Monday, September 17, 2018

The Story of God | Why Humans Care About Justice

"Justice" is a felt need in our world today, and a controversial topic. But what is justice, exactly, and who gets to define it?

Justice continues to be a very important subject that is worth studying, considering, and acting on for Emmaus City Church because God cares so much about justice. 

Previous posts about how we are looking into God's justice have included:

The God Who Loves Kindness, Justice, and Righteousness
Jesus Calls Us to Embody His Righteousness and Justice Together 
Pour Out Jesus' Generous Justice 
Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community 

And now the brilliant crew at The Bible Project have released a YouTube video on Justice. Below is a link to the video along with some select images and the manuscript following. Enjoy.

The Bible Project | Justice Video and Manuscript

If you were a praying mantis, it would be socially acceptable for you to devour your mate. And if you were a honey badger, you would have no regard for other animals. You don't care. If you were a Panda with twins, it's normal to abandon one to take care of the other. 

But if humans do any of these things, we would call it wrong, unfair, or unjust.

Why is that? Why do humans care so much about justice?

Well, the Bible has a fascinating response to that question. On page 1, humans are set apart from all other creatures as the image of God: God's representatives who rule the world by His definition of good and evil. And this identity, it's the bedrock of the Bible's view of justice. All humans are equal before God and have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness no matter who you are. 

And that would be nice if we all did that. But, we know how the world really works. And the Bible addresses that, too. It shows how we are constantly redefining good and evil to our own advantage at the expense of others. Self-preservation, and the weaker someone is, the easier it is to take advantage of them.

And so in the biblical story, we see this happening on a personal level, but also in families, and then in communities, and in whole civilizations that create injustice, especially towards the vulnerable. But the story doesn't end there. 

Out of this whole mess, God chose a man named Abraham to start a new kind of family. Specifically, Abraham was to teach his family to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice. 

Doing righteousness, that's a Bible word that I don't really use, but what comes to mind is being a good person. But what does that even mean, "being good"? 

The biblical Hebrew word for "righteousness" is tsedeqah, and it's more specific. It's an ethical standard that refers to right relationships between people. It's about treating others as the image of God with the God-given dignity they deserve. 

And this word, "justice," is the Hebrew word mishpat. It can refer to retributive justice, like if I steal something, I pay the consequences. Yet most often in the Bible, mishpat refers to restorative justice. It means going a step further, actually seeking out vulnerable people who are being taken advantage of and helping them.

Some people call this charity, but mishpat involves way more. It means taking steps to advocate for the vulnerable and changing social structures to prevent injustice. 

So justice and righteousness are about a radical selfless way of life. And you find this idea all over the Bible. Like here in the book of Proverbs: What does it mean to bring about just righteousness? Open your mouth for those who can't speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8-9). 

And what do these words mean for the prophets? It's like in Jeremiah: Rescue the disadvantaged and don't tolerate oppression or violence against the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 22:3).

And like in the book of Psalms: The LORD God upholds justice for the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free. He loves the righteous ... but He thwarts the way of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9).

Whoa. He thwarts the wicked? In Hebrew, the word "wicked" is rasha. It means "guilty" or "in the wrong." It refers to someone who mistreats another human, ignoring their dignity as the image of God. So justice and righteousness is a big deal to God. It's what Abraham's family, the Israelites, were to be all about.

They ended up as immigrant slaves, being oppressed unjustly in Egypt. And so God confronted Egypt's evil, declaring them to be rasha, guilty of injustice. And so He rescued Israel. 

The tragic irony of the Old Testament story is that these redeemed people went on to commit the same acts of injustice against the vulnerable. And so God sent prophets who declared Israel guilty. But they weren't the only ones. There's injustice everywhere. 

Some people actively perpetrate injustice. Others receive benefits or privileges from unjust social structures they take for granted. And sadly, history has shown that when the oppressed gain power, they often become oppressors themselves. So we all participate in injustice, actively or passively, even unintentionally. We're all the guilty ones.

So this is the surprising message of the biblical story. God's response to humanity's legacy of injustice is to give us a gift: the life of Jesus. He did righteousness and justice, and yet, He died on behalf of the guilty. But then God declared Jesus to be the Righteous One when He rose from the dead. And so now Jesus offers His life to the guilty so that they, too, can be declared righteous before God. Not because of anything they've done, but because of what Jesus did for them. 

The earliest followers of Jesus experienced this righteousness from God, not just as a new status, but as a power that changed their lives and compelled them to act in surprising new ways. 

If God declared someone righteous when they didn't deserve it, the only reasonable response is to go and seek righteousness and justice for others. This is a radical way of life and it's not always convenient or easy. It's courageously making other people's problems my problems. This is what Jesus meant by "loving your neighbor as yourself." It's about a lifetime commitment fueled by words of the ancient prophet Micah: 

God has told you humans what is good and what the LORD requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Recent posts on overviews of the Story of God found in the Bible:

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