What is Christian Justice?
When I was a child in Sunday school, I was taught that “justice” was a quality of God’s kingdom manifest in acceptance and equality. As the years have passed I have become dismayed by how, both in the church and in our national discourse, this beautiful word has seemingly lost its meaning. Instead of representing acceptance, it seems to have slid more into the realms of vindictive revenge.
In light of a new survey that reveals how most Americans believe religion is fuelling negative views and bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, I was curious to answer the question: What is justice for Christians? After all, better understanding our Christian idea of justice could help us better understand whether or not the church’s judgment of LGBT people fits into that definition.
I found that in Scripture, justice is associated with vengeance, retribution, judgment and punishment as well as uprightness, blamelessness and righteousness. Both the Greek words, “dikaios” and “ekdikos,” their related derivatives, and the Hebrew words, carry these nuances.
This is most definitely different from my Sunday school memories. However, there are a couple of keys aspects of justice in Scripture that also stand out to me.
The first is that justice — from beginning to end in Scripture — belongs to God and all the nuances associated with justice also belong to God. Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel of John. He says, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30) In other words, justice is God’s will active in the world. It belongs to God and not to us.
The second is that God’s justice in Scripture changes over time. In the early history it is squarely in the realm of vindictive retribution. However, as generations pass, God’s requirements for slaughter of women and children that are common in Judges and 1 Samuel are replaced by the prophetic promise that God stands with the people of Israel and Judah in the face of empires.
The special care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner that comes to be required by God in the Old Testament is fully in place in the New Testament. Uniformly, justice becomes what Catholic teaching calls, “the preferential option of the poor,” in order to establish an equitable society in which power is shared rather than abused. In essence, justice becomes the acceptance and equality I learned about many years ago.
As I reflect on all this, it strikes me that maybe so many Americans believe religion is fuelling negative views and bullying of LGBT people because some of our churches are teaching a justice of judgment and punishment rather than a justice of equality and acceptance. It’s easy to see how these teachings might not include the idea that this kind of judgment belongs only with God.
I see elements of this in my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Because the church does not fully accept LGBT people it has deemed them unqualified for ordination and therefore they have no voice or vote on major decisions. This sets up an unequal — and unjust — dynamic within the church and the Biblical meaning of justice sustains the cry of LGBT Presbyterians for a place at the tables where decisions are made.
In the end it’s God’s just power that sustains the less powerful to meet the powerful in the church. God’s Spirit fuels the cry of LGBT Christians for equality and acceptance in both church and society. This is Christian justice and it is great news!