When I did this (using the alphabet to come up with a list of words describing God) twenty-something years ago, I’m sure I didn’t wonder what it meant to say that God was just. Every church I have been part of since I was converted at age fourteen has clearly taught that justice means that God has to punish sin. We receive forgiveness only because the punishment we deserve was suffered by Jesus in our place.
This was a doctrine my mother hated. To her, that was the opposite of justice, for an innocent man to suffer in the place of the guilty, even if it was voluntary on his part. But she agreed that justice meant that people must bear the consequences of their mistakes. In this life, that meant one suffered the consequences of poor choices. After death, it meant reincarnation (or possibly transmigration) in order to continue working on problems left unresolved in the previous life.
I don’t remember ever hearing, until sometime in the past several years, the idea that justice might be seen in a significantly different way. At some point I read that the Hebrew notion of justice (what we see in the Old Testament) was not about punishment for wrongdoing so much as about wholeness, not just of the individual but of the entire community. Of course, there are a lot of different ideas out there when it comes to Bible interpretation, and I really didn’t know just how much validity this idea had.
I also read several books by Tony Hillerman, who wrote mysteries set (mostly) on a Navajo reservation. In Sacred Clowns, Navajo Tribal Police detective Jim Chee explains the Navajo concept of justice. In an interview before the book was released, Hillerman discusses the issue himself:
For example, the murderer in this new book has apologized anonymously, and, because traditional Navahos attach no value on vengeance beyond restitution, there is no real need to solve the murder. The Navaho way assumes the person who committed the crime is out of harmony and needs a ceremonial cure. It’s this contrast between justice and harmony that holds my attention as a writer.
Looking for further discussion of the concept, I found this by the Honorable Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court:
In Native American and First Nation justice philosophy and practice, healing, along with reintegrating individuals into their community, is more important than punishment. The Native peacemaking process involves bringing together victims, offenders and their supporters to get to the bottom of a problem. While contrary to traditional Eurocentric justice, this parallels the philosophy and processes of the modern restorative justice movement. In the Native worldview there is a deep connection between justice and spirituality: in both, it is essential to maintain or restore harmony and balance.
Restorative justice recognizes that crime harms people. It does not simply break a law. The justice system should aim to repair these injuries. Crime is also more than a matter between the government and an individual offender. Since crime victims and the community bear the brunt of crime, they, too, must be actively involved in the criminal justice process.
Their website also explains that restorative justice is not a new idea, but one that has its roots in Scripture, as well as being found in various cultures around the world. I know that Mosaic law requires restitution as the means to deal with a variety of offenses. I don’t know specifically what other aspects of restorative justice are included. So I started looking for more information on the Hebrew notion of justice.
One website explains it this way:
One word for justice in Hebrew is zedakah. The concept of justice in Judaism is different from Greek-Western views of this concept. The emphasis is not on “retribution” (punishment) or “distribution” (fair shares for all). It is more what human living should be like. That is why the word zedakah is not only translated into English as justice but also as righteousness, which means living a just life personally.
Another website discusses the meaning of the other word, mishpat, which is often translated as “justice.” Mishpat “is an obligation to do whatever is necessary to increase the quality of a person’s welfare. It is synonymous with ‘holiness,’ and is closely related to such concepts as ‘mercy,’ ‘grace,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘redemption.’”
So what does it mean to say that God is just? First and foremost, it clearly means that what God does is right. Whether He is punishing sin or providing for the needs of people, He is doing what is right. He is never unjust in His punishments, or indifferent to people’s needs.
In my experience, the people who most emphasize the punishment side of God’s justice are reacting against those who downplay the need for judgment on sin. And those who minimize the punishment/judgment aspect are reacting against those who make it seems as though that’s the main thing Christianity is about.
As a new Christian I identified with the former group, reacting against the church I had grown up in, where “social justice” was central and personal salvation barely thought of. After a number of years in churches where personal salvation was the primary and often virtually the only emphasis, I began looking for churches with a more holistic view of Christian faith and life.
So God is just, in all the meanings of the word. And now I realize I haven’t even begun to look at what it means to say God is a Judge. I do know that judges in Hebrew society were different from judges in our American society. But at 10:35 at night, and with a thousand words in this post already, I’m not going to start in on another word study. I’ll simply end with a verse which tells us that God is a Just Judge.
He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. (Psalm 9:8)