Have You Ever Wondered Why We Long For Justice?

They say that between Christmas and New Year, time ceases to be measured in discrete 24 hours. Instead, it becomes one long day of duvet days, devouring festive leftovers and binge-watching the latest shows. During this disorienting season, I watched Don’t Look Up! a Netflix satire, which points an irreverent, accusatory finger at celebrity culture, big tech, government, social media trends, conspiracy theories and anything else supposedly wrong with the world.

At the end of the film, one of the more villainous characters meets an absurd and violent end. (Don’t worry, no spoilers!) And yet, as I watched the character’s farcical fate, I was strangely pleased. Although the means of their demise was, quite frankly, bizarre, it didn’t mean that it was undeserved. The narcissistic character finally got their comeuppance and, as I sat in the sofa seat of judgement garbed in my onesie, my wrath was appeased.

But life is not a movie. The injustices we experience are far weightier matters than the plot of a film. There’s no pause or fast forward button to get to the best bits and, no matter how angry we are about some of the ways we’ve been treated, there is no rewind button for a do over. Our inability to control what happens to us, makes our longing of justice for us even more profound.

Have you ever wondered why we long for justice? If our existence is the outworking of impersonal cosmic forces, and if we are nothing more than biochemical machines, why do we petition, picket and protest for justice? Is our activism pre-determined by the whims of a mindless universe? Is our longing for justice just an illusion, an evolutionary instinct for the survival of our tribe? Are we simply virtue-signaling because we want to be seen as do-gooders?

I think these conclusions are just too cynical. Many of us genuinely care about the suffering of others. We make an autonomous choice to speak up and out for marginalized voices. When the whole world was struggling to breathe and came face to face with its own mortality due to the coronavirus, many of us were deeply moved by horrific, ironic scenes of George Floyd as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” But why did seeing this spark global protests?

Unlike the cold, silent absence of a vacant universe which cannot bestow value upon any of us, the Christian worldview posits the presence of a God. A God who has given us inestimable worth because we are made in his image. Thus, injustices perpetuated against us are an affront to God himself. In her book, Where is God in all the Suffering?, Amy Orr-Ewing writes:

“Whether we believe in God or not, whoever we are, we are  creatures of dignity. If that is true, the essential part of you that makes you you has a transcendent source. Your value is not imagined or invented – it is real, and its grounding is God’s image in you.”

So, when we say, “That’s not fair!” or “They shouldn’t be able to get away with that!” we are appealing to an objective standard of morality because we believe that others should agree with us. They should see that our cry for justice is legitimate. But if nothing is at the root of human existence, where does our sense of something – our belief that we have value and worth – come from? We soon sense that longings for justice point us toward God, rather than away from him. This does not mean that Christians have a monopoly on justice. My faults and shortcomings, even as a professing Christian, attest to this reality.

And what do we do when we’re so vocal about what others deserve, until the accusatory finger of justice is pointing at us? Suddenly we desire the benefit of the doubt. A second chance. Mercy. If we’re honest, perhaps we wouldn’t survive our own standards of justice. We are ready to lower the gavel of our own metric of morality upon others, but not when we ourselves are in the dock.

The words of poetry from the Hebrew Bible make our predicament clear:

“Justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Like the blind we grope along the wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes.”
(Isaiah 59:9 & 10)

Our longing for justice is good, a legitimate desire. And yet it indicts us even as we grope for it in the dark. We can’t attain the very standard we seek. The good news of Christianity is that the one who is wholly just has come near to us. He has reached out to us. He has brought light and sight. Unlike our fleeting, subjective standards of justice, Christianity points us to a person within whom all justice resides – God. Justice demands the judgement of a person, not empty premises and propositions: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14)

Our longings for justice are not imagined. They lead us to the compelling prospect of a God who cares deeply.