Every Thought Captive

Justice Is a Verb

The Book of Amos proclaims that God’s supreme concern is righteousness, and that His essential demand of man is to establish justice.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets


Editor's note: PCPC member Kenny Marchetti is the author of this Every Thought Captive.

During this year's National Poetry Month, the American Academy of Poets promoted "Poem in Your Pocket" Day. The idea is to carry a favorite poem in your pocket, reading it throughout the day, so that you eventually carry it in your mind, in your heart—indeed, in your very soul. So on April 14, I pocketed Gerard Manley Hopkins' "As Kingfishers Catch Fire":


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

I read and re-read this marvelous poem, but more importantly, it read and re-read me, as all strong poetry does. One particularly descriptive phrase seized my imagination, captivating my memory: "the just man justices." We owe much to Hopkins' literary wisdom, since he had the poetic wonder to transmute the noun "justice" into the verb "justices." When was the last time we verbed, so to say, justice? Do we understand justice as more dynamic action or mere static virtue?

"The just man justices." Perhaps Hopkins' poetic invention serves as a most telling theological summary of Amos' prophecy. Certainly, Amos the poet-prophet would agree with Hopkins the poet-priest: justice is a verb. More than something you say – even more than something you believe, justice is something you do. I have a feeling Amos would have enjoyed Hopkins' verse, maybe employing my celebrated line as a rousing illustration in one of his thundering sermons.

Of course, it should go without saying that the unjust man injustices, but Amos says it anyways, because God's people must hear it. At the height—or better, the depth— of our hypocrisy, we often lie to ourselves, pretending that we can somehow be just, yet all the while we act unjustly. Yahweh will not stand such pretension, however, and so Amos' prophetic conceit stands against any and all of our sinful deceit.

The human evil of our individual and communal "injusticing" (to follow Hopkins' poetic lead) provokes the exasperation of Divine judgment. "Unjust" is usually a criticism we level at others; rarely do we appropriate its stricture upon ourselves. So God does this for us through His prophets. Thus, God's warnings motivate the problem of our unjust living. Through His prophet Amos, Yahweh is saying to His covenant people something like: "Be just as I am just. Don't merely say you're just, as important as it is to say such a thing. Instead, act justly. Only in this way will you be just."

So, when is the last time someone described us as just? Even more, when is the last time we prayed to be more of a just people, who better act in just ways? Before we answer these two questions, it seems we must ask two more: What does it mean to be a just people? How do we act as a just people?

In the biblical economy, we become a just people, because we act justly; we do not act justly, because we are somehow just in and of ourselves. In other words, further just actions only flow from just(ified) character after first ones have formed it. Crucial to our gospel understanding, then, we must live out in just ways the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us in our justification by Him. How do we do this? By yielding to and living by the Holy Spirit's guiding power, as we respond in faith-obedience to God's Word (Galatians 5:16-25; Ephesians 5:1-21). The conforming of our life and living to the gracious gift of Jesus' perfect righteousness is our progressive sanctification by which we are transformed more and more into God's just people (Philippians 2:12-16). Simply put, we participate by faith-obedience in the salvific "justicing" God has done and is doing in and through us. Or in the more eloquent expression of Hopkins' verse: "Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is – / Christ."

Obviously, then, to be as Christ (just) is to act as Christ (justly). Justice has as much to do with morality (good versus bad) as it does ethics (right versus wrong). Therefore, the two axioms by which we may measure the justness of an action are its goodness and rightness, asking "Is this action good? Is it right(teous)?" Instead of these two questions, however, we too often ask, "Is this action fair?" But beware our democratic age's flattening definition of justice into so-called "fairness." Sometimes the good and right thing to do is not "fair" at all. After all, was God's judgment of our sin upon His Christ fair?

In his masterful Poetics, Aristotle provocatively asserts that action is what is most believable, because it is, so to say, the most livable. In his prophetic book, Amos agrees. According to biblical wisdom, the blessing is in the doing (compare John 13 and James 1). When it comes to being just, the most important thing is to act justly.

But what if we don't feel like "justicing"? C. S. Lewis' practical wisdom in Mere Christianity may help us. "Don't feel like acting justly?" Lewis might ask. No doubt he'd answer, "Then act justly anyways!" For Lewis knew that if we wait until we feel like acting justly, we likely never will. But the more we act justly out of faith-obedience, the more we will feel like doing so now and again.

Are we a people who "justice"? As Frederick Buechner would counsel, "Listen to your life." Do we hear echoes of goodness and righteousness sounding from our acts of justice? We must listen to our prayers. We must listen to the wise counsel of the godly. We must listen to the sovereign ordering of Divine Providence. Above all, we must listen to the Voice of God, speaking to us through His Word and Spirit. Then and only then may we look for a unifying pattern of our faith-obedience that points in the encompassing direction of just living.

During my seminary days, Howard "Prof" Hendricks repeatedly warned, "Our problem is not knowledge; it's obedience." So true. But the good news is that all the beauty and power of the gospel motivates our ability to act justly. And when we don't, God's warnings come—and perhaps His judgment, too, when those warnings go unheeded. Still, God's warnings are gracious reminders—relational gestures, so to say—
that are the verbal consequences of being in covenant with Him. Moreover, we must remember that even God's punishing judgments against us prove to be His redeeming mercies, as He disciplines His own for His glory and our good (Hebrews 12).

Thus, God's promises should warm our hearts, and His warnings should make our blood run cold. "Be just" is Yahweh's inviting command unto blessing. "Be judged" is His terrible warning of judgment to all of us, who know how to be just but do not do what is just. "The just man justices," indeed. So likewise does a just God.

One final thought: justice begins with the individual but ends with the community. Our Triune God is relationally just; so must we be. Therefore, let us be attentive to stories of relational justice—God's, others, and ours, taking the time to listen to them, as well as tell a few of our own.

About the Author

Photograph of Kenny Marchetti

Kenny Marchetti