We can say that the biblical river of justice has two banks.

This year, Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary of confederation. In the midst of celebrating anniversaries, Christians are also called to reflect on the injustices of the past and strive for a better future.

The theme of justice also loomed large at Synod 2017 (see Synod News). We all affirm and want to do justice, but we do not agree on how and when. As I listened to the debates at synod, I discerned at least three underlying questions: What is justice from a biblical perspective? How does justice relate to gospel proclamation? Is justice the work of the institutional church or only of individual Christians? In future editorials, I hope to explore the two latter questions.

For now, let’s take a look at how the Bible defines justice.

Our common secular concept of justice can be captured by the image of Lady Justice, a Greco-Roman goddess blindfolded and holding balanced scales. Justice is blind—showing no partiality—and is concerned with fairness and equality. Although these are important themes, the biblical view of justice is bigger.

The prophet Amos instead portrays justice as a river: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). Notice the two words that seem synonymous: justice and righteousness. In the original Hebrew, justice is mishpat and righteousness is tzedakah. However, tzedakah means more than personal moral righteousness; it also means justice.

In his book The Dignity of Difference, chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, “The two words, tzedakah and mishpat, signify different forms of justice. Mishpat means retributive justice or the rule of law. . . . Tzedakah, by contrast, refers to . . . what is often called ‘social justice,’ meaning . . . that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less.”

We can say that the biblical river of justice has two banks: mishpat and tzedakah. And they are often emphasized together (Gen. 18:18; Hosea 2:19; Jer. 22:15), which is somewhat obscured by our English translations of tzedakah as right or righteousness.

Rabbi Sacks also points out that tzedakah combines in a single word both charity and justice. Hence, when Micah 6:8 calls us to do justice (mishpat) and love mercy (hesed), the two combined imply tzedakah, that is, justice and compassion. The biblical worldview holds these two together in a way that our common Western mindset does not. This may explain why God, on one hand, shows no partiality but, on the other hand, favors the poor and marginalized because his compassion turns his attention to their plight.

Finally, the river of God’s justice always flows toward God’s shalom. Shalom can be understood as all relationships—with God, with people, and with creation—in harmony, resulting in life flourishing. Biblical justice, therefore, is not simply about preserving law and order. Its goal is to restore relationships and foster life. But unlike secular social justice, we do not rely on the state or on human efforts, but on God’s covenantal ways to achieve it.

About the Author

 Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

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Comments

The third suggested question, "Is justice the work of the institutional church or only of individual Christians?," is badly flawed in that it doesn't allow for the possibility that Christians of varying denominations might work together, communally, forming groups (communities) other than institutional churches to do justice.  Indeed, lots and lots of Christians do that right now and have done it for decades(and longer), long before anyone in the CRC ever mouthed the phrase "social justice."

One big advantage of this not mentioned possibility is that it allows Christians of different traditions to come together to do justice.  If we must do justice within the confined of the institutional church, we are inevitably left with a fractured effort: CRCers who do justice, Lutheran Missouri Synoders who do justice, CMAers who do justice, etc.

In other words, confining the doing of justice by denominational church fences (which confining it to the institutional church) creates great disadvantage.

Of course there is also the problem of competence.  The CRC restricts its assemblies (and thereby the agencies the assemblies create) to taking up ecclesiastical matters only (CO Art 28), and for really good reasons, one of which is that the CRC has great expertise as to theological and ecclesiastical matters, but next to zero expertise in political matters.  Of course, justice does cross spheres, that is, involves more than just government.  But if we look at the CRC's history of "advocating for social justice," political lobbying seems to be a big part, despite its lack of competency in matters government/political.

 

 

I welcome the series on justice just launched by the editor as well as the content of the first article.  But the question you pose for the third article presents a false choice:  "Is justice the work of the institutional church or only of individual Christians?"  There is a third choice:  justice is the work, indeed the calling, of the government and citizens who serve in government, who elect others to do so, and who join together in organizations to promote justice, such as the Center for Public Justice, International Justice Mission, political parties and so forth.  Christian citizens are called to promote justice, but they fulfill this calling not primarily through the institutional church, nor just as individual Christians, but through political organizations and holding office in the government itself.  

Institute vs individuals! Of course there are matters on which the church as institute may not be silent. The problem is where to draw the line.

I think that the reformed distinction between the church as institute and the church as organism is still valid today, though it never caught on too well in North America. Take for example the lukewarm support for distinct Christian organizations over the past 100 years. At best any working together by Christians across denominational lines has been limited to a limited number of issues, the pro life movement is one example. And then there is the Fallwell phenomenon!

Fortunately, in recent years in Canada we have seen the emergence of  Cardus, a Christian think tank in which Christians with a wide range of expertise band together.

Looking forward to the next articles, Chong!