The problem with ‘biblical justice’

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The problem with ‘biblical justice’
by Greg Boyd

Over the last couple months I’ve participated in several panel discussions on faith and politics. And there’s something that has left me a bit confused. Over and over I’ve heard well-intentioned Christians emphatically proclaim that we need to stand up for “biblical justice.” What confused me is that the people who were saying this were, at times, arguing for completely opposite political views. Is it “biblical justice” to help the poor by increasing taxes on the wealthy (and funnel more money into programs), or by decreasing taxes on the wealthy (to try to create more job opportunities)? Is it “biblical justice” to immediately withdraw our troops from Iraq, or should we have them stay until the region is stabilized? Is it “biblical justice” to outlaw all abortions or, as one conference participant said, “to not criminalize a difficult decision a woman has to make?” People try to support these opposing political viewpoints by appealing to “biblical justice.” So who’s right? Who are the true advocates of this thing called “biblical justice?”

If people can use this concept to support contradictory political views, it seems to me that it might not be as clear and straightforward as some people think. In fact, I’m beginning to seriously wonder if appealing to “biblical justice” to resolve contemporary political issues was a well-meaning but misguided political strategy from the start.

Let’s think about “justice” for a moment. Our modern sense of justice centers on the “inalienable rights” of individuals, including the right to political freedom. But where in the Bible do we find any reference to inalienable rights or political freedom?

Yes, the Bible teaches that everyone is made in the image of God. And yes, the Bible consistently teaches about the need to take care of the poor and the outcast. But nowhere does the Bible draw the conclusion that people therefore have any particular inalienable rights or should enjoy political freedom. In fact, the same Bible that teaches that everyone is made in the image of God also talks about women being the property of men and condones slavery! Not surprisingly, no one ever quotes these passages today when they’re standing up for “biblical justice.” As important as it is, our modern concept of “justice” as many use it today really doesn’t exist in the Bible.

On top of this, we never hear a word about personal rights or political freedom throughout church history until the Enlightenment, when these concepts began to take hold in society. In fact, when the ideas were first introduced, Christians mainly opposed them. After all, the thinking went, how could anyone support the idea that common folk have inalienable rights and should help decide who governs them when the Bible clearly says that God ordains the authorities that are in power? (Romans 13:1-3)

But if we fast forward a couple hundred years, we find that most Christians in this country think it’s perfectly obvious that the Bible supports the ideas of inalienable rights and political freedom. I almost get the impression that people think the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are right out of the Bible!

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I strongly believe that all humans have inalienable rights. And I believe political freedom is a very good thing. They’re excellent ideas—they’re just not ideas that were taken out of the Bible. I can’t claim to believe in these things because I stand for “biblical justice.” I believe in these things because I’m an American.

Along the same lines, it’s not clear what someone accomplishes when they appeal to “biblical justice” to support a political position. I fear that, all too often, Christians use this phrase for its rhetorical power. The problem is that Christians on both sides of any divisive political issue can claim to be articulating a view that is rooted in “biblical justice.” After all, are there actually Christians out there who are against “biblical justice”? Of course not!

Tagging this label on our views makes Christians on both sides of a divisive political issue feel that their opinion has biblical authority, but it actually accomplishes very little.

Worse, it invites the inevitable polarization of the political realm into the Church. Now we fight over who really stands for “biblical justice” instead of doing the hard and humble work of really listening to each other, understanding each other, and working together toward a Christ-like resolution.

So maybe we should be a little more reserved in slapping the label “biblical justice” on one certain position when it comes to resolving modern political issues. Maybe we should just admit that there aren’t always easy biblical answers to many of today’s ambiguous and divisive political problems. Maybe we should just appeal to common decency and common sense in the political arena, and admit that decent and smart people sometimes disagree about how to solve complex social problems.

Most importantly, maybe we should follow the example of Jesus and focus our energy on showing the love of God by the humble, sacrificial way we live. Whatever “biblical justice” means, I’m certain we’ll cover it if we make Christ-likeness our goal.

After all, the New Testament never says a word about how we should vote. But it has a whole lot to say about how we should live.

“Live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

Greg Boyd is the Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul and former professor of theology at Bethel University. He has published 15 books, including the best-selling and award-winning “Letters From a Skeptic” and most recently “The Myth of a Christian Nation.”

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