Toward a Biblical View of Justice

We hear much talk these days about “social justice.” It is raised regularly in the health care debate, in discussions of legal reform, and in the battle over marriage. It is a very popular issue among college and high school students; it is a very attractive concept. It sounds great! Who could be against justice? I am certainly not. In fact, God is the source of justice, and it flows from His very character. Therefore, we look to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture as the proper foundation of justice.

I want to suggest three principles at the heart of this biblical understanding of justice.

Some Foundational Principles

First, while justice is rooted in the character of God, nothing in the Bible encourages human beings to seek to “do justice” on the same, cosmic scale as the omnipotent, all-knowing God. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, and Paul’s short discourse on “civil rulers” in Romans 13 demonstrate that civil justice, while based in God’s justice, is not the same thing. We have limited authority biblically to act toward other human beings, and if the authority to so act is not granted to us, we ought not to delegate that authority to ourselves.

Second, because justice is about relationships, this question of proper authority—jurisdiction, if you will—is always important. For example, the question as to what “justice” might be done to a disobedient child is wrapped up in a determination by parents of the needs of that child and the discipline necessary for restoration. Obviously, the state would not have a role. Likewise as to what is due a widow and her family, the church, rather than the state, is competent to oversee caretaking, using the guidelines of “pure and undefiled religion” (see James 1:27, for example). Yet, the punishment due a thief, or the recompense owed by a mugger, is within the jurisdiction of the state.

Of course, these determinations are not always delineated clearly in Scripture, and there is plenty of room for disagreement. However, the question of proper jurisdiction must be a central factor in the “justice” equation.

Third, God dealt justly with our sin in His treatment of Christ, Who was both punished for our sins and paid our debt. Therefore, human conceptions of justice should be grounded in just desserts—what is due a person?—and in restitution—what is owed?

Social Justice

In contrast to this biblical understanding of justice, today “social justice” is all the rage. I am inclined to agree with my friend Craig, who says that “social justice” is to justice as “social security” is to security. Let me explain.

My first objection to social justice is that it is so broad as to be meaningless, thereby denaturing the very important concept of justice itself. Consider just a couple of definitions pulled from the Internet in a quick search:

Social justice means moving toward a society where all hungry are fed, all sick are cared for, the environment is treasured, and we treat each other with love and compassion.

Social justice means no kids going to bed hungry, no one without shelter or healthcare, and a free and lively discussion and participation by all people in the political direction and organization of our communities and nation.

To the extent that “social” justice involves compassion for the poor and needy, a recognition that there are haves and have-nots in the world and in this country, a desire to clothe the naked, an attempt to feed the hungry, proper stewardship of the environment, and the provision of equal treatment to all under the law, it can be a good thing. Yet we should be hesitant to embrace the social justice movement because, more often than not, “social justice” empties the word “justice” of its meaning. If “justice” means mercy, compassion, and charity, then what is mercy, compassion, or charity? If “social justice” means that justice is charity, compassion, mercy, hospitality, care, and kindness to all, then justice just means “everything nice.” This is utopianism at its worst.

Second, and more troubling, “social justice” talk is often a cover for the political aim of promoting the state as the primary provider for every need. If “social” justice simply means state-directed compassion, mercy, and kindness, then what happens to real justice rooted in restitution and retribution? What is left of just desserts—giving to each his due?

The primary questions posed by the term “justice” involve relationships: what is due, to whom, from whom, under what circumstance? “Social justice” begs these questions, because proponents usually assume that the state, the church, the individual, and the family all have exactly the same responsibilities and ability to show compassion, mercy, and charity. This, in short, is the third objection to the current social justice movement: it overestimates the state’s authority and competency to do things that other institutions ought to do.

The Call of the Church and Families

The usurpation by the state of the ministry of the church and the family is one of the greatest public crises of our time. The response of the church should be to become more compassionate, merciful, and loving, not to further abandon its obligations and encourage the state—a notoriously inefficient and imprudent lover of neighbors—to take up the slack.

As we think faithfully about justice, we ought to be able to reclaim the vision that empowers individuals, families, and churches to seek the desirable ends of the “social justice” movement, such as compassion for the poor, equal treatment under law, the eradication of racism, and an accessible and just legal system. While complete justice will never be accomplished by human beings, our faith that God is perfectly just should give us confidence in Him as the Righter of all wrongs and the Corrector of all error. Yet, we have work to do, for He tells us what He requires of us: “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)