Note: I’ll be at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute this week giving lectures on the relationship between the Gospel and justice. As such, I thought I would replace this week’s issues with excerpts from those talks.
Faith, hope, and love—do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The juxtaposition of Paul and Micah’s formulations of our moral life might help us speak Christianly about justice in our own time. The former names virtues, and the latter names practices; the former look backward to Christ’s atonement, and the latter, forward. There is no justice without faith, no mercy without hope, and no humility without charity. John’s triad of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life names the threats to such virtuous practices, which prevent the clarity of the Gospel from shining forth in our society. Yet this means that faith and justice must look beyond themselves: they are incomplete, on their own. And their unity means rejecting what comes after means losing what comes before. A world without faith can have no hope or love; a world which spurns mercy and humility will soon see justice depart. Only in this way can justice be saved: in this way, justice must be saved, or it shall be no longer just.
What, then, might faith have to do with justice? In the first place, faith means justice is a matter of rightly responding to God’s redemption, which both binds us to and demands we order our lives in conformity to the order of God’s good creation. The Lord’s answer to Israel in Micah 6:1-8 is instructive in this regard: Injustice has triumphed in Israel because she had ungratefully scorned God’s grace in bringing her up from Egypt. Yet in turning her back on God’s redemption, creation stands in judgment: God sends Micah before the mountains to bring his charge against Israel. The mountains precede Israel in God’s economy, and so they bear perpetual witness to God’s gracious kindness despite Israel’s transgressions. No wonder God addresses the Adam in naming humanity’s moral responsibilities: The demand for justice extends is written into creation itself; it extends as far as the east is from the west. If we fail to live as God’s creatures, creation itself will bear witness against our vanity. We need not look long into the New Testament to see that this is so: if the people do not praise God, the stones shall rise up and do so instead. The cosmic groaning of creation is matched by our groaning in prayer, as we order our lives toward what shall finally liberate us both, namely, the redemption of our bodies. There is no faith, and no justice, that does not honour the authority of the Lord Jesus over every inch of His created world. Justice is both responsive and responsible to the content of the Very Good that God uttered when the creation was complete.
Second, faith puts an end to the voracious demand for sacrifice that arises when we attempt to expiate our sin by our own hands. The kindness of God leads humanity to repentance; it animates both a godly sorrow for our wrongdoing, and a glad eagerness to set matters right with our neighbour. We are to leave our offerings upon the altar, and make haste in reconciling ourselves to one another (Matthew 5:23). Yet it is impossible to make full restitution or compensation for wrongs. The peace we have with one another depends upon both parties recognizing this limit. Sin is infinite: the only final and definitive remedy for injustice is the forgiving grace of God. No punishment, no damages, no consolation can rectify the murder of Abel: his blood cries up from the ground in response to Cain’s sin. Sin takes time, both from the sinner and the one they wrong. A person might repay money they have stolen; they cannot give back the time their victim loses in seeking justice and peace. The sacrifice of the infinite God is the world’s only hope for real restitution: in the resurrection of the Slain Lamb, Jesus Christ gives to us all the time we have lost to sin. If we join with Lady MacBeth in our efforts to wash the indelible stain of sin and guilt from our hands, we will find ourselves sacrificing new innocent blood. Israel’s responds to God’s accusation of their injustice in Micah by proposing a litany of sacrifices, each more extreme than the one before, until at last they propose joining with the pagans in slaughtering their firstborns. Where sin unmakes the world, justice demands the mercy of God: any attempt to restore the world on other terms can only breed new wrongs..
Yet if the Gospel saves justice from itself, it also liberates justice to be itself. The imperative to “do justly” follows the two dimensions articulated above: it has something to say about the needs we have by virtue of being creatures in God’s image, and about our guilt or innocence. On the one side, justice demands recognizing the humanity and creatureliness of our neighbour—and bestowing upon them what is necessary for their security and beatitude. The “covenants among men,” as Paul Ramsey put it, bind us together: they create mutual obligations, such that for one to have resources in abundance and another to starve is a fundamental injustice that demands rectitude. How such justice is secured is an important question; but there is no doubt that we owe our neighbour what he needs to flourish, even if he opts to use it for vice. On the other side, justice secures a partial and limited judgment upon those who do wrong; but when it is founded upon the sufficiency and finality of the death of the One Innocent, Jesus Christ, for all, justice also demands an absolute prohibition on the destruction of innocents—especially in the pursuit of justice itself. The presumption of innocence within our legal system is founded upon this theological principle. In securing redress for victims, a justice system ought not create new ones. Our willingness to weaken this presumption is the clearest indication that we are a post-Christian society I know of.