The True Meaning of Justice

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Way back in 1988, a Latin American theologian, Valdir Steuernagel, wrote a doctoral thesis where he explored the theme of the social implications of the gospel, taking a statement which is made in the Lausanne covenant on social responsibility. He underlined the need for evangelicals to work theologically and practically on the question of justice. In some ways, the problem is that that word has not always been part of our lexicon - I would say mainly in the English speaking world. You see there is another word which translates as righteousness. Many times as the word should be translated ‘justice’, but the translation reads ‘righteousness’. That means your own righteousness. Equality of your character as an individual Christian - when really, the text is talking about justice in society.

Valdir Steuernagel (from , his name says that he is of German origin) defines justice as the means to liberate the oppressed - to liberate the oppressed from the oppressors and to give them the promise in the vision of a new world and a new life. That pretty much agrees with the definition given by Brueggemann in his Old Testament theology, ‘Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them.’ There are many definitions you can give of justice, but the thrust in scripture is that of vindicating, restorative, remedial, corrective justice; setting things right when they are not right, and that especially applies to society. Now, since Valdir Steuernagel wrote his thesis about the need for evangelicals to get on the question of justice and work through it theologically, injustice has grown by leaps and bounds in the world.

is a very good example. We had an economic tsunami in , in 2001. You can’t imagine. Especially if you live in this country [UK ]. You can’t begin to imagine what it is like to have an economic tsunami. Middle class people all of a sudden left without a home and without work. What do you do? Your home has been taken away because you cannot keep up the payments. You loose your work. What do you do? By the way, if you had some reserves, the reserves are locked up, the banks were closed. You can’t imagine what happened in that country. Thousands and thousands of families, when they could, migrated to Spain, to Italy, to England, to the US, to Australia, anywhere. You could see middle class families living out on the street. I was shocked because I had never seen that kind of poverty in Argentina, in Buenos Aires . I had seen it in other places. But never, never in Argentina . But of course, what took place in December 2001 was the result of a rather long process. It started way back in 1976, the foreign debt of Argentina at that time was $8,000,000,000, between 1976 and 2001, the debt grew to $176,000,000,000 but had paid during that period $200,000,000,000.

I don’t know how much you realise that there is an evil economic system that is really destroying the world. I don’t want to argue over what the best economic system is, and I assure you I’m not a Marxist. But I can tell you, I have seen the effects of neo-liberal capitalism. I have seen the results of an economy which is run by big corporations. It runs national class. I don’t know how many Christians realise how much control of the economy of the whole world is held by big trans-national corporations. And there is a trans-national class; there is so much we could say about it.

Once again I was encouraged to read the prophets. I have been amazed to find out again how much of the message of the prophets is addressed to the oppressors, to the power and to those who are in government, sometimes supported by false prophets. You have them, a couple of weeks ago; we heard one and what he said about killing Chavez. It was heard all over the world. Priests, you have in the Old Testament, a call of the prophets of God to the priests who are legitimising the system, giving it a spiritual sanction. We have plenty of that too, not only in North America , but all over the world. I would like to suggest that the question of justice is still on our agenda - perhaps today more than ever, in a world of injustice and institutionalised injustice. Because that is what we have.

Take a look at Isaiah. It is amazing what you find in there. The prophet addresses those who have the power to make laws, those who have the power to enforce laws and those who are in position to judge. All the powers of our modern society, executive power, the legislative power and the question of justice, all of that is there. It’s all included, all the powerful are included.

Often times you hear, ‘What do you do? This is the only one system that has made it.’ Fukuyama says this is the end of history, there is no competition. This system has made it. It has proved itself to be the only system that can prevail. It has made it for whom? It has succeeded for whom? Not for the millions and millions and millions of poor people all over the world - including the wealthy countries because you have plenty of poor people. I’ve been reading some statistics on the growth of poverty in the US . It’s amazing, really amazing - especially under the present government, which is a Christian government remember, supposedly. You have never had so much prayer and bible study at the White House.

I believe that Tearfund has a special place in God’s plan at this time in history. Not just in terms of helping the poor abroad, not just through financial help but Tearfund is called to be a prophetic voice in today’s world.
When Helder Camera, known as the prophet in Latin America, was asked in this country, ‘what can we do to help with regards to the question of poverty in Latin America ?’ He said, ‘make sure you fulfil your prophetic role in the UK.’ The prophetic role has to do with justice. The call to justice is to all those who are in power. Thank God for all that Tearfund has been able to do so far. The participation in Jubilee 2000, that was a very important step.

Many people say, 'What can you do?' This is the only system, the only system. The prophetic imagination, to use Brueggemann’s expression, does not allow us to say this is the only system. This is not the only system; this is the system through which the world has been destroyed. The fundamental problems of society remain untouched. Talk about ecology, talk about the destruction of relationships, talk about the need to find out the purpose of life for young people other than making money.

Sometime ago, I was struck by a title I saw in a magazine “The Crisis of Capitalism”. I was amazed because the author is a well known capitalist – George Soros. The article, my goodness, if that had been written in times of the Cold War he would have been called a Marxist for sure. But in that article he was saying, “The open society is being destroyed by capitalism and you have a dictatorship of economics. Everything is run on the basis of economic interest.” Well that agrees with what the Christian economist, who was a Professor of the Free University of Amsterdam, says. He says that ‘the modern contemporary economic system seeks to understand and support only that which is related to cash-flow, the consumption, the income and the money in a market economy.’ It has no concern for human life. It has no concern for values in society - beginning with the value of justice. Let’s not expect those who are dedicated to the system to change anything unless, by God’s grace there is some kind of miracle in their way of thinking. I believe that our concern for justice is not just a human concern.

Very briefly, I want to mention 3 reasons why we should be concerned for justice. First, our God is a God of justice and we sometimes forget that. We talk about the God of love. Praise God he is a God of love! But he’s also a God of justice. Let me give you two texts, Psalm 99:4 and Isaiah 61:8.

The King is mighty, he loves justice—
you have established equity;
in Jacob you have done
what is just and right.”

Psalm 99v4

“For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and iniquity.”

Isaiah 61v8

‘I love justice’, that is the first reason.

The second reason is that our God expects justice. You know the wonderful text in Micah 6:8. People are asking, ‘how will we please God? Shall we offer sacrifice? Shall we be religious?’ What does God answer? Through the prophet he says,

“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

That is the simplest of all testimonies. ‘To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.’

And the third reason, our God has acted in His son Jesus Christ to fulfil his promise of a world of justice and peace. Do we believe that? Did Jesus coming in to live among us make any difference with regards to justice? Many Christians wait for the future kingdom of God . In Jesus proclamation, in his own person, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the kingdom has come. And we are the community of the King, called to live out that which became real because of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God has come, not in its fullness and that is quite clear. But God is in action to show the possibility of signs of the kingdom. Tearfund and all the partners around the world are called to be signs of the kingdom, doers of justice, lovers of mercy, walking humbly before God.

Let me finish with a reading of a wonderful passage. I go back to it quite often. It’s the words of Jesus Christ, at the beginning of his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth .

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.”

Luke 4:17-19

That is not the end. That is the quotation from the Old Testament (Isaiah 61v1,2). I want to leave you with the word with which Jesus finished his sermon.

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

Luke 4v21


transcript from Tearfund Staff Prayers