Righteousness and Justice

Every week I have dinner with my father, typically on a Tuesday. While I do love my father, I cannot talk with him about things like religion or politics. I remember one time a few weeks back, when I got into his car, he was listening to the radio. Sometimes he listens to old music from the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s, but he often listens to political radio, especially Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. It’s horrible. I cringe every time I see him listen to such radio hosts. However, I do have to admit that watching and listening to Glenn Beck is something that even I have done. Obviously, I cannot stand any opinion that comes out of Beck’s mouth, but there is something interesting about watching or listening to him. I used to find it rather comical, like watching “The Colbert Report.” Some of his conspiracy theories are just so ludicrous that you cannot help but be interested in them. Unfortunately, however, there are plenty who take him seriously, and my father is one of them. 

During the last year and a half or so of Glenn Beck’s television program, I remember watching him ranting about such topics as Liberation Theology. One time, he advised his viewers to go on to their church’s websites to see if it mentioned anything relating to social justice. He said that if it did, then you should leave that church immediately; because in his mind, social justice is socialism, and “socialism” is some mix of Stalin, Hitler, and Obama. For an example of Beck doing this, see this article.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Beck. Where he says that social justice is a sign of some partisan or authoritarian agenda, I say that social justice is the duty of any Christian. I would point to many examples in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that point to a divine call for justice in human affairs. For Beck, however, the Gospel is simply about some sort of personal piety or salvation, and this sentiment is common among many Christians, both progressive and conservative. I think, however, that our issue today comes when we think of personal righteousness, but forget that there is a necessary social component to it as well.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:6, we read these words:

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they will be satisfied. (NLT)

I quote the New Living Translation here for a reason. Unlike most modern translations, that take after the King James Version, the NLT takes after the Douay-Rheims and renders this famous passage as, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” As the NLT acknowledges in a footnote, most modern translations do not say justice here, they say righteousness. Who isn’t familiar with the King James rendering of the passage:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Some might say that the NLT here is changing the passage to fit an agenda or is paraphrasing, but in fact, they are both correct. The word in Greek here can mean both righteousness and justice, but it can also mean equity or virtue. It can refer to both personal character or action. I think this is important, because social justice is usually defined as the state of equality, solidarity, and fairness. Righteousness and justice and inseparably linked.

Growing up, I used to go with a friend of mine into town. She would always go for groceries at the Salvation Army, or from the nuns in the basement of the Roman Catholic church. Sometimes, she would go to the post office to drop off some mail. It does not really matter what reason we went, because both times we would see some of the local homeless. One man I remember in particular, because he used to live in the doorway of the post office. Year after year, when he could, he would use the archway of the post office’s entrance as shelter. He was just sitting there in a corner in a black jacket and under a grey blanket.

This homeless man was technically breaking the law; he was trespassing. In fact, our society continually does this—we criminalize the homeless. Actually, I just read two stories this week of people criminalizing homelessness—one in North Carolina and the other in South Carolina. This man’s behavior—trespassing—is “unrighteous” by most standards. We see such things as immoral. For many, if a random homeless man sought shelter even near their place of residence, we would call the police, and that homeless man would be arrested. I think this is a good example of how closely related righteousness and justice are. While the homeless man was, by many people’s standards, being “unrighteous,” he was only “unrighteous” because of injustice. Think about the story of a hungry person who steals to feed their family. Is this theft “unrighteous”? Or, perhaps, the unrighteousness here is the injustice of poverty that forces people to do things that are not seen as moral. I also find it interesting how in our society, the poor person taking food to survive is seen as stealing, but in the Hebrew Bible, that is an acceptable practice.

Something that Christians often forget about is systemic sin—social injustice that results in the degradation of human dignity. Injustice is often a cause of unrighteousness, just as unrighteousness is often a cause of injustice. The fact that these two words are so closely linked in the Bible helps to show this. There is no doubt that Christians have a call to righteousness, but the equally important call to justice is often overlooked. It is also often forgotten that the gospel is a social gospel. Not only do Christians have a responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters, but we also are called to live in community. Church was not originally a building you worshiped in, but a community you were an active member of.

We are called to justice, and it is in that justice that we find true righteousness. Take Isaiah 1:10-17, in which the prophet criticizes religious ritual and contrasts false righteousness of religious custom with the real righteousness that justice provides:

Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.

Isaiah 1:17 (NLT)

In this passage from Isaiah, God is please by justice. I think that just like with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus calls us in a similar fashion. I also wonder if Paul was being similarly iconoclastic and prophetic when he emphasized faith, hope, and love over law.

German mystic Meister Eckhart made a statement similar to the prophet Isaiah and Jesus concerning God’s relationship with justice, and I think that it is a good way to conclude:

The just person lives in God and God in him. Thus God will be born in this just person and the just person is born into God; and therefore God will be born through every virtue of the just person and will rejoice through every virtue of the just person. And not only at every virtue will God rejoice, but especially at every work of the just person, however small it is. When this work is done through justice and results in justice, God will rejoice at it, indeed, God will rejoice through and through; for nothing remains in God’s ground which does not tickle God through and through out of joy.

For Eckhart, justice “tickles” God with joy. I think we have a responsibility to practice justice; for it is by justice that we find true righteousness that is mutually satisfying in human and divine relationships.

3 thoughts on “Righteousness and Justice

  1. My only pushback is to remember that righteousness also means a “justice” in relation to God and to the nature around us. For nature, that means better Creation care than what we have been doing. But probably the sticking point for some people is the “justice” in relation to God. When God created the universe (no matter how, exactly, he did so), the Jewish texts point to an intention, a design, some sort of purpose of “this is how things are meant to be”. That includes all relationships in their proper place. To act in a way that may seem “right” when it comes to relationships with people but is not in proper relationship with God is not “justice” when it comes to God’s character… justice, in this case, meaning “justified” or “set right” or “put right” or “turned the right way”.

    Couple of good examples without going to “hot button” topics: adultery and murder. Both of them can be “justified” in some ways in order to indicate that we are doing “right” by the people involved. We can kill someone in order to protect someone else. Isn’t that justice by some standards? Or, if two people love each other, even if they are already married but in unfulfilling or harmful relationships, don’t we want them to be happy and fulfilled people? There are some who would call that “justice”… but it is not righteousness…

    We can probably pull a lot of issues out of the hat and try and figure out what is “justified” in God’s eyes when it comes to such things. For that matter, let’s go with your premise of taking care of the poor. If someone were to come along and try, by force, to evict that homeless guy, wouldn’t we be in line with “justice” to step in and throw a punch or two to protect him? “Justice” does not necessarily mean ignore morality or “righteousness” in God’s eyes.

    It’s a very difficult balance, though, because sometimes it is so hard to see how to bring “justice” in a “just” way. We muddle our way through sometimes, thinking that we are aiming to do the right thing but turn around and end up doing harm in the process. Radical example: giving a job to a qualified homeless person over and above a qualified person with a home without considering whether or not the person with the home is in danger, if they don’t get the job, of becoming homeless themselves. Tough choice, right? Who gets the job?

    I think it’s very easy to say “I’m for justice” but forget that being for social justice can be just as much a trap as a strict legalistic morality. It turns into a new legalism where everything takes second place to social justice and you are judged as to whether or not you align that way.

    Just some thoughts… otherwise, a good reminder that care for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, is DEFINITELY part of the gospel.

    • I understand that there is also a divine/human relationship to the use of the term justice, and I think I hinted on that throughout this article. It is like with Jesus’ statement “blessed are the poor” and the spiritualized “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Which is true? Both. In this article, however, I was specifically addressing the social dimension of divine justice since we, far too often, emphasize the individual, pietistic form.

      • Agreed. I think there are some who take the social justice to the other extreme… and that is what I was addressing… too much American Christianity is about the personal piety and I think that’s a cheap gospel. But there is a reactionary movement that tends to discard piety as well in favor of social gospel and that is also, equally, as cheap because then it becomes a works-based theology of the other extreme. We need a bit of both and I think a faithful reading of Scripture shows both…

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