say “justice?” In many conversations, I have seen that people think of it in a legal or judicial sense. The dictionary offers broad definitions based on fairness, morality, and honesty. But in ordinary conversation, justice is usually punitive: catch the evildoers and give them what they have coming. Justice stands opposed to mercy. It is not a word filled with grace, but with law. If you do good, justice will reward you. (But who is good?) If you do evil, justice will bring you the punishment you deserve.

This is a venerable interpretation. The islanders who met Paul after a shipwreck—and saw a snake bite him—concluded “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live” (Acts 28:4). They believed in justice, but not the kind of justice that Paul’s gospel proclaimed. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a brilliant meditation on the opposition of justice and mercy, with justice demanding its “pound of flesh.” Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables contrasts the inexorable demands of grim justice—Javert—with the grace and mercy of Jean Valjean.

Many read the Bible with the same bifurcation in mind. The Old Testament stands for law and justice—those gloomy prophets—while the New Testament speaks of grace and mercy. By this reading, we are no longer held accountable to justice since the coming of Jesus; his death absorbs it on our behalf. Evangelism offers good news, liberating us from justice. The law is left behind.

This, clearly, is a distortion of the Bible’s message. It would horrify Jesus—who condemned anyone who changed the smallest iota of the Law—to hear that he meant to leave behind law and justice.

Quite the contrary. In explaining Jesus, Matthew’s gospel quotes Isaiah 42:1-4: “I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. . . . A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” The New Testament writers saw Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament, not replacing it. In doing so, he brings justice to the whole world—a justice that is Spirit-filled and gentle toward the vulnerable.

The Old Testament word translated “justice”—the Hebrew mispat—is just as often translated “laws” as “justice,” and it frequently speaks to a situation where laws are adjudicated in court. So, superficially, one can easily read mispat as concerned with legal rights and wrongs, vindication or punishment, just as justice is today.

Yet if mispat is closely related to law, we need to grasp that God’s law is worlds away from modern jurisprudence. The laws of Israel begin with the command to worship Yahweh only. They thus open up a whole life of praise and delight. God’s laws include regulations requiring care for orphans and widows, redistribution of the means of production on a systematic and regular basis, and the forgiveness of debt. The law demands generosity toward immigrants and love for neighbor. Laws command and organize worship.

God’s law conjures up a different world from our modern legal environment, where murder, fraud, theft and abuse, property, contract and regulatory mechanisms dominate. When we think of the law, we think of people who have done wrong and must be punished; or to a lesser extent, people who have been victimized, and deserve to receive compensation.

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