The priority of biblical justice

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faith. These things you should have done without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

A friendly exchange over the weekend addressed whether abortion is “the human rights issue of our day.” It will be obvious to most that I believe abortion to be a human rights issue. My challenge concerned the use of the word the. Can we rightly hold the position that abortion is the human rights issue of our day? I contend abortion is an incredible injustice carried out not only in the United States, but worldwide. But I am not persuaded it is any greater moral evil than human trafficking, slavery in its various forms, governmental “disappearing” of those who resist injustice, or other types of oppression.

Since 1973 many Christians have elevated one injustice, abortion, to a level above all others. Emphasizing the “right-to-life” for unborn babies is important, but we may have understood it less within a framework of biblical justice than as a constitutional right. As many Christians cannot articulate a fully biblical view of justice we have watched abortion become a political rallying cry for our two party system of mutual antagonism. Failure to declare the biblical breadth of God’s justice allows “women’s right to privacy”–which should be discarded as a non-sequitur–to guide the conversation.

Worse, the dearth of a biblical justice framework has allowed some to push “social justice” or “economic justice” into the realm of mere politics, like we are debating the speed limit on a given stretch of road. Social and economic concerns fit within the Bible’s call for justice, but neither sociology nor economics completely wrap their arms around biblical justice.

Calls to help the poor and disadvantaged are sometimes derided as left-wing distractions from the church’s primary role of evangelism. However, scripture reveals more than 130 uses of justice. It is used of God’s character, as a basis for asking for His intervention, as commands to His children, as expectations and examples. Justice is used in the context of helping the poor, taking care of business affairs, how orphans are treated, and judgments “in the gate,” ie, legal decisions. Consider this sampling:

Psalm 106:3-“Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.”
Psalm 112:5– “It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice.”
Proverbs 21:3-“To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
Proverbs 21:15-“When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”
Isaiah 1:17-“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Isaiah 59:14, 15-“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him, that there was no justice.”
Hosea 12:6-“So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”
Amos 5:24-“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Micah 6:8-“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Hebrews 11:32, 33-“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–who…enforced justice.”

In scripture justice does not supplant the character of God, it flows from it. Calls for justice do not obscure the gospel, they bear witness to it. If justice is a left-wing, commie-pinko idea the logical alternative is to call the Bible a left-wing, commie-pinko book.

It is to the discredit of American Christians that we have so readily and uncritically allowed lawmakers and activists to define justice. We march under the banner of the powerful and gorge ourselves on the rewards of an earthly throne. We are reticent to “speak truth to power” because our team may be back in power after the mid-terms. We have swallowed worldly systems hook, line, sinker, rod, reel and boat. Thus, care for the poor, to use a single example with a clear biblical imperative, becomes a political shuttlecock and little more.

God forbid.

Surely the prophet Nathan scratches his head at what passes for prophetic these days. Preaching against abortion to a primarily-Christian audience is not prophetic. Mother Teresa speaking against abortion before the president of the United States is.

We should not create a ranking system for justice based merely on what tugs on our heart strings, rather than what offends God’s character. Abortion for convenience offends God’s character. Human trafficking offends God’s character. Improper weights and balances offend God’s character. Systems that exploit those in poverty offend God’s character. And it is this–offending God’s character–that reveals injustice.

A few months ago I proposed a definition of injustice:

Injustice is the deprivation of basic humanity, dignity or freedoms by those in authority through oppressive or unfair laws, customs or mores that allow the physical, sexual, or economic exploitation of men, women or children who lack power, position or voice, affecting individuals and groups, whether unique or systemic, hidden or open, all of which grows from contempt toward or ignorance of God’s standard of righteousness.

If this is a fair definition, what follows is what it would mean to “do justice” or “enforce justice.”

Doing justice is using all righteous means to restore basic humanity, dignity and freedom to men, women or children everywhere, becoming their voice to address, rebuke or replace those abusing power so God’s standard of righteousness is recognized and reflected as much as it is possible within the fallen systems of this world until Christ brings the kingdom of God in its fulness.

To “do” or “enforce” justice is a clear call to God’s people. The extensive Old Testament groundwork is affirmed in the New. Where power is abused, and when the established authority is either complicit or ignorant, justice must be pursued.

We are not given the option to pick and choose between preferable justice issues. Doing justice is shining light in the darkness. It is being a city on a hill. It is the kingdom of God displayed on earth. And only a full framework of biblical justice prepares us to do justice when and where the righteousness of God should most be on display.

Some of my other articles on justice and injustice:
Our Comfortable Injustice-Part 1 and Part 2.
The gospel to the poor
When injustice is enough justice: Parsing theology into nothingness

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Rob Ayers

    Let us think this through. I am against the injustice of slavery….yet slavery does not exist anywhere I see. I have been in a few places in the world, but have never been in a place that slavery exists. I hear of its existence, I know that it does exist and am against it. But because it exists “elsewhere” it is not on my radar screen so to speak. I pray for those who are experiencing its brutality and injustice, be it seen or unseen. Because it is illegal where I am, I count on the evil to be found and dealt with. I am powerless save my voice and prayers for those who live under the evil of slavery. I advocate for its removal from all spheres of the world.
    Abortion on the other hand is “real” to me. I pass the abortion clinics – I see the people going in the get the procedure – I talk to the people who have directly or indirectly experienced its evil. I have counseled people who want to forget, or want to bury its effects on their personal lives. It is here with me – and the unrighteousness and injustice it brings about. Not only that it is legal where I live – right here, right now.
    Forgive me Marty for making a priority list of what I will fight “strongly” versus “weakly”. Like most humans on the planet, I have only a certain amount of strength, a certain amount of vigor, and a certain amount of time that I can spend fighting injustice and unrighteousness. Since I am limited to what I can do, I prefer to fight those battles that are before me where I live, here and now. While all injustice and unrighteousness is an abomination, I am only left to struggle with that which is identified where I live. As Christians, the struggle against slavery in this nation is over, settled by a bloody civil war and the protests of freedom libertarians who sought equal treatment and civil rights before the law. Any act of dealing poorly against our fellow humanity be they black, white, etc., is a matter of public record being against the law (though it still happens, even in churches, for humanity is depraved). The struggle against abortion is still unsettled. A appraisal of your post here could be said that we should limit our struggle against abortion so we can rail against all the other “isms” of the world. While there are injustices and all are unrighteous, it just seems to me to put up these straw men vis a vis abortion is ill placed on your part. We support Christians throughout the world fighting unrighteousness and injustice in whatever form it appears before them. The abortion question has been before our nation now for more than 40 years since it’s legality. Do we stand and fight? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and go on?