Here is my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in who I delight! I have endowed you with my Spirit that you may bring true justice to the nations.
I thirst for justice.
I long for justice.
I crave justice.
Chances are, so do you.
But there’s an itsy bitsy problem with those statements. What does justice really mean?
Our culture venerates justice, while it also avoids defining it consistently. Wikipedia says that justice is “the legal or philosophical theory by which fairness is administered,” but then goes on to point out that the concept of justice differs in every culture.
So how about our culture? Well several of the top hits for “justice” that I got from Google this morning were for a brand of clothing. At shopjustice.com you can buy justice, as long as you define it as “your one-stop-shop for the cutest & most on-trend styles in tween girls' clothing.”
If you’re not in the market for tween girls’ clothing perhaps you’d prefer to focus on another top hit: the “Justice League.” That’s a group of CGI superheroes including Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash. In their case justice seems to require lots of flying and fighting and smashing things while looking impossibly ripped.
I doubt that the author of Isaiah was writing about tweens or superheroes. But that’s what is so insidious about our culture. It is just fine if we enshrine justice, worship justice, demand justice, as long as we don’t get too picky about its definition. As long as justice equates to maintaining the status quo, favors the “right” people, and keeps troublemakers in their place. Of course as a plus it can sell cheap clothing and expensive movie tickets.
If justice is so nebulous, why do the world’s great prophets continue to cry out for it? Isaiah. Micah. James. Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. Everyone of them longed for justice, and each of them lived and died in a culture dedicated to keeping the rich and powerful on the top of the heap through whatever means necessary.
I have no doubt that most people believe in justice. But all too often I think we define justice as whatever is good for us, what is fair for people like me, what I know to be safe, comfortable, correct. It’s not an issue of “left” or “right,” “liberal” or “conservative.” It’s an issue of protecting what is mine, what I and people like me value the most, and condemning or ignoring what we find strange or unacceptable.
So what did Jesus have to say on the matter? He described a topsy-turvy world where the first will be last and the last first, where the poor inherit the earth, where the oppressed and powerless show us the way to God. This is Jesus the Revolutionary talking.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. His world included oppressors as well as the oppressed, Roman officers as well as Samaritan women. He consorted with the rich and the poor, with tax collectors as well as beggars. He even took time to meet with the religious elite like Nicodemus, at night, in private, so as not to embarrass him. And he told them all that they needed to change, to be born anew.
So how do we define justice? Perhaps instead of using words, we can use models. We can define justice through the life of Jesus, and how he lived, and how he made room for everyone. It would include a living wage for teachers in Seattle and for cowboys in Montana. The ability to live in safety for Native Americans in North Dakota and for poor white families in coal country. Freedom to worship for Muslims in Manhattan and Methodists in Memphis. Respect for the homeless and for billionaires. Freedom of speech for Meryl Streep and Donald Trump.
The hymn O for a World by Miriam Therese Winter begins like this:
O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways,
Where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise.
To truly find justice, we must love and respect even those with whom we have the least in common, those others who we simply don’t understand, even those lowlifes who in our version of a perfect world wouldn’t even exist. Only by demanding justice for everyone, even our enemies, will we truly find it for ourselves.