Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Justice...and Why That's a Problem

"We want justice!"

The battle cry is echoing across the internet.  People are rightfully fired up and fed up with the hideous injustices of our messed up world.  Yes, I'm talking about Kony 2012, but not just that.  It's been the hot word buzzing around Christian circles for the past few years.  All my favorite bloggers love to write about justice.  Conferences about justice are popping up all around.  Justice ministries are the first ones to fill up at "sign up for a ministry day."  And students better hurry to register for classes in the now popular social justice minor. 

We hear the stories.  We see the pictures.  Technology has allowed previously hidden atrocities to become globally unveiled.  Our hearts wrench and in our passion we start screaming, "JUSTICE!"  And then I pause and look around, and say, "Wait a minute.  What do you mean by 'justice'?  And come to think of it, what do I mean by 'justice'?" 

It's a fuzzy word, but it's in the Bible.  So God's obviously for it.  And it's pretty cool that the world of young people are for it right now, too.  So let's get back to screaming!  

But then in the back of my head, this annoying discomfort with the whole idea of justice just won't go away.  Maybe it's because I haven't been to a justice conference.  Maybe it's because I didn't minor in it.  Maybe it's because I haven't been at the heart of a "justice ministry".  I've just been watching this phenomenon unfold while plowing away in my own ministry. Now it's entirely possible that justice is being clearly defined in some arena, and if so, then please just write me off as ignorant. But there's a part of me that thinks if I don't know exactly what justice is all about, then others are probably with me in that confusion.  And we probably should figure it out before we jump on the justice bandwagon. 

In the end, I have to suggest that justice is NOT being clearly defined among mainstream Christianity in America.  Hence, my call for discussion.  

In my search to understand justice, I scoured the Scriptures for a definition, hoping for a bada-bing-bada-boom answer so that I could pound out this amazing world-changing-post on justice.  Sigh.  It didn't happen.  I guess if justice were easily defined then there wouldn't be all this grayness surrounding it.  So while I haven't found a definition that satisfies me, I did find that camping my heart on justice and wrestling with its implications has me circling a bit closer to God's heart on this issue.      

Here are my thoughts:

I would venture that the world's definition of justice is something like this: "the administration of punishment and reward based on what is right."  (Problem is, what one person thinks is right is the exact opposite of what another person thinks is right.)  The Bible has surprisingly little to say about Christians' role in justice according to this definition.  Scripture most often uses the word justice as a characteristic of God.  And, get this, the same word for justice is often translated as "righteousness."  Hmm.  I don't exactly see any snazzy videos calling for 2012 to be "the year of righteousness."  Just doesn't have the same ring to it.  

According to the righteousness definition, justice might look a little like this:           

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”
says the Lord.
20 On the contrary:
   “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
   if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:14,17-21 (emphasis mine)

Does this sound very much like "Hunt the enemy down.  Make sure he is arrested and punished for all the world to see"?  I'm just asking...and wrestling with this myself.

Then I find myself thinking about a wee little man.  Yes, rewind a few thousand years and picture Zaccheus, captain injustice himself, up in a tree.  Taking advantage of his position of power, he oppressed the community around him.  Who knows how far the ripples of his thievery reached.  Were children sold into slavery so parents could meet the demands of his greedy paws?  Did women resort to prostitution?  How many mouths went hungry so he could furnish his lavish house?

One form of justice would be to send in the authorities, haul Zac off to jail, and fine his butt for retribution and distribute it to the oppressed.  There, problem solved.  Justice achieved.  Right? 

Or … you could invite yourself over for dinner (publicly declaring your friendship with him). 

One of the two.

We want to give these sex traffickers, slave factory owners, and corrupt officials exactly what they've got coming to 'em.  But that's just the thing.  They've got it coming to them.  Like in eternity.  Now I'm NOT saying that there shouldn't be punishments dealt out on this side of eternity. 

But here's the thing...

Justice has been FULFILLED.  Either on the cross or in hell.  Between these two things every sin has been justified.  Ultimately injustice is a problem that God's already written the solution for.  Of course crimes must have consequences here on earth.  But that's the job of the state.  And that brings us to the whole can of worms called "the relationship of church and state in America", and then the other can of worms called "America's role in bringing justice among other nations."  I've got some thoughts on that for another post.
But here's what we have to remember.  In the justice game, for every winner there is a loser.  And every loser, in their own pain and loss, is likely to seek out their own retribution for their perceived injustice and begin an endless cycle of harm.  History shows that time and time again.  Who knows how many other Joseph Konys are being created in this war on the L.R.A.?  Have we forgotten the atrocities committed in the name of justice? 

The only thing that ultimately breaks this cycle is forgiveness.  That's what Jesus offered to those who gave him the greatest of all injustices.  The Bible does talk about justice, but it talks much more about forgiveness. And like I said, when the Bible does talk about justice, it's mostly talking about the justice of God, you know, the one who's perfect and doesn't get the meaning screwed up and whose job justice ultimately is

Don't get me wrong.  I'm NOT saying that we don't try to right the hideous wrongs in the world.  I am NOT saying that Joseph Kony shouldn't be arrested.  And I am certainly NOT against justice ministries.  I'm also NOT saying that Invisible Children isn't doing some amazing work.  I'm just saying let's think about what justice actually means before we raise a battle cry and shout it from the rooftops. 

If we hold to the world's definition of justice, then let's hunt down the villains.  Let's get 'em and punish 'em, because that's what they deserve (and hope that the long-term will just sort itself out).  If however, we see justice as righteousness, then perhaps we should think a bit more about how to serve. How to forgive. How to love. How to feed. How to clothe. How to teach. How to pray.  

Deep breath.  I think I'll stop there.  I've got a lot more to say, but let's chew on this first shall we?


**More is still rumbling around in my brain that may make an appearance in future posts: "Justice as a Fad" and "American Christians' Role in Overcoming Injustice Overseas."  Stay tuned.**


  1. Great post, Danielle! I look forward to reading your future posts on the other topics you mentioned, after they are finished rumbling around in your brain. :)

    1. Thanks, Jessica! Still have some more rumbling to do. :)

  2. This is so much needed. I've thought ALL these things. I've been rejected for thinking this and not jumping on the kony2012 bandwagon readily. Thank you, THANK YOU.

    1. Thanks, Evie. I hopped over to your blog and saw that we have more in common that our justice views. :) We too are adjusting back to life in N. America after life overseas (China for us). Thanks for reading!

  3. Loved this piece and it was really thought-provoking. I think my fav. point of yours was that justice and righteousness are very much the same . . . I like that. I think justice isn't all about the bad guys getting what is coming to them.They are broken messed up people like the rest of us. I just see justice as stepping in between the victim and the abuser. Especially when the victim can't fight for himself/herself. And, yes, I think that sometimes that comes in the form of friendship to the abuser even . . . yup. Great point about Zaccheus, too. will be linking this on fb!


    1. Thanks, Laura! Yes, stepping in between the victim and abuser. And I totally agree with what you said about not getting bogged down with the theory and questioning that we lose our inspiration to actually DO something. Love being able to dialogue about this as I wrestle with it!

  4. popped over from Laura's post...

    thank you for perspective.

    not to diminish the importance of "getting off the porch" and standing for those who can't for themselves - it is so true that justice isn't about "me" or what I think right.

    biblically, it IS all about God's righteousness.


    1. Exactly! Not diminishing at all the need to DO something. I want to motivate "getting off the porch" while at the same time thinking through God's definition of justice, rather than letting the movies define it for us. :)

      Thanks for popping over!