“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).
A couple months ago I wrote an article here wondering about justice in relation to the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial. I shared how quite a number of people were saying the guilty verdict felt like justice or at least accountability. Yet I sincerely felt torn—not because I thought former officer Chauvin was perfectly right and good and undeserving of any punishment for what he did to George Floyd—but I wondered if his actions had met the level of the charges decided by the jury and are still being considered for his sentencing. To use the words of Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, considering “the totality of the circumstances” were Chauvin’s actions truly unreasonable?
Why am I bringing this up again? Am I just trying to rile people up on both sides? No. I titled that article “Justice?” Part of why there’s a question mark speaks to a broader issue: can Christians disagree on justice or see different and potentially opposing actions or decisions as just? The answer to that is yes—this situation is a perfect example, there are Christians on both sides. So, let’s be a bit more precise—in our understanding of justice, is one side right and the other wrong—if it’s wrong, shouldn’t what or who we side with change? I’m not going to answer that question as precisely as some might wish, but I do want to look at what it means to do justice and see justice done in society today from a Christian and biblical perspective.
When I do a topic search on “justice” on my Logos Bible software, the first passage that pops up is Deuteronomy 16:18-20. Moses instructed the Israelites regarding how their community should operate. When someone had committed wrongs—sins or crimes—against another person or group of people, justice was to have been served. God cares about justice and wanted that for his people. Justice is protecting those who have been wrongly oppressed, including hearing them fairly and impartially. It’s bringing resolution and restitution to an injury or harm, including holding someone accountable with appropriate punishment. There were people in Israel, “judges and officers,” appointed to do this work—not that they were perfect, but they were to pursue this to God’s glory.
We, the church, are not under the same system of life and governance as Israel in the Old Testament period. If you continue to read on from Deuteronomy 16:20, you’ll quickly read of the death penalty by stoning that rather frequently arises in the Old Testament legal system. God gave it as a means of purging evil and not letting it fester and further infect the community. While we are not under their God-given system, we can take away that there is justice and there is not justice—there is what’s right and what’s wrong.
What Paul writes in Romans 13 does apply to us in terms of authorities, though. Ideally this is the outlook of “every person,” but at the very least, it should be the view of every believer. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:1-5).
Justice is situational. The circumstances are heard, the matter is decided hopefully with wisdom, the punishment and any consequence should fit the crime. In that respect, “doing justice” sounds fluid or relative, and that’s fair. Authorities are not completely outside the law; it does apply to them. Their—law enforcement and judges—task is pursuing justice, upholding law and order, providing for public safety. Rightfully done, their intent is not malicious toward anyone, but aware and discerning of the complaint and any threat before them, and seeking the welfare and safety of themselves and others. If they are following these things appropriately—whether they recognize it or not—they are serving God’s purposes, including when they “bear the sword.”
While there is some fluidity or relativeness to how justice is exactly figured out and applied, there should be consistency. We know, too, that there is right and wrong according to God’s laws, which we as believers should follow, and according to State-enforced laws, which we as citizens should follow. Justice, presided over by fellow men and women who are appointed to or trained and sworn into service for, is not a light duty. Whether we feel justice has been appropriately handed down in every situation or not, we do well to heed Paul’s words just before our last passage, Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:16-19).