Justice and Loving Kindness
Written by: Robert D Brinsmead
There are difficulties in translating the NT word agape. Sometimes the King James uses the word charity, as in I Corinthians 13. In our Western mind, I think that due to the influence of the Christian doctrine of the atonement, love seems to be in some kind of tension with justice. It is a kind of misunderstanding reflected in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice which, as good Jewish scholars have always recognized, terribly misunderstood Jewish justice based on the Hebrew word tzedak. This was an absolutely marvellous and fascinating word that was absolutely central in the OT. It blended our common understanding of compassion with our Western idea of justice as doing what is fair, equitable and right according to law, which means that perhaps tzedak is best translated as compassionate justice.
It is not adequate to say, as Leon Morris does, that tzedak is a term that is related to law. When we look at the context in which the word is frequently used, it is a term that is belongs to relationships. It therefore has the meaning of being true and faithful to a relationship. For example, God is represented as having a relationship of Israel, his chosen people. For the moment, we should forget about the question of whether “the chosen people” is a good religious idea but concentrate on the meaning of tzedak in the context of God’s relationship to Israel who is sometimes depicted as a wife bound to God in “a covenant of love.” (Daniel 9). Sometimes Israel is depicted as God’s son. That figure of speech also speaks powerfully to the idea of a relationship. In other places, the second Isaiah depicts God as Israel’s maker. With this background, the tzedak of God is exhibited in God’s loyalty and faithfulness to those relationships. Despite the repeated failure of Israel to be tzedak – loyal and faithful to her/his/its relationship to God and brings suffering on her/his/ itself, God is afflicted in all Israel’s afflictions. He is the tzedak one who swears to his own hurt and changes not. Even though God seems to cast away his people by exposing them to captivity, it is only for a little while. He remembers his covenant of love and declares, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “I will not forget you.”
“I called my son out of Egypt…how can I give you up, Israel?” Paul brings that whole covenant story down to the point where he declares that God has not cast away his people whom he has elected. “The gifts and calling of God are without change of his mind and purpose…and so all Israel will be saved.” (See Romans 9-11)
This refusal of God to give up; to go back on his covenant; to stop loving his “wife”, “son”, “creature of his making”; this remaining faithful to the relationship even when the other party is unfaithful, this looking beyond the present dark days of the beloved’s betrayal and continuing to believe that love will win out at last is the whole point of the prophet Hosea. This stickability leads the Hebrew prophet to cry out, “great is thy faithfulness!” – this is the tzedak of God. It is not just love as we normally think of love. It is not a wishy washy sentimental love. This is a love that exhibits the highest form of justice – of being fair, of doing the right thing. It is not as if God finally throws justice out of the window as he is swept away in a flood of compassion. This is tzedak justice, the highest form of justice just as agape is the highest form of love. It is God being loyal and true and faithful to his relationship, come what may, at any cost to himself, no matter what. This is the kind of justice depicted in that story told by Jesus when that loving father throws away the dignity of his station and runs to greet his wayward son and brings him to the family table as one who had a perfect right to be there, like one who had never left. That is the scandal of God’s justice. It is also called agape.
At this point, it should be almost needless to say that this kind of tzedak, or this kind of love, is inimical to the whole idea that divine forgiveness and acceptance rests on any kind of atonement (blood-payment, compensation, pay-back justice or repayment of a debt by the vicarious suffering of another). This very old superstition is as old as religion itself, but whatever its form, even the Christian one, it robs tzedak and agape of being totally sovereign and totally free by debasing it to something that has to merited, earned and purchased, even if that is by the vicarious obedience and suffering of another.