By John Hatch, Ph.D.
CCSN Senior Fellow
June-July entry: “Doing Justice to God’s Justice”
Column Description: As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Christ. This goes against the grain of our social and cultural conditioning. We seek personal or political advancement; Christ seeks the lost and the least. We grasp for cultural ascendency; Christ descends to the cross of love. This column is dedicated to thinking about culture and communication under the sign of the cross.
Note: Join John and others for the upcoming CCSN Workshop “Teaching Diversity and Social Justice in Christian Higher Education,” July 29. Learn more and register.
Doing Justice to God’s Justice
The first three installments of this column addressed truth, grace, and peace, in loose relation to Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas. I fully intended to publish the fourth installment—a reflection on justice—during Lent, but a major life transition forced me to put my column on hold. Although Lent has passed, the spiritual work it emphasizes is perpetual, so I’m offering a belated reflection on Lent and God’s call to justice.
Lent is a 40-day period of self-examination and self-denial for Christians around the world; and it all starts on Ash Wednesday, with the marking of a cross on one’s forehead by a priest or minister. Lent is a time-out for self-restraint and reflection, repentance and reorientation.
But for what should I be repentant? Is it only for the personal sins I’ve committed? What about sins of omission—my shortcomings in integrity, courage, or caring?
The litany of confession recited weekly by millions of Christians worldwide emphasizes the latter: “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves . . .”
But who is my neighbor? Jesus’s parable of the Samaritan makes it clear: our neighbors include members of groups despised, neglected, or abused by our own. Have I been complicit in those prejudices or abuses? Have I failed to love “those people” as my people? Have I contributed to social injustice? If not, have I blindly benefited from it? Have “my people” left some aspect of justice undone?
God’s concern for justice is abundantly expressed in Scripture. A famous verse from the prophet Micah provides a good entrée:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
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)
Justice lies at the heart of this Scripture. Clearly, we are called to “do justice” (as some translations put it). Many scriptures focus on socially disadvantaged categories—widows, orphans, the poor, and the alien—as the people to whom we are especially called to do justice.
Yet, paradoxically, justice alone cannot produce a just society. This is because justice in isolation from other virtues tends to rupture social relations. Instead of focusing on shared humanity or loving community, it inquires who is getting more or less than their fair share, and thus can exacerbate self-interest and partisan division. As public theologian Miroslav Volf observes, “all accounts of what is ‘just’ are to some extent relative to a particular group and therefore invariably contested by rival groups.” The struggle for justice becomes a struggle for power, and it is often power, not true justice, that wins the day. We see this in a justice system that tends to favor the wealthy (who can afford the best attorneys) and the predominant race (which often benefits from a stronger presumption of innocence than minority races).
For their part, the disempowered are tempted to resort to raw power—lying, corruption, even violence—to finally win justice for themselves. If they achieve their goal in this way, it is a Pyrrhic victory, destroying the foundation for a just society.
While political violence is, thankfully, rare in our society at present, we do suffer from a plague of power-seeking through victimhood, not only among historically oppressed minorities, but also long-privileged majority members who now view themselves as an oppressed minority. Franciscan writer Richard Rohr highlights the downside of this approach to justice: “Playing the victim is an effective way of getting moral high ground without doing any moral development whatsoever. We don’t have to grow up, we don’t have to let go, we don’t have to forgive, we don’t have to surrender . . . Now we just have to accuse somebody else of being worse than we are, or of being a member of a race or group that is worse than ours, and that makes us feel like we’re good, moral, or superior.”
Given the taint of human sin, Volf notes, “all pursuit of justice not only rests upon partial injustices but also creates new injustices.”
If we look again at Micah 6:8, however, we see that the pursuit of justice required by God does not exist in a vacuum; it is framed by other goods that help to check this tendency.
I’ll begin with the last of these: “to walk humbly with your God.” Humility is a powerful check against justice gone wrong. And we have good reason to be humble. As the saying goes, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Majority or minority, wealthy or poor, victimizer or victim, empowered or disempowered, we all stand wanting before the goodness of the God who selflessly gives his life for the world, bearing the agony and shame of crucifixion in order to redeem us from our self-serving “justice.” Realizing our moral neediness and God’s generous forgiveness should lead us to humility, not only before God, but also our fellow humans. We will be less presumptuous about our rightness, less demanding of justice for ourselves, and less dismissive of others’ claims on justice.
Notice the other value placed beside justice in Micah 6:8: “to love mercy.” Many translations use “kindness” here; the Hebrew word, hesed, is a rich and multi-faceted word connoting mercy, kindness, compassion, faithful love, even loyalty. A good example is how we feel and act on behalf of a family member facing hardship, mistreatment, or even the painful consequences of a bad decision.
Both the beneficiaries and victims of past injustice would do well to love mercy. Where justice divides, mercy brings together. For those who have unjustly gained or inherited benefit, mercy challenges them to empathize with those who were unjustly deprived, to have compassion, and to do something about rectifying this disadvantage. For the victims of injustice, mercy is a check against the desire for retribution or humiliation, reminding them to seek not only justice for themselves but redemption for all parties, including those who perpetrated the wrong.
Justice, mercy, humility. Together, these three virtues call us out of our self-centeredness—at Lent and throughout the year. They orient us to the concerns of God, the needs of our neighbor, the quality of our relationships and communities. They check, balance, and deepen one another. Justice, mercy, and humility converge in the cross of Christ, where almighty God gives himself over to the lowest injustice of all, in order to show us mercy and make us just.
So, with mercy and humility, let us examine ourselves . . . and commit to God’s work of justice.
 For example, see Exodus 22:21-24; Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 24:17-21, 26:12-13; Psalm 82:3, 146:9; Isaiah 1:17, 58:10; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Luke 12:33, 14:3; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17-18.
 Miroslav Volf, “After the Grave in the Air,” in John B. Hatch, Speaking to Reconciliation: Voices of Faith Addressing Racial and Cultural Divides (Peter Lang, 2020), p. 74
 Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order | Disorder | Reorder (Franciscan Media, 2020), p. 24.
 Volf, p. 73.