There is an awful lot of debate going on about social justice vs Biblical justice. At first glance, I found this debate a little odd. Social justice seems to be trying to work towards a common good for all human beings. This means exposing injustices towards groups or individuals and rectifying those injustices. It doesn’t seem like Christians should be against that. It also sounds like a lot of Biblical passages.
However, the Bible doesn’t seem to be what’s driving this debate. The driving factors are politics and social theories. More specifically a theory called Critical Race Theory. I’m no expert on that topic, so I won’t be addressing it directly. I would encourage you to see what one conservative expert, David French, had to write about CRT.
I do think it’s extremely important to see what the Bible actually has to say about justice. So I’m going to do a bit of a deep dive for us. I’m going to break out some ancient language stuff for context. If you hang in there with me, you’ll find it very helpful.
The Bible Tells Me So
Many of the Christian outcries against social justice have hinged around what Biblical word actually gets translated into English as justice. The argument is that the Biblical word for justice is צָדַק (tsadaq) and that can’t be used in a way to define or defend modern ideas of social justice. The argument is that when the Bible talks about justice it means something different.
If the primary word that the Bible used for justice was tsadaq, there might be something to this argument. I still don’t think it’s a good argument, but luckily that’s not the primary word, so I’m not going to spend my time there.
The word tsadaq gets translated as righteousness far more than justice. In fact, out of the 41 times it’s used in the Old Testament it gets translated as justice only 2 times.
The term more often used for justice is מִשְׁפָּט (mishpat). That’s the word we see in the famous Micah 6:8 passage. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” It’s also the term we see in Amos 5 where the prophet says to “establish justice at the gate” and “let justice roll like waters..”
So what is mishpat? It often carries a legal, civil, or social connection. The root of the word is a legal or governmental term. Mishpat gets used frequently when describing laws that govern how we treat other people (social and civil guidelines). These are many of the laws referenced in Exodus 24:3 where Israel said they would obey all the ordinances (mishpat). In Leviticus, it’s also often used to describe the laws the Israelites were to keep in sacrifices and other worship-related regulations.
We see that Samuels sons in 1 Sam 8:3, “perverted justice (mishpat)” by taking bribes and not carrying out the civil justice in a way that was even and fair for all. In 2 Samuel 8:15, we see that David administered justice (mishpat) in a civil or legal way.
In Isaiah the prophet describes a lack of justice (mishpat) in several places. In fact, all of the trouble that comes to Israel isn’t because they aren’t devout enough in their worship. It’s because they aren’t being people of justice.
What are the people doing that causes the prophet to say “Justice is far from us?” In chapter 1 verse 17 the people are told they can seek justice by rebuking those who are oppressing people and by taking care of orphans and widows. In fact, because Jerusalem isn’t seeking justice in these ways and correcting oppression (which is being done through the legal system set in place by their leaders) God calls Jerusalem a whore.
The prophet’s Amos, Jeremiah, and Micah all echo these same ideas of mishpat.
Justice in the old testament is a personal responsibility to care for those who society does not care for i.e. the widow, orphan, foreigner, oppressed. However, mishpat also clearly references laws and legal structures that should be doing the same thing.
God calls out the leaders who impose these unjust structures, but also calls out all of Isreal for not rebuking these leaders and correcting these problems.
If justice (mishpat) is my personal responsibility to care for those God cares about (all people), then supporting systems and legal structures that neglect them is me doing injustice.
Many say they don’t support these, but by not rebuking them and correcting them as Isaiah calls us to do, we are allowing them to continue and God’s words to Jersusalem can be just as true of us. What does God require of us? Do mishpat, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him.
The New Testament
When they translated the Old Testament into Greek, mishpat got translated to the Greek word κρίσις or krisis. This is the word Jesus uses when He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
Jesus is condemning the religious leaders for not being concerned with the type of justice that we saw God concerned within the Old Testament. It’s easy to point to the Old Testament passages and claim they only applied at a specific time. However, Jesus is speaking at a completely different time. The Jewish law is not the controlling law of the land. Roman law is the power, and yet Jesus still calls us to the same type of justice.
We can claim that this doesn’t fit the bill for the modern criteria of social justice, but this is exactly the type of thing that caused Dr. Martin Luther King to speak up. It’s the very thing that caused Rev. Billy Graham to refuse to speak in places where there was segregation. It is what should be compelling us.
Stand in the Gap
When I was young there was a group called Promise Keepers. They had a big conference in Washington DC called “Stand in the Gap.” They were talking about supporting faith in our society. That’s not what God called us to. God spoke through the authors of the Old Testament and said He doesn’t need sacrifices and He doesn’t want songs. He wanted people to seek justice, both on a personal level and on a civil level. That’s the gap we need to be standing in.
Jesus considered this type of justice a weightier, or more important, issue. Maybe we should too.