A Biblical Notion of Justice

‘You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”

(Lev. 19:15 ESV)

If you recall a few months ago, I made the case that sin is not only personal but is also structural and systemic. Then I gave a summary analysis of Critical Race Theory, a theory that I argued is contrary to a biblical notion of justice. As I promised, I want to share with you a biblical notion of justice, a notion that refutes CRT.

Distinguished Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, argues that there are three basic demands of biblical justice that are reiterated over and over again in the Old Covenant dispensation:

(1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deu. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23; (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov 17:15; Isa 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborers, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be uplifted for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech.7:10).[1]  

Bavinck says that these three demands of justice are grounded “…in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan.”[2]

There is much to say, but there are two things I want to emphasize. First, a biblical notion of justice is grounded in God: i.e., true justice is what God demands; and true justice is based on God’s righteous standards, that is the Ten Commandments. Second, God demands that the “rights” of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan be upheld. Who are the poor and afflicted, the widow and the orphan? In the Old Testament these were the “oppressed,” oppressed not because of their condition, but because of their condition people in power tended to take advantage of them. In other words, the poor are not oppressed by virtue of being poor; on the contrary, the poor are usually oppressed because they are poor. When you are poor, people who are not poor can easily take advantage of you.

What the poor as widow, orphan, and sojourner had in common was a precarious social status. In the case of the widowed and the orphaned it was the death of a husband or father; in the case of the sojourner, it was social and political dislocation due to her or his alien status of not belonging. The concern for these groups was not poverty per se as absolute poverty, but oppression. What I mean is that economic poverty, in the sense of a lack of subsistence, was par for the course in the ancient world of the Old Testament. However, if one were economically disadvantaged due to any one of these categories, then one was liable to oppression; that is, the wealthy— with their political clout and connections (social and political and economic capital)— could (and would) use their advantages over-and-against those with no such social capital. The plight of which the Old Testament most often speaks is not the plight of hunger or lack of shelter; it is their inability to maintain their rights, so that it is possible for others to oppress them. The rights that the widow and the orphan had was a right to her husband’s and a right to his/her father’s resources. The widow had certain “independent legal rights” that a married woman did not have. Case in point, the gleaning laws mandated that what was left in the fields were to be left to the sojourner. Also, because the widow and the orphan lacked sufficient “muscle power,” and the resident alien lacked equal opportunity, certain provisions were legislated: e.g., the gleaning of the fields; every three years a tithe was brought to the local town; and every seven years the land was left uncultivated so that the poor could harvest whatever grew on it.

This biblical notion of justice is contrary to CRT and other secular/pagan notions of justice. In what ways? Let me give you two: first, regarding CRT there is no notion of God; God is not the foundation of justice and righteousness. CRT rejects traditional authority. However, Scripture teaches us that all authority is on loan from God: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV). CRT and other secular/pagan notions of justice reject this. Second, regarding CRT in its notion of “intersectionality” if you are poor, a woman, a person of color etc., then your minority condition or status by definition means you are oppressed. And by definition if you are not in any one of these minority conditions or statuses you are the oppressor; you are the problem. This too is contrary to a biblical notion of justice. A biblical notion of justice looks to the rights of the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc. being protected and supported. In short, a biblical notion of  “social justice” looks to the equity of law (equity meaning what the Westminster divines meant by General Principle), that is to say no matter your condition or status in life—e.g., rich or poor, male of female, black or white, etc.—everyone has an equal, impartial standing before the law. As Moses says: “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev 1:15 ESV).

In conclusion, both the poor and the mighty are to be treated the same under the law; both the poor and the mighty are to judged by the same standard under the law. CRT teaches the opposite: the poor and oppressed are given preference over the mighty. That’s just as unjust as the mighty given preference over the poor and oppressed. We live in the times of a pendulum shift: we have gone from the injustice of the mighty being preferred over the oppressed (e.g., Jim Crow of previous generations) to the oppressed being preferred over the mighty (e.g., CRT’s notion of justice). A biblical notion of justice rejects both of these forms of injustice. In short, impartial or equitable judgment is a major facet of a biblical notion of justice.  

[1]. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, v. 3 (Grand Rapids: Backer Academics 2008), 162.  

[2]. Ibid.

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