The title of Psalm 82 in the NRSV is “A Plea for Justice.” We hear this word “justice” thrown around a lot: in the news, on social media, in the mouths of both politicians and pastors alike. In many ways, justice has become one of those hot-topic “buzzwords”; it seems that everyone wants to have the market cornered on justice.
But do we even really understand what justice is? More importantly, do we view justice in the same way as God?
At its most basic definition, justice simply means, “getting what you deserve.” By this definition, there are two main streams in thinking about justice. The first understanding of justice is that of courtroom justice: vindication for an injustice or deserved punishment for a crime committed. We think of convicted criminals “getting justice” when the sentence is handed down to them. We believe in a “divine justice” when God will ultimately judge the living and the dead.
This version of justice is demonstrated in the first two verses of Psalm 82. Here, we see God placed as the judge in a heavenly courtroom. Our Lord is called upon from among the gods to judge the nations and pronounce judgement on the wicked.
At our human core, we all long for this first version of justice. We want to see evil-doers punished for their atrocities. We want to believe that people reap what they sow and get what they deserve. We want to see people pay for their crimes and endure the consequences of their actions. Whether it is the Boston marathon bombers, a child molester, or a mass murderer, we demand justice. We may even comfort ourselves with the thought that in those cases when people escape justice in this lifetime, they will face ultimate judgement in the life to come. We hope for a sort of cosmic karma: “what goes around comes around.”
However, there is a shadow side to this view of justice. A consistent longing for this sort of justice can eventually turn into a twisted sense of vengeance. Thinking we know better than God, we frequently put ourselves on the judgment seat. How easily we forget that the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).
Fortunately, there can be another way of thinking about justice. Looking at the definition “justice is getting what you deserve” from an alternative perspective, justice now becomes the idea that there are some basic human rights that all people are entitled to possess: freedom, safety, dignity, equality, health, love. In this line of thinking, justice is assuring that people are getting the rights that they deserve.
This second version of justice is displayed in Psalm 82:3-4, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Here, justice is displayed as restoring broken systems, repairing broken relationships, and fixing that which is unfair, corrupt, or exploitative.
This type of justice is often characterized by social justice, defined as, “the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society” (Google definition). John Wesley was a strong advocate of this form of justice, and Methodist leaders were among the first to work toward prison reform and to fight for the abolishment of slavery. Wesley urged early Methodists to engage themselves in “works of mercy” by caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, and advocating for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.
In the Church, we tend to view this second form of justice through the lens of salvation or redemption; the word “justification” may come to mind in this line of thinking. When we care for the poor and show concern for the orphan, we are acting redemptively--as God has done in our own lives. Through enacting this kind of justice, we are able to participate in the missio Dei, coming alongside God in the salvation of creation and humankind.
It seems that in life we more instinctively embrace the first version of justice--the demand for revenge and “eye for an eye” mentality. What if, instead, our initial instinct was for this alternative version of justice, the type of justice that believes every human is created in the image of God and should be given an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed in life?
In this godly view of justice, even the homeless addict on the street deserves justice in the form of a hot meal and a warm bed. The Muslim Syrian refugee deserves justice through safety and security, not having to constantly live in fear of an oppressive regime. The unborn child deserves justice and the chance to live. Even the accused criminal deserves the justice of a unbiased trial and a fair sentence.
Coincidentally, this alternative view of justice is perfectly demonstrated in the Gospel lectionary reading for this week. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), neither the Levite nor the priest would take the time to show the traveler justice, but instead a despised Samaritan goes out of his way to help a beaten and dying stranger for no other reason than to provide him with a measure of human dignity.
Ultimately, our God is the God of Justice. This is the point of Psalm 82; it is God’s plea to the nations of the world to act justly. Justice is the heartbeat of our Lord. Justice comes in the form of salvation, where God restores a right relationship with God’s people. Justice is continually shown to us by a God who is the “Father of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5). And yes, justice is even in the act of God judging the earth and all the nations that belong to him as demonstrated in the last verse of Psalm 82.
As the people of God, we are to also define ourselves by justice. But in our fight for justice, may we be slow to judge and quick to defend the powerless. May we seek salvation, restoration, and redemption first, and leave vengeance to the One who sits on the divine council. May we model the kind of justice displayed by Christ, bringing good news to the poor and sight for the blind, proclaiming release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
For further reading:
Keller, Tim. “What is Biblical Justice?” Relevant. 23 August 2012. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/what-biblical-justice.
Wallis, Jim. “How the Bible Understands Justice.” OnFaith. 6 June 2014. http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/06/06/how-the-bible-understands-justice/32339.
The United Methodist Church. “How We Serve: Advocating for Justice.”