Justice

learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
—Isaiah 1:17

This week, we are exploring the gospel as it is expressed through the declarations of the prophets. When we speak of the prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures, we include those who have books of scripture named for them—e.g., Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, etc.—and those who do not but appear as part of the larger narrative of Israel—e.g., Moses, Nathan, etc. While each of these prophets spoke at different times to different situations, they each found themselves serving the same role. As prophets, their jobs were not to predict the future but to speak truth to power, confronting the powers and principalities of the world regarding those powers’ violations of their social covenant obligations to love their God and their neighbors.

Recall the various prophets’ confrontations with the authorities around them. Moses spoke to the Pharaoh after the Pharaoh neglected to respect his responsibility to show appropriate hospitality to strangers in his land. Samuel confronted Saul when Saul disobeyed a command from God. Nathan confronted David after David arranged for Bathsheba’s seduction and Uriah’s death. (I could go on.) On each occasion, the prophet confronts a person in a position of power who possesses the capacity to change something that has gone wrong, to correct an error in practice often institutionalized in the governmental structures of their societies. The prophets remind us that what we do matters and what we believe matters and that these two should correspond. Moreover, our beliefs have real world consequences and, as a result, our faith is anything but private. Our faith practices are public practices that have public consequences and demand societal alterations to rectify any failures.

Just look at the claims levied against Israel at the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. In the above excerpt from Isaiah’s prophetic gambit, the prophet initiates his complaint against the nation and its leadership because they have failed to care for the oppressed, the orphaned, and the widowed. Or, to put it in broader terms, the powerful in their communities have entered into a divine packed, incumbent with their authority, to care for the politically, the socially, and the economically disadvantaged. That is, Israel’s prophets understood that their civil leaders were obligated by virtue of their offices to use the power of those offices to empower the disempowered, restoring equilibrium between the various political, social, and economic extremes of their communities. The clue that this prophetic commitment implies a practical and beneficial deployment of power is found in the word the prophets repeat in their complaints. That word is the Hebrew term mishpat, translated as “justice.”

Often paired with another important prophetic term—tsedaquah or “righteousness,” mishpat refers to the divinely implied laws governing proper relationships between the powerful and the powerless while tsedaquah describes the structuring framework of covenantal love in which those laws find their meaning. This notion of political laws linked with covenantal love establishes the context in which to view the prophetic concept of justice. For the prophets, justice is always an account of proper practices relative to how those practices help maintain appropriate relationships between people. In other words, for the prophets, justice is not an abstract description of practices relative to some detached standard of moral behavior. Rather, for the prophets, justice describes the a state of existence where individuals within a covenantal community are reconciled to each other and held together by mutual love for each other and the community’s perpetuation.

This notion of justice as a communal concern is rather different from how we use the term “justice.” Often, when we say “justice was served” or “she got justice,” we speak of some punitive outcome where our actions or someone’s actions result in someone “getting what they deserve” irrespective of how those actions restore any potential relational rupture caused by injustice. For us, justice seems to be “out there” detached from us. In the prophets’ context, such a notion of justice devoid of the concrete healing of relationships between people was inconceivable.

Such a notion of prophetic justice is much harder to achieve because it means turning from the impersonal notion of justice where justice references an abstract quality to the flesh and blood reality of other people and their feelings, emotions, and pain. Yet, the prophets will not allow us to claim justice is anything else. To be called just, our actions must restore and heal communities through proper love for each other and our God.

Recently, a friend of mine attended the trial for several young men who assaulted him in a park in Atlanta. My friend attended the trial not because he wanted to make sure that the young men “got what they deserved” but because he understood that justice is not some abstract administration of punishment or rewards but the description of actions that lead to the healing and restoration of the equilibrium between members of a community. For my friend, regardless of the outcome of the trial, he was in court to ensure that he and the families of the young men might be reconciled, leading eventually to the healing of the brokenness experienced between him and the young men, too. Such a venture does not have a guaranteed outcome or a prescribed methodology for success. He simply knew “justice” needed to be pursed, and he needed to be present to make that happen. For him, I cannot say that justice was done but might claim that it is being done. In addition, in light of recent events in the national news, it seems clear that full justice cannot be conceived of as the adjudication of punishment according to some abstract standard of propriety. That kind of abstract justice requires an attendance to set procedures seemingly dispassionately disconnected from the victims and their perpetrator, a disconnection that appears ultimately to produce disinterest. Prophetic justice, on the other hand, requires the restoration of persons to each other in order to heal a broken community. Difficult, the prophets concede, but necessary.

In each of our lives, we need more justice, especially the kind of justice my friend is seeking and those young men from Pennsylvania deserve. Such a pursuit of justice is difficult yet the results may lead to a society where we are less concerned with getting what is deserved than becoming the kind of people and communities we should be. To become such a people where the powerful use their power for the sake of the disempowered and where justice is a description of our mutual loving relationships with each other sounds like good news to me.

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