One of the standard arguments against God is that for someone who is meant to be compassionate and righteous and all-powerful, there seem to be many cases of injustice either caused by Him or allowed by Him.
It’s incredible how quickly we shift from longing for justice to expecting mercy. If the people of God are “to do justice and love mercy,” neither of these things is hard to understand. But it is difficult to do both of them at the same time.
There is a need to understand what biblical social justice is.
WHAT IS BIBLICAL SOCIAL JUSTICE?
What exactly is social justice? You may get a variety of definitions depending on who you ask. But we see that justice ministry is a significant sub-sector of the ancient Christian church and significant teaching in the Bible’s pages.
From Isaiah 1:16-17:
“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
Again in Proverbs 31:8-9, “Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”
These Old Testament Scriptures are revealing, and we also see modeled by Jesus in the New Testament, His Seven Woes to the Pharisees (Matthew 23) and His teachings to care of our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37) and to be light and salt to civilization (Matthew 5:13-16).
Justice ministry is definitely a biblical practice. But what exactly does it look like? What issues should we speak about? And how can we do it?
Historically in the church, Christianity has been a force for liberty and freedom in the western hemisphere. God’s rights were enshrined in the American founding and other similar democracies throughout the West. Freedom of religion, the right of assembly, and other personal liberties have largely fought for and enshrined in law by Christians involved in human history.
Christians were at the forefront of justice conflicts, such as the fight to end slavery in the United Kingdom, with William Wilberforce successfully defeating the slave trade. In the United States, abolitionist societies have cropped up everywhere and built underground railroads, leaving slaves to freedom.
Today justice ministry operates in several ways. Many churches carry out other services, including pro-life causes, religious liberty groups, feeding programs, child care, utility assistance, clinics, and orphanages.
If I were to apply a specific definition to Christian justice, I would describe it as: “The process by which the body of Christ tactfully advocates for the lost, hurting, and marginalized of society, by activities that preserve, protect, and build up human civilization.”
HOW SHOULD WE ANSWER THAT CHALLENGE?
What we are describing has historically been called the “problem of pain” when it comes to religion. The particular formulation you have used focuses on injustice, but the point is essentially the same. In reality, the question is if it is reasonable to agree that a kind, caring, all-powerful being can coexist with human suffering.
For those who conclude that it is irrational to believe in such a God in the face of human misery or injustice, there is almost never an argument that would convince them otherwise, but there are a few significant considerations. First, we have to understand the logic of the argument against God.
The statement is something like this:
1. A kind and caring being desired the happiness of his fellow beings.
2. An all-powerful being will make his desires come true.
3. Evil, tragedy, injustice, the misery are real.
4. Thus, an all-powerful being that is also good and loving doesn’t exist.
If numbers 1, 2, and 3 are true, then # 4 must logically be true.
However, strong arguments for 1, 2, and 3 may not be completely correct. First, a kind and caring being doesn’t desire “happiness” for fellow beings; rather, a kind and caring being desires something that we might call fulfillment for the beings around him. A kind and caring parent doesn’t seek to make his or her child happy all the time. Instead, a kind and caring parent may seek for a child to experience some painful punishment to redirect the child to a more fulfilling life. Furthermore, a kind and loving being never seek momentary fulfillment, but long-term, maximum fulfillment.
In other words, the Christian answer to # 1 is to say this: a kind and loving being seeks long-term, maximum fulfillment for his fellow beings, even if this fulfillment entails momentary discomfort.
Second, some Christians opposed point 2 by referring to human free will. They argue that God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) does not mean that he can do anything at all. He can only do what is logically compatible with reality and his character. Therefore, God’s omnipotence is somehow constrained by those people’s free choice to which he has given free will. He gave people free will through his character, but behaving in a way that overrules human free will would be behaving in opposition to his character, which he cannot do. In some way, then, free will is a higher priority for God than human happiness.
In other words, some Christians answer to # 2 by saying this: an all-powerful being will always make his ultimate desires a reality, even if it involves the laying aside or sacrificing of secondary desires.
Thirdly, there is actually a way to rethink point #3 above. The issue as it stands is that to suggest evil and suffering exist is rather too simplistic. There are a variety of kinds of suffering. A man who stabs a knife to another’s belly doesn’t cause pain physically different from a surgeon who removes a person’s appendix, but no one would read the two stories and assume that they were similar. Everybody sees the latter suffering as what we might term deliberate suffering. After all, we have grown used to referring to such types of violence as “senseless” violence because we understand that other kinds of violence might be deliberate.
In other words, the Christian answer to # 3 is this: Purposeful suffering exists.
Finally, the Bible quite specifically adds one more consideration to this question: that is, all human misery is temporary except for the Lake of Fire’s final judgment. In contrast to this, definitely, is that heavenly paradise is permanent.
Simply put, the fourth Christian point is this: Earthly misery is temporary by nature, but heavenly fulfillment is permanent.
Therefore, the proper Christian counter-argument is something like this:
• A good and loving being desires long-term, full fulfillment for his fellow beings, even if it entails momentary discomfort.
• An all-powerful being will always make his ultimate desires a reality, even if it involves laying aside or sacrificing secondary desires.
• There is a reason for some earthly purposes. All earthly suffering is temporal, but heavenly fulfillment is everlasting.
• Thus, the notion of a good, caring, all-powerful being is perfectly consistent with the present reality of suffering.
I hope that will help you with the philosophical side of things.
HOW SHOULD WE CHRISTIANS DEMONSTRATE THE IDEAL OF GOD’S JUSTICE IN OUR DAILY LIVES?
For your “less philosophical” question, we must begin by thinking about what “the ideal of God’s justice” implies. The problem with the notion of justice is that it is brief and confusing, but it shouldn’t. It is confusing because the human notion of justice, like the human notion of misery, has been corrupted by “God’s ideal.” Humans consider all suffering to be bad even though, when pressed, we recognize that some suffering is advantageous. Humans often believe justice to be similar to something called fairness or equality. That is, much of the human language of justice ultimately comes down to claims like this:
• Everyone should have equal chances of success.
• People who are disadvantaged should be given more consideration and support to give them the same chance of success as others.
• Everyone, except for the position of intolerance, should be tolerant of everyone else’s positions.
• All views should be equally valued.
We could list several more phrases that come from our modern understanding of justice. The ancient interpretation of justice, however, incorporated phrases such as these:
• Everybody gets what they deserve.
• Men deserve more salaries than women because they are the head of their families.
• Certain people are detrimental to society as a whole and should be expelled from that society.
• People who have dumb opinions should be openly vilified.
You see, our modern definition of justice is “individual” justice. This justice aims to bring about a balance among all people.
The ancient notion of justice, however, was that of social justice. The justice sought to maintain the dignity of society. One centers on society and strives for “integrity,” while the other centers on individuals and strives for “balance.”
The issue is that, in both cases, notions of integrity and balance are vaguely defined and that questions of right and wrong and how to correct what is wrong are viewed from two different perspectives. Currently, much of our political discussion between the Republicans and the Democrats are just a debate between these two justice notions.
However, over both cases, a unified definition of justice can be identified as something like this: justice does what is right and correcting what is wrong.
Based on that definition, we really have something to do with Christians living out God’s ideal of justice in our everyday lives. All we need to do is to consider what God will mean by doing what is right and what God would consider by correcting what is wrong.
CONSIDER THIS VERSE:
“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” — Micah 6:8
There are three concepts in this verse: to act with justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. In this context, justice implies living according to God’s law for human interaction, while mercy refers to the desire to give people what they do not actually deserve. Jesus summarized the two concepts of justice and mercy into a single concept of love when announcing the greatest commandment:
‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ The second is this: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ There is no commandment greater than this.”—Mark 12:30-31.
In defining this kind of love, Jesus tells us that the golden rule is our standard of how we should treat others, and total surrender is the definition of our relationship with God.
Thus, according to this idea, “justice” or doing the right thing comes down to the two elements of first, constant personal obedience to God as an individual (there is no notion in Jesus’ greatest command about forcing the obedience to God on others), and second, to do for others precisely what you would have them do for you if the tables were turned.
Put in that context, many of the current debates lose power. If I were the person in need, I would appreciate both government assistance and a personal relationship with someone who could be an advocate, mentor, and friend. I want the challenge to make more productive use of my time and talent, but I’d like the environment to be set up to better use my time and talent. I’d want help to become more personally capable so that I could ultimately become more RESPONSIBLE. See, if I were the person in need, I would like a solution that is systemic, personal, and uplifting. I do not want anyone just to give me a fish, nor do I want anyone to give me a pole, but I want someone to take me fishing, give me my first rod, and maybe even give me some of their fish as they teach me to do it myself.
So, from Jesus’ perspective and the teaching of the Bible, justice and mercy must always go hand in hand under the umbrella of the Golden Rule of Love. All this must find its place under the larger umbrella of me, living in complete personal surrender to God.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR DAILY LIVING? I THINK IT BOILS DOWN TO A FEW THINGS:
• The Christian who wants to work for justice must first be living in humble submission to God, doing what he does for God’s sake, and in compliance with God’s guidance.
• The Christian who wants to work for justice must constantly ask of every justice issue, “What would speak love to me if I were in that person’s shoes?”
• A Christian who wants to work for justice must seriously study the social dynamics of social systems, mental health, economics, etc. to make the most effective efforts to express love in others’ lives.
• A Christian who wants to work for justice must use whatever power he or she may have, politically, economically, personally, to express love in others’ lives and encourage others to join the cause.
What does this mean for us? It means that we should strive to understand the systems at play that leads to circumstances of perpetual inequity, and we should not strive for the building of equity but the showing of love.
How you live that out and how I live that out will be different for each of us, but ultimately it must be motivated by a desire to serve God and love others.
With that perspective, justice is not confusing at all. It’s just asking the Golden Rule’s question repeatedly from the perspective of total surrender to God.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT ON GOD’S JUDGMENT
I want to say one more thing. Most of our thinking about justice requires we also think about judgment. The process of correcting what is wrong seems to always include punishing the wrongdoers, and so every notion of God’s justice must also consider the judgment of God. Again, a component of justice is correcting the wrongs, and a component of the correcting the wrongs is judging evil. The Bible is also very clear on this point. Judgment in the sense of punishment or condemnation is always and only the prerogative of authority. The wrongdoings in the church is to be handled with church discipline, and the wrongdoings in society is to be disciplined by the authorities of that society. Sin is to be judged by God himself in the last days.
Where we fail is when the individual without authority offers judgment.
When we condemn or despise our brothers and sisters, we do so in sin because we do so without due authority. Therefore, justice implies judgment only if the actor for justice also holds the authority to judge. Without jurisdiction, justice leaves no place for judgment, vengeance, or anything like that.