Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” So asks a question in the Baptismal Covenant in our Baptism liturgy. And our reply is I will, with God’s help. Well, what does it mean to do that, how do we fulfill that promise? What is the nature of justice?
The word itself evokes a torrent of other words and of responses. In secular parlance, justice seems based on preconceived notions of what is just and what is fair, but it is not always obvious or agreed how these notions are determined. We might question if justice embraces ethics, morals and values? Is it focused on behaviour, laws or retribution? Is it about right and wrong, reward or virtue, punishment of vice? Is it about human rights, both the negative, in other words ‘the right not to be tortured’ and the positive, ‘the right to material sustenance’? Is it about the relation between the individual and the society of which the individual is a member? And where does peace, love or agape, faith and mercy intersect? Where is God?
There is no simple Hebrew word to express the inclusiveness of our concept of justice. The Old Testament use of the word ties it tightly to the meaning of ‘righteousness’, that which meets a standard. A ‘righteous’ weight is one which is what it is supposed to be…the right measure, and there is the right time, the right way, a right or claim, as prescribed by law.. But far from being a matter of personal rights, both justice and righteousness are understood in reference to the nature of the Divine, God’s saving power and will. God as Judge.
Righteousness, in the New Testament, involves being right with God which, in turn, involves all of those other promises in the baptism liturgy: renouncing and turning way from evil and sin, turning to Jesus and accepting his love, continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ and so on, including striving for justice and peace. Questions abound. Where is there justice for murdered Indigenous women, for child refugees who have never known anything more than a camp, for peoples of many nations caught in the brutal never-ending loop of ‘civil’ war, for the homeless on Ottawa streets? Where is God?
Christian theology does not offer the only articulation of justice but it certainly provides insights, or the model, for an understanding of justice that points towards the goal that is love. This theological vision is the foundation for Christian discipleship in a world where many seek meaning, hope and justice in the midst of darkness and despair. How do we fulfill our promises to God?
Quoting the prophet Micah Chapter 6:8
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.