top of page

Sunday Worship 20 February | Justice: World Social Justice Sunday and Fairtrade Fortnight

Updated: Jun 20

Micah 6:6-8
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?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.

Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Inspired in part by the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight, and in part by the songs FolkUS chose for us this morning, I want to spend some time thinking about justice. A few weeks ago I talked about the call to love one another, and we were encouraged that love is already happening here, we just need to keep going. I want to offer a similar encouragement today, because justice is already happening here, we just need to keep going. From the commitment to pacifism that led to the founding of this church, to involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, to becoming a Fairtrade and Inclusive Church, this church has always had a strong heart for justice. It’s easy to take that for granted, and it really shouldn’t be remarkable because it should be true of every church, but I do think it is something that deserves to be recognised and celebrated. So when I talk about justice this morning, I’m not firing a starting pistol to get us going but cheering us on as we keep running.

Justice is not an exclusively theological concept - there are many wonderful people of all faiths and none who are striving for justice, and it is good to work with them and learn from them - but I do want to think about what justice means from a faith perspective. To do that I want to look at scripture and start with some word study, remembering that most of us are reading in translation. Words can hold a wide range of meanings or they can mean something very precise, and translations don’t always capture that very well, not necessarily through any fault of the translator, but simply because languages don’t perfectly overlay one another. I’m going back into the Hebrew scriptures for this, because that is where the biblical concept of justice comes from, and where we read ‘justice’ in these texts, it is usually translated from the Hebrew word ‘mishpat’. ‘Justice’ is the most common translation of ‘mishpat’, but it is also translated as ‘judgement’ and ‘ordinance’, which gives us some idea of the connotations the word had for those who first used it. If justice is connected with decisions and rules, there’s a sense that it is the proper way of doing things, the way things are meant to be.

So how are things meant to be? God created the world and said that it was good, so there’s a start. The world is meant to be good and so it must be good for all of us, and all of us must be good for it. But what does that look like in more concrete terms? Jillian Jimenez, an academic specialising in social policy, described justice as the “fair distribution of goods, rights, services and duties.” I think that’s a great opening, but it is slightly bare. Heading back to scripture for some further word study may help us add a little detail. ‘Justice’ is sometimes offered as a translation of ‘tzedek’, which is more usually translated as righteousness. This affirms the idea that justice is connected with ideas of rightness, but I think it can also take us a step further, as ‘tzedek’ is related to the word ‘tzadik’, which is used to describe a righteous person. That leads me to suggest that justice has much to do with who we are and what we do as people. The sort of social policy Jimenez describes is vital, but it won’t appear from nowhere. A just society must be created and maintained by the people within it, and so justice requires each one of us to be just, to seek to be good and do right.

I think it’s also worth noting that justice often appears alongside mercy and love in the scriptures, so that it is not an unfeeling system of rules, but is instead rooted in deep feeling towards the other, an expression of embodied care and mutual obligation. Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild suggested that Western definitions of justice are primarily concerned with punishment and distribution, whereas the Jewish definition of justice is concerned with “the full enhancement of human and above all social life...thus it suffuses all human relations and social institutions”. Again we might say that just structures are important, but if we must recognise our own place within them, we must also recognise their place as part of a much bigger picture which takes in the whole of our shared life, so that justice seeks not simply what is right by law but what is best for all.

So to recap, justice is the way the world is meant to be, and the world is meant to be good. In order for the world to be good, we need to look to ourselves and to society, doing the right thing for the good of everyone. So we could say that at its simplest, justice is everyone caring for everyone else, beginning with a fair sharing of resources and opportunities. That is true whether you approach justice from a faith perspective or not, but I hope that grounding our understanding in scripture encourages us to ground our practice in worship, indeed to rightfully see it as worship. Some church traditions have seen social justice as separate to and even a distraction from Christian mission, but the readings we heard earlier could not be clearer that justice is the worship God most desires, and I absolutely believe that it is the realisation of the kingdom, so there are two last points I want to draw from scripture.

First, it is impossible to miss that scriptural justice focuses on the rights and needs of the most vulnerable. Over and again through the Hebrew scriptures, the law and the prophets call the people to plead for and protect those who are without power or privilege. I don’t think that call has changed or lessened, and those of us who do have power and privilege must use it well on behalf of those who have been silenced and squashed by unjust structures and systems. Second, I want to pick up on a couple of details from our readings. Micah declares that God requires us to act justly, and God pictures justice as a rolling river in the verses from Amos. This tells us that justice is active and it is flowing. It does things and it changes things. It doesn’t wait for someone else to find a way through but carves new paths around mountains and through valleys. If we believe in justice then we need to work for justice. We need to lift our voices and move our feet and offer our hands in whatever way we can. The work of justice can feel overwhelming, but nobody is asking us to do everything, just to do something.

I want to leave you with a few more modern reflections on justice. In a response to a question on Twitter recently, Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne described justice as “our best attempt to set things right that were made wrong, and to heal the wounds of sin. It leaves room for both the victims and the victimisers to be healed. Justice is also committed to preventing future harm and addressing the conditions that led to the harm.” I think what stands out for me is the way justice is at once about past (recognising and repairing hurts already done) and present (improving the current situation) and future (laying a better path). None of them make sense without the other. It’s no good making things better now if those who have already been damaged are not made whole again and things can go wrong again a moment later. I also love the way Claiborne picks up on the importance of both victim and victimiser being healed. Popular culture glorifies revenge and trains us to want the villains to meet their comeuppance, but true justice is not found in punishment but in redemption.

Civil rights activist and Baptist pastor Martin Luther King said that “justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love”. I think the phrase “at its best” is telling, because it recognises that justice can be done in ways that are less than its best. It can be done only in part, and it can be done with the right intentions but the wrong actions or vice versa. That ought to prompt us to take a critical approach to justice, asking if we are doing it at its best, or if we need to do better. Most importantly though, King reminds us that love is what we measure by. Does this action express or increase love? Then it is just. Does this action deny or inhibit love? Then it is unjust. And where we find injustice we respond not with vengeance but with love, because confronting justice with anything other than love is to commit further injustice. As King said elsewhere “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

And on the same theme, Christian philosopher and political activist Cornel West said that “justice is what love looks like in public”. Or as I have seen printed on a tshirt which I now need to get my hands on, “justice is love out loud”. As the phenomenon of Valentine’s Day has just reminded us, our culture has simultaneously privatised and commercialised love to a bewildering extent, but it is so much bigger and better than chocolates and flowers, because it is the very essence of justice. And it isn’t something that can be done secretly or quietly. If it needs to correct everything that stands against it, it is going to have to raise its voice and get itself noticed. So let us be tzadiks, let us continue to be known for justice, let us be people who love out loud in public.

13 views0 comments


bottom of page