Relearning the Language of Justice

The Other 6
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“I don’t know what to think anymore,” she said, “but I want to know how I should pray. What should my response be as a Christian?”

A young parishioner had found her way into my office while I was working on my Easter sermon. I was preparing to preach about our invitation from the risen Jesus to see the world with resurrection eyes.

She, however, did not have resurrection on her mind. She was thinking about health care. A few days earlier, President Obama and the U.S. Congress had passed a health care reform bill—and she was worried. She’d heard a lot of people talking, a lot of hate and fear expressed on both sides of the debate. This church member wasn’t sure who to believe or what her faith might have to do with it all.

This is how many of us feel when it comes to issues of justice. We know we should care. We get that the issues are complex, but we just don’t know how to answer the perennial question “What Would Jesus Do?” in the midst of “Obamacare,” undocumented workers, the Manhattan Declaration, or climate change.

It’s not the job of pastors to tell people what side of a debate they should be on. But we can and should be providing people with language that helps them speak to these issues. What language do we have?

“We need words,” I told my friend at the Office of Social Justice. Pastors, leaders, and struggling church members all need words to help us speak about justice. I believe that issues of justice, unity, and peace feel taboo in many churches today—in spite of their centrality in Scripture—because they have become unfamiliar themes in our vocabulary for talking about God.

Pastors need to help congregations relearn the lost lexicon of justice. We need to speak the words of our deep-rooted assurance in Christ: The risen Lord we serve cares about peace in Israel and Palestine. He cares about health care for the poorest of citizens. He cares about justice.


Resurrection talk about health care wouldn’t be about how big or small you like your government.

Maybe if we were able to root these words in the reality of resurrection, they wouldn’t seem so unrelated to difficult issues like health care. Resurrection talk about health care wouldn’t be about how big or small you like your government. It would be about how deeply you care about the coming of God’s kingdom here and now—the kingdom initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, which changes everything, even our politics.

Sometimes we’ll have the words to help people like my young parishioner. Other times we won’t. When that happens, don’t forget the encouragement Paul gives in his letter to the Romans. When we don’t have words, the Holy Spirit groans for us. When we wonder how to pray about issues that are divisive, contentious, and complex; when we’re struggling to use our resurrection eyes in the face of the baldly political, our groans are enough. And we can invite our congregations to groan along with us.

Maybe the most powerful witness the church can have in this politically divisive age is to give voice to this reality: Things aren’t all right. The kingdom is still breaking in. We just have to speak the words when we have them, and model the groan when we don’t.

About the Author

Ryan Boes is pastor of family and youth at Ann Arbor (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church.

See comments (15)


It would be good to help people understand what is meant in the Bible by "justice". It is not "fairness", nor is it "everybody gets the same", or even "everybody has what they need to survive." It is to structure society in accordance with the law of God which will mean that some have more than others, some will see what little they have taken away (think the parable of the talents), and yes, some will die.

The earthly result of our pursuit of justice will not be equality of outcome and the attempt to achieve the latter will most assuredly prevent achieving the former.

In a Bible that tells the poor to put not their trust in princes but solely in the Lord, and tells the princes to sell all they have and give to the poor; that praises a woman who gives her last penny to God, and criticizes the wealthy for ostentatiously giving much without really sacrificing anything; the most obvious principle of justice is to use everything we are and have in service to the God who is its author and perfector - regardless of socio-economic means, status, or goals.

Eric, I wonder if there is another aspect to biblical justice. While it is certainly true that justice includes structuring society in a way that condemns injustice, I think it is more than that. The mandate is more personal, which means that even in an unjust society, we as individuals are not entitled to somehow use the standards of the unjust society to mistreat others. And further to that, suppose society was truly justly structured; that doesn't mean that whatever we could get away with would be a just action. Therefore the personal responsibility aspect of acting justly is as important and perhaps more important than the justice of society or government.

Society permits bankruptcy for expedient and merciful reasons. Yet in a way, bankruptcy is unjust. But I know some of those who have gone thru bankruptcy, have still paid back what they owed, when they were able to do so.

Ryan, as far as words are concerned...yes it is important, and the most important thing in this discussion is not to confuse justice with mercy. So often today when some christians are using the term "justice", they really are referring to mercy.

I agree that justice is a complicated issue. God's justice is not like human ideas of justice (Isa. 55:8-9). In the Biblical context, it seems that God has special concern for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden. God's justice seems to be slanted in the direction of the poor. Speaking of the kingdom of God, the psalmist says "justice and mercy will kiss" (Ps. 85:10).

I think that in America our ideas about justice are shaped too much by the doctrine of social Darwinism or Free Enterprise. To question whether these ideologies in their pure form might result in injustice is equated with being un-American, which is then equated with being un-Christian. How can we encourage people to think about these issues in a Biblical way without finding ourselves embroiled in the political divisiveness of our times? The political implications are there, obviously, yet no political party speaks for God or has a corner on the Biblical view of justice, and I agree that a pastor should not tell people how to vote.

I think we have to be careful when describing Biblical Justice not to look for texts that just matches our political positions. The year of Jubilee in the old Testament certainly points to the importance for the society to provide a way to have poor people being able to manage on their own again.

John Z. -

I think the pursuit of "just structures" is a fool's errand, to be quite honest. Structures are either more conducive to justice or less so, but by themselves are no more just or unjust in themselves than is a hammer. And like hammers, they can be used to help build what is beautiful, or used to smash and destroy.

A structure without accountability, for instance, is less likely to encourage justice, given the fallen nature of human beings. But if the man at the top remembers that he also has a master "and there is no favoritism with him" (Eph. 6:9b), it might still function justly. Indeed, there have been times in history when a tyrant was more just than a democracy - whatever one's problems with Napoleon might be, he was a significant improvement over the Terror.

Which is why I said the first principle of justice is "to use everything we are and have in service to the God who is its author and perfector" - which is a personal and individual way of being and acting utterly separate from the structure within which one might live and move.

Eric, I totally agree with your second and third paragraphs. But not with your first one. And the reason is this: that if a society contains a structure that relegates people to slavery based on skin color alone, or does not permit the vote to certain ethnic backgrounds, then the neutrality of societal structure may be questioned. If a societal structure does not permit bringing forth of evidence, nor time to hear it, or gives arbitrary judgement without trial, then there appears to be a built-in injustice. Then justice may occur only if the societal structure is transgressed... Which is why in the end, real justice becomes a personal responsibility.

Nola, I believe the statement that God has special concern for the poor (as if He had less concern for the rich) is misplaced and unscriptural. This is due to a misunderstanding and misreading of scripture.

What we don't realize sometimes is that God is very concerned about the rich. If you will remember the parable about the servant who owed his master much, and then was forgiven the debt, you will also remember that the one who was forgiven, refused to forgive the servant who owned him money(much less money than his own debt). The point of all this is not that the master cared more about the poorer servant. The point is that when a great debt is forgiven, it should result in mercy for others. It should be reflected in gratitude. And the way this gratitude is displayed should be reflected in the way we treat the less fortunate. Not for their sakes, but for the sake of our own souls.

Faith without works is dead. And for the wealthy, their faith is reflected in how they live, how they care for those they are able to care for, the less fortunate. So God is very, very concerned about the rich, and how they live. Whenever scripture mentions caring for the poor, it does so to highlight the responsibility of the rich. Just as the blessing of wealth does not mean that God loves the rich more, so the command to share the wealth does not mean God loves the poor more. The command to share wealth is a command which has much concern for the wealthy, and where the treasure of their heart really is.

We hear so much about Unity..The WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES wants us to do that too..they like so many want us to unify with those who are not Christians and then control..
YES it is the JOB OF PASTORS to say what side of a debate one should be on..WHY do we have preach the TRUTH..when issues come up..folks NEED TO hear what is truth..what are the pitfalls that in our hurried world the average person may miss..what errors we believe..
We do care about justice..Jesus says we will always have the poor with us..usually justice is linked with politics..that is not truth

John Z.-
I would distinguish the structure of slavery from the basis on which some are or are not slaves in a given instance. The latter is a particular application of the structure in the same way that the manner in which slaves are treated or the service to which they are put are distinct from the structure of slavery per se.

Slavery has been practiced throughout history without denying the fundamental humanity of the slave. This dehumanizing application on the basis of race is really a fairly recent development - only since the 17th century. Philemon did not deny the humanity of Onesimus. Even in the early days of the colonies on these shores, the difference in the status of an indentured servant or freeman and that of a slave was not significant until the late 17th century.

Thus, while the structure of slavery, since it minimizes accountability, is more likely to see such an injustice (or others of like nature), it is not inherent to that structure.

But if we are to consider this part of the structure of slavery as such, then I would not disagree.

Even so, when in a position to establish a structure, the fact that one in which there are multiple layers of accountability and cross-checking is more conducive to justice should guide us, though we should be aware that any structure can - and at some point will - be put to unjust, evil purposes (and, by God's grace, vice versa).

Most of us aren't in that position. We're stuck with the structure we've got. So better to focus on being just.

I agree, Eric. There are multiple layers of structure. Some of those layers are more just than others. Sometimes we are stuck with what we have, but sometimes we have an opportunity to change the structure somewhat. Regardless, using the structure as an excuse for our own personal unjustness is invalid, not legitimate.

The idea of Justice, what the word means and how we define biblical Justice has been on my mind a lot lately. Having attended the Justice Conference here in Portland Oregon just a month back, my ideas of what Justice means, and how we are supposed to respond as Christians has been challenged and greatly expanded. As I listened to speakers like John Perkins, Walter Brueggemann, and Francis Chan speak, and saw the hundreds of organizations that were trying to connect and go do something, I found myself greatly convicted about how important justice is in God's Kingdom.

If you haven’t heard of the conference I highly suggest checking out the website, all of the main speakers videos can be purchased for about $20.00. I guarantee watching them will be worth it.


Justice Conference may sound warm and fuzzy but I suggest you take some time looking into the speakers that challenged and greatly expanded you mind.

I Googled all three of their names and then added the words....Communism/Socialism.... Bingo...Bingo...Bingo...

Now...can you list just one Communist country in the world that has worked out well for the average citizen?

Just ONE...

"Resurrection talk about health care wouldn’t be about how big or small you like your government. It would be about how deeply you care about the coming of God’s kingdom here and now ..."

This is such sophistry. Resurrection talk wouldn't be about health care, period. The oratory trick here is this: juxtapose something grand and glorious against something you oppose so that that which you oppose seems trite and silly. In this case the message is: it's not important how big or small government is, just so everyone is guaranteed health care--and if you don't think that, you are opposed to justice and what the resurrection represents.

In fact, I the size of government is an incredibly important issue. Ignore it and people lose political, economic, religious and other liberties. Ignore it and we can face what Guido De Bres and his generation faced. Ignore and injustice grows and multiplies. Generations who don't face the losses that highly centralized governments create tend not to appreciate them. They pooh-pooh these issues by saying things like resurrection talk about wouldn't be about how big or small your like your government.

Doug -
Along the lines of your post, I got to thinking... wouldn't health care be a moot point after the resurrection? I mean, if nobody's getting sick, who needs health care? It's pre-resurrection that we need concern ourselves with health care, and that means taking into account human limits - moral, physical, economic, intellectual, and everything else. And one could say the same thing about hunger, poverty, welfare, charity, and the whole panoply of pre-resurrection problems with their proposed solutions.

Pretending we're already in heaven is a pretty quick road to a very real and present perdition.

Giving the government responsibilities in the health realm is like putting a witch doctor in charge of the University of Michigan Medical school.

Yes, it would be nice if everyone had health insurance. However, all you have to do is look at other countries who have socialized the healthcare industry and it becomes apparent that while it sounds good in theory, it is simply not practical. It opens up the door to the government deciding who gets treatment, who doesn't, and ultimately who lives and who dies. When the Government isn’t misleading the public... it is being totally incompetent.
While there is a need for some overhaul of the current system, having the government involved in the healthcare industry is clearly NOT the answer.