Tim Stafford

Why Justice Divides Us

And how it can unite us.

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When Israel thinks of the law, by contrast, they think of the kind of people God has called them to be. That explains why the psalms can say, “Oh, how I love your law!” (119:97). Nobody would say that today, not even lawyers or legislators; Israel put it in their hymnal for all to sing.

Justice (mispat) is very frequently paired with righteousness (sedeq), creating a sort of word cloud representing whatever is good in God’s sight. Justice + righteousness is quite far from the kind of legal finding of guilt that modern people associate with justice. Rather, it is a reminder of all that God meant his creation to be and all he longs for us to become.

“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,” says Psalm 112:5 in a typical parallelism, “who conduct their affairs with justice.” Isaiah speaks for God in demanding, “Stop doing wrong! Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:16-17). One could add many examples where doing justice is synonymous with charity or activism on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

In the prophets, something surprising and very important is added. Justice becomes a hallmark not just of the law, but of the coming Day of the Lord. “In that day,” Hosea quotes Yahweh, “. . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (2:18-19).

Isaiah’s classic messianic texts speak of justice. The “Prince of Peace” in chapter 9? He “will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” The shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1)? “With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” The “precious cornerstone” that Yahweh establishes? “I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plumb line.” (28:17)

In speaking of justice as a keystone of the coming triumph of God through his Messiah, justice becomes part of a story. It is not the application of a static body of law, but a foundational component in the great story of God setting right the creation he loves: hearing its cries, banishing its flaws, lavishing care on it, and ultimately ruling over it. Justice and righteousness bind the pieces of the story together: Creation, fall, call, exodus, law, king, exile, restoration, incarnation, cross, resurrection, Day of the Lord.

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If this positive and joyful reading of justice is correct, why are there so few mentions of justice in the New Testament? Why does this justice imperative go dark?

The answer is: it does not. We have already noted Matthew’s citing of Isaiah, with its messianic justice. One can easily incorporate all of Jesus’ ministry into a justice narrative: he heals, setting right the body; he casts out evil, setting right the spirit; he teaches about loving your neighbor, setting right the social realm. Jesus lives out all that God wants his people to become. He is the epitome of justice as the Old Testament describes it.

True, the word “justice” appears only 15 times in the NIV translation. But there is a good reason for that. The word “righteousness” appears 77 times, almost always translating dikaiosyne. As many have noted, the Greek root dik is shared by words translated “just” and “justification.” Some scholars suggest that “justice” is as good a translation for dikaiosyne as righteousness—perhaps even a better choice. (In Spanish, dikaiosyne is usually translated justicia.) Certainly dikaiosyne carries the sense of the Old Testament word-pair “justice and righteousness.” It incorporates all of God’s goodness that he wants his image-bearers to carry.

The trouble with “righteousness” as a translation is that in modern English it carries a sense of personal moral rectitude. It has become, sadly, a rather stuffy word. (What teenager wants to be known for righteousness?) But “righteousness” as the New Testament uses it extends beyond personal morality to social morality. It blends personal righteousness and social justice.

In contemporary English, “justice” has a sharper edge than “righteousness,” but as we have noted, it also has its problems. Justice in modern English is legal and punitive; it can hardly apply to the healing of soul and spirit.

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