Dordt College News

An alumni reflection from Tammy Walhof: Justice! Not 'just us'

December 2, 2013

What does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

What do you think of when you hear the word “justice”? Do thoughts of fairness and equality enter your mind? Or do you think of injustice—oppression, exploitation, benefiting at the expense of someone else? Maybe “justice” produces for you an image of courts or the legal system. Maybe it is a vision of human rights in their most broadly defined terms—encompassing political and economic rights, but also basic respect and dignity for all humankind. While each of these descriptions for justice (or injustice) is correct, there is another description that can help guide us in our understanding of justice.

When I first started learning Spanish, I learned the word justicia. However, it appeared in many more places in my Spanish Bible then the word justice did in my English Bible. Could I have mislearned the word? It appeared frequently where I knew the word was supposed to be righteousness. Then it also popped up in all the passages I knew as justice passages. What was going on?

It turns out that in Spanish, justicia means both justice and righteousness. Many other languages use a single word for these English words as well, including the Hebrew of the Old Testament (tsedek). They actually refer to “right relationship.” Righteousness (justicia/tzedek) = right relationship with God; justice (justicia/tzedek) = right relationship with others. In each case, the word is bigger than righteousness or justice. It means both. I find it helpful every time I read the word justice, to insert righteousness as well. And where I read righteousness, I insert justice. Notice how differently Matthew 6:25-34 reads with that addition.

When one of the Pharisees tried to test Jesus by asking, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus supersized righteousness and justice into loving God and loving others. He said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:36-40).

All of the law and all of the messages from the prophets are based on righteousness and justice (right relationship with God and others)?

Look at the Old Testament law books, and skim through some of the chapters (Exodus 20-30, Deuteronomy 4-26, Leviticus 1-7, 11-15, 25). These passages either offer guidelines for right worship and right relationship with God, or they regulate and guide relationships between people, including even public health and the prevention of the spread of diseases in Leviticus.

What was the task of the prophets? They had the difficult and often frustrating job of calling the people and their leaders back into right relationship, both with God and with others. Try studying the prophets, identifying in each passage which type of broken relationship the prophet is addressing at that moment. Notice also how intertwined those relationships are.
God speaks through Isaiah about true worship. “Day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does right. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers” (Isaiah 58).

The people are going through the right actions, but their relationship with God is not right because their relationship with others is lacking. Instead, they are told that loosing the chains of injustice, setting the oppressed free, sharing their food with the hungry, and providing shelter for the homeless will cause their “light to break forth like the dawn.” Then their righteousness [their right relationship with God] “will go before them and the Glory of the Lord will be [their] rear guard” (Isaiah 58).

How are we doing in our relationships? Are we spending time in worship and prayer, yet neglecting the needs of others? Or, are we expending energy addressing the needs of others while neglecting our relationship with God? Are we focusing on righteousness and on justice? Or are we focusing on just us?

Tammy Walhof’s passion for justice has led her to volunteer with low income families in the U.S., work with her church’s relief program in Latin America, and travel the world to understand hunger and poverty. She has helped shape public policy that addresses the causes of hunger and poverty through government, relief, and advocacy organizations.

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