A God of Justice
God is righteous and just in himself, and he desires justice in his creatures. His divine righteousness is thus the basis for human justice.
When we say that God is just, it means that ‘God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right’. According to the late Dutch-American theologian Louis Berkhof, “Justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his deserts.” This is what God does, and he does so because that is what he is. In other words, God acts justly because he is just.
In Deuteronomy 32:4, Moses declared concerning God that, “All his ways are justice. A God of truth and without injustice. Righteous and upright is he.” Abraham also appealed to this attribute of God when he asked rhetorically: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25)
A God for Justice
Justice is dear to the heart of God. Several Bible passages bear this out:
“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isa. 10:1-2)
“Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” (Mic. 2:1-2)
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14)
In Psalm 82, God notably declares his anger against rulers who pervert justice.
The psalmist begins by painting a scenario whereby God sits in council with the leaders of the earth and rebukes them. Why? For judging unjustly and being partial to the wicked. Then comes the instruction to
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. (v. 3)
He wraps up the meeting with a stinging rebuke of these princes in that much-twisted passage:
‘I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince” ‘ (vv. 6-7)
The psalm comes to an end with an appeal to God for global justice, for all nations are his inheritance.
The prophet Jeremiah was also keenly aware of the contrast between God’s just character and the ungodliness in his society, and in 12:1-4, he called on God to act.
‘Righteous are you, O Lord,
when I complain to you;
yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth
and far from their heart.
But you, O Lord, know me;
you see me, and test my heart toward you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
How long will the land mourn
and the grass of every field wither?
For the evil of those who dwell in it
the beasts and the birds are swept away,
because they said, “He will not see our latter end.”’
A People for Justice
The church is the body of Christ, his arms and legs, continuing his work on earth. We are the light of the world, God’s elect and chosen people. Our lives should reflect the heart of our Father. Where, as we have seen, his heart beats for justice, his people cannot be indifferent.
Jesus also makes care and concern for the suffering a criterion for judgment on the last day. The King will assess how we have treated the stranger, the hungry, the sick and the prisoner while we were on earth (Matthew 25:31-46).
The Nigerian Situation
Our own society requires the church to fight for justice. For anyone who has lived within or studied it for a while, Nigeria is a society in dire need of reform. Consider just one instance: our prisons.
We have overcrowded prisons and it is heartbreaking to learn that a huge percentage of inmates are yet to even go on trial! According to the World Prison Brief, we have 63, 142 prisoners in our prisons. Out of this total, 71.7% (45, 263) are awaiting trial or remanded. With an official capacity of 50, 153, our prisons have an occupancy level of 125.9%*.
Besides the appalling state of our prisons, we hear of repeated battery and harassment by members of the police force. Many are reluctant to report crimes to the police because they can end up being either branded as criminals or forced to part with money before their complaint is addressed.
What can the Church do?
As God’s community in the nation, what can believers do?
First, we should repent of our failures to take justice seriously as the church. In many respects, we have closed our eyes to the sufferings of the poor and the mistreatment of the weak.
Then we should pray for God’s justice to be restored in our land.
Next, we can petition parastatals and organizations that are noted for injustice and oppression. How about a signed petition from diverse Christian leaders urging the Nigerian Police Force to address abuses by its officers? Can we call on the Nigerian Prison Service to urgently address the plight of prisoners?
What about peaceful protests? We can organize peaceful demonstrations to call our government to tackle specific instances or areas of injustice. And we would do this in the name of Christ, who is the Judge of all the earth.
We should preach sermons which expound biblically the theme of Justice: both its nature as a divine attribute and our obligation to practice justice. Instead of messages which proclaim our comfort and prosperity, we need sermons which arouse our concern for the needs of others besides ourselves. And these sermons must be specific, highlighting how we often practice injustice to our employees, spouses, children, and neighbours.
In our individual spheres, let us cultivate fairness and justice. Are you in charge of a department or unit? live above board. Are you a parent? Avoid favouritism among your children. Are you a government employee? Be diligent and faithful. Do you run a business? Offer excellent service to both your employees and customers (in that order). Do you work in the Police or the Armed forces, I will repeat to you what John the Baptist said to the Roman soldiers in his day: “Be content with your wages”. Do you have the poor and needy around you (we all do)? Help them.
We must bear in mind the instruction of the apostle James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
It is not enough to keep ourselves unstained from the world; we must also remember widows and orphans.
This article was originally published in 2017.
*World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Figures are as at end of March 2016.