Papa, ce n’est pas juste,” seemed to be the frequent lament of our three children when they were little. Fearing that they might get what they didn’t believe they deserved (i.e., some form of punishment) or the inverse (that their siblings were going to get a slight advantage), they decried our parenting as unjust. They had an infantile notion of justice. I fear most contemporary Christians do, too. We individualize our notion of justice, render it essentially punitive and think about it as only getting what one is due.
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim and I don’t agree on everything. To be fair, we have never spoken to each other, but I am quite sure that we wouldn’t quite see eye to eye on everything. He baptizes infants (but lots of non-infants, too). He aligns himself with a complementarian position on women in leadership, whereas I consider myself as egalitarian. But other than those two issues, I definitely appreciate his teaching and writing, including on justice and the kingdom of God. A few years ago, I read his book, Generous Justice (Penguin Random House, 2010). Please read it. It was a fabulous eye-opener for me. Keller reminds us that one of the words for justice in the Old Testament (mishpat) includes providing for protection and care. In the Hebrew Bible, the most frequent beneficiaries of justice are the widows, orphans, immigrants, priests and the poor.
The second word for justice (tsedaqah) is often translated as righteousness in our English Bibles, although I appreciate the fact that French translations don’t have an equivalent term. It’s all justice! Our contemporary Christian culture tends to make righteousness all about individual acts of piety or private morality. Or massively sweeping acts of social justice, frequently without reference to personal transformation. But justice is about living in a right relationship with our Creator, out of whom flows fairness, generosity and equity.
Transformation – individual, communal and societal – is required. In the fifth century, St. John Chrysostom exhorted the Church, “… Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.” This is why we practise integral mission at CBM. And Keller reminds us that the justice of a society is actually measured by the treatment of those who are most frequently maligned, marginalized or outcast.
As I write this, I am returning from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our Baptist partners there can teach us a great deal about justice. As they are critiquing an unjust society, they are also caring for and helping restore the dignity of rape victims. They rehabilitate child soldiers. They fight for (and win) the land rights of forcibly displaced pygmies. They honourably bury those who have died of Ebola. And they are investing in children and widows. Oh, that Baptists in North America would see their engagement in the community not as an act of charity, but of justice. And it begins with the most marginalized.
In El Salvador, our partners are helping build latrines. In Rwanda, they are teaching women to read. In Lebanon, staff distribute food vouchers and provide free education to the children of Syrian refugees. In Bolivia, children whose parents are incarcerated are benefitting from spiritual and social care that includes health, nutrition and hygiene. These are not individual acts of charity. They are expressions of a just God whose Church is helping to build shalom and bring about his kingdom. Our partners have taken up the cause of the powerless.
In a day of increased fragmentation and marginalization, Western society needs to hear anew and live into the words of Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, 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?” (NRSV)
In this issue of Mosaic, Jonathan Wilson and Rick Tobias explore the biblical view of justice. Gordon King and Gato Munyamasoko reflect on the meaning of justice in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and Cheryl Bear highlights the journey of Indigenous peoples in Canada. As you digest these articles, I encourage you to meditate on how your life (as an individual, family, church or community) is serving the witness of a just God who does justice and loves kindness.