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Jesus and the Pursuit of Justice

There are many Christians who claim that Jesus didn’t care about politics or justice. The claim runs like this: Jesus only cared about your eternal soul. The thing that mattered to Jesus more than anything else is that you repent of your sins so that you can go to heaven when you die. And so, this idea claims, Jesus didn’t care much about the physical realm of this world. He only cared about the spiritual realm, or the Kingdom of God. So, justice in this world didn’t matter to Jesus. What really mattered to him is that you have eternal life in the next world.

For you can’t seek righteousness with God without seeking justice with other people.

But that is a gross misreading of Jesus. Jesus was concerned about this world. He was not just concerned about our spiritual lives. He was concerned about every aspect of our lives – including our political, religious, and economic lives.

In other words, Jesus cared about justice.

But there is a problem. Because especially in the United States, justice is associated with revenge. When we hear the phrase “Justice was served,” we think punishment was meted out.

But that’s not the justice that Jesus taught. Christians need to interpret the concept of justice through the eyes of Jesus. That is, Jesus should be our interpretive principle for what justice looks like. For Jesus, justice was meant to provide restoration. Jesus emphasized restorative justice, not punitive justice.

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Did Jesus Really Preach Justice?

Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount. Following the King James Version, most English translation of the Greek text translate Matthew 5:6 as,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

In the original Greek, the word righteousness is dikaiosune. That word can be translated as righteousness, which has strong connotations of having a right relationship with God. Righteousness emphasizes our spiritual state of being.  In this sense, Jesus is saying that those who hunger and thirst for a better relationship with God will be filled.

But is that all that Jesus is saying?

No, because dikaiosune can be translated with another word: justice. We could just as easily translate Matthew 5:6 as,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.

This matters because a right relationship with God (righteousness) should lead to right relationships with other people (justice). It is crucial that we keep this double meaning of dikaiosune in mind. For you can’t seek righteousness with God without seeking justice with other people. You will never be filled with the Kingdom of God if you just emphasize one over the other.

You might be wondering if the King James Version of the Bible had a vested interest in translating dikaiosune as “righteous.” Translators always have an agenda, whether that agenda is conscious or not. The translators of the KJV translated for a king. The vested interest, or the agenda, was to translate the Bible in such a way that did not inspire the people to act with justice. Rather, they wanted a translation that would inspire reverence for those in power. Emphasizing righteousness with God, as opposed to justice for marginalized, would allow the King’s power structure to go unquestioned.

What Is the Kingdom of God?

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is problematic because it has been overly spiritualized, just like the word dikaiosune. Many assume the Kingdom is merely an otherworldly spiritual realm where you go after you die. But that misses the point.

Jesus says, “For, in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.” The Kingdom of God is not primarily an other worldly spiritual realm. It is here. It is now. It is among you.

In fact, the phrase, “Kingdom of God” is politically loaded language. Jesus enacted the Kingdom of God while living in the Kingdom of Herod and the Empire of Rome. Jesus even called Herod a fox, which was not a term of endearment! A fox was an unclean animal that was a second rate predator. Herod oversaw an unjust economy that benefited himself and his friends, while leaving the people destitute. Jesus called Herod a fox because Jesus cared about the unjust political systems of his day.

The New Testament claims that Jesus was the true king, the true Messiah. That claim is an act of political subversion. Even more, the claim of kingship while Herod was king was an act of political treason.

Jesus was also called “the Son of David.” David was the most important king in Israel’s history. David made some major mistakes (Bathsheba, among others), but he also governed over one of the most prosperous times in Israel’s history. The people longed for a son of David to come and set things right – to bring justice to the nation.

But Jesus was a different kind of King. His form of justice did not involve methods of violence or war to defeat an enemy. Those were the methods of the Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of Rome. Jesus’ justice was very real, but it was based on the methods of direct nonviolent action and non-retaliation.

Jesus, the Emperor, and Taxes

Some will point to the scene where Jesus was asked about paying taxes. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Many point to this story to claim that Jesus wasn’t concerned with justice and that he was apolitical. After all, they assume that the Emperor and God are leaders of two different realms – the Emperor was in charge of the physical realm and God was in charge of the spiritual realm.

But once again, that misses the whole point. The Emperor thought he was a god. The emperor used his status as a god to justify and enforce his will in unjust ways. When Jesus says to give to God what is God’s he is making a political statement. The Emperor is not God. He does not deserve your ultimate loyalty.

But what does belong to the emperor? And what does belong to God? As a good Jew, and as his hearers were good Jews as well, they would have known that Jesus’ teaching to give to God what belongs to God was deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures.

Psalm 24:1 states, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

Jesus statement put the Emperor in his place. He was not God. He did not deserve their ultimate loyalty. And so the question is, “What belongs to God?” The answer is everything.

Jesus, Justice, and the Temple

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During the time of Jesus, the Temple was the religious, political, and economic center of Jerusalem. The Temple was not just about religion and spirituality. There was no “separation of church and state” during this time. The Temple was as much a political and economic institution as it was a religious institution.

The Temple had become corrupt and unjust. So Jesus cleansed the Temple by making a whip and protesting its corruption. As Obrey Hendricks states in his book, The Politics of Jesus, “That is why what seems to have been simply a burst of outrage against wayward merchants was in reality much, much more: it was a very public attack aimed at Israel’s center of power. In other words, it was an overtly political act” (pg. 114, emphasis in the original.)

In an act reminiscent of the Jewish prophets who routinely criticized the political, economic, and religious establishments for not enacting God’s justice, Jesus went to the Temple and attempted to shut it down because it failed to enact God’s justice.

Jesus: The Interpretive Principle for Justice

When Christians look at justice, Jesus should be our interpretive principle. When we interpret justice through the eyes of Jesus, we begin to realize that a right relationship with God demands just relationships with one another. And we realize that God’s justice is not about revenge. It’s about the transformation of unjust societal structures so that all people can live in harmony, prosperity, and peace.

The phrase “all people” is significant. Because while the general statement is true, Jesus took sides. He sided with the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. He confronted the status quo of his day as he took sides. Jesus does not call us to stay above the fray in a state of neutrality. As René Girard states in his book Violence and the Sacred, Our “impartiality-at-any-price is not unfrequently simply an unsubstantiated assertion of superiority” (pg. 46).

When we refuse to take the side of the marginalized, the victims of human society, we attempt to wash our hands, just like Pilate when he sentenced Jesus to be killed. But Jesus calls us to take sides in the nonviolent pursuit of justice. And that side is always with the marginalized.

For blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.