Skip to content

Justice, not Charity

On February 2, 2006, at the National Prayer breakfast in Washington DC, some 3000 people packed a hotel ballroom. President George W. Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan, a host of ambassadors and senators, other foreign dignitaries and many nationally known church leaders were all in attendance. But the main speaker was not one of the famous church leaders or statesmen as is usually the custom at these kinds of gatherings. Instead, it was a famous entertainer, the Irish singer whose Christian faith is well known around the globe. Bono, of the band U2, spoke eloquently of justice.

 “This is not about the charity at the end, is it? It is about justice… And that’s too bad. Because we are good at charity. Americans, Irish people, are good at charity. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market, that’s not charity. That’s a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents, that’s not charity. That’s a justice issue. Withholding life-saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents, well that’s not charity. To me, that’s a justice issue.”

Biblical justice – Can we even imagine how this would look like if Adventists worshipers became true Twenty-first Century prophets? Imagine with me how Amos’ audience reacted when he said to them in 4:12 – “Prepare to meet your Lord.” It was probably hard for Israel to take Amos seriously because there is a hard hitting message that comes from this farmer preacher from Tekua, writing in the middle of the 8th century BC. Times were good. “Advancement” was the watchword that sounded like messages of “peace and prosperity”. That astute solder statesman, Jeroboam the Second, had turned the economy around and the arch-enemy Assyria was unable to pursue her expansionist ambitions. Israel was safe – or so she thought.

It was to the comfortable and to the complacent that Amos came with this powerful and eloquent cry for justice. Like a rough and ready medical man he comes along ripping off the dressings to expose
underneath the festering sores. Israel had forgotten justice. And in a timeless message that reaches its climax in 5:24, Amos, speaking God’s very own words, cries out: “BUT LET JUSTICE ROLL DOWN LIKE WATERS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE AN EVER-FLOWING STREAM”. 

The call for justice is undoubtedly one of the great contemporary themes. It’s on the world’s agenda.   On the political left and right people are heard to say, “There is no justice in the world!” The recent world economic crisis showed us how easy it is to lose everything. Iceland’s banking system and then entire country collapsed, Greece almost brought down the whole of Europe, and then came troubles in Spain and Italy. The last few weeks of market turmoil and instability were felt across the entire planet.

It is also on churches’ agendas. Liberation theologians, like Emilio Castro, remind us that God intervenes in history in order to break down the structures of injustice and he raises up prophets in
 order to point out the way of justice. The Archbishop of Canterbury said recently, “The international quota of injustice has increased. Christians must be in the forefront in the campaign for justice.
 Waldren Scott, general secretary of World Evangelical Fellowship, has written, “The establishment of justice both defines and motivates mission.” The powerful “Faith in the City” report says “It is our considered view that the nation is confronted by a grave and fundamental injustice in the urban priority areas.” Dr Jan Paulsen, put it in a very powerful way recently in the Adventist Review article: ‘Serving Our World, Serving Our Lord’:

 “There is a vast difference between seeking a voice in the public discourse, and seeking to wield political power. As a church – and individuals – we have not only the right but the obligation, to be a
 moral voice in society; to speak clearly and eloquently on that which touches our core values. Human rights, religious freedom, public health, poverty, and injustice—these are some of the areas in which we have a God-given responsibility to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. . . . Through His words and actions, Christ continually reached out His hand to improve the quality of life—both spiritually and physically—of the people around Him. … In serving our neighbors with love and integrity, we also serve our Lord.”

Thirdly, it’s on the Bible’s agenda, because justice springs from the very heart and character of God. The trouble with Israel, just as much as the trouble with God’s faithful today, was that they thought they were on track, they thought that they were ‘reformed’, that they were secure. And it is in this way, by means of reading to them their own obituary that Amos introduces some important themes on biblical justice. 

The first is this: (verses 4 to 9): “JUSTICE SPRINGS FROM SPIRITUAL REALITY”. Failures of justice in the Bible and today always have at their root the absence of spiritual reality. It’s when the God of justice gets forgotten that justice itself, verse 7, is turned to worm-wood, literally “becomes a sour joke”.  That’s why no sooner than he has finished the obituary, Amos breaks into a plea in verse 4, “Thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, seek me and live. But do not seek Bethel, or do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba.” First and foremost, it’s a call to spiritual re-orientation. The irony was that Israel thought, as they made their way to these sites of festival pilgrimage, that seeking the Lord was EXACTLY what they were doing. Wasn’t Bethel a place where God revealed himself in the past?   Wasn’t Gilgal a shrine confirming possession of the promised land?   Didn’t Beersheba underline that God was with his people? The word is, verse 5, “DON’T BOTHER! Forget about it, you are getting it wrong.” Seek ME! Ritual, you see, is no substitute for reality. And the acid test of reality is whether it leads to transformed living. … If you, verse 7, turn justice to wormwood, do not be surprised if God who, verse 8 is well able to turn things, same word as in verse 7, turns the tables on you. So, justice, you see, springs from spiritual reality. People who are truly in touch with the God of Justice, in touch with the transforming God, the God of power, the God of creation, the God who specializes in turning the things around, are themselves turned around, and they do justice. That’s why as Christian people, claiming to be in touch with God, we have a particular responsibility in the area of Justice. Jim Wallis, puts it well, “Conversion is the beginning of active solidarity with the purposes of the kingdom of God.” We are converted to compassion, justice and peace as we take our stand as citizens of Christ’s new order. So, justice springs from the spiritual reality.

Secondly, justice SHAPES SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS, verses 10 to 17.  The problem for many of us, if we are honest, in a complex modern democracy, is that it’s not always obvious what justice actually is. And words like justice, and peace and freedom get bandied around and they become rubber stamps to make our arguments respectable. Justice comes to mean what I perceive to be just. Peace can be achieved by
nuclear escalation or by unilateral disarmament. Even among the readers there will be an enormous variety of views as to the ways of achieving social justice, or social advance.  C. S. Lewis said that he did not like the political sermons, as the only thing that you learn is what newspapers the preacher reads. It was David Watson that once said that the only problem with capitalism is that man exploits man, where as in socialism it’s the other way around.  The Christian refuses to baptize any secular ideology with the seal of total approval. The Christian struggles to bring politics and his opinions to the touchstone of revelation and then he searches revelation for instances of what it means to do justice and then he tries to apply that, however difficult it may be, to solid policy. Here Amos helps us, because in the first part of this little section in verses 10 to 17, he embarks on some social critique. And he sharpens for us two critical areas, a) a corrupt legal system, and b) exploitation of the poor. Let’s look at them briefly.

A)  A corrupt legal system. The gate that is mentioned in verse 10 and 12 and 15 is the focus of civic life, the law courts. It ought to be a place for justice. But, firstly, vs 10, both the just judge who reproves and the honest witness who tells the truth are detested. Secondly, vs 12, there is bribery. And thirdly, the same verse, there is unequal administration of justice to rich and poor. The needy are turned aside in the gate.  Now a legal system manifesting any of those problems in any system is corrupt and ought to be denounced as such.

B) The exploitation of the poor. The cities were growing at the expense of the poor. They were being trampled, vs 11, they were paying unjust taxes of wheat. And a minority was building themselves luxury villas of beautiful stone, but they never lived in them, and they were planting vineyards, but they were never enjoying their vine. They overlooked, you see, as we sometimes do, that it’s impossible for any form of injustice to escape God’s eye. Because God always recognizes injustice for what it is. Vs 12, I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins. Whenever or wherever greed replaces justice, whenever money triumphs over mercy, whenever the judicial system becomes a pawn of power and privilege, used to oppress the very people it is designed to protect, there is injustice. And the consequence, verse 16 and 17, is judgment. Verse 17, “I will pass in the midst of you”. Not as Israel believed as a friend or an ally, but as I did at the Passover in Egypt in judgment. But there is a note of hope, if they only listened. Amos turns from the social critique where he looks at the corrupt legal system and from how they exploited the poor, to some social aspirations. Verse 14-15. There are broad but important guidelines.

Let me make two points. First, there is a positive and the negative: “Seek good- don’t seek evil. Press as hard for good as you resist evil. Second, actions and emotions are involved. Vs 14, seek, vs 15, hate. Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate. The positive and negative, the balance of action and emotion? We are a bit schizophrenic in the church, sometimes. We are righteously aroused in the safety of the pews, in our worships and the prayer meetings but when we get outside it is different and we become indifferent or ineffective. There needs to be prayer, the developing of the Christian mind and then that needs to be channeled in a Christian action. Justice in the Bible means meeting need, meeting it wherever it exists, and in particular where it exists most helplessly. So, there is negative and positive, there is emotion and there is action. Verse 15, reads “Hate evil, love good, establish justice in the gate and it … and it MAY BE that the Lord of hosts will be gracious to the remnant.” You see God’s grace in society is a very special commodity. It’s not called down by any automatic means: political, spiritual or otherwise.

JUSTICE SPRINGS FROM SPIRITUAL REALITY, JUSTICE SHAPES SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS. It was John Wesley who said: “There can be no holiness but social holiness!” Our Christianity must never become just a Sabbath only ritual; worship on Sabbath must continue penetrating our daily worship of God. We are called to abide by Biblical standards of personal holiness, and then to be salt and light permeating society. Jesus’ words echo verse 15 in a way when he tells us to seek first the kingdom of God; but how often we stop at that point. We forget those extra words. We are to seek first Kingdom of God … and His righteousness. (justice = righteousness) There is a social dimension that we cannot neglect. It is a demanding task in a complex world to work at justice that we can’t and daren’t avoid the challenge.

The third great theme is THAT JUSTICE UNDERGIRDS THE ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP.  Verses 18 to 27. There is nothing worse than an individual or a church that confuses assurance with complacency. Israel regarded itself as seeking God, vs 5, they boasted that God was with them, vs 14, and vs 18 they desired the Day of the Lord, they longed for the coming of God. Their religion was extensive, it was varied, vs 21:
assemblies, feasts, offerings, songs, music. It was wholehearted. It was satisfying. But they were complacent; because their hope was misplaced and their worship was unacceptable. There would be no escape, vs. 19. If you get away from the lion the bear gets you, if you get away from the bear and you are leaning breathlessly on the wall, the snake bites you. That’s the way it is. The Day of the Lord will not be the way they imagine the day of happiness, and congratulations and the back slapping all around, but rather verse 20, the day of darkness. Why? Because their living was wrong. And so was their religion. Verse 21-23. “I hate, I despise your feast, I take no delight in your solemn assembles, your offering I can’t accept, vs, 23 your music I can’t listen to. Social injustice made a mockery of all that they were

It’s a solemn reminder to those of us who have forgotten that true worship is not just undesirable without right behavior; but it’s impossible. God is revolted by it. True worship is where the moral perspectives are sharpened. Where we begin to see from God’s point of view. Where we get hold of his concerns for justice in relationships. And hence the timeless call in verse 24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing stream”. Israel, like us, was very good at rolling up to church but not quite so good at rolling out again the other side as transformed people. Not so good at letting the church experience influence the social experience.  The warning comes to us that without an unequivocal commitment to justice and righteousness our worship may, not to put too fine a point to it, stink. So the challenge to us is to begin where we are, with ourselves, our families, our church, our neighborhood, our work, what one thinker called the building block of a just society. And to recommit ourselves to justice; checking greed, manipulation, dishonesty, prejudice, pressing for integrity compassion and love. If you think that God helps those who help themselves then you need to spend longer with Amos. Because the poor, and the needy, and the forgotten, and the helpless are those for whom God has a special concern and he commands us to do the same.

Three significant biblical ideas are in this prophetic passage, 1.    JUSTICE SPRINGS FROM SPIRITUAL REALITY (it’s a cry to spiritual reformation), 2. JUSTICE SHAPES SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS (it’s a cry to social reformation), and 3. JUSTICE UNDERGIRDS ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP (it’s a cry for religious reformation).

We are called as a church to be salt and light in a civilization that’s grown weary, in a society that’s grown tired, that’s become cynical. We are called with all our souls and minds and strength to honor God’s name and to do his will on earth as it is in heaven. And when God quickens the church and gives it a vision of true Christian behavior, there is a purging power that spills over into society around. That’s when justice begins to flow. And what’s true of church can be true of each of us individually. I read portions of the biography of William Wilberforce after the film Amazing Grace made it so compelling to pay attention to what he did in the 19th century. He caught the vision of integrated Christian behavior and justice, what he called the true Christian society.   We can too. What are we going to change in the 21st century? How is our Sabbath worship going to influence how we view creation care and sustainable living, or how we worshipfully engage with the problems of the less fortunate, the marginal, and the poor? Let justice roll down like waters in our beautiful land. And in every land where Advent believers come to worship from Sabbath to Sabbath and then leave church buildings and go to worship day by day on the streets and market squares!

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.