Author: Rachel Kidd
What is Justice?
The word justice carries many connotations for people, including social justice concerns and the judicial system. What justice means also varies depending on cultural and geographic context, carrying a very different connotation in the West versus Eastern cultures, for example.
Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle saw justice as the aspirational ideal for society and the individual.1 In the Old Testament, the Hebrew words for justice, sedeq and misphat, provide distinction between interhuman justice and individual justice, both of which were seen as divine commandments.2 Sedeq is a broad, social distributive justice, while misphat is vindication or restoration for an individual, whether wrongfully accused or targeted.3 The absence of justice in Old Testament understanding meant a separation from God.
In the New Testament, justice is referred to in the Hebrew dikaisyone, or righteousness and justice. It is most frequently used to understand one’s relationship with God rather than social relationships.4 Distributive justice refers to the redistribution of wealth as dictated in the Gospels, as understood by theologians such as Basil and Chrysostom.5
Alexandrian Christianity understood the just individual as a desired character trait, although later Augustonian theology believed human nature to be incapable with the concept of justice.6 Justice is divine in most Christian contexts and is therefore perfect and complete.
Cultural connotations of justice vary broadly. Interhuman justice, as interpreted by Latin American Liberation theology, understands divine justice as only fully actualized when the most vulnerable are protected and cared for. Likewise, intersectional feminist understanding of justice includes all marginalized people groups and warrants impartial treatment, free from bias based on race or gender.7
No matter your theological leaning, justice is at its core, a divine understanding of how to treat others with respect and an impartial determination of what is just. God is just and His scripture tells us how to lead with justice.
Jesus and Justice
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers
In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
When I think of a righteous and just intervention in the New Testament, I first think of this scene, described in Matthew and John. We see Jesus entering the temple, filled with righteous anger. He sees the section of the temple designated for non-Jews or Gentiles to pray, overrun with salesmen and money changers. Instead of creating a welcoming place for all people to be able to pray and worship, the temple had become exploitative and consumed with profit.
We see Jesus angry, but not in a vindictive way. He is angry for the exploited and the vulnerable, stepping in to prevent those in power from harming the least of these.
How can we direct our righteous anger for good like Jesus does?
How do we pursue Godly justice in our Lives?
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise?’”
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
After Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers, He heals people who come to Him at the temple. He turns from a moment of anger to one of healing, demonstrating incredible control over His emotions. He is deliberate and intentional in His actions and His words, modeling for us how to pursue justice. He does not do one without the other, he couples action with healing.
What does both action and healing look like for us today? I see this in organizations like Shared Hope International, a Christian ministry committed to ending child sex trafficking. They pursue justice through judicial means, working towards legislation fighting human trafficking and educating law enforcement, while also rescuing and caring for survivors. They work on both ends, working with survivors of sex trafficking towards restoration and prosecuting the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. You cannot achieve justice as Jesus demonstrated, without both action and restoration.