by Ken Howcroft.
What is justice? What is a just person, and what does it mean for that person to live and act justly? What is a just society or community, and what does it mean for it to organise itself justly? People have argued about these things from ancient times to now. Yet somehow the answers to the questions remain elusive.
Interestingly, Aristotle thought that it was easier for us to recognise injustice than justice. So we could say that we need to pay attention to our rage. If we think about what sort of things cause us to rage we shall start to get an idea of what injustice is, and if we flip that on its head we shall start to see what justice is.
The Old Testament prophets, amongst other things, are good at rage. Since they present themselves as mouthpieces of God, it could be said that God is as well, and so, by extension is Jesus. [Let us be honest and call it ‘rage’ not ‘righteous indignation’!]
So what can the Bible tell us about justice? The answer may be ‘not much’ unless we are clear about what we are asking. ‘Justice’ in English has become a very wide portmanteau term which carries all sorts of things in it. To get more precision we add all sorts of adjectives to the term. So, for example, we talk of ‘social justice’, ‘economic justice’, ‘tax justice’, ‘racial justice’, ‘gender justice’, ‘political justice’, and ‘legal justice’ – to mention just(!) a few. All these things are justifiable(!) concerns for followers of Jesus to have. Yet we must beware of reading back into biblical texts modern understandings which are foreign to them, and of missing some prompts or clues in those texts as a result.
Prophetic rage is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament book called ‘Isaiah’. The opening chapters in particular set up the theme. As the scholar John Goldingay has summarised, they claim that
- God’s people are living as if they can ignore God’s demands on their life, collectively and individually;
- God will therefore take action against God’s people; but
- God will restore and turn the community into what it should be.
The parable in Isaiah 5:1-7 then describes how God’s people are not producing the ‘fruit’ for God that God is expecting. The second half of Isaiah 5:7 succinctly explains that idea. God is looking for mišpāṭ and finds only miśpāḥ; for ṣĕdāqâ, and finds only ṣĕ‘āqâ. The first of each of those pairs of terms are often translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ respectively. Yet mišpāṭ more narrowly applies to government and the discernment needed in the exercising of authority and the making of decisions; whereas ṣĕdāqâ refers to being upright and faithful and doing the right thing in relation to God and your community. Taken together the two terms point towards a faithful exercise of power in the community.
The second term in each pair describes the reality of what God finds. miśpāḥ points to vicious oppression that results in bloodshed, and ṣĕ‘āqâ to the cries of indignation and pain that arise when people are treated unfairly and oppressively. There is a very thin dividing line between the two terms in each pair. The former almost too easily becomes the latter, a fact re-enforced by the close wordplay between them.
The first term in Isaiah 5:7, mišpāṭ, also occurs in Micah 6:8 where it has the same sense of discernment in exercising authority and making decisions, although it is often translated as ‘doing justice’. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament perhaps began this trend. It uses the word krima which means a formal, often legal, discernment and judgement. The same version uses a related word krisis for mišpāṭ in Isaiah 5:7 and then dikaiosune for ṣĕdāqâ.
dikaiosune is a major term in the discussions about ‘justice’ in Greek and Roman philosophy. Jewish and later Christian discussions began to be influenced by those traditions, and the term and related words became important in the New Testament and later, where it is often translated as ‘righteousness’. Unfortunately, translation of it into the Latin term justificatio (‘justification’ in English) has often skewed our understanding of it in the direction of quasi-legal judgements of whether an individual is to be ‘saved’ or not. That loses the emphasis on the communal and societal aspects of ‘justice’ in the Old Testament and also in the New.
The Gospels and Paul in particular are concerned with how the community of God’s people is organised and behaves in a godly way, and then how individuals behave within it. They are rooted in an Old Testament understanding that ‘what God is, God does’. So, for example, because God is holy, God seeks to make things holy. Because God is love, everything God does is an expression of love. When Paul writes of the ‘righteousness of God’ he means both that God is ‘(up)right’ and that God also seeks to put everyone right in relationship to themselves, to others and to God’s own self.
That takes us back to the opening chapters of Isaiah, and the idea that God seeks to restore the community of God’s people, and to turn it into what it should be: in other words, ‘redemption’. Rage and redemption are two signs of the same coin. That is true of God, of Jesus and of the community of God’s people, the body of Christ. The point of raging against injustice is to redeem. The passion to redeem and create ‘justice’ necessarily involves identifying and raging against injustice. Jesus shows that that is what God is like, and we perhaps learn more from the stories about him then from sayings and statements.
The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project. Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/