What comes to mind when you consider justice? We caught up with some of those serving with the Baptist Justice Initiative to hear their ideas.
The concept of justice has a lot of connotations. How can we start to grapple with what justice is about?
Justin: While I was travelling around the UK and Europe as an eighteen-year-old, I met an African lady at a hostel in England. She was on a mission trip and was keen to chat. When I told her my name, she asked what it meant. I replied, “Justice” (which is roughly correct). She then proceeded to explain to me the significance of justice in the Bible and referenced Isaiah 42:1-4 as an example of what justice looks like. If you’re unfamiliar with the Scripture, here it is: “Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my Spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed or put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly wait for his teaching” (GNB).
At the time, I didn’t understand the full significance of this passage, but I have since come to realise that it is a passage that the author of Matthew (12:15-21) points to as a way of explaining what Jesus will do as part of his ministry on earth.
Another more explicit explanation of Christ’s justice heart can be found in Luke 4:18-19, which is from another passage in Isaiah (61:1-2). Here, Luke records Jesus saying to a group in a Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And so in trying to settle on a simple definition of justice, I find I can’t get past these words that Jesus said about himself and went on to embody in everything he did throughout his ministry.
You might say that the law handed to Moses is also an example of justice, as it shows what is right and wrong. However, as Paul tells the Romans (7:7-25), just having the laws of God isn’t enough as we also need the Spirit of God to help us live by the law. So it is through really knowing Jesus and how he lived, and understanding what he cared for and what he spent his time on, that we can understand what justice is and the best approach to it.
Rachel and Fiona: Justice can mean fairness, or it can mean restoration where things have gone wrong—a repair of the damage. As we consider what it means to pursue justice in our current day, it is helpful to look at who Christ rallied against and saw as the oppressors, what the issues were that he was concerned about, and what steps he took in addressing injustice, as well as how successful they were.
Studying the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus shook up the religious elite, disregarded societal norms, and didn’t form a political party or amass an army. Instead, he led his disciples on a very uncomfortable journey that involved sacrifice. He eschewed the caste system, commerce, and the formal rituals of religion. He didn’t come to make more laws; he came to restore a broken relationship.
Justin: Jesus casts a vision of a time when oppressive structures and norms will be no more and there will be freedom from all these pressures. He extends an invitation, particularly to those who are oppressed, to enter with him into this future of freedom that he called the Kingdom of God. Jesus gives us all access to this Kingdom through his sacrificial death on the cross. This is a subversion of the human concept of justice that says those who do wrong deserve to be punished. And thus he restores our potential for relationship with God. It could be argued that this is the most just outcome that could be reached by our Creator.
So what does this mean for us today?
Justin: Let’s return to Jesus’ words, which leads me to the Beatitudes extolled during his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-11 and Luke 6:20-26). What we see in both Matthew and Luke is an upending of the norms of society. The oppressed, suffering, poor, and humble are to be blessed; those who are rich, well-fed, and proud are to watch out. Not only does he flip the script on his hierarchical society and all its societal norms, but he proceeds to challenge all these conventions which oppress and hold back so many of his community.
But Jesus’ approach wasn’t limited to words; it was a lived and holistic approach. He didn’t just proclaim the good news; he also set about giving “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free...” There were no token gestures. He lived what he preached and preached a message that got him killed.
So what does this mean for us approaching justice? It means we must deeply submerge ourselves in Christ—his story, his words, and his life—and then we must try and live it to the best of our ability, by the power of his Spirit guiding us. Along the way, we might upend a few tables, we’ll try and heal the sick, we’ll befriend the foreigner, we’ll challenge the powerful both in our churches and in our cities, we’ll declare his returning Kingdom through words and actions, and through all that, despite some missteps, we’ll come to know Jesus in a far more real and meaningful way.
Fiona and Rachel: Let’s consider multicultural, secular (which prioritises human rights), democratic, technological, media-saturated, and by and large peaceful Aotearoa.
If we consider the forms of injustice that exist in this country, we could probably group them into three categories: historical (disrespecting the Treaty), social inequality creating a class system based on those who have and those who do not have, and finally, injustice towards the outsider. Encountering each form may look different in different contexts, but each day brings us into relational spaces where injustice has occurred or is ongoing.
Whether it’s fighting for the minimum wage, respecting a local iwi’s concern, or squashing those thinly veiled racist comments, justice is about restoring our relationship to each other. If we held God’s view of each and every human being, we wouldn’t tolerate damp, cold houses and we’d support people who’ve escaped persecution to be here. We would understand that God calls us first into a relationship with him, and second into a relationship with our neighbour. So, who are our neighbours? Who are the oppressed in our society today? Christ came for the outsiders; he prayed that a Kingdom of heavenly justice would come down to this earth. We need to follow in his footsteps.
Justin: Another example would be something many of us are embarking on in the Baptist movement—working out what it means to honour Māori. If we were to take a holistic justice approach to this, it might be helpful to consider three things. Firstly, can we move beyond the tokenism of just learning a few words, phrases, or a song, and develop our relationships? Secondly, can we get over our apathy to the oppression experienced by so many Māori in our society, which has resulted in Māori featuring in many of the worst statistics of our nation? Can we find ways to reverse this tragedy? And lastly, can we aim to see that meaningful space is given to Māori in our churches, including seeking deacons and elders, so our movement can be truly reflective of God’s justice for all.
Thinking about justice initiatives can initially feel overwhelming. But the thoughts you are outlining here are practical.
Justin: Yes. When considering pursing justice, the best and simplest way to think about it is making more just choices. This is essentially about choosing ethics over oppression. We’ve talked about a few examples already, but justice is broad. Here are some simple things to think about:
- Can we choose to live gently on the earth and ‘do no harm’ as far as is possible?
- Can we buy ethically so that our capital doesn’t maintain oppressive businesses and structures?
- Can we be politically interested so we’re aware of where oppression is being carried out, both in our own nation and abroad?
- Can we consume less, reducing or recycling what we do have, and using our time to improve our neighbourhood and cities?
Our desire to choose justice comes from our love for Jesus, and wanting to see the earth he created flourish and the Kingdom he is bringing expressed through us as his representatives. We can’t point to Jesus as the Saviour but ignore his Kingdom values.
Justice may conjure up ideas of marches down Queen Street or being chained to an oil tanker in the Tasman Sea. Perhaps this is part of it. But it’s important to realise that justice is as much a Christian value as it is something secular groups like Greenpeace pursue. Living justly is living out Jesus’ call with integrity. It means having a heart for the things he cares for and it means not resting until his Kingdom values permeate all aspects of our world. This ultimately won’t happen until he returns, but if we are pointing to him with honesty and integrity then we must also live out his values, and so that includes standing up to power structures that perpetuate injustice.
Martin Luther King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”1 While that is not scriptural, I think the principle is. We can’t put our heads in the sand about the oppression of others and complicitly take part in it through our economic activities and our apathy and idleness. Yes, it can be hard, and so it starts with making small choices that slowly re-orientate us in such a way that we are living more closely aligned to Jesus’ Kingdom values and conforming less to the ways of the world.
Much of secular society is no longer ignorant to the injustices of this world and are also quite aware of Jesus’ care for the oppressed. But if we are seen to ignore these injustices and be apathetic to the problems in our world while encouraging others to consider Jesus, then we just make ourselves look like hypocrites. Let’s make sure we are pointing to Jesus from a place that embodies Christ’s values.
Story: Justin Latif, Rachel Tallon, and Fiona Beals.
Justin is a community development practitioner and journalist from Mangere.
Rachel is an education researcher at Victoria University. She holds a doctorate in Development Studies and is keen to push the boundaries of critical thinking around issues in our complex modern society. She enjoys fellowship at Epuni Baptist.
Fiona is the Principal Tutor on the Bachelor of Youth Development at WelTec (Wellington and Auckland) and a member of Life Impact Centre (Wainuiomata Baptist Church). She has a passion for making a difference in the world by challenging the status quo of inequality for young people living in Aotearoa through Kingdom principles and practices.
Justin, Rachel and Fiona are three serving with the Baptist Justice Initiative, a group formed in 2017 to be a resource in exploring justice issues for Baptist churches.
1. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Martin Luther King, Jr: Stanford University, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letterbirmingham-jail
- How do you understand justice? What do you think about the ideas here?
- What injustices do you come across and is God asking for your response?
- Who could you partner with in response?
Photo: Forgiven Photography/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For scriptures marked GNB: Scriptures and additional materials quoted are from the Good News Bible © 1994 published by the Bible Societies/ HarperCollins Publishers Ltd UK, Good News Bible © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992. Used with permission.