Photograph by Kalea Morgan via Unsplash

Justice and the Jesus-verse

As someone who enjoys several different science fiction franchises, I have noticed a trend in their storytelling. Sooner or later, an episode (or series) will pursue a “what if” storyline. These stories explore what the present would look like if one small change was made in the past. In these stories, every decision— no matter how small—sparks an alternate universe where history plays out differently. The exceptional “Spider-verse” movies explore the multiverse of Spider-Men and how different choices affect the stories of Peter Parker and Miles Morales in each universe. Every Star Trek series since the original has told a story like this—from the heart-breaking story of “City on the Edge of Forever” in the Original Series to the heartwarming story of “Tapestry” in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Marvel Cinematic Universe even has an entire series dedicated to the question of “What If?” Each time, a simple change in the past leads to an entirely different present.

As I have studied history, I sometimes wonder how the “Jesus-verse” might have unfolded if different decisions were made in the past. What if the man and woman had obeyed God in Genesis 3? What if King Ahaz had obeyed God in Isaiah 7 and not formed an alliance with Assyria during the Syro-Ephraimite crisis? What if Judas had stayed alive until Sunday morning and witnessed the resurrected Christ? What if the Second Jewish Revolt led by Simon Bar-Kokhba had been successful in the second century, and an independent nation of Israel existed alongside the Roman Empire as the early church was navigating its identity?

One “what if” question that sits with me is not quite as large in scale. It has to do with a translation choice of one Greek word in the New Testament. The Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dik-aio-su-ne) carries the meaning in English of both “justice” and “righteousness.” Righteousness is when an individual’s life rightly reflects the priorities of God. In the Old Testament, that means that one reflects the concerns of God’s Torah. In the New Testament, that means one reflects Jesus’ simplified Torah: loving God with one’s whole self, which Jesus says is the same commandment as loving neighbor.

Biblical justice is similar, but it is applied to society. Justice is when social relationships and structures rightly reflect those same priorities of God. Lives of righteousness will work for a society of justice, so it is easy to understand why Greek uses the one word.

Bringing that word into English, however, means the translator must decide: “righteousness” or “justice?” Ever since 1611 when the King James set the bar for English translation, translators of the New Testament have most often chosen to render δικαιοσύνη as “righteousness”—which leads to my “what if” question. What if the King James translators had opted for the word “justice,” rather than “righteousness?” How might the history of the church have been affected?

Rather than making one little change in the past in the hopes of changing the present, what if we resolve to make a change today so that we might change the future our children inherit?

Imagine reading the Sermon on the Mount in that translation.

  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” Matt. 5:6
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake…” Matt. 5:10
  • “Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 5:20
  • “Beware of practicing your justice before others to be seen by them…” Matt. 6:1
  • “But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice…” Matt. 6:33

“Righteousness” can too often be spiritualized and individualized (it shouldn’t be, but it is). “Justice,” on the other hand, forces one to think beyond themselves. Biblical justice is social. If the text explicitly said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice (i.e., make the world reflect God’s priorities for a flourishing life of peace for everyone),” would church history of the last 400+ years look any different? Would the church have been better advocates for God’s creation? Would the church have been a louder voice against slavery and racism? Would the white church have been more active in the Civil Rights Movement and passionately argued to respect the human dignity of everyone who bears God’s image? Would films like “Just Mercy” and “Selma” rightly be seen as “Christian movies,” instead of being largely ignored by the white church? Would the church be better equipped to refute white nationalist arguments?

I want to believe it might have made a difference. I would like to believe that somewhere in the Jesus-verse, at least one universe exists where the term “social justice warrior” is a term of honor in the white evangelical church.

The cynic in me, however, says it wouldn’t matter. That translation choice might make God’s concerns in a few verses more explicit, but it’s not like the Bible is silent on how to live out our salvation and treat one another. In Matthew 25, Jesus said that God is found in the poor, the hungry, and the prisoner. The way you treat the most vulnerable in the world is the way you show your commitment to Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 22 that loving God with all you are, is exactly the same commandment as loving your neighbor as yourself. For anyone looking for a loophole, Jesus explicitly said in Luke 10 that ῾your neighbor’ included the person you hated most in the world. Loving them shows love of God. So, unfortunately, I don’t think one little change in the past would affect the present that much. The Bible already has plenty of verses that call us to live lives of justice. Jesus’ way is not obscure or hard to understand. It’s hard to live out, so it’s been easy to ignore.

Rather than making one little change in the past in the hopes of changing the present, what if we resolve to make a change today so that we might change the future our children inherit? What if we committed ourselves to making the world reflect God’s priorities for a flourishing life of peace for everyone—the immigrant, the poor, and the marginalized? What if we broke down the unjust systems that we have built as fallen human beings? What if, as God said in Amos, we strove to see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?” What if?

Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This