Several yers ago I read an article in the “Soul Food” section of World magazine. The piece was by Jim Skillen, at that time the director of a ministry called “Sojourners.” Skillen’s article was all about the necessity of working for justice if we were truly Christians. What he said bothered me so much that I fired off a reply, “Justice, Yes, but What About Righteousness?” It became the first thing I ever wrote to be published in a national magazine. Subsequently I had seven more articles published in “Soul Food.”
It is true that justice is an important concept in Scripture. The Old Testament prophets use the term frequently to speak of the ideal condition of human society. Justice should be the hallmark of all our dealings with each other. It is for this reason that justice was one of the main themes of the American Civil Rights movement. African-American preachers sought to remind all of us back in the 1960s that justice was a concept near to the heart of a just God. John Perkins, a black Mississippi pastor even titled his book, Let Justice Roll Down. It is not surprising that African-Americans, facing daily discrimination in all areas of life, taught in separate (and inferior) schools, made to feel like second or even third class citizens, should focus on justice. The words of the prophets’ demand for justice echoed clearly in their preaching.
There is, however, a little-known fact about the Civil Rights movement. A lot of white college students from the north came south to help in the battle to end discrimination. Many of these were women and many of those women became sexually involved with the young African Americans they came to help. Indeed when asked the position of women in the movement, Stokeley Carmichael, head of the “Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,” (SNCC or “Snick”), famously replied, “Prone.” Some historians find a strong connection between these women and the feminist movement. Indeed many of the women who experienced the Civil Rights movement later took part in discussion or “focus” groups that developed into recruiting grounds for the feminist cause. As I studied their writings, in 1999, the question I had asked in my World article came back to my mind; “Justice, Yes, but What About Righteousness?”
My research method for the article was simple. I got out my handy copy of Young’s Analytical Concordance and counted up all the uses of the two words, justice and righteousness. I discovered that the Bible’s writers use the word “righteousness” four times as often as they use “justice.” But had I looked a bit closer I would have discovered another truth–something I only learned from a “Soul Food” piece by Chuck Colson published several years after mine. It is that the Hebrew word for “justice”–which formed the basis of both Old and New Testament writers’ understanding of the concept–actually has the same Hebrew root as the word for “righteousness.” “Justice” in Hebrew, is derived from the word “righteousness.”
What that tells us is highly significant. Those ancient Hebrew prophets understood that, to have justice, you first have to have righteousness. What is true linguistically is equally true in human society. Without righteousness in society there will never be justice in society. Indeed the just society must be a righteous society. I think a good case can be made that all of the injustice we have seen in human history is the direct result of the failure of individuals to be righteous and to strive together to create a righteous society.
Early in the last century the leaders of a small denomination called the “United Presbyterian Church of North America” sought to set down a succinct statement that would describe the mission of the Church in the world. The statement they wrote is called, “The Great Ends of the Church.” They were, to use modern language, setting forth the great purposes which the Church is to fulfill in the world (and you thought The Purpose-Driven Church was Rick Warren’s idea). The fifth “end” or :”purpose” they listed was, “The proclamation of social righteousness.” Note that they did not say “Social Justice,” even though they lived at a time when the ideas of the Social Gospel were becoming important and when writers such as Walter Raushenbusch were stressing the need for social justice. They said “Social righteousness” because they understood that we can never have justice without first having righteousness.
I think one of the reasons social justice has been the war-cry of so many is that social justice is a far easier thing to attain, in their minds, than social righteousness. Many people, even in the Church, believe that we can have the one, justice, without the other, righteousness. In truth there are no shortcuts to social justice. Social righteousness, the creation of a genuinely good, moral society has to come first. Do we honestly think we can have “justice for all,” when we continue to butcher the unborn, be amused by the most vile forms of filthy humor Hollywood can produce, run election campaigns in which the truth cannot be heard above the roaring of the lies, encourage sloth, drunkenness and drub abuse, demean the role of the family and permit a whole host of other evils to flourish virtually unchallenged?
A just society will only develop when our people seek to be righteous. What does the term “righteous” mean? Simply put, it means to stand in a right relationship with God and others. So righteousness in society has to begin with me and you. Further, righteousness will spread, and true justice come only as we spread the truth about the importance of righteousness for a truly just society. Some of you may well work in organizations that encourage social justice. If (or when) you do, use the opportunities they offer to remind everyone you work with or meet that justice will only come when we all become a lot more righteous. If we are ever to be a society that offers “justice for all,” we must first become a society in which all aim for a higher standard of righteousness.