In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.
Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.
Seeking Justice for Others
To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.
True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.
Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.
One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.
Seeking Justice for Yourself
Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):
Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.
Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.
How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.
Next time, I will start a miniseries on Jesus as Savior. From what does Jesus save and how?