God’s Justice

11 07 2013

By Susan Oxley, Council of Twelve Apostles

dreamstime_l_1607961Humans, indeed, need justice. Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization and Children’s Defense Fund color a bleak picture.

There are seven billion people in the world. An estimated 925 million are hungry. On average 10.9 million children die each year, half because of malnutrition. Genocide in Darfur, Sudan, resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and more than two million refugees. Every three hours a child or youth under 20 is a homicide victim.

Other justice issues in various countries include: race relations, immigration practices, health care, international relations, children’s rights, gender issues, human slavery, armaments, political oppression, religious abuses, limited education, and rights for the physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged.

What responsibility do followers of Jesus Christ have in addressing injustice? What kind of justice is “God’s justice?”

Paul Tillich, a German theologian, identified three levels of justice in Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications:

We often understand justice in relation to power. When two people meet, they are seldom equal in power. Wherever one person dominates another, injustice can occur. Justice seeks to reestablish equality in relationships.

Later writers explored Tillich’s categories and added others. In this article, I will blend Tillich’s basic ideas with later concepts to explore four types of justice:

  1. On the most basic level, all created beings have the right to be what and who God created them to be. I call this intrinsic justice because it is “built in” to all creation.
  2. The second type of justice is proportional justice or “earned justice.” When people say, “He got his just rewards,” they are referring to this kind of justice. You get what you deserve.
  3. The third type is restorative justice. It seeks to restore wholeness, especially in situations where proportional justice has failed or been misused.
  4. The fourth type is shalom justice. It combines the grace of restorative justice with the accountability of proportional justice.

Let’s explore each of these.

Intrinsic Justice

Be who God created you to be. To explore the relationship between humans and God, note the idea of justice in fulfilling God’s intent in creation. This type of justice is reflected in God’s covenant with the Jews: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Exodus 6:7 and Jeremiah 31:33 NRSV, adapted). One can almost hear God quietly adding, “And let’s not confuse the one with the other.” Treating non-divine objects, people, or activities as divine, denies God’s right to be fully God. This is idolatry, a form of injustice against God.

One of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount reflects intrinsic justice. Jesus told his followers to “Be perfect, even as God is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV, adapted). The Hebrew word teleios translated as perfect, but it meant “to achieve an end or goal.” Therefore, the verse could read “fulfill the potential of your being, just as God fulfills the measure of divine Being.” Community of Christ’s Enduring Principles affirm the built-in value and worth of each individual. Repeatedly, we uphold intrinsic justice:

  • All human beings are created in God’s image for divine purpose (Genesis 1:27)
  • …Humans find their truest selves and deepest joy and peace by relating in love to God, others, and the whole creation (Doctrine and Covenants 163:2)
  • “God is always seeking to restore us to our true created natures…” (“Theological Foundations: God,” Herald, August 2012)
  • When all creation fulfills its potential, intrinsic justice occurs.

Proportional/Earned Justice

Give to every person what he or she deserves. We tend to support proportional justice as a worthy goal. A worker receives a fair wage because she earns it. Reasonable punishment is exacted in proportion to crimes committed. In an ideal world, standard and fair rules would distribute honor and punishment in proportion to what each person deserves.

But the world is not ideal, and we often don’t receive what we have earned. Standard guidelines for spreading wealth are inadequate or not carried out. Mechanical rules overlook individual needs. Honors can be bought and sold. Heroes are overlooked. Criminals may go free; innocents may be convicted. Intentional manipulation and abuse upsets the balance of power between people, groups, and nations.

“Obedience theology,” a form of proportional justice, says God blesses the obedient and curses the disobedient. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament warn people that God’s vengeance will follow disobedience. “For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries…” (Deuteronomy 32:43).

Many passages in the Book of Mormon express obedience theology and emphasize God’s judgment on sin. Doctrine and Covenants 81:1 speaks of the penalty of God’s judgment. Other sections identify God’s punishment as the justly earned rewards for those who persecute God’s people or do not believe as we do.

Jonah (4:10–11) and Ecclesiastes (8:10—9:12) question obedience theology and hint at a larger mystery surrounding God’s justice. The Book of Job directly confronts obedience theology. It presents a dialogue between Job and his friends in which the friends insist Job has sinned greatly and deserves the suffering he experiences. Job denies knowledge of such overwhelming disobedience and instead tries to reframe who God is. Perhaps God is not a loving creator, but an evil, arbitrary divinity.

Yet Job’s experience of the beauty of creation and the bounty of God’s blessings testify against that notion, and Job always returns to a defense of the divine goodness of God, even if suffering is not explained.

An emphasis on repentance and forgiveness demonstrates how Jewish ideas about God’s justice were moving toward the third type of justice: restorative justice.

Restorative Justice

It seeks to correct the errors of proportional justice. God is not bound by human laws and concepts of justice. God’s intent for human beings is wholeness, so divine grace overlooks what a person has “earned” and gives unbounded love, forgiveness, and restoration instead. “Therefore the divine justice can appear as plain injustice…creative justice is the form of reuniting love” (Tillich).

Hosea forgave unrepentant Gomer when she was unfaithful, simply because he loved her. This undeserved mercy is like the grace and love of God toward Israel (Hosea 11:7–9). Isaiah assured Judah of God’s blessings despite the faithless people (Isaiah 30:18–26). The prophets continually called Israel back into covenant relationship with God. This message of hope, mercy, and illogical grace becomes the foundation of Jesus’ teachings and reveals God’s shalom justice.

Shalom Justice

This combines mercy plus accountability. Shalom justice combines the creative aspects of restorative justice with the accountability of proportional justice (Perry B. Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace). Shalom justice means liberation for people who have been oppressed or marginalized.

What was the earned justice for the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, Peter’s denial, and those who crucified Jesus? Jesus taught that God’s grace and forgiveness exceeded God’s judgment. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom reveals a God who replaces injustice with justice, transforms social structures, and defends the weak and those on the margins of society.
The beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–11) would have been shocking to the people of Jesus’ day.

Obedience theology said the poor, the mourners, the meek, and the persecuted had received their just dues. Yet Jesus assured them of the blessings of God’s favor. God’s shalom justice does not follow human expectations.

Matthew 5:38–48 affirms that God’s love can break the cycle of violence, and God’s shalom justice is both restorative and revolutionary.

Here Jesus transforms the ancient Holiness Code of limited retaliation into shalom responses to restore wholeness. He quotes Exodus 21:23–24, which stipulates proportional justice.

In contrast, Jesus tells his followers to turn the other cheek. In that day, a person of power would strike a subordinate on the right cheek with the back of the right hand. Turning the cheek away presented the left cheek, both a sign of forgiveness and an invitation to strike with the open palm—as equals do. Jesus’ teachings transform the insult. His teachings challenge the system and provide opportunities to restore wholeness and balance.

A man could be sued for his coat, an inner tunic, and be required to give it up to pay a debt. But he was allowed to keep his cloak, a long outer garment, to cover his nakedness and protect against the elements. To give the cloak with the coat as payment showed greater self-denial, but it left the giver naked in public. In that culture, this result shamed the cloak’s receiver more than the giver. It sent the message, “I give you all I have to restore right relationship—but aren’t you ashamed it has come to this?”

Roman law allowed soldiers to force any passerby to carry gear for a mile—but only one mile. If a soldier requested a second mile, the soldier was breaking the law. Going a second mile was more than just a generous offer. It spared another person the burdensome task. It forced the soldier to think again about the justice of the law he had invoked.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Returning good for evil shames the enemy, gives the persecutor a bad image, and takes control out of the hands of the opposition. Here is the transforming power of love at work, delivering justice and God’s shalom. Prayer is transformative, an opportunity to align our will with God’s initiative.

For theologians Glen Stassen and David Gushee, enacting God’s justice requires prayer, plus action to: (1) help the poor and powerless; (2) confront oppressive power; (3) stop violence and establish peace; and (4) restore outcasts to caring community. This is what God did through Jesus, as he modeled God’s kingdom and shalom justice.

God’s justice seeks to restore both victim and perpetrator to wholeness and worth. It repairs broken communities with grace and generosity. It considers individual differences and shows partiality.

Shalom justice recognizes the power of evil, names it, and seeks to restore right relationships. It combines forgiveness, accountability, transformation, and grace. It allows second chances, third chances, and resurrection as responses to crucifixion.

God’s justice creates shalom. That is exactly the kind of justice each of us needs in response to the brokenness in human life. It comes with accountability balanced by grace. It provides an ethic of peace to live by. It is love, delivering justice.




One response

11 07 2013

Reblogged this on BradBryant70 and commented:
As we consider the word “Justice”, we often think of the “court system”, inflicting punishment on offenders. Apostle Oxley offers a different and better view of God’s Justice, not as vengeful retaliation, but as a journey to restore relationships and “fairness”.

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