The Christian left objects to inequality of incomes and wealth because they want justice, they say. In other words, people earning different amounts of income violates justice. The left makes up only about 10% of evangelicals, but they enjoy the favor of the mainstream media and so are much noisier than the majority.
Pinning down a definition of justice is difficult these days. It means something different to everyone while socialists work overtime to create as much confusion as possible. And they have done well. Take for instance the phrase “climate justice.” What does that even mean? Still, many take it for granted that inequality is injustice. Former President Barak Obama said, “I’ve been told of the injustice in the growing divide between Main Street and Wall Street by the lowest-paid workers and the wealthiest billionaires.”
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, wrote in Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, “For three decades, we have experienced a social engineered inequality that is really a sin – of biblical proportions. We have indeed seen class warfare, but this war has been waged by the wealthy and their political allies against the poor and the middle class.”
Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, expresses a similar view: "‘If you do not actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber. You are unjust.’ He makes a similar claim in his article, ‘The Gospel and the Poor,’ saying, ‘To fail to share what you have is not just uncompassionate, but unfair, unjust.’”
Christians can study all that philosophers from Plato to Plantinga have written on the subject and will be more confused than when they started. The philosophers’ goal seems to be to hammer the concept of justice into the idol of their idea of a good society. Instead, Christians should be concerned with how God defines justice.
Theologians have labored to obscure the topic as much as philosophers but this ain’t rocket surgery. The Hebrew Bible has two primary words they say mean justice, tsadaqa and mishpat. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote of tsadaqua the following:
“Tzedek/tzedakah is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. It certainly means more than strictly legal justice, for which the Bible uses words like mishpat and din.”Tzedek: Justice and Compassion
The Evangelical left conflate the two Hebrew words, tsadaqa and mishpat, in order to claim that giving to the poor is not charity but justice, meaning that to not give is theft. This tradition began early in Christian history. The Church Father Ambrose wrote, “It is no less a crime to take from him that has, than to refuse to succor the needy when you can and are well off.” And Chrysostom wrote, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” In other words, property doesn’t exist.
If we take those comments literally then the poor should be able to go to court and sue the rich for more charity because the lack of concern for the poor is the same as breaking into our neighbor’s house and stealing his wife’s diamond necklaces. The Christian left doesn’t want that. It wants the state to take from the rich and distribute to the poor. But is that what God had in mind with the concepts involved in tsadaqa and mishpat? This is where Greek can help clarify because it tends to be more precise than Hebrew.
The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, usually translates Mishpat by nouns derived from krino, such as krisis, krineis,krima, meaning “to judge,… punish, vindicate, and obtain justice,” according to the Dictionary of New Testament Theology (DNTT). Judges were called kritai. The Louw and Nida Lexicon says krino means “to decide a question of legal right or wrong, and thus determine the innocence or guilt of the accused and assign appropriate punishment or retribution.”
The Septuagint usually translates Tsadaqa as dikaiosune, or righteousness. The DNTT says, “Righteousness in the OT is not a matter of actions conforming to a given set of absolute legal standards, but of behavior in keeping with the relationship between God and humans.”
To summarize, the Hebrew mishpat and the Greek krisei, krisis, krineis, and krima refer to judicial activity in courts of law when applied to humans. Tsadaqa and dikaiosune refer to personal righteousness in relation to God and other people that doesn’t involve courts or legal standards.
Of course, there is some connection. Righteous people will want to implement justice and evil ones to pervert it. Legal justice is the lower standard of morality, but that doesn’t mean they are synonyms. The Bible often uses the words together, signaling that they refer to different concepts. In the following verses, the Hebrew word is given first followed by the Greek in parentheses.
Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall do no injustice in court (mishpat, krisei). You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness (tsadaqa, dikaiosune) shall you judge (tishpot, verb of mishpat, krineis) your neighbor. (ESV)”
Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness (tsadaq, dikaiosyne) and justice (mishpat, krima) are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”
Psalm 106:3 states, “Blessed are they who observe justice (mishpat, krisin), who do righteousness (tsadaqa, dikaiosune) at all times!”
“When justice (mishpat, krima) is done, it is a joy to the righteous (tsadaqa, dikaion) but terror to evildoers. (Proverbs 21:15,)”
Amos 5:24 demands, “But let justice (mishpat, krima) roll down like water, righteousness (tsadaqa, dikaiosyne) like an ever-flowing stream.”
“Learn to do good; seek justice (mishpat, krisin), correct oppression; bring justice (mishpat, krisin) to the fatherless, and please the widow's cause,” (Isaiah 1:17).
God often condemned the rich in the prophetic books for dealing unjustly with the poor and the Christian left interprets those passages to mean that a society is unjust if poverty exists. In reality, the princes who governed the nation bribed judges in courts to pervert the law and steal the lands of the poor. The injustice the prophets railed against was legal injustice, not the lack of charity. Justice is the only job of government, and the nation of Israel perverted it.
The Bible never recommends, let alone requires an equal distribution of wealth. Why? Because people are sinners and if the government redistributed wealth indiscriminately, as the US does today, it would reward laziness, drunkenness, criminal behavior and drug use, the chief causes of poverty in the book of Proverbs.
Some of the confusion over social justice derives from ignorance of economics and clinging to the medieval view of wealth that one person can grow wealthier only at the expense of others. Before the advent of capitalism, most wealthy people stole their wealth from others. Afterwards, the West outlawed those methods so that people must create wealth honestly through commerce.
But what about the Torah poor laws? Keller wrote in “Justice in the Bible”,
“The Sabbath year law required that every seventh year all debts were cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:7-10). An even more radical law was the law of the “Jubilee” year. Every 50 years, the land went back to its original allotments (Leviticus 25:8-55)….Then there were the laws of gleaning. Landowners were not to harvest out to the edges of their field, maximizing profits for themselves, and then later out of their great wealth, help the poor only through philanthropy…. Theologians like Calvin have taught that the basic theological ideas about wealth and justice reflected in the Mosaic laws are abiding…. As a result, we can say that to be radically generous is not only a matter of mercy, but of justice.”Justice in the Bible
Pastor Keller would be right if in ancient Israel the poor could take a farmer to court for not leaving enough gleanings or disobeying the Sabbath year and Jubilee laws. But we know from scholars that the government of Israel, the courts, did not adjudicate such laws. They handled the civil laws, thou shalt not steal or murder, and left the moral and poor laws and tithing to God to enforce.
Still, even if socialists learned better economics and interpreted the Torah laws appropriately, they would demand that the state redistribute wealth more equally. The only motivation for it would be envy. Those who insist they want to redistribute wealth because they care about justice have merely redefined envy as justice.
Roger D. McKinney lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife, Jeanie. He has three children and six grandchildren. He earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Oklahoma and B.A.s from the University of Tulsa and Baptist Bible College. He has written two books, Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, and articles for the Affluent Christian Investor, the Foundation for Economic Education, The Mises Institute, the American Institute for Economic Research and Townhall Finance. Previous articles can be found at facebook.com/thechristiancapitalist. He is a conservative Baptist and promoter of the Austrian school of economics.