Fr Archangel Nkhata of St Gabriel parish says it is unfortunate that every time money speaks, justice does not prevail in society.
“Our colleagues from Malawi normally say ndalama ikalankhula chilungamo pakhala palibe (when money speaks, justice does not prevail). We should not segregate against one another based on the status in society,” says Fr Nkhata.
We live in an imperfect society with a huge imbalance of wealth and power. God is a God of justice and wants His people to make a difference in society, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves and sharing what we have with those who have nothing.
Justice is care for the vulnerable. The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably, regardless of social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.
But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor – those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion or even minor social unrest.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”
Justice reflects the character of God. Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them. It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups.
Realise, then, how significant it is that the biblical writers introduce God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things He does in the world. He identifies with the powerless. He takes up their cause.
Justice is right relationships. We must have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the biblical idea of justice than that. We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as “being just,” though it usually translated as “being righteous.” The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.
When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.
These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.” Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behaviour that, if it was prevalent in society, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.
Therefore, though tzadeqahis primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.
Rectifying justice, or mishpat, in our world could mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit and rob the poor.
When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice”.
In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness,” as in Matthew 6:1-2. Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law. In the book of Job, we see Job call every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendour (Job 31:23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (v. 28). Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of his goods as belonging to himself alone. To not “share his bread” and his assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God, and therefore by definition a violation of God’s justice.
What is our agenda for a new society that is fair, just and humane in a social sense and sustainable in terms of nature? We need a clear vision of that future. We also need consensus on our strategy to establish that future. We need to propose concrete activities and relationships for popular control of production and democratic distribution of goods and services based on caring and sharing at every level.
We say “caring” because it is an approach that implies sharing. Caring means becoming responsible for. Caring is the antidote to alienation. Caring also implies acknowledging one’s vested interest in the social and natural world.
While “sharing” is implied in caring, sharing goes beyond caring to highlight what we receive back because others care. Sharing is a necessity related to our interdependence within our social and natural worlds. To dominate, to eliminate is to diminish those worlds. This is where all the principles of capitalism and economic growth flagrantly oppose real plenty, real opportunity and real growth.
So we are arguing for a new society based on the principles of caring and sharing. We are arguing for caring for the whole society, the visible things we can sense and name and those less tangible abstract experiences like “love” and “fear” that are a complex synthesis of concrete forces. And, in caring, we share. We share material resources and ration fairly. We exercise skills and willingly learn and teach skills.
In other words, in a political, personal, economic and cultural sense we care and share.
The concept of “basic needs” has been elaborated in United Nations documents for several years now. Besides adequate food, clothing and shelter, people have a right to personal security, companionship and community. The ways that basic needs are fulfilled is slowly coming to be seen more like an art, of social context, than a science, of the delivery of material services.
If you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable.