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Posted: 10/30/2020
Let Justice Roll on Like a River
Justice: 'I'll Know It When I See It'

While there have been calls for Justice over the centuries, today in our country, it is a cry that is loud, demanding, mournful, and almost constant. Nowhere is this more prevalent that its call for Racial Justice.

But, what is this thing called Justice? In this Reflection, I'm thinking more about justice in the sense of what God calls justice and is based on our Judeo-Christian understanding. While I hope our legal justice system is founded on moral codes and the Judeo-Christian tradition, I'm not thinking here in the legal sense.

It is obvious from scripture that God demands justice. The word is prevalent in the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophets, where Justice appears (in most translations) 28 times. Interestingly, the word does not appear in the New Testament. The nature of justice is in the New Testament, but due to translation, the Greek term translates in English to Righteousness. (See more.Jesus' and the New Testament's focus on justice has been obscured in the history of English-speaking Christianity by the decision of New Testament translators to render the Greek word dikaiosune and its derivatives as "righteousness" (and "righteous," "unrighteous," "wicked," and "wickedness") instead of as "justice" (and "just," and "unjust," and "injustice"). In a way, this is unfortunate as our culture usually thinks of Righteousness as more having to do with church-going, avoiding drugs, watching movies no more risqué than PG-rated. But, what is actually meant with righteous is "doing right", and "making-right". This kind of righteousness, which is about the same as "justice", is the kind of influence needed in society.) The Amos selection in the picture is probably one of the most-quoted verses:

"But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24 NIV)

Another piece of scripture from the prophet Micah seems to be a companion to the Amos scripture, but with two additional expectations:

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8 NIV)

For both these justice passages, they are preceded with God's admonition that it is not our burnt offerings, lavish gifts, and songs of praise that God desires. No, God's expectation and requirement of us is to be individuals and a people of Justice.

Justice is one of those concepts we think we understand until we try to define it. There doesn't seem to be a simple dividing line between Just and Unjust. The prophets' words are both inspiring and challenging, but how would they — how can we — distinguish between the Just Person and the Unjust?

I find justice a tough one to get my head around, especially in real terms not simply in a theoretical or philosophical sense. I definitely think it is different and more than what the commercials for personal-injury-type law firms call justice. For example the one that advertises how their firm got justice for the woman whose grandmother in a nursing home suffered from devastating bed sores. The result is always a Large-cash-settlement! The woman says, "They got us justice! A large cash settlement!" (Interestingly, though, we never hear whether grandma's bedsores were ever taken care of.)

I think we can better understand justice by actually seeing it in action. "I know it when I see it." In 1964 in an obscenity case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, speaking of hard-core pornography, that while it is hard-to-define and without clear parameters, "I know it when I see it." (In the case he was hearing, although he couldn't explain or completely understand why, he decided after seeing the controversial movie that it was not obscene.)

The spur for my thinking about "I will know justice when I see it," came during one of my morning devotional times. A part of my daily devotions is "The Reservoir", a fifteen-month spiritual formation devotional by Renovaré. The Reservoir is a fifteen-month weekday (no weekends) devotional published by Renovaré, which provides practical resources for "cultivating a life — the with-God life — that makes us like Jesus from the inside out." Renovaré, based on the works of Richard Foster, is led by its current president Chris Hall. Prior to Renovaré, Chris was a professor of theology at Eastern College. He and his family are members of my church, the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA. Renovaré Website. For more about the 15-month devotional (I just completed the 14th month!): The Reservoir. It devoted a week to reading about and meditating on "Becoming More Like Jesus in Our Public Actions." While much has been written about Justice, thinking on this topic in the devotional gave me a sense of biblical justice I could get my head around and apply to today's world.

A key quote in a lesson "What Does It Mean To Act Justly?" was "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public." Justice is not something we possess, something we can have. Just People aren't "Just" in themselves; they are Just in relationship with others. To "act justly" is to act in accordance with what a relationship requires; what encourages a relationship to flourish. A key here is that justice is within a relationship; a relationship with an individual or with a group.

With this as a lens, we can "know it (justice) when we see it" in a relationship. For example, a college professor can act justly or unjustly toward students. If she prepares well for class, teaches well, grades fairly, and invests in her students, she is acting justly toward them: she is doing what a just or righteous professor should do in relationship with students. The professor is showing love (in terms of healthy concern) for students.

On the other hand, the unjust professor may be ill-prepared, use materials from previous years, and have little understanding or concern for the diverse needs of students. In a similar manner, students also can be just or unjust. The lazy, inattentive, ignoring-homework student is acting unjustly in this teacher/student relationship.

"By their fruits you will know them" comes to mind. (Matt. 7:16 NIV) It may be difficult to think of "love" in teacher/student relationships. But it makes sense when we think of love as the agape-type love that shows itself as an active caring for the welfare of the other. Just professors act in visible ways that show a sincere concern for the well-being and growth of their students.

With this context of Justice being what love looks like in public actions, we can gain a sense of whether an action is just, whether it applies justice. What about in a tough situation: A police officer confronts a possible suspect who may be dangerous? How does a just officer interact with the suspect? What about interaction with bystanders? In this setting of emotions and quick decisions, what is justice? What is injustice?

What would be the actions of a just person in governmental authority? I would think a just authority figure would be well-versed in the laws, protocol, and history of the position. The just governor would recognize the vast diversity of the people he governs. The just senator would hear and consider the voice of all types of people, not only those who agree with or support her. Think about your own governmental officials — your city's mayor, your senator, your sheriff ... even your country's president. Through their words and actions, do you view them as just or unjust? Do their actions look like "love in the public arena?"

It may be easy to look at others and see justice or injustice, but what about looking at ourselves? Am I a just father? A just husband? Do I show a loving concern in these relationships? If my wife has an interest in something that's of little interest to me, do I spend time getting to know her interest and why she enjoys it? If I'm a big sports fan and my son could care less about sports, do I care enough to try to find some common interest to at least talk about? How would the just father act? The unjust father?

Think about local, national, and world events. Can you think of an instance, perhaps in the last week, that you would deem an injustice? How could it have been turned into justice? During this last week, did I cause any injustices? Did I do anything to bring about justice in my job, my family, in my relationships?

I thought another quote taken from my above-mentioned devotional sums up why justice is so important — in addition to God demanding it: "When we act justly and receive justice from others, societies flourish. And just the opposite is true. Injustice always increases human misery. Always."The Reservoir, ibid, Month 13: The God-Saturated Life, Week 3: Becoming More Like Jesus in Our Public Actions, Monday: What Does It Mean To Act Justly?

It may seem that this Reflection is not very spiritual, religious, or God-centered as I think many are. But, as I ponder what I wrote, I think it is. For God says he hates and despises our religious festivals; does not want our burnt offerings. Says 'away with the noise of your songs!' He will not listen to our harps. (Paraphrase Amos 5:21-23 NIV). "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

Look around. Do you see justice? Injustice? Look inside, too.

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