I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
-God (Hosea 6:6, NIV)
I saw a great quote from Cornell West recently, one I want to share with you: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
We have a problem with defining justice, I think because when we hear the word we so easily associate justice with “the justice system.” While we need the justice system, I don’t think its primary purpose is to produce justice — at least not justice as the Bible defines it. The justice system exists to make up for a lack of justice. Sometimes it’s able to restore some semblance of justice. Other times, all it can do is to create a deterrent against others committing the same injustice, through penalties and punishment. And none of that, of course, even wrestles with the idea that our justice system is not always just.
Justice, in the Bible, is a much more positive concept than that. It’s a way of treating each other with faithfulness and care. Justice requires that our own needs be subverted at times to take care of the more urgent needs of someone else. In biblical terms, widows, orphans, and foreigners require more concern and care than healthy, wealthy Israelites with networks of family and neighbors to help them. Justice requires those in power to take seriously their responsibility to guard the poor against mistreatment by the wealthy and to make laws that most zealously guard the rights of those who are most likely to lose them.
Point is, justice isn’t created by courts and police officers and jails and lawsuits. Justice is created by human beings recognizing our responsibilities for one another, being willing to acknowledge that my neighbor’s problems are my problems, too. Justice is, in the words of Jesus (quoting the Hebrew Bible), loving my neighbor as myself. And so Dr. West is right — Justice is what love looks like in public.
I think this helps us. I’ve heard Christians say that justice is an Old Testament idea, that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak or write much about justice. It’s true that the word “justice” doesn’t appear as much in English translations of the New Testament as it does in the Old Testament. Three reflections, though: one is that the word “righteousness” does exist, and that word is very close to the Old Testament ideas of justice.
Two, Jesus’ teachings and probably every New Testament book contain detailed descriptions of how Jesus-followers should treat each other and the world around us. Those standards, including special concern for the poor, orphans, widows and the elderly, are exactly the standards a just society revolves around. The New Testament expects that we will be creating communities — churches — in which God’s justice can be seen in action.
And, third, Jesus and the New Testament have a lot to say about love. In Christ, love is justice.
Problem is, in the American church we don’t make that connection between justice and love.
So we can talk about loving people we know, who we’re close to, who we care about, while forgetting that love goes beyond our immediate context. That’s why, for example, Christian slaveholders in the antebellum south could talk about “love” for their slaves while propping up an irredeemable, horrific system built on atrocities and disdain toward an entire race without seeing a contradiction. It’s how Christian leaders in the Jim Crow south could say with a straight face that love for Blacks demanded segregated schools and churches. It’s how church leaders today defend abusers as “men of God” while refusing to listen to their victims. It’s how we deny the poor, the lonely, the sick, and the prisoner the privilege of calling out to God on their behalf as a community of faith. It’s how some church leaders decry demonstrations against police shootings or misogyny while supporting or at least excusing an incursion into the Capitol intended to intimidate and perhaps even to kill or injure government officials.
I did a quick, very unscientific survey of the songs we sing in worship at our gatherings. I recently heard one of our worship leaders say that we have a repertoire of around 2,000 songs. Of those, 9 contain the word “justice.” Two of those say that the cross is a reconciliation of God’s justice and love. (See how we’ve lost that connection?) A few refer to justice as either something Christ will return to bring to earth, or something that characterizes God’s kingdom. Only one actually asks God to bring justice to the earth. In only two are we led to aspire to be people of justice ourselves.
In contrast, the word “justice” appears 128 times in the New International Version of the Bible. That’s just the times translators decided to render Greek and Hebrew words with that English word. The huge majority of those occurrences refer to the right, equitable, faithful treatment of human beings that God requires of his people.
The closely-related word, “righteousness,” occurs over 200 times in the NIV. While in the New Testament it can refer to the righteousness of Jesus which faith in him imputes to believers, much more often in Scripture it refers to obeying God, being “clean” before him, having integrity, and often is a synonym for justice.
If we know the book of Hosea, it’s usually because we’re familiar with the prophet’s personal story: God told him to marry a “promiscuous woman” so that his life would be sort of a parable reflecting God’s relationship to Israel. (And you think the lines between your home and work lives get a little blurred!) The root problem is idolatry, the worship of other gods, but here’s how Israel’s “promiscuity” plays out: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”
No faithfulness, love, or acknowledgment of God, which means the brakes are off for every form of selfish behavior until “bloodshed follows bloodshed.” All my life, I’ve heard the term “faithful Christian” applied to those who attend services regularly. It has more to do in the Bible, though, with faithfulness to our social contracts, to the imperative we have to care for one another. It has to do mostly with justice, righteousness, and love.
Hosea’s best known verse is this one: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In his day, Jesus told the religious people to “go and learn what [that] means.” What it means is that we can have “religion,” “faithful” Christians attending worship services, without justice and love — but it doesn’t impress God very much. What it means is that we need to acknowledge the ways in which even the songs we sing, the sermons we preach and hear, and the prayers we pray can contribute more to unfaithfulness and injustice than to acknowledgment of God and the mercy and love he expects us to show to each other and the world around us.
At church we were praying for the refugees from Ukraine, and those still in places of violence, and someone asked, “Shouldn’t we sometimes pray that God will prevent those who are bent on doing evil from carrying out their plans?” There’s a good start: to recognize that our world is full of powerless people who need God’s protection from the powerful who would grind them under their heels. As God’s people, we should care about them, pray for them and against those who would hurt them, and show them love every way we can. That is the beginning of justice — love for those who need help born out of God’s love for them.
Love is justice. Let’s obey Jesus and go and learn what that means.