I grew up during racially divisive and violent times in East Texas, especially related to integration of my Robert E. Lee High School during my sophomore year. Fear, rioting and police patrols dominated most days. It was an unhappy time. I don't recall hearing or experiencing much about inclusion, love, nonviolence or impartiality.
Biblical "justice" is among the most important scriptural and active pursuit priorities in Judeo-Christian tradition. Arguably, it is the number one faith priority.
God's consistent insistence to seek justice is prominent in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament and the New Testament. It covers countless generations with multiple sources over 3,000 years or more within many Biblical books and in a variety of contexts.
Yet, do people of faith and others similarly intending to live meaningfully really "get it"? How far have we come (or regressed) in the United States since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the violence I witnessed in high school in 1972?
Exercising justice means actively loving others who are vulnerable, disadvantaged, or otherwise in need. Justice is synonymous with "social justice" in contemporary terminology. However, I prefer the Biblical term, "justice." Adding "social" to anything in today's quick-to-judge-and-denigrate society is too politically charged. It seems to trigger some people rolling their eyes and tuning it out, while others react more negatively, immediately thinking in a sound bite manner of socialism and lambasting the concept.
Seeking justice is completely apolitical. It is neither liberal nor conservative or anywhere in between. Rather, justice is love and inclusivity in action where it is needed most. It is easy to define but challenging to carry out.
Justice is more important than worship, prayer, or any other religious custom or ritual. In fact, injustice in the alleged name of Christianity is a mockery, making expressions of faith hypocritical and meaningless.
Justice includes fair treatment and provision of opportunities for everyone in a society, with special emphasis and concern for the poor and any who are oppressed. This crucial emphasis on caring for others is always in season.
A few Biblical examples from centuries' old sources highlight the central and timeless importance of justice for authentic people of faith and anyone else interested in a meaningful life.
Through Moses, God told the people: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). This imperative goes all the way back to the first chapter of the Bible, which informs us that God created humankind in his image ... male and female he created them [and] God blessed them" (Genesis 1:27-28).
From the start, there were no tribes or favorites. Rather, God made everyone in his "image," which is both holy and wholly devoid of inherent depravity.
Bad choices, such as violence and hatred between different groups, are the root of depravity. Leviticus 19:18 is the source of "you shall love your neighbor as yourself.“ Most people are familiar with this command, which Jesus also emphasized (Mark 12:31).
A seldom referenced and often ignored later verse adds: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you. You shall love the alien as yourself...." (Leviticus 19:34). Jesus lived out this and other aspects of justice by associating with and attending to the poor, sick, tax collectors, and other social and religious outcasts of his time.
Isaiah declared God's word: "[E]ven though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.... (Isaiah 1:15-17, 18-19). Thus, according to Isaiah, being "willing and obedient" to God's directive to seek justice appears to be a predicate of God's forgiveness.
In a passage called "the MLK, Jr." passage by some because Martin Luther King Jr. utilized it, God spoke through Amos: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies....Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21, 23-24).
Justice is embedded in the fabric of Jewish-Christian tradition. In his embodiment and life-model of justice, Jesus drew on the very best of his Jewish tradition. So should we.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads faith and life-quality oriented discussion groups at the Church at Highland Park. His book, “The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living,” will be published by in early October, waltshelton.com.