I’m afraid we don’t understand what justice is.
I think many of us get our idea of justice from Hollywood action movies (getting even with our enemy) or episodes of Law and Order (giving the bad guy what they deserve). This human understanding of justice, heavily influenced by American culture, is a very different picture of justice than we see in scripture.
I am realizing human justice is a far cry from biblical justice. Too often people think they are the same, even many Christians. I want to highlight seven major differences between human justice and biblical justice.
1. The heart of human justice is retribution while the heart of biblical justice is compassion. “An eye for an eye” characterizes human justice. While “an eye for an eye” might be preferable to lawlessness and anarchy, Jesus calls us to a higher understanding of justice that involves compassion, for the poor and for our enemies. Biblical justice involves, “binding up the broken hearted” and “praying for our enemies.” The end goal of human justice is retribution and payback; the goal of biblical justice is reconciliation and the transformation of individuals, communities, and systems.
2. Human justice is about prosecuting people under the law while biblical justice is about protecting people from unjust laws. You see this clearly in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Human justice, represented by the religious leaders, is focused on defending the law and making accusations against the woman, while biblical justice, represented by Jesus, is focused on defending the woman and advocating on her behalf. Isaiah 1:17 describes the work of justice as fighting for the rights of widows and defending orphans. While human justice is about defending the law and prosecuting the lawbreakers, biblical justice is about defending the defenseless and protecting the poor (sometimes even from the law).
3. Human justice results in locking people up while biblical justice results in setting prisoners free. We live in the “Land of Liberty,” yet we have more people locked up than any other country in the world. There are over 2.1 million people in our prisons, the majority of whom are minority and low-income. Mass incarceration and the private prison industry has become an economic engine for profit at the expense of those who are vulnerable and economically and socially at-risk. The private prison industry has been growing and growing even while crime rates decrease. Private prisons are traded on the stock market creating enormous profits at the expense of those incarcerated and their families.
Although, the mission of the Messiah is to “set the prisoners free” (Isaiah 61 and Luke 4), many Christians I encounter feel the need to defend the prison system rather than fight for the freedom of those incarcerated. Biblical justice always liberates.
4. Human justice pretends to be impartial while biblical justice shows partiality for the poor and marginalized. While human justice claims to be impartial, biblical justice shows preferential treatment toward the poor because the scales are already stacked against them. Although we like to think of justice as blind, human justice is susceptible to corruption and abuse of power. In Chicago alone, there have been over 1,500 cases of public corruption since 1976 costing an estimated $500 million. Since the 1970s, four of seven governors and 31 members of Chicago’s city council have been convicted. The prophets of scripture spoke out against bribery, greed, and corruption, because it was a huge injustice against the poor. Those who had money were able to bribe judges to get their way while the poor were left powerless. Even now, the wealthy can afford better lawyers and receive different treatment in our courts. Biblical justice is partial toward the poor to even the playing field.
5. Human justice is allegedly concerned with rehabilitating individuals while biblical justice is concerned with reforming systems. Amos cries out that justice be established at the gate, that fair scales would be used in the market place, that justice would flood down into all areas of society. The cry of biblical justice is for judicial and economic systems to be transformed into fair and equitable practices that would not favor the rich over the poor. When we focus so much on the individual we can become blind to the larger systems that are not working. The biblical cry for justice includes transformation of individuals and systems.
6. Human justice has no room for grace while biblical justice is a symbol of God’s grace. One thing I hear Christians say a lot is, “I don’t want justice, just give me grace.” This reveals a human view of justice that sees justice and grace as mutually exclusive. Biblical justice, however, is full of grace. Even the prophets’ warnings of judgment against unjust nations were actually a sign of God’s grace. Think of Jonah. God calls Jonah to tell Ninevah to repent or be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to go because he knows God will be gracious and doesn’t want Nineveh to be let off the hook (Jonah wants human justice!). Jonah knew God is gracious which means God’s justice is always redemptive. Grace and justice are not at odds – they are intimately connected. Because God is gracious, he is concerned about justice for all. Because God is just, he gives grace to all. Micah understood this connection when he said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy.” When we separate grace from justice we are no longer talking about biblical justice.
7. Human justice is about destroying our enemies, often through violence while biblical justice is about transforming them into friends through nonviolent love. Whether in politics or in Hollywood, justice often refers to something we reserve for our enemies. Many U.S. presidents have talked about “bringing our enemies to justice,” as a way of saying we will destroy our enemies through violence. Human justice justifies violence as necessary and even righteous. But biblical justice always seeks to transform our enemies through nonviolence. Abraham Lincoln said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them into my friends?” Christ forgave his enemies and loved them in order that they may become friends and be transformed through love.
The more I reflect on biblical justice the more I see the need for our minds and hearts to be renewed and transformed. Biblical justice seems so foreign to our human ways of viewing justice, but it is so much more beautiful, compassionate, and redemptive. Instead of settling for human justice, let’s pursue a gracious and biblical justice.
Shawn Casselberry is Executive Director of Mission Year. He has served on the staff team since 2003. He is a popular speaker and has shared at events and schools, including Missions Fest Vancouver, Gatlinburg Missions Conference, Asbury University, and Mission Year Trainings. You can follow him on Twitter or read more of his blog posts.