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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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14.02.2024

Wisdom Lab: Working out justice | Imagine (2/4)

The views expressed in these blogs belong to the authors, not necessarily LICC. In this series, we’re hosting a conversation in blog form.

You don’t have to spend long with friends or colleagues or scroll far through social media to find people making passionate pleas for justice to be done for a cause, person, or issue that matters deeply to them.

We feel the effects of injustice incredibly strongly, particularly when it’s perpetrated directly against us or those we care about. There’s something innate within all of us that wants to see wrongs made right, victims protected, and the guilty held to account. 

But when it comes to issues like reparations, climate justice, or migration – and their everyday expressions in our spending, work policies, and pub conversations – what does justice actually look like, and how can we be part of bringing it about?

That’s the question this blog series explores. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listening’ to wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, and at the Wisdom Lab: Working Out Justice event, they’ll help you ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8), wherever he’s placed you, alongside the people he’s put you with.

In part 1, Matt Jolley helped us listen to our culture, and consider what exactly the people around us are asking for when they demand ‘justice’. In this piece, Adom Otoo from International Justice Mission will imagine how a biblical theology of justice shapes what should be going on in the way we pursue justice. In the rest of the series, we’ll learn to create a healing response in how we live and work and think about how to communicate the good news of the gospel to a watching world instinctively bent on seeing wrong things made right.

 

Cup of Hebrew, anyone?

There’s a Ghanaian phrase my mother uses to describe how, even as a toddler, I always seemed to have an instinct for what I deemed to be wrong: ‘Ne nyi ye dzin’, meaning ‘She is bold’. That sense of needing to right the wrongs in the world is innate: people must be protected, and wrongdoers held to account. That desire led me to work for International Justice Mission (IJM UK), a global movement which, inspired by our Christian faith, is at the forefront of working to stop slavery and violence.

I’m not alone in that desire. In Part 1 of this series, LICC’s Matt Jolley listened to the hearts of a generation who want to change the world, their dreams for justice, and how the church could take the lead. People are searching for answers to the question, ‘What is justice and how do we do it?’

‘Justice’ is a word that holds weight: it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, a word invoking a sense of activism in our friends and colleagues both inside and outside the church. They can’t help it. As Christians, this comes as no shock, because we know we’re all made in the image of God – a God who is described as the God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18).  This brings us to most authoritative source we turn to when ‘triple listening’ – the word of God. It’s time to dive into the biblical theology of justice. After all, how can we imagine a world where we do justice without looking at its origin story?

To understand this better, it helps to start with the two Hebrew words for ‘justice’ most commonly used in the Bible. Firstly, mishpat. Appearing over 200 times in the Old Testament, it relates to how we treat people equitably (not equally) and fairly.[1] It is often known as ‘rectifying justice’, giving people what they deserve – whether that be punishment, protection, or care.[2] Mishpat also means justice as in the rule of law: having the same mishpat for the foreigner as for the native, applying the same standards to all irrespective of race, status, or wealth.[3]

But this is not the only type of justice we find in the Bible. The second Hebrew word used for justice is tzedakah. This word carries an emphasis on relationships and is also sometimes known as ‘primary justice’. It’s a word that is often translated as ‘being righteous’ but also carries the meaning of being ‘just’. This word is about right relationship with God and others, emphasising the sense of regulating imbalances of power between humans in society. Where this primary, tzedakah justice is present, mishpat justice is unnecessary because there are no wrongdoers to punish, or victims to care for in the first place.

That’s the world IJM is working to build – a world of tzedakah justice where we no longer need to bring people to safety from slavery and violence, because the ‘right relationships’ they’re in protect them from ever experiencing abuse in the first place. But because we aren’t there yet, mishpat justice is needed.

Throughout the Bible we see that these words for justice are often used in relation to specific people groups. Indeed, Nicholas Wolterstorff coined the term ‘the quartet of the vulnerable’ – referring to widows, orphans, immigrants, and those in poverty – to describe the groups that the Old Testament is consistently concerned with (for example, see Zechariah 7:9–10).[4]  These groups would have had little to no protection in society.

As we think of the world around us, who could that ‘quartet of the vulnerable’ encompass today? It certainly encompasses the 50 million people who are trapped in modern slavery – one in four of whom are children. For my friends, it also covers the millions of people displaced due to conflict or the 4 million people experiencing homelessness in the UK. According to the Bible, our pursuit of justice – mishpat and tzedakah – should lead us to these groups. Armed with this understanding, we can explore what should be going on in our everyday contexts, looking at justice within the arc of Scripture.

 

A better, biblical story of justice

We know from the creation narrative that God created all things, and that he declared that all things are good. People are created in loving, righteous, and just relationship with God, one another, and all creation. In fact, a lot of Western culture is explicitly Christian in its heritage, values, morality, and systems of justice. The idea that everyone is created equal, with inherent dignity and worth, is deeply embedded in the Christian story and drives IJM’s vision to see every person free from slavery and violence.[5] These are core values that I delve into with my Christian and non-Christian friends alike on a regular basis during our DMCs (deep and meaningful chats).

But then along comes the fall and corruption, distorting that perfect creation. When sin entered the world, the relationships between people, the earth, and God were shattered. The primary tzedakah justice we talked about earlier was ruptured, and broken people went on to form broken systems – our world is still dealing with the fallout, as injustice pervades society.

As a result, we need mishpat. This rectifying justice is evident throughout the word of God. In the Old Testament, justice is the second most talked about theme, after idolatry.[6] When we reach the New Testament, one in every 16 verses speaks about justice. In Matthew and Mark, it’s one in every 10, and in Luke it’s one in every seven. Justice is woven throughout the arc of Scripture like a golden thread. This is the story of God’s redemption of an unjust world. Perhaps one of the places we see God’s heart for justice most clearly is the Exodus story, where he hears the cries of his people trapped in slavery and is moved to respond, showing a God who cares deeply not only about the spiritual state but also the physical state of his people.

At IJM, we’ve seen that God still hears the cries of his people trapped in slavery today and cares deeply about their physical safety. When Ruby (not her real name), a teenager in the Philippines, became trapped in sexual exploitation, she cried out to God in desperation. The very next day, her prayers were answered – IJM and police brought her to safety.[7] The story of the exodus shows us not just the character of God but the trajectory of the biblical narrative to come.

The law frequently references back to the Exodus story to encourage God’s people in their pursuit of justice: you who were once in bondage in Egypt have seen pain and vulnerability, you must treat others right (Exodus 23:9).When God’s people inevitably slip back into idolatry and injustice, prophets speak truth to power, calling the people back to his ideal of justice and righteousness, opposing the hypocrisy of those who claim to worship God, yet do not seek justice for the most vulnerable, and pointing to the coming of a righteous King, the embodiment of righteousness and justice in all its fullness.

In the New Testament, the King arrives. In Luke 4, Jesus’ first words – a ‘mic drop’ moment if you will – declares the sort of kingdom he has come to bring. In Luke 4, we see priorities set not only in spiritual restoration but also radical justice. His good news has both eternal and tangible consequences: freedom for those facing food poverty, for those who are captive, and for the hurting and the mourning. Jesus challenged the status quo, turned political and economic systems of injustice on their heads, and literally walked and communed with those who were marginalised (Matthew 9:13).

In his life, Jesus tackles injustice, showing the true and right way to live. In his death, he ultimately takes the punishment for injustice so that we can go free – bringing about justice always has a cost.[8]  And in his resurrection, we see him finally and completely defeat evil and death and offer hope.

Following in his footsteps and empowered by his Spirit, the early church stun the world with uncommon love and lavish generosity. Christians were called to welcome those who were poor, lonely, outcast, and downtrodden into community. This continues today – churches and Christians are responsible for setting up many hospitals, schools, and charities like IJM.

Lastly, Revelation points us to the promise of a new creation where God will judge (Genesis 18:25), whilst holding justice and mercy in perfect harmony. His justice is simultaneously the manifestation of his grace.[9]

But we know this justice story isn’t always easy. Our friends and colleagues, longing to see a world transformed, can feel at a loss as to where to begin. With many competing narratives about what justice looks like, how do we work together? When does ‘justice’ become virtue signalling? How can we, God’s people, lead in presenting a compelling, biblical vision of justice, whilst also choosing to partner with those around us?

 

What about ‘secular’ justice?

The book of James speaks powerfully about the importance of deeds as well as words when it comes to following Jesus. However, when we look at today’s landscape, it seems many feel the church isn’t speaking enough about justice issues.[10] In 2018, Barna research found that 40% of Brits who aren’t Christians are unsure whether the church makes a positive difference in the world, while 41% believe that it does not.[11] Even Christians are unsure, with 31% claiming that they do not know whether UK church has a positive global impact. There seems to be a disconnect between the biblical justice that should, hopefully, be characterising the church’s social engagement, and other, ‘secular’ visions of justice.

The late Timothy Keller explored a spectrum of these ‘secular’ justice theories, comparing them to five tenets of biblical justice.[12] Some of these theories of justice prioritise the individual, such as the libertarian focus on personal freedom or the liberal focus on equality of opportunity. Others prioritise collective justice, such as the utilitarian focus on communal happiness, or the postmodern focus on unjust power imbalances enshrined in societal structures.[13]

In his comparison of secular and biblical justice, Keller comes to four conclusions:

  1. Each secular theory of justice addresses one or some of the five aspects of biblical justice, but none address them all. Only biblical justice addresses all the concerns found in the alternative views.[14]
  2. Biblical justice contradicts each of the alternate views neither by dismissing them nor by compromising with them. It makes space for both individual and corporate responsibility.[15]
  3. Biblical justice has built-in safeguards against domination, because it’s God’s action – not human action – that makes all things new.[16]
  4. Only biblical justice offers a radically subversive understanding of power, where it’s stewarded and even laid aside for the sake of the other.[17]

As these conclusions make clear, there are numerous ideas of justice out there. However, what they also have in common is a tendency to put people into two categories: either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For example, postmodern justice can be read as seeing everyone as either ‘oppressor’ (bad) or ‘victim’ (good). This is where we stray into ‘cancel culture’ territory, rather than understanding that we are all broken and that ‘the line between good and evil runs through every human heart’.[18] What our friends and colleagues – and perhaps Matt’s course mates from part 1 – sometimes miss is the fallen nature of humanity. A Christian worldview tells us that we are all sinful, and that our power to bring about justice on our own will have a limit. As one of my wise friends put it, ‘it can seem delightfully delusional to think that we are masters of our own outcomes,’ or that redemption is available in the form of progress and development. Instead, Scripture makes clear that it’s God who ultimately makes all things new, even as he invites us to be part of the story.

Think back to the friends at the wedding or university course mates from part 1, or to the people passionate about justice in your context: they’re drawing from the foundations of the biblical story of justice, and there’s much about their care for those who are marginalised, and desire to undo systematic injustice, that we can celebrate. However, they may underestimate the obligations we have to the communities we’re in, or the importance of taking personal responsibility for our own actions. And, in their desire to redefine what’s good around their own beliefs, they can get caught up in a culture that wants to keep the values of the kingdom yet dethrone the King.[19]

 

Putting it into practice

It’s obvious that people outside the church care passionately about justice, and their longing to ‘right the wrongs’ of the world unknowingly leads them to follow Jesus’ footsteps. The longing that Matt’s friends and course mates feel should challenge us personally.  If justice is central to the character of God, then how are we, the church, joining him in leading the way? Justice is not just an abstract concept, or an ‘optional extra’, the call is clear: we do justice, we don’t just imagine it (Isaiah 1:17, Micah 6:8).

IJM seeks to answer part of that longing, offering a tangible way to bring justice into each of our daily lives. People around the world, both Christian and non-Christian, partner with IJM to help bring freedom to people trapped in slavery and violence, and transformation to communities. Together, we’ve brought over 90,000 people to safety from slavery and violence and seen slavery decrease by up to 86% in places where we work. This is what’s possible when people don’t just care about justice, but put their passion into action to make justice a reality.

Christians should do justice. So let me leave you with these words from Isaac Borquaye:

‘If you let your imagination run wild, what would you change or rearrange? If you had hope for the future, what would it look like? Bet it wouldn’t look like life today… what if we dare to imagine that things could be different… so if you dared to imagine… what would you do?’[20]

When you think of your friends, workplace, church, and communities, and the justice they long for – what would you do?

Adom Otoo
IJM UK

 

Discussion questions

  1. What would mishpat and tzedakah look like in your workplace, neighbourhood, or friendship group?
  2. How does the biblical narrative address, but also subvert, the narratives of justice that you find in your context?
  3. As a Christian in your friendship group or workplace, how can you lead the fight against injustice, living out the call in Micah 6:8?

 

References

[1] Treating all people equally means the same treatment, irrespective of who people are, where they come from, and what they need. Treating people equitably takes all this into account, to give all people the same potential and opportunity, but not necessarily the same outcome.

[2] For example, see Psalm 33:4-5, Psalm 89:14, or Isaiah 1:17.

[3] Psalm 146 is another example calling for rectifying justice.

[4] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2008).

[5] For more on this theme, see Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Brown, 2019).

[6] Prophetic literature displays the interconnection between righteousness and justice on one hand, and idolatry and injustice on the other. For more see Abraham Cho, Injustice Reveals Idolatry, August 2022

[7] To hear Ruby’s powerful story, listen on the Finding Ruby Podcast

[8] For more on the theme of on penal substitutionary atonement, see Jacob and Rachael Denhollander, ‘Justice: The Foundation of a Christian Approach to Abuse,’ a 2018 paper presented at the 70th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, available at Fathom.

[9] Tim Keller, ‘Justice in the Bible’, Gospel in Life Quarterly, Special Edition ‘Gospel-Changed Minds’, December 2020.

[10] Tearfund’s Burning Down the House report found that 9/10 young people are concerned about the climate crisis, but only 1 in 10 think their church is doing enough about it.

[11]  Barna Group and World Vision UK, The UK Church in Action : Perceptions of Social Justice and Mission in a Changing World(Barna Group, 2018).

[12] These five tenets are: Community (others have a claim on my wealth), Equity (everyone must be treated equally and with dignity), Corporate responsibility (societal structures contribute towards sin), Individual responsibility (personal agency also causes sin), and Advocacy (special concern for the most marginalised).

[13] Tim Keller, ‘A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,’ Gospel in Life Quarterly, Special Edition ‘Gospel-Changed Minds’, December 2020.

[14] For example, liberalism promotes equity and the need to help the most vulnerable but underplays our community obligations and structural sin in society. Or, the postmodern justice Matt unpacked in part 1 appreciates corporate responsibility and advocacy but neglects personal agency and fails to treat all people as equal.

[15] Biblical justice is also grounded on moral absolutes flowing from God’s character, and provides a unique perspective on wealth and generosity.

[16] Christianity offers truth-claims that can subvert domination as it doesn’t claim to explain all of reality but is happy to coexist with mystery, nor does it suppose that human action will fix all our problems. Rather, God, who’s relentless in his pursuit of the marginalised, will make all things new.

[17] Biblical justice is frank in its illumination of the corruption of power yet offers a vision of how to steward power in the world in a redeemed way, encouraging us to voluntarily lay aside our privilege for the sake of the other.

[18] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956, abridged version ed. Edward E. Ericson, Jr. (HarperCollins, 2002).

[19] Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience (Moody, 2016).

[20] GuvnaB with IJM, spoken word piece ‘Dare to Imagine’, online here.

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