Left to itself on a page, justice is but a word. For Christians, however, the word must become flesh.
The notion of justice in the Christian scriptures is a central one. Yet, sadly, many in conservative Christian circles – persons who often explore the biblical text with great zeal – seem not to realize that fact. In fact, one can go quite a long time sitting in the pew of a conservative Christian church without hearing the notion of justice explored in any meaningful way. This should leave us wondering how this might be. If justice is such a pivotal notion for Christian theology, how might many of our sisters and brothers, persons who sincerely and earnestly embrace the Christian faith, who spend countless hours searching the Scriptures, be so utterly uninterested in the contours of such an important subject?
I believe a clue to this riddle can be found, as is the case for many matters like this, simply by exploring a bit of a translation problem. Namely, I think the issue presents itself by way of two Hebrew and Greek terms, ones that can easily be rendered ‘justice,’ but ones that often end up translated in a way more inward, more private and more internal in nature.
The Hebrew word I am thinking of here is sedaqah, whereas its parallel Greek term is dikaiosune. Both words, whether in Old or New Testaments, generally carry at least two connotations: 1) a focus on justice – highlighting interpersonal, social obligation to do right, justly and fairly by each other in community, and 2) a focus on righteousness – pointing to the need for internal piety and faithfulness toward God, springing from uprightness of character and moral excellence. It seems that, in the minds of the ancients, exhortations toward sedaqah or dikaiosune in community would have included – by definition – both a focus on vertical actions toward God (those more pious, character-based and deity-focused in nature) as well as horizontal actions toward our neighbors (ones social, other-focused and just in nature). Focusing on one side of the coin without the other would be tearing apart that which God has joined together.
Nevertheless, in our modern world, these two connotations are generally seen as distinct and often relatively unrelated – therein is why one part of the Church can focus on one side of the matter without giving sufficient attention to the other. For instance, in Matthew 6:33 we read, “seek first his kingdom and his dikaiosune, and all these things will be given to you as well.” As many of us know, the more conservative New International Version (NIV) translates this verse as “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” leaving readers to suppose that we are exhorted to be more pious, to work most intently on our godliness, to make becoming more God-focused and interested in spiritual matters, such as prayer and worship, as our principal goal. No doubt, doing so is one of the important points to take away from this verse – but, it is not the only point. The translation put forward by the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible seems to also have merit: “Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.” Thus, here, we seem to be encouraged to focus on social justice over all other things – our obligations to do rightly, justly and fairly by our neighbors in community. With that in mind, it might be hard to be personally righteous and virtuous without also being just, socially responsible and other-centered at the same time. The emphasis must be on both features, not merely to one side.
The lesson seems clear: where the scriptures exhort us toward righteousness, we are also called to be just, to take up stands for social justice and ‘rightness’ toward those ill-served, oppressed and wrongfully treated in our society. And, if we choose to be just, we must also see this quest as fueled by necessary attention given to our character, to our growing in Godly virtues, to our individual spiritual and interpersonal growth before a righteous God – since, out of such flows strength and clarity to be people of justice.
This returns me to my opening statement.
Justice is but a word. In fact, as we have seen, it is often a very misunderstood word, a word that, when translated from Hebrew and Greek into English, ends up many-sided and varied in connotation – a pregnant, central and multi-dimensional topic that encompasses both right relations with one’s creator as well as just interactions with one’s neighbor. Those who seek to live Christianly are not free to choose a partial connotation, leaving some of the fullness of the concept to one side. In short, we must embody – we must incarnate – both in our personal and collective body: we must see this notion become flesh, in all of its wholeness. Our task is to bodily and collectively grow into the concept’s full potential, to personally as well as socially, individually as well as collectively live it out in real time. Such is the call for God’s faithful, for those who would choose to be just. And such is the call to those of us at Eastern, in our quest to be a community built on faith, on reason and on justice.

Dr. Lindy Backues is an assistant professor and co-chair of the Business Department at Eastern. He has also done development work in Indonesia.

Comments are closed.