Language normally conveys our meanings. It is our servant. But there are times when it lets us down, and misrepresents our intended meaning. So called ‘false friends’, words which are very similar between two languages but which actually have different meanings are one example. They can cause hilarious misunderstandings. There is a startling case of this in religious language as a result of a subtle translation shift. It has obscured an original meaning and so reduced the intended emphasis in Christian religion on the primacy of justice.
The Hebrew word ‘tsedeq’ and the Greek word ‘dikaiosune’ mean justice. But in the English Bible, over 500 times these words are translated by the alternative vague spiritual word ‘righteousness’ and only 140 times as ‘justice’. They are in fact the same word in other languages – for example ‘la justice’ in French or ‘Die Gerechtigkeit’ in German. This has led to major consequences in the English speaking religious world. The word ‘righteousness’ has led to total emphasis on a doctrine of personal spiritual salvation. However, substitute always the translation ‘justice’, and a whole new emphasis of meaning emerges. Suddenly we have the injunction to ‘look for the kingdom of God and his justice’, this same kingdom is described as consisting of ‘justice, peace and joy’, ‘the result of justice will be peace’, we should ‘let justice roll on like a river, justice like a never-failing stream’.
The kingdom of God is a powerful myth for a just society. This ‘religion’ is suddenly political, suddenly social and economic and human. It’s a very different, a much stronger, a totally more relevant spirituality, and a more costly one. Judaism and Christianity can more properly be defined as a social justice agenda.
Justice is presented as the constant vision and goal for humanity. There is a conviction that the just society is ultimately inevitable. And there is some moving insight as to how such a just society can be achieved. A key principle repeated frequently in the Judaic Christian text is that justice is priority, and that it will generate peace. Conflict and war whether between individuals or nations arises from injustice felt by one or both sides. The ‘peace for our time’ announced by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 failed because justice was ignored, utterly breached and displaced by the atrocity of Hitler’s regime. Peace in all conflict zones requires justice, and will never be established without it. Peace in the Middle East is a current priority. It will never be established by military imposition, but only by addressing the underlying causes of real and perceived injustice. It was Judah’s prophet Isaiah who wrote that justice would be established in the desert as well as in the fertile field, and that its result would be peace and calm secure living (Isaiah chapter 32, verses 16-18). The psalmist expresses the poetry that ‘justice and peace kiss each other’ (Psalm 85 verse 10) and the prophet Malachi (chapter 4 verse 2) promises that ‘the sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings’.
According to Isaiah, if Israel is considered special in any way, it is in becoming a model of justice for other nations to admire – ‘he will make justice shine on the nations, never faltering, never breaking down, he will plant justice on earth’ (chapter 42 verses 1-4 and chapter 61 verse 11). Justice is antithetic to selfishness. It fundamentally requires concern for the other party. Where self interest becomes established, justice will suffer and conflict will be the likely outcome.
In Christian teaching justice is also priority. Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount includes the beatitudes, or sayings of blessing, which themselves include the moving expression that ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice for they will be filled’ (Matthew chapter 5 verse 6). Every human rights activist should be inspired and encouraged by this. Conversely every Christian should be a human rights activist, since these concepts are core to a large part of Christ’s teachings, sayings and parables. According to Christ, activism for this kingdom of justice transcends all other material concerns (Matthew chapter 6 verse 33).