This is an incredibly important time for the community of Jesus as our nation grapples with the injustice of racial inequality. An unavoidable light is now shining on the systemic oppression and racism that has plagued the history of our country from its inception. The complicity of large swathes of the American church on issues of racial injustice has been uncovered to a profoundly uncomfortable degree, and calls for justice can be heard arising from small towns to major cities. Talk of justice has probably flooded your social media feed, your leadership meetings, and your dinner tables.
But “justice” is one of those words so easily spoken, yet so often misunderstood; and as is often the case, how we source our definition will determine how we move forward. As a community of Jesus, we must derive our definition of “justice” from the same Bible that also defines for us “love,” “faith,” and “peace.” In this vein, I offer five points to help create a biblical framework for justice that can offer a solid foundation for us as we pursue an end to racism in our hearts and communities.
1. Justice, as defined by the Bible, is the pursuit of a society that cares for and supports the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
It is impossible to walk away from reading the full story of the Bible and not recognize that God is deeply and primarily concerned with the plight of the vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and marginalized. Biblical scholars have even given a name for this category of persons, calling them the “quartet of the vulnerables”—these are the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. When the biblical books were written, these four categories of people were particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of and disinherited.
Again and again, in the Scriptures, we see that justice is defined as caring for, supporting, uplifting, and restoring these vulnerable populations. When the prophets condemned God’s people for withholding justice, they were condemning the way they had treated these vulnerable people groups.
In Zechariah 7, we read, “And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.”’” Notice what “true justice” is according to the prophet: caring for the vulnerable.
The poet in Psalm 146 praises God for his justice, which he sees in the way God supports the disadvantaged. He writes that God “executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the immigrant; he upholds the widow and the fatherless.”
Job, in defense of his own righteousness, describes in Job 29 how he had clothed himself in justice, which he describes in this way, “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.”
We could go on and on, but do you see the point? Do you see how we are to define justice? Justice is pursuing the formation of a society that cares for the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the marginalized.
2. What the world calls Charity, the Bible calls Justice.
When someone in our society goes and cares for these populations, we call it charity or volunteering. Both of these words communicate the idea that this action on behalf of the vulnerable is optional – something that goes above and beyond what is required. The world calls this charity, but the Bible calls it justice, and it is not optional. We’ve all heard Micah 6:8 by now, but have we heard what Jesus thinks of those who understand justice to be optional?
In Luke 11, Jesus is dining with a group of Pharisees (deeply religious men who were devoted to being moral, upstanding citizens of God’s kingdom), and he interrupts the meal with a series of condemnations, one of which we desperately need to hear. Jesus says, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” Without even getting into Jesus’ connecting “love of God” with justice, we can see that caring for the disadvantaged is not optional. This isn’t charity, it’s justice.
3. According to the prophets (and therefore the one who speaks through them), the litmus test for a just society is whether the vulnerable and disadvantaged are worried about their safety or wellbeing.
If this is the case, then we as the people of God must recognize and lament that our society is unjust, and these injustices affect some populations more than others. The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “Lower classes are not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice but are disproportionately actual victims of injustice. In human history, injustice is not equally distributed.”
Many of us are finally seeing that injustice in America has not been equally distributed. The black community in the United States is worried about their safety and wellbeing, and this is by no means a new condition of life. It is a lack of justice that results in black parents feeling the need to teach their children how to not get shot by law enforcement. It is a lack of justice that results in black joggers avoiding certain neighborhoods out of fear for how the residents might respond to the color of their skin. It is a lack of justice that a black teenager felt the need to create and carry a sign to a faith-based rally in Atlanta that read, “I am not your enemy.”
The litmus test for a just society is whether the vulnerable and disadvantaged are worried about their safety or wellbeing, which means that our society is unjust. It is high time we acknowledge that, own up to our complicity, and work to address it.
4. Justice is treating the problems of the oppressed as our own.
If we are to honor the Bible as the source of divine wisdom and as the authoritative voice in our lives, we have to reckon with the fact that problems of injustice toward the disinherited must also become problems for those of us with influence, resources, and a voice. This is what it means to do justice: taking up the cause of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant.
Isn’t this exactly what we see God do again and again in the biblical story? The LORD hears the outcry of Abel’s blood, Hagar’s tears, and the enslaved Hebrew people, and he takes up their cause. He hears the outcry of the barren and the poor amidst his own chosen people, and he takes up their cause. He hears the outcry of all his image-bearing creatures who have no hope of ever being restored, and he takes up our cause.
He takes up our cause by sending his Son, Jesus, who disadvantages himself to advantage others. Jesus takes up the cause of the leper, tax collector, prostitute, sinner, blind, lame, and deaf. Listen again to how he begins his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Jesus shows us true justice: taking up the cause of the downtrodden.
Therefore, when the black community cries out under the weight of 400 years of injustice, the Church cannot turn away. Not anymore. Justice demands we take up their cause and stand against racism, white supremacy, and racial inequality. These are not their problems alone, but ours to share. This is justice.
5. There is no justice without Jesus.
What does it take to convince a person willfully to disadvantage him/herself in order to advantage another? What does it take to persuade someone to risk comfort, security, convenience, and reputation in order to care for those who cannot possibly repay them? What does it take to move someone to engage in the costly work of stepping into the gap, standing up to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, entire systems of society for the sake of those suffering injustice? What does it take to leverage one’s time, resources, and power, not for one’s own benefit, but to benefit a stranger?
These are not natural responses or behaviors for human beings. This kind of thing will require a total renovation of a person’s mind and heart, a complete reworking of a person’s priorities and loyalties. There is only one power in this world capable of such a holistic transformation, and his name is Jesus.
There is no justice without Jesus. Through Jesus, we have experienced the justice of God on our behalf. He looked on us in our slavery to sin, and he provided for us by disadvantaging himself for our benefit. We are empowered to do justice because we have received justice ourselves.
However, if we claim to follow Jesus but are not pursuing justice, not moving toward the oppressed, not using our power and resources for the benefit of our own “quartet of the vulnerables,” then though we claim to follow Jesus, we are actually moving away from him. Jesus moves in one direction and that is toward those in need. There is no justice without the good news of Jesus, but there is no good news without justice. If we’re going to follow him, we’ve got to follow where he’s moving today.
Throughout the history of our nation, racial bias has been combined with political power to create racial inequalities that are unjust. Our brothers and sisters of color are crying out—rest assured, our King is on the move, and he is calling his people to do the same. Right now, the world needs the message of justice that only the community of Jesus can offer, but before we can offer the world anything substantive, we have to ensure that our practice of faith includes the pursuit of justice. This is not a sidebar issue—it is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus.
The American church has many hard days ahead as we reckon with our history of neglecting justice, but let’s be reminded that before we can be reconciled, we must repent; before we can repent, we must confess; and before we can confess, we must listen to the truth. I believe the Spirit of Truth is reforming our understanding of justice, and I pray that we’d have ears to hear.
(If you’d like to learn more about what the Bible has to say about justice, we recommend this overview of biblical justice from the BibleProject.)