“Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We live in a society that highly values the idea of justice. It’s baked into our very existence as a nation. Our Pledge of Allegiance closes by describing our country as a place of “liberty and justice for all.” One of our first and most popular superheroes’ slogans for a long time was that he stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Our ideals as a nation are indeed high and mighty. There’s a reason far, far more people leave their homes around the world in an attempt to live here – even illegally so – than the other way around. And yet, justice isn’t always something we get right. No society does. Let’s talk this morning about justice, God’s passion, and our aim as followers of Jesus.
Perhaps the first thing we should do here is to define justice. It’s a harder word to define than you might think. We have an ideal of what it is in our heads, but giving word to that is tricky. Some folks will try to define justice in terms of fairness. Those two words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not actually synonyms. Fairness is concerned primarily with things being equal. If I get something, it is only fair if you get something too. And the two things have to be equivalent. If I get something big, but you get something small, that’s not fair. Fairness is a perfectly fine thing to strive for in many instances, but it shouldn’t be confused with justice. Justice and fairness don’t always overlap. For instance, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross satisfied the justice of God with respect to our sin. But we shouldn’t even begin to allow ourselves to think that it was somehow fair that Jesus died in our place. That was horribly unfair in fact. But it was just. If we are going to define justice, we need something more than fairness.
This brings us to a discussion of moral rightness. To do justice toward another person is to act toward that person in a way that is morally right. This is certainly a better definition of justice than trying to equate it with fairness, but it arrives with its own set of baggage. Most notably, which standard of morality are we going to use as our rubric here? Different people have different standards. Those standards are themselves rooted in different worldview beliefs. Because of this, something that one person declares to be just and right is seen by another person to be a gross injustice.
For instance, I was listening to a conversation the other day about water policy in the western part of the United States. For a long time, committed environmentalists in California have infamously directed that state’s water policy with protecting the delta smelt firmly in mind. Folks who believe that to be a good and wise thing to do will probably explain their thinking in terms of environmental justice. It is morally right to set a water policy that actively protects the habitats of these tiny fish. The tricky part here, though, is that setting a state water policy that actively protects the delta smelt requires taking actions that negatively impact the human population in those areas and even across the state. Policies that would allow farmers to have plenty of water for their crops, for instance, are directly and negatively impacted by policies that protect the fish. Is it just to restrict the ability of these farmers to earn a living on land their families have sometimes farmed for generations, not to mention effectively feeding millions of people across the country, for the sake protecting the habitat of a species of fish? I’m not going to try to offer an answer to that question right now, but it does help us to see how pursuing justice can quickly become very complicated when multiple different worldviews are striving for it at the same time.
Even more basic than that, though, pursuing justice is complicated when we have disagreements on fundamental points of morality. For example, is it okay to lie, cheat, or steal? Perhaps your first reaction is to say that of course it’s not okay to do any of that. But what if you are stealing in order to feed your family? What if you are cheating a broken system in order to make sure your needs are met? What if you are lying in order to protect the life of another person? Are those actions unjust?
What quickly becomes clear here is that if we are really going to get justice consistently right, then we need a standard that is objective to us, and which is unchanging, refusing to blow this way or that with the current winds of culture. There’s only one place such a standard exists: God’s character. Any other standard of justice we use will necessarily fall to endless squabbles over things that amount to personal preference and passion. We will naturally move to justify ourselves so that the things we do are always just and right. We will always have an excuse for why what we did was necessary and why what someone else did that was inconvenient for us was wrong. That’s simply part of the brokenness of sin in us. God’s character, though, is perfect and stable. He always gets everything right. He’s passionate about justice because it is fundamental to His nature.
This is why, by the way, Amos writes this verse the way he does. If you fail on the point of justice, you are also going to fail on the point of righteousness. Righteousness is being rightly related to God and to people. Because God’s character is fundamentally just, if you don’t get justice right, you can’t be right with Him. And if you’re not right with Him, you won’t be right with the people around you. Justice is fundamental. To everything.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to apply God’s character to the situations we are in no matter what they are. We are called to live our lives consistently with His character even if the people around us aren’t. We are called to pursue the logical outworking of God’s character even when the systems we are living under are corrupt and unjust. We are called to do what is right – with “right” being defined as “consistent with God’s character” – at all times and for the benefit of all people. Nothing less than this will do. This won’t always be convenient for us. Sometimes it will in fact be costly. But it will always be right. It will always keep us in line with the path of Christ. And that’s where we want to be.