Do we talk about Justice?

On Sunday, we opened up the theme of justice as we looked at Proverbs 21.  I’d like to follow up on that with a few articles on exploring the question “What is justice and what is our responsibility as Christians in promoting it?”

With that in mind, I was fascinated to find a little appendix at the back of a new book, “Coming Home”[1]  It’s the transcript of a panel discussion with some notable heavyweights of the Reformed Evangelical world[2] and they are looking at “Biblical Foundations for Seeking God’s justice in a sinful world.”

The panel agree that justice matters for two reasons

  1. Because we are made in God’s image -so how we treat each other matters[3]
  2. Going up a level, justice starts with God. He is the righteous one who is entitled to justice. He has the right to worship and sin denies that.[4]

On the question of justice, Carson asks the question “How many of these foundational issues  are preached in our churches and well understood in our churches?”[5] The overwhelming response of the panel -speaking primarily in a US context (but I think with relevance to the UK) is “not well.” For example, Voddie Baucham’s view is that:

“There has been a massive failure in this regard. Man-centredness is the order of the day.” [6]

Thabiti Anyabwile adds:

“I don’t think the American church is well discipled to think through justice writ large or justice in particular situations. And most of our discipleship has come through whatever political influences we have had or whatever personal influences we have had, and so, we’re not in the first instance reflecting deeply on the Scriptures. If we were, we’d still have different starting points sometimes and places where we’d go different ways, but we’d at least be having the same conversation about what the Book says. Often we’re not having the same conversation.”[7]

The panel offer a few reasons for this silence. Keller comments

“One reason is different experience. If you are white, if you are black, you’re just going to have a different daily experience. And I think it is normal for us to universalize – the way we see things is the way it is. That’s not the only answer to your question. But some people have had a more privileged experience; some people have had less privileged experiences. That’s one of the reasons.”[8]

I want to pause just there because this is something that challenges me.  First of all, if Keller is right then this means that my experience of life is different to others and that risks affecting and even distorting my view of justice -and if justice is meant to start with God’s righteousness then there is surely the risk that I come in with a distorted view of God’s justice and God’s righteousness. You see, as we’ve consistently insisted on, what we believe is closely related to how we believe and if I’m believing lies (because that’s what a distortion is) about the world as it is then those lies could shape … and may be shaped by… lies that I believe about God.

Secondly, if we are serious about wanting to see multi-cultural churches and churches that reflect all classes and backgrounds then we are going to need to take this question seriously. What are we going to do when people are coming with such different experiences? What do we do when one person’s encounter with justice was appealing the exam result or getting their insurance claim through whilst another has experienced police brutality, torture and exile and their justice issue is now about asylum and protection. What about when justice for me means that if I did need to go to court then I’d be able to pay for a solicitor and would have a reasonable handle on how the system works whilst I see others whose experience tells me that the system itself works against them and don’t know how to make sense of it and even if they did would not be able to afford to pay for the same level of legal help that the people they are seeking.

Now let’s go on.  Bauckam adds a second reason.

“Our theology all goes into this…. People can very much love one another and can very much be eye to eye on so many things, but because of different theological presuppositions and the different things we bring to our understanding of the text of Scripture, they lead us in different directions.”[9]

Bauckam notes that we make allowances for this in some cases, so we allow for different views on baptism, ecclesiology etc:

“We don’t say that one of them is a good person and the other deserves to be beaten. But on a particularly visceral issue, all of a sudden we say one person is unjust and the other is just, when what we’re seeing is a manifestation of the same truth.”[10]

This means that some justice issues are complex. We may disagree on the role and responsibility of a government for example in when it is right to go to war. We may have different views on how to resolve – and to what extent it is possible to resolve -issues of poverty.

Experience, theology, complexity. So, what’s the solution. It’s tempting -especially when things get controversial to stay clear isn’t it. But if we love one another, valuing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the same body, made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ’s blood and if we care about God’s righteousness and right to justice in relation to a sinful, rebellious world then we won’t duck the questions.

Here are three suggestions for a way forward

  1. We will give serious attention to deep reflection on God’s Word, seeking to know and understand it. We’ll work hard on understanding those Bible passages that talk about the issues that aren’t in our own experience and are not top of our own priority lists. We’ll be ready to let God’s Word disagree with us.  Then we’ll take time to  talk about, preach and apply those things. For example, if we have made questions about social justice our priority and we are comfortable talking about poverty, race, the environment but have nothing to say about the rights of the unborn child and don’t recognise in the way that faithful marriage is downgraded and sexual sin openly tolerated an attack on God’s honour and glory then we need to correct that. Similarly, those of us who speak out clearly on moral issues especially related to sex, on the freedom of street preachers, on abortion and euthanasia but fail to recognise that when people are treated unjustly because of their race or gender and taken advantage of because of their poverty then we need to see that those things too are an affront to God’s justice and just as much about sin.
  2. We’ll take time to listen to each other. Do you know the life stories of people within your congregation that come from a different background or context to you? Do you know the struggles they have faced?
  3. We’ll put others’ needs ahead of our own. This is a good Biblical principle. This means that when it comes to justice, I’ll go back to the good old “JOY” principle that my mum taught me: Jesus first, yourself last and others in between. In other words, I’ll start by concerning myself with God’s rights and His glory and honour, then my next priority will be to support, pray for, stand by and speak up for the justice requirements of others, especially for the vulnerable including the poor, the widows (and elderly), the outcasts, the unborn children and the asylum seekers in our midst.  I will be willing to set aside my own rights trusting in the God who says “vengeance is mine.”

[1] Coming home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth (Edited by DA Carson and Jeff Robinson Sr. Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2017).

[2] Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham Jr, DA Carson, Timothy Keller, Miguel Nunez & John Piper.

[3] Coming home, 141-142.

[4] See (and unsurprisingly) Piper, Coming Home, 142-143.

[5] Coming home, 143.

[6] Coming home, 143.

[7] Coming home, 145. I suspect this applies just as much to the UK context.

[8] Coming home, 145.

[9] Coming home, 144.

[10] Coming home, 144-145.