Recently, our church is going through a sermon series on the Minor Prophets, and I’m discovering that two very prominent themes in the Minor Prophets are justice and judgment.
And what I find fascinating is that even though the Bible uses these two concepts almost interchangeably, the secular culture loves justice and hates judgment. People today are increasingly advocating for more justice while at the same time advocating for less judgment. Justice is increasingly seen as something that is necessary and good, while judgment is increasingly seen as something that is unnecessary and bad.
But let’s kick it up another notch. What is even more fascinating is that certain political camps frame their issues as issues of justice, while their opponents often frame their issues as issues of non-judgment. I’ll give you a few examples.
When some people talk about police brutality, they often frame the issue under the umbrella of justice. They cry, “No peace, no justice.” And this appeal to justice has a long tradition. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. would often quote Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
However, on the other side of the political aisle, people would respond to this demand for justice by appealing to this social standard of not judging others. People who defend cops often say things like, “You don’t know what happened before this video started recording,” or “These cops are in a very stressful situation.” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”
Another example. When some people talk about illegal immigrants in the United States, they often frame the issue as an issue of justice. They say, “No border, no order, no nation.” They view the deportation of people who are illegal immigrants as a law-and-order issue. And whether or not the claims are true, they claim that these immigrants are receiving certain social benefits of living in the United States without paying their fair share of taxes. And so they think that it is not just that these immigrants are here.
And what is the common response on the other side of the political aisle? “Imagine if you came over to the States at such a young age. How would you expect to become a citizen if you were always afraid of deportation?” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”
And here’s another one: abortion. Pro-life advocates frame the issue as an issue of justice. Hundreds of thousands of lives are being taken away every year, they say, and this is an absolute genocide on the weakest and most vulnerable of our society.
And what is the response on the other side? “Do you realize that those seeking abortions come from disproportionately low-income families? Who are you to force a woman who is financially unstable to bear a child for nine months, to take a paycut for missing work, and then to have to pay the living expenses of a child growing up in an economically unstable home?” Essentially, what they are asking is, “Who are you to judge?”
This dynamic of one side appealing to justice and the other side appealing to non-judgment is also characteristic of the debates regarding religious university student organizations, transgender bathroom laws, protesting on highways, etc. One side appeals to fairness, order, peace, etc, and the other side appeals to understanding, openness, leniency, etc.
Some may think that people on the political left are all about justice and people on the political right are all about judgment, but as the above examples show, that’s simply not the case. They may use different terms (e.g. “rights”, “law and order”), but both sides take both roles.
In fact, it’s inevitable to take both sides. When somebody is advocating for justice (however they define justice), they are automatically judging people. They are saying, “Justice is needed here, because I am judging that these people are not being just.” After all, justice is to hold people to a certain standard, and there is no way to hold people to a standard without judging them. In other words, being just is to be judgmental. And so when people talk about locking up corrupt policemen in the name of justice, they are judging those policemen. And when people talk about locking up corrupt politicians in the name of justice, they are judging those politicians.
The reason why there is such a disconnect between these two political sides is that people disagree on the standards by which they should judge other people. If they think that a standard is very important and that everybody should adhere to it, then they will frame it as an issue of justice. If they think that a standard is more nuanced and fluid, then they will tell people not to judge others.
But biblically, justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin. To advocate for justice is to advocate for judgment.
In fact, the original biblical understandings of justice and judgment are so similar that sometimes an English translation would translate a word as “justice” while another English translation would translate the word as “judgment.”
Here are some examples.
|Bible Verse||English Standard Version||King James Version|
|Isaiah 1:16-17||Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.||Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.|
|Amos 5:24||But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.||But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.|
|Matthew 12:18||“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.||Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles.|
|Matthew 23:23||Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.||Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.|
|Acts 8:32-33||Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”||The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.|
Earlier I talked about how we view certain standards as important and other standards as nuanced. The important ones we uphold in the name of justice, and the nuanced ones we don’t uphold in the name of not judging others. We all have this contradictory complex of enforcing standards while giving leniency with other standards. And why? Because we see the goodness of standards, but at the same time we see that we are too broken to meet them.
Well, here’s an interesting question. What are God’s standards like? Are they important and firm? Or are they nuanced and fluid? Well, biblically, they are very important and firm. The Bible talks about how God is constant and unchanging. He does not compromise. Well, if that’s the case, then we are all at the mercy of the judgment of God because none of us can ever meet God’s standards of justice.
But there is an interesting paradox at the heart of Christianity. And that is that the One with the most authority to deliver judgment is also the very One who bore the most judgment. When Jesus volunteered to become a normal human being and to receive the sentence of crucifixion, the Judge became the Judged, and the Condemner became the Condemned. And when he did that, he set us free from judgment, and he also set us free from the need to judge others.
We all have this need to judge others, and part of this is because we are afraid of judgment ourselves. We think that if we can judge others on certain standards that we meet, then we can avoid being judged on certain standards that we do not meet. But for every human being, there is only one judgment that matters, and that’s whether you are right in the eyes of God. And for every human being, that’s a standard that we cannot meet.
But through Christ, we have been justified. We have been declared just. And if we have been declared just, then we no longer need to judge others. We can be free to live as Jesus lived.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Let’s spend less time condemning the world and more time saving the world.
One response to “Justice and Judgment”
I love this blog, Larry Lin. Thanks for your thoughtful exhortation. Blessings to you and Van.