“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” So we read in scripture (Deut 16:20). And once they were in that land (even though they colonised it unjustly), the people of Israel were reminded of the centrality of justice. “What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”, one prophet asked (Micah 6:8). “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, another of the prophets declared (Amos 5:24).
Justice is an important and oft-recurring theme in scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It is not an add-on, an optional extra. It sits at the centre of the scriptural witness
1 Jesus and Justice
When one of the evangelists told the story of Jesus, the person chosen by God for a special task, he related him to the words (from yet another prophet) in which God affirmed, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles … a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory” (Matt 12:18–20, quoting Isaiah 42:1–4).
Jesus himself had made it clear that when his focus was on fulfilling all the Law (Matt 5:17–20), it was “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” that ought to be given priority (Matt 23:23). So when Jesus instructs his followers to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), he is pointing to the centrality of justice in the ways of God. And when he affirms that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, “for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), he is placing justice at the centre of his message. (The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice”.)
2 The Justice [Righteousness] of God
The letters of Paul place this justice (“righteousness”) at the heart of the gospel which he proclaimed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [justice] of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [the just] shall live by faith.’” (Rom 1:16–17).
Indeed, in his excellent analysis of Paul’s letter to the Romans, identifies this clearly in the title of his book: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (Yale University Press, 1997).
Justice [righteousness] is the very essence of God, given as an act of grace to all who put trust in God. It is through this “righteousness [justice] of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, that “all are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26). Paul asserts that it is “one act of righteousness [justice] [which] leads to justification and life for all” so that “grace also might reign through righteousness [justice] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:18–21). Justice is the very essence of God, given to all through Jesus.
3 Justice and Grace
One way of expressing this quality of justice, or righteousness, in the life of faith, is to show grace, or compassion, to those who are in need. Jesus recognised this when affirmed “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in his parable about the Samaritan who went out of his way to assist and care for an injured traveller (Luke 10:25–37).
Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus declares his intention to enact justice by setting free the captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). He tells his followers that whenever they sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, or gave a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). James, his brother, likewise asserted that to practice true religion was “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).
So acts of kindness give expression to the very heart of who God is, by manifesting God’s justice, or righteousness. “Unless your righteousness [justice] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, he declares (Matt 5:20), and so “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness [justice], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10).
4 Advocating for Justice in Scripture
Taking care that justice is done also requires speaking out for those who are silenced, marginalised, oppressed, or persecuted. In Proverbs, the sage advises, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8–9).
Likewise, the Psalmist affirms, “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him” Psalm 41:1).
Advocating for justice is thus seen as integral to faith in God.
One of the prophets delivered the word of the Lord: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech 7:9). Another prophet asserted, “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” (Isa 56:1).
Jesus is remembered in the preaching of his followers as The Righteous One—we might also say, The Just One. This is what he is called by Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). The title recalls the centrality of justice in the ministry of Jesus.
And Jesus maintains the importance of advocating for justice in his teachings. We have already noted his teachings in which he advocates that we care for the little ones and those in need (Matt 25) and instructs his followers to work for liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4). He teaches the central significance of love for neighbour (Mark 12:31), which surely entails advocating for justice.
And he tells the parable of the widow calling persistently for justice (Luke 18:1-8), which concludes with the powerful rhetorical question, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7), followed I meant the striking affirmation, “tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8). A commitment to justice requires advocacy for justice.
5 Justice in the Basis of Union
The centrality of justice, so evident in the witness of scripture, is reiterated in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. If we are followers of Jesus, called to walk the way he sets out before us, then as faithful disciples, we are called to walk right into what the Basis of Union envisages as a “new order of righteousness and love” (para 3). The words in that phrase are drawn from the deep wells of tradition, especially in scripture, where both live and righteousness are frequently-occurring words. It is the kingdom of God which is the new order of righteousness (justice), manifested in love.
These words call us to care for one another but also to do what is right. They call us to live a live grounded in justice, in the same terms that Jesus and the prophets before him cried out, seeking justice for everyone—not just for ourselves or those close to us, but for the whole of society.
These words challenge us to live with the same self-giving, fully-emptying love, that we see in the cross at the centre of the story of Jesus. And they lead us to the conclusion that as we live in this way, we will advocate for justice.
6 Advocating for Justice in the Statement to the Nation
The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches this resolutely firm commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which declared, “We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.”
That Statement then identified specific forms of injustice: “poverty, racism and discrimination, acquisitiveness and greed, and the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”. It identified a number of rights to be supported: “equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available”.
It also noted some just actions that were to be followed, including “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources”, as well as a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.
The Statement spoke out publicly about these matters. It models for future Uniting Church people the importance of advocating for justice.
7 Advocating for Justice in Action
This commitment to advocating for justice has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades. The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in standing in covenant solidarity with First Peoples; in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all.
“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” The words of the ancient prophet sound clear, still, today. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” has become a compelling guide for people of faith. And as we walk the way of The Just One, we do well to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice”.
On justice in scripture, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/. For the Basis of Union, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/basis-of-union. For the Statement to the Nation, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/134-statement-to-the-nation-inaugural-assembly-june-1977. For policy documents and Assembly resolutions on matters of justice, see the many resources collected at https://unitingjustice.org.au
There are further articles about justice and advocacy in the Spring 2021 issue of Viewpoint, the magazine of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia, at https://canberra.uca.org.au/media/10701/viewpoint-crp-advocacy-august-2021.pdf