"The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed"

Chapter 11  JUSTICE as the righting of wrongs

We have seen how the negatives of the ten categories of moral judgment can each be expressed positively in terms of the creative power of love. It is as if a doctor gave us a check up, and said our blood pressure and temperature was normal, there was no sign of diabetes or shadow on our chest, and we had no broken bones. But he could have asked, "How do you feel?" and a healthy person would answer "I feel great, full of energy, and enjoying life."

Similarly Jesus took the negatives of our ten categories of moral judgment and summed them up in two very simple positive commandments. "You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all you soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Mark 12:29-31). Both of these commandments are taken from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). Obviously referring to Jesus' restatement of the commandments, Paul was able to explain "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10).

But what if we are attacked, raped or robbed, our partner is unfaithful, our job is threatened because we are falsely accused? The first line of defense is to protect ourselves and our family by whatever means we can muster. We keep away from danger, lock the door, and in a riot we ride out the storm.

But what did Jesus mean in the Sermon when he said "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:38-39). Some suggest this means letting others walk over you and your family. But the text refers to not taking revenge (as in Romans 12:19), and not responding to an insult (a slap on the right cheek was an insult delivered with the back of the left hand). We may in appropriate situations turn our own cheek, but we have no business turning the cheek of our family, or a neighbor who is attacked

A second line of defense is our country's legal system. When there is anarchy, we have nowhere to turn for justice. But in most countries judges are appointed to hear the case and assign consequences. As a Christian in the oppressive Roman Empire Paul could say "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. If you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:1-4).

What if the case goes against us in a court of law? We could say the judge was biased or bribed and the judgment was unjust. If we are right, there was a miscarriage of justice within the existing legal system. If we wanted justice, and had the money, we might be able to appeal. As in Handelsman's cartoon in the New Yorker, "You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin, How much justice can you afford?" Which means that in some cases we will not get the protection we think we deserve.

Or we might complain that the law itself was unjust. If the law said women don't have a vote, or black people can't vote unless they own property, we might be able change the law. But there is no such thing as something being unjust apart from a legal system to enforce a law or change it in the direction we think would be just.

Similarly in international quarrels we can base our claim on the existing boundaries as defined by a previous treaty. In that case our appeal for justice can be settled by an arbitrator or international court of justice. But over the centuries changes in boundaries have usually been settled by force, invasion, and the making of new rules which eventually gain international recognition. In our day the passing of resolutions in the United Nations counts for very little unless there is overwhelming power to enforce them (as in the case of Iraq invading Kuwait and the consequent Gulf War).

Though there may be no human legal system to protect us as individuals or as nations, among most people there is a vague faith in what is usually called "poetic justice". We say "He had it coming to him." We instinctively long for wrongs to be righted, and when that happens we are grateful. If we are atheists we assume that any "poetic justice" must be the result of a self-righting economic system, or the force of moral persuasion, or merely the passing of time. Dictators grow old and die, and oppressive social systems collapse in due course.

But if we have faith in God, we have to assume that in some sense He (or She, but not It !) is the final court of appeal. When we are shafted and treated unjustly, we believe He hears the case and intervenes to right the wrong. Nearly 3000 years ago a psalm writer was thankful that "The LORD judges the peoples" and "You have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment" (Psalm 7:8, 9:4, 7). And another prayed "Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, I am your salvation" (Psalm 35:1-3).

The idea of vindication was also very important. "The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed" (Psalm 103:6). People get very upset by the "Imprecatory Psalms." For example, "O God, break the teeth in their mouths . . . Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime . . . for the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath . . . May his days be few, may another seize his position, may his children be orphans, and his wife a widow (Psalms 58:6-8, 59:12-13, 109:8-9).

Some have called such prayers sub-Christian. But we get similar calls for vindication in the Christian New Testament. "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent." The judge did eventually grant her justice to stop her bothering him. And Jesus added "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night" (Luke 18:2-7). Paul wrote "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Romans 12:19 quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). He also said, "Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds" (2 Timothy 4:14). And even the martyrs in heaven cry out "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth" (Revelation 6:9-10). Evidently the longing for vindication from gross injustice is part of our human experience.

If we are atheists, and therefore assume there is no God to grant justice, such imprecatory prayers cannot do the oppressor any harm. And under terrible injustice such prayers can be a helpful safety-valve to express the anger of our hearts. They may keep us from taking the law into our own hands. If on the other hand God is a loving God, and cares about justice, then we can assume that any intervention to do justice will done fairly. Even if wrath consequences are assigned here on earth, that does not exclude the person from heaven. And actually there is not one text in the Old Testament that uses the term wrath to indicate eternal consequences. Nor is there any New Testament text that speaks of God punishing people with eternal torture in hell.

The Old Testament pictures God as allowing the nations a huge amount of freedom, but when things get out of hand he intervenes to right what has gone wrong. The Old Testament prophets called this a "Day of the Lord" (this model is set out in Advent : Comings of the Lord among the Nations). That means that when our nation is overrun, plundered, or enslaved we can cry out for God's justice to be done. It is hard to explain the astonishing liberation of Black people in the United States without the prayers of Black churches.

After too many years of ruthless Communist oppression, people began to pray in Leipzig and other places. Then they walked silently through the streets carrying candles. Not one commentator had predicted that the iron curtain was about to be torn down, but suddenly in November 1989 people from West Germany to Romania found themselves freed. Things are by no means perfect, but at least justice has been reestablished, and millions of people assume that God intervened. Others call it moral pressure, poetic justice, or the eruption of volcanic economic forces. But that is hardly a better explanation. Or perhaps God uses all those factors to achieve his purposes for freedom and justice?

The ten commandments suggest ten categories of moral judgment which are found among all people everywhere. The first five of these relate to God's love and concern for our well-being. The commandments about murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and coveting all point to our sense of fairness and justice. And in this chapter we have concluded that our passionate longing for justice is part of the very fabric of human life. We assume that wrongs must be righted. And when God said "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:26) he intended us to believe in and care about the justice that is his concern for our world.

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