The other week I attended the Justice Conference in Chicago. Quite honestly I wasn’t expecting much. I had signed up months prior and forgotten why. But I had paid the registration fee, so I went. What I thought was going to be a forgetful conference ended up being more of a revival for my soul. Justice is one of those biblical concepts that has been used to instill fear. As a young child I remember going forward at a revival meeting because I didn’t want to face an angry God. After all, I stole cookies from the downstairs refrigerator and that act was punishable by eternity in hell! I could deal with my mother’s wooden spoon, but I had no idea how to deal with a God who was a strange and twisted version of Santa Claus, keeping a naughty list that would seal my doom.
As I got older, my understanding of justice began to expand. I heard Tony Campolo’s sermon about 30,000 children dying every day from preventable issues. Doing something about this was connected to both justice and my faith.
I have always struggled to get past idea that justice is mostly punitive. When someone does something wrong, they get caught and pay the price for doing wrong. This is the idea behind Toby Keith’s anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”: “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, It’s the American way.” Our enemy did us wrong and justice demands that we reign down terror.
This twisted and misinformed understanding of justice is not healthy. It has given permission to value some lives less than others. In the USA we have seen this in the way that black lives are devalued.
When we see justice primarily through the lens of punishment, we completely miss the biblical idea of justice. The opening speaker at the Justice Conference was Dr. Cornel West. In his address he suggested that justice is what love looks like in public. Justice has something to do with not only believing but living and acting as if every person, even your enemy, is created in the very image and likeness of God.
A just world is not so much about who is getting punished, but believing that everyone has worth. It’s not just about reposting “black lives matter” but working towards a society and culture that lives and acts in such a way. It will mean reexamining our prison industrial complex, rethinking how we fund the public school systems, and calling law enforcement officials to greater accountability. Justice means moving church out of the building and into the street.