#WCSK Episode 2.11c: The Christian and the State

Picking up from last week

On Justice

I will devote a significant amount of time to highlight the Biblical concept of justice in order to make a contemporary connection to living everyday under the authority of a secular regime. What you will find is that justice in a Biblical sense differs enough from justice in a modern sense that it will change how we think about, approach, and act upon injustice in society at large. Of course, the State, in making and enforcing laws, defines the contours of justice in contemporary society.

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,

that you may live and possess the land

which the Lord your God is giving you.[1]

For I, the Lord, love justice.[2]

Justice is a concern that permeates the entire Bible. This concern is found, for example, in the history of Israel being liberated from Egyptian bondage; it is found in the proclamations of the prophets; it is found in the poetry and wisdom literature of the Old Testament; Jesus begins His public ministry by announcing that He is the one to fulfill the prophetic longing to liberate those who are victims of oppression.[3] Justice is integral to God’s character and His resultant plan for civil order and government.[4] Hence, talking about justice is never a social, political, or an economic matter. Rather, justice is primarily a theological concern—the Bible informs us that because God is just, He requires us to do justice.[5] And eschatologically speaking, The Lord will be the one to deliver final and ultimate justice.

Our discussion of justice is highly relevant to the topic at hand for one simple reason: the State is the agent that can either compel people to do certain things or not to do certain things. This paradigm can produce the adverse effect of codifying injustice and promoting inequality and unfairness. In some instances, then, the State can be the chief enabler of injustice, which is contrary both to God’s character and to what He demands of us. As followers of God, we Christians are therefore responsible to pursue justice in all arenas of life in the midst of a State-sanctioned framework that may encourage otherwise. The brutal fact is that injustice never happens by chance. It is the purposeful intent of those with power to deprive those without.

Psalm 33 proclaims God as the one in whom the righteous can place their hope and trust. The psalm relies on the sovereignty of God, and who He is animates our motivations and actions—namely our praise. In verse 5, the psalmist writes, “[The Lord] loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.” The phrase “righteousness and justice” form a unique and unified whole that transcends the meaning of each of the words individually in the same way that “law and order” carries a unified theme more comprehensive than its parts. I will expand on each word individually to develop a proper understanding of the couplet, “righteousness and justice.”

Righteousness comes from the Hebrew word sedâqâ (from the root sdq), which refers to something not only being right in theory, such as political ideals, but also being right in practice, such as honest weights and measurements.[6] Hence, sedâqâ implies an “ought-ness” or an objective standard by which everything is judged. But even more than this standard exists a sense of “ought-ness” in the relationships between individuals. Therefore, for example, when people interact with one another—when a father judges his children or when a judge makes a judgment on a case—there ought to be righteousness as one person relates to another.[7] So no matter what labels people may have (like “police officer” or “citizen”), righteousness demands and maintains an integrity in how these two human beings interact. In this example, the police officer and the citizen are people, made in the image of God, and this identity exists before they are assigned labels by the State.

Justice comes from the Hebrew word mišpât, which refers to the process of litigation, a case or a cause brought before a judge, the decision of judgment, and, in a broader sense, to make things right.

Also embedded within “righteousness and justice” is a strong sense of mercy, so that mercy is not distinct from justice but intimately mixed in with it.[8] This is a connection often lost in English, where justice and mercy are thought to be mutually exclusive. But God, who is just, loves humanity so much that through an act of grace sent Jesus into the world. God’s justice never “cancelled out” His mercy in dealing with us. In fact, the Bible even tells us that it is mercy that triumphs over judgment.[9]

So, when we consider righteousness and justice together, what we see is that sedâqâ (righteousness) is a destination. Sedâqâ is the marvelous city on a hill whose foundation is righteousness. Mišpât (justice) is the road that leads to the city, and in order to take steps along this road toward righteousness, one must walk straight in the path of justice. Entering the city gates and being labeled “righteous” thus also means that every step in our Christian walk has taken us on the road of justice. Seen in this way, righteousness is expressed in justice. Hence, mišpât is never an idea in theory—nor is it an immaterial, abstract concept. Justice is something that followers of God actively do in pursuit of righteousness because present circumstances have not yet met the ideal standard of sedâqâ. This applies not only to our own lives but to our neighbors in the State. It means being able to see all those dysfunctional systems that have not yet met the standard of righteousness and then actively working in justice to meet the ideal. As the victims of injustice tend to be the marginalized and often are those without a voice or power, efforts are preferentially directed toward this cohort by necessity.[10] As Mott writes in Political Thought (italics are his),

“As it is frequently used in biblical texts justice is a call for action more than it is a principle of evaluation. Justice as an appeal for a response means taking upon oneself the cause of those who are weak in their own defense.”[11], [12]

The prophet Micah speaks loud and clear to us when he says,

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice (mišpât), to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8; emphasis added).[13]

Of course, do (âśâ) justice actually means to do, as in to accomplish, to advance, to bring forth, or to execute. When God speaks through the prophet Micah and tells us what is good, clearly justice is never meant to be merely discussed around the dinner table among intellectuals, free thinkers, and glasses of cabernet. Justice is meant to be strived for in the real world with boots on the ground, actively engaged with the victims of injustice and the institutions that perpetrate unfairness. If we turn back to the couplet, “righteousness and justice,” in Psalm 33:5, it becomes clear that this phrase does not portray a God who is impersonal and mechanistic in handing out sentences for wrongdoing. Rather, the care that He executes in His justice reveals His lovingkindness and grace. This helps explain how the psalmist can follow up talking about God’s “righteousness and justice” with the proclamation that, “The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.”[14] Furthermore, Wright expounds on this verse and makes the following illuminating point:

“Elsewhere God’s justice is paired with his grace and compassion; indeed, in Isaiah 30:18 God’s justice is the reason for his compassion, which sounds odd in ears accustomed to thinking of justice only in terms of punishment and judgment:”[15]

Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him.[16]

Isaiah spoke these words to the covenantal community—the Israelites—because God had a vested interest in reconciling a broken relationship with His people. Of course, sin is what tainted the relationship. And yes, Isaiah (and the psalmist who authored Psalm 33) were speaking to a specific community, and their message was not originally directed at the world. Still, an unchanging God who is just will always be consistent in His character, and therefore, He is just toward humanity. At no point does God become unjust regardless of whom He is dealing with. Justice is, therefore, intended to be a universal testament of humanity because the earth is full of the unyielding love of God,[17] the peoples of the earth should fear and worship Him,[18] all are held accountable before Him,[19] He cares for all human beings,[20] and He used justice as an organizing principle to order creation itself.[21], [22] Now, because of Christ and the new covenant with all the elect, it is clear that in an attempt to imitate a perfectly righteous and perfectly just God,[23] we do justice in pursuit of righteousness. Such action applies to all our relationships: family, church, community, and society at large. We act justly in pursuit of righteousness because when God’s people cry out against injustice and oppression,[24] He does not ignore them because of His steadfast love that is unyielding.[25] God “sees” those who are on the margins, and this is made explicitly clear by the story of Hagar, the non-Israelite woman who was pregnant with Abraham’s first son. Hagar was in a vulnerable position and was treated harshly. God intervened in her situation and gave her assurance, hope, and a promise. It is then that Hagar labels God with the first personal name given in the Bible, “a God who sees” me.[26] The point is that God never turns a blind eye to us, and we ought never turn a blind eye to injustice or those who are harmed by it.

God’s redeeming justice in the Old Testament is most clearly demonstrated in the Book of Exodus. There, in the mass departure from Egypt, God acted on the behalf of the victims of injustice (the Israelites) and worked against the perpetrators of injustice (the Egyptians). In fact, God’s justice released the captives, set free those who were oppressed,[27] and simultaneously punished the Egyptians. This foreshadows that in the end, God’s justice ensures us that everything wrong will be made right. A driving force, then, in God’s justice is not merely punishment in a legal or a retributive sense; it is to restore affairs to the way they should be. Again, justice pursues righteousness (italics mine):

“God’s ‘judging’ does not mean an abstract, neutral, judicial act, but an active, saving rearrangement of broken relationships. In the context of justice, this means ‘to save from oppression’, to liberate, to rescue. This means that in the Bible we should not associate the words ‘judging’, ‘justice’, ‘righteousness’ with the Greek and Roman traditions, i.e., with either judicial institutions or abstract virtues of individuals but rather with God’s community-building and protecting power.”[28]

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel
and the men of Judah His delightful plant.
Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.[29]

In commenting on the above verse, Mays makes the bold proclamation that Israel’s entire history is secondary in importance to one organizing purpose: righteousness expressed in justice.[30] Hence, as the parable of Isaiah 5:7 makes clear, when The Lord finds justice and righteousness, He is delighted, but when instead He finds bloodshed and cries of distress, a huge chasm exists between what is expected and what actually exists. True dedication to God means being staunchly committed to righteousness and justice,[31] and God makes it clear that He finds those who trample upon justice and pretend to worship The Lord detestable.[32]

In the Old Testament, it was the kings (the heads of State of a theocracy) who were to be the main proponents of justice in society.[33] By modern extension, then, leaders in the State carry the responsibility of not only maintaining justice but promoting it. Even a secular Queen (the Queen of Sheba), demonstrated her wisdom by proclaiming that the king had the responsibility to “do justice and righteousness.”[34] One king, Solomon, pleased The Lord for asking for wisdom in order to discern between good and evil and judge appropriately.[35] Unfortunately, the Bible also tells us that an overwhelming majority of the time, those who held power in Israel’s monarchy did evil, and injustice was rampant. The only two kings who had exemplary ethical standards during their reigns (Jehosephat[36] and Josiah[37]) were characterized by their adherence to the Law and were champions of justice.[38] David, the man after God’s own heart, administered justice and righteousness for all his people.[39]

The ideal Biblical model for what State leadership (kingship) ought to do can be found in Psalm 72, which is a prayer for an anointed king that asks God to bring about His rule through the king. Today, we can use this model in our prayers for our leaders and use it as a guidebook on what leaders (i.e., the State) ought to do.

Give the king Your judgments, O God,
And Your righteousness to the king’s son.
May he judge Your people with righteousness
And Your afflicted with justice.
Let the mountains bring peace to the people,
And the hills, in righteousness.

May he vindicate the afflicted of the people,
Save the children of the needy
And crush the oppressor …

In his days may the righteous flourish,
And abundance of peace till the moon is no more …

For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.

He will rescue their life from oppression and violence,
And their blood will be precious in his sight.[40]

Psalm 72 makes explicit that we ought to seek and pray for an ideal leader that clings to justice and righteousness as an organizing principle of his reign. Hence, justice is not a trait equal to others but is the basis upon which everything else is built. The king’s justice manifests as saving action that hears the cries of the helpless and is sensitive to the plight of the poor. Here, in the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, it becomes very clear that those in positions of power never ought to use their power to secure gain for themselves so that the king’s table is full while the people are starving. Rather, the paradigm is one of mutual servanthood where the king executes justice and righteousness and is the source of well-being, while the people who serve the king recognize this as God working through him and submit to his authority. According to Wright,

“Where such a concern for social justice comes on the scale of our human values in any given context is the measure of how much or how little we are in tune with the heart of this God, the God of the Bible.”[41]

Of course, Jesus, the King of Kings, will be the one to establish justice and righteousness for eternity.[42] When Jesus comes to reign, everything crooked will be “made straight.”[43]

Now that I have clarified what the State is supposed to do beyond restraining evil—namely, to do justice—we must also ground ourselves in reality. That is, we have to reconcile the Biblical ideal with our fallen world. Consequently, Mays writes the following:

“Such seems the best we can hope for in any ruler, leader, or governor—partial success and eventual failure at fulfilling the ideal of his vocation … We do pray for leaders because we want them to be drawn by divine help as close as possible to the model of God’s rule.”[44]

So, in the midst of injustice, the Church will lend its prophetic voice whenever the State model strays from the ideal, and dedicated individuals work on smaller scales to advocate for justice. One critical point I hope is now very clear is that the State is in the most advantageous position to use its power to either promote and maintain justice or to allow injustice to triumph.[45] I say “allow” because evil and the injustice that follows it are only allowed to prevail when the active pursuit of good lies dormant. Truly, we are fallen creatures in a fallen creation, and without the active movement to restrain evil by the State, the “default” will tend toward evil. In fact, in the most abominable cases, the State will codify injustice so that doing injustice becomes legal.[46]

So, when we as Christians consider our federal, state, and local authorities, we can never remain silent or passive in the face of injustice. Nor can we ever allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation that because the State enacts a law or because the majority favors a particular morality that this makes it right. Our lives depend on that which is just,[47] and God’s Law (all of it) is not a vain thing to us—it is our very lives.[48] So, when we live in the midst of a State that fights for justice, we exhort, encourage, and diligently support our virtuous leaders. When we live in the midst of a State that is inactive regarding justice or actively promotes injustice, then we must lend a prophetic voice and be active participants in the grander pursuit of righteousness in justice. Practically speaking, this means that dedicated servants of God do not have their sense of “justice” or “fairness” informed by Western legal standards. It means we are informed theologically about what justice is and, therefore, have a purposeful intent to advocate for justice, truth, and integrity. This model transcends tit-for-tat retribution and seeks to “makes things right” by dismantling systems that allowed the initial injustice in the first place.

Invariably, the pursuit of righteousness in justice will entail a struggle against the State. Does this not make us, as Christians—who admittedly are commanded to follow a path of civil obedience—the exact agitators, rabble-rousers, and revolutionaries that the Bible informs us not to be? How can we ever consider not obeying the law (or breaking the law) if we are to live in subjection to the governing authorities as Paul wrote in Romans 13? How can honest Christians ever live with themselves if they are labeled “lawbreakers”? Well, the answer to all of these reasonable concerns is quite simple.

God’s Law is perfect, but the laws of men are not. All laws are not created equal, and two types of laws exist: the just and the unjust. Just laws align with God’s Law. Unjust laws violate God’s Law. Unjust laws cooperate with evil and shun good. Unjust laws inflict injustice on a minority while the majority, who enacted the law, are exempt from its mandates.

The minority sometimes plays no part in the formulation and legislation of unjust laws. As already discussed, for the Christian, unjust laws require civil disobedience. The Christian must never pursue uncivil disobedience because that would not be just. Additionally, the Christian must never simply use time as an active strategy because, indeed, time marches forward but is neutral—it neither acts for good nor for evil. The Christian must strive not merely for peace characterized by the absence of tension, but for peace characterized by the overwhelming presence of cooperative good. Truly, civil disobedience is a strategy based on hope, and Christ is the only legitimate, ultimate source of our hope. With faith in Him, “we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s humanity … into the bright and glittering daybreak and freedom and justice.”[49]

Conclusion

In putting everything we have learned together into meaningful, practical, and everyday expression, what quickly becomes clear is that—especially in 21st century America—sound Biblical principles can often get mixed up in ideology that is either primarily political or serves some type of agenda that is exclusively favorable to the State. We, as Christians, realize that the State is ordained by God, but the State is only a temporary institution to transiently serve God’s eternal purposes. Without a doubt, as time moves forward and regimes change, God’s Word remains constant. At the peak of God’s revelation to us in the Old Testament exist the Ten Commandments. It is worth briefly discussing them here to draw some modern lessons on how we interact with the State. Invariably, the sacrosanct principles in the Decalogue will certainly sharpen the lens of scrutiny that we use to view the State and our activities under its authority—and the culture at large.

The Ten Commandments are the foundational principles of God’s covenant with His people, and the rest of the Mosaic Law is based upon these ten core principles. Of course, we understand that the Law is not null and void—Christ never nullified the Law, but, rather, He fulfilled it.[50] Accordingly, we realize that we worship God alone[51] and not any other ideology that subordinates God’s Word[52] to second place. A pressing example would be the uplifting of the power of Constitutional amendments over the authority of the Ten Commandments. We realize that worshiping false gods (e.g., wealth, statism, or nativism) leads to abhorrent evil, and we should be quite alarmed that idols of false gods have literally already been built in at least one major American city.[53] We realize that the Sabbath is a holy day sacred unto The Lord,[54] and how we use this time is Biblically informed, not motivated by popular recreation. We realize that the family, headed by a male father and a female mother, is the basic social unit of human society. Therefore, any paradigm that attempts to terrorize the family—like undermining the authority of parents over their children,[55] placing wedges that separate fathers from families, “empowering” or incentivizing women to raise children by themselves, the destruction of human life,[56] or promoting sexual norms that discourage monogamy in marriage[57]—resemble more a pagan ethos than a godly one. We realize that perverting the truth[58] or using the State to unjustly steal from others[59] destroys genuine human liberty. We realize that in the Bible, there is a triad of vulnerability—orphans, widows, and aliens—for whom God has a “preferential option.” This cohort is not more deserving than the rest; rather, this cohort represents those who are the victims of chronic injustice, and therefore The Lord intervenes on their behalf:

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”[60]

We, as Christians, therefore adopt the same posture; we seek justice and show love to this triad, just as we, because of sin, were undeserving of the grace of God. It is God who took the initiative to seek and save us[61]—those who were lost—even though we deserved nothing. We were fatherless, without a Savior, and looking at the outer wall of the heavenly domain yearning for redemption. Then, the Holy Spirit regenerated us, enabled us to scale the wall and cross the bridge—Jesus—and be reconciled back to the Father. We also realize that perpetual violence is a trademark of any society that is polluted with injustice; in fact, violence often is the end result of a State that seeks to maintain and nurture systems of injustice so that few may benefit at the expense of many.

We realize that, in the end, it was never our calling as human beings to redeem the world. Neither is this the calling of the Church or the State—only God can bring redemption. In our Christian walk, we do not aim to create a utopia, nor can we seek to “make right” everything in society that is crooked. Instead, we begin with easy, tiny steps and focus on those troubles that are actionable and readily accessible to us. We are confident knowing that change happens and movements are given life when nameless people do simple, small things. Furthermore, as members of the community of faith, one of the deadliest things we can do is try to stand alone. Instead, we lean on one another, inspired to know that even minute changes enacted by numerous people will achieve more than one person doing something “really big” on his or her own. Ultimately, only those who want to change the world will succeed, and only those who want to change the world will act in pursuit of that change. As Christians living in the midst of the State, we therefore want the glory of God to be made manifest; therefore, we take action in pursuit of righteousness. Step by step, we move forward, placing our ultimate trust and hope in Christ, who inspires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with The Lord.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] Deuteronomy 16:20

[2] Isaiah 6:18

[3] Luke 4:18 (c.f. Isaiah 61:1-2)

[4] Psalm 33:5, 97:1-2 (c.f. Micah 6:8; Psalm 89:14; Job 36:6; Luke 18:7; II Thessalonians 1:6)

[5] Micah 6:8

[6] For example, another permutation of the root word sdq is used in Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:15, and Psalm 23:3 to describe fair scales.

[7] Hemchand Gossai, “Justice, Righteousness, and the Social Critique of the Eighth-Century Prophets,” American University Studies Series 7: Theology and Religion, vol. 141 (1993), 55–56

[8] J.N. Schofield, “Righteousness in the Old Testament,” Bible Translator 16 (1965), 115

[9] James 2:13

[10] “Preferentially” here does not mean being partisan or prejudicial. It simply means by necessity those on the margins are the most vulnerable to injustice and therefore will be the largest recipients of those who seek to do justice.

[11] Stephen Charles Mott, A Christian Perspective on Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 79

[12] See also Isaiah 58:5, Job 29:16, Jeremiah 21:12

[13] See also Isaiah 5:1-7

[14] Psalm 33:5b

[15] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 258

[16] Isaiah 30:18

[17] Psalm 33:5

[18] Psalm 33:8

[19] Psalm 33:13-15

[20] Psalm 36:5-8

[21] Psalm 96:10 (c.f. Psalm 97:1-6, 89:3, 6, 12-15)

[22] Micah 6:8 is addressed to “Man” (âdâm in Hebrew), meaning “mankind.”

[23] Deuteronomy 32:4

[24] Genesis 18:18-21; Exodus 2:23-25, 6:6-8 (c.f. Deuteronomy 6:20-25, 26:1-11)

[25] John 15:12; Romans 5:8, 8:37-39; I John 4:8-12

[26] Genesis 16:13

[27] See Christ’s words in Luke 4:18-19.

[28] Ulrich Duchrow and Gerhard Liedke, Shalom: Biblical Perspectives on Creation, Justice and Peace (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1987), 78

[29] Isaiah 5:7

[30] James L. Mays, “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition,” in David L. Peterson, ed., Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity (London: SPCK; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 146

[31] Jeremiah 9:23-24; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Psalm 15:1-2

[32] Isaiah 1:10-17, 58:2-7; Jeremiah 7:1-11; Amos 5:21-24

[33] Jeremiah 22:2-4 (c.f. Proverbs 29:4, 14, 31:8-9)

[34] I Kings 10:9

[35] I Kings 3:3-9

[36] II Chronicles 19:4-11

[37] II Kings 23:25; Jeremiah 22:15-16

[38] See also Job 29:12-17 where Job, being upright and blameless, rescued the poor, was a father to those who were without one, and figuratively wore righteousness and justice.

[39] II Samuel 8:15

[40] Psalm 72:1-4, 7, 12-14

[41] Wright, Ethics, 275

[42] Isaiah 9:7, 11:4-5

[43] Psalm 96:10-13 (c.f. Psalm 98:7-9)

[44] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 238

[45] Ecclesiastes 5:8

[46] Isaiah 10:1-2

[47] Deuteronomy 16:20

[48] Deuteronomy 32:47

[49] Washington, A Testament, 53

[50] Matthew 5:17

[51] Exodus 20:3

[52] Exodus 20:4

[53] I refer here to the arch of Baal, a replica of a structure that once stood in the ruins of Syria that was erected in New York City this year. Links to two articles about the pagan history of this arch can be found on World Independent News and the New York Times.

[54] Exodus 20:8

[55] Exodus 20:12

[56] Exodus 20:13

[57] Exodus 20:14

[58] Exodus 20:16-17

[59] Exodus 20:15

[60] Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (c.f. Isaiah 9:14-17)

[61] Luke 19:10

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