Justice: The Real American Dream
September 18, 1994
I’d like to begin by telling you something that I ran across in a bookstore. I think you might be interested in this. When I started these sermons on Proverbs, I challenged you to take the Book of Proverbs and read it through in a month. There are 31 chapters in Proverbs, 31 days in most months, so you would read one chapter per day. A lot of people add to that and take the book of Psalms, which has 150 chapters, and read five Psalms a day. That way in a month they have read through the whole books of Psalms and Proverbs. If you’re like me, you forget where you were or where you ended. The other day at Logos Bookstore I picked up a neat little booklet entitled “31 Days of Wisdom and Praise”. What this book does is divide the Psalms up according to the days of the month, five Psalms for each day of the month, and they have added a chapter from the Book of Proverbs. They have done it for all 31 days, according to the days of the month. I would like to encourage you to go to your Christian book store and get a copy of this. It will cost about $4.00. It is a great way of getting into reading the Bible every day, and let God’s word begin to build into your life.
Our theme for today may seem a little unusual to you. It is, Justice: The Real American Dream. Justice is something that is very American. It is something that we as children learned when we learned to say the following words: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Every time you say that, you’re pledging to be part of a nation that will provide justice for all. And yet I recall the words of Thomas Jefferson who said, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
This week I got in the mail the monthly mailout from Dr. James Dobson’s organization Focus on the Family. You know what he was talking about in his letter this month? It was about justice, about the sad state of the justice system in America today. He begins by talking about O.J. Simpson, then he talks about Eric and Lyle Menendez, the strange case of Lorena Bobbitt, he quotes at length from a lawyer who writes that if you are a very good lawyer and know how to work the system, you can get the guilty off if you find the right judge and if you say the right things. At the very end of his letter, this is what Dr. Dobson says,
“The way justice is dispensed in society is a function of its moral values, especially in a government of the people, for the people and by the people. If a majority of citizens understand and are committed to fundamental principles of right and wrong, based on the Ten Commandments and the natural law of God, then the judges and juries will render decisions based on those values. But if people become confused about what they believe, then the legal apparatus will also lose its focus. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, a system of justice can be no better than the value system it represents?” Then Dr. Dobson says this, “Perhaps that explains what we are witnessing in our beloved nation. Because we’ve lost our concepts of right and wrong, justice is disappearing. Maybe that’s why hundreds of people line the road to cheer a man accused of killing a young mother and her friend. ‘Run, O.J., run,’ they shouted as he fled from the police. It was great fun, but it was also tragic.”
Last Sunday’s Ann Lander’s column was very interesting. The headline read “Justice can be elusive in the courtroom.” Then she quotes a number of cases of obvious miscarriages of justice in America.
But probably the best example is the current issue of Time Magazine. There is a shocking picture on the front of a young man by the name of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, 11 years old. He’s the young man who was accused of murdering that girl a couple of weeks ago, and then was shot to death in what appeared to be a gang slaying. It says, “The short, violent life of Robert Yummy Sandifer, so young to kill, so young to die.” When you open the magazine, there is a picture of him in his casket. The parents are bringing the neighborhood kids by to touch his face, in hopes that the kids would learn the lesson: don’t end up there yourself. “He was called Yummy because of his love of cookies and Snickers bars. Seemed like a nice kid, yet somebody said he was always in trouble. No one is sorry to see him gone.” Chicago’s authorities have known about Yummy for years. He was born to a teenage addict mother and a father now in jail. Says Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, “What you’ve got here is a kid who was made and turned into a sociopath by the time he was three years old.” By the time he was 11, Yummy averaged a felony a month for the last year and a half of his life—23 felonies and five misdemeanors in all at 11 years of age.
The next article is related to it. Entitled “When Kids Go Bad,” it is about the decline and collapse and the problems of the juvenile justice system in America. They note that in the last six years there has been a significant increase in juvenile crime in the most serious categories—murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. And one judge up in Washington said, “Now, among children, youngsters used to shoot each other in the body, then in the head; now they shoot each other in the face.” When the journalists went down to talk to the people who lived in Yummy Sandifer’s neighborhood, they talked to the children. When they asked the children, “What could we do to make this neighborhood more safe?” the children, ages 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, said “Give us some guns so we can protect ourselves.”
The dictionary defines justice this way: moral rightness, equity, honor, fair play, due reward and due punishment. Edmund Burke said it this way, “Justice is the great spending policy of civil society.” Woodrow Wilson said, “Unless justice be done to others, it will not be done to us.” William Gladstone said, and this is perhaps the most frightening of all the quotes, “National injustice is the surest road to national downfall.”
Is God concerned about justice?
So I ask the question: Is God concerned about justice?
When he looks down and sees a world like this, does God care what’s going on? Does he have anything to say about it? If you want to know the answer to that question, you don’t have to take my word for it, just start reading your Bible. You will find the Bible is crammed with verses and stories and texts and passages where God expresses his concern for human justice. It’s a major theme of the Bible, especially a major theme of the Old Testament.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve looked back to see what the Bible has to say about the issue of justice. Let me just read some of those verses to you.
Amos 5:24 “Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord your God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Exodus 23:1-9 gives us the laws of justice and mercy.
1. No false reports.
2. Don’t follow the crowd.
3. No favoritism in the law.
4. Give true testimony.
5. Show kindness to your enemy.
6. Justice to the poor.
7. No false charges.
8. No capital punishment for the innocent.
9. Don’t take bribes.
10. Fair treatment for foreigners.
Deuteronomy 10:17, speaking of God’s just character, says:
1. He shows no partiality.
2. The Lord accepts no bribes.
Deuteronomy 10:18 describes justice as is seen three ways.
1. Justice to the widows.
2. Justice to the orphans.
3. Food and clothes to the foreigners.
Deuteronomy 16:20 “Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
In Deuteronomy 24:14-22 we have the four statements concerning what justice is.
1. Justice to the aliens.
2. Justice to the widows.
3. Fair pay to the poor.
4. Generosity to all. I stop here to make a point. If you want to read something that will blow your mind, go back and read the ancient book of Deuteronomy and see how specific God is about how human society ought to be organized. God doesn’t just say go out there and love each other. He gives specific direction on how we should treat each other. God was concerned that when his people went into the promised land, they would set up a society that would be qualitatively different from the heathen nations around them, that in the place of injustice and bloodshed there would be justice, love and mercy.
Solomon asked God to give him discernment in administering justice. This request pleased God. Solomon wanted to know how to distinguish right and wrong and because Solomon asked for justice, God added to him riches and honor.
Job 34:12 “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.”
Psalm 33:5 “The Lord loves righteousness and justice.”
Psalm 82:2-4 give us four signs of justice:
1. Defending the weak and fatherless.
2. Maintaining the rights of the poor and oppressed.
3. Rescuing the weak and needy.
4. Deliver the weak from the hand of the wicked.
Do you see a pattern developing? Do you see certain things coming up over and over again? God keeps mentioning certain groups of people that he wants his people to be concerned about.
Psalm 97:2 “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”
Psalm 106:3 “Blessed are they who maintain justice, who consistently do what is right.”
Psalm 140:12 “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”
Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to be right. Seek justice; encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
Isaiah 5:7 “He looked for justice but saw bloodshed.”
When God looks at America, what does he see? When God looks at South Chicago, what does he see? When he looks on the West Side, what does he see?
He who looks for justice all too often finds bloodshed.
Isaiah 30:18 “The Lord is a God of justice.”
Isaiah 42:1 “He will bring justice to the nations.”
Isaiah 61:8 “I, the Lord, love justice.”
Jeremiah 21:12 “Administer justice every morning. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.”
Jeremiah 22:3 “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
Ezekiel 18 lists the marks of the man who does justice.
1. He does not oppress anyone.
2. He returns the collateral for a loan
3. He does not rob.
4. He gives food to the hungry, clothes to the naked.
5. He does not charge interest.
6. He judges thoroughly between men.
Ezekiel 22:29 says, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery. They oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice, thus judgment comes from the Lord.”
Amos 5:7 lists the sins of ancient Israel which brought on their judgment:
1. Trampling the poor.
2. Taking bribes.
3. Taking grain from the poor.
Zechariah 7:9 gives a summary statement: “Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”
You may have noticed these verses are all from the Old Testament. How about the New Testament?
James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
When our Lord spoke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23, what did he say to them, the most religious people of their day? “You hypocrites, you whitened sepulchres! You are the ones who rob the widow’s houses in the name of religion. You cheat the poor. You cheat the oppressed. In the name of your religion you trample on the rights of other people.” No wonder he got angry.
Don’t ever say justice is just an Old Testament theme. It’s through the Bible, from beginning to end, that our God is a God of justice.
Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have preached this sermon. Twenty years ago I would have thought this was a left-wing sermon. But the Bible hasn’t changed. I’ve just grown up, started reading it from cover to cover. I have discovered God’s concern about justice on the earth was there all along. He wants his people to be concerned.
Come now to the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 1:3 says the book was written to teach us to do what is right and just and true.
Proverbs 17:23 says, “A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the course of justice.”
Proverbs 19:28 says, “A corrupt witness mocks at justice, and the mouth of the wicked gulps down evil.”
Proverbs 21:3 says, “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” That is a key verse. It reminds me of I Samuel 15:16, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” God is saying, Don’t come in here with blood on your hands, thinking you can sing and get your guilt washed away. Don’t come in here having treated people like dirt and think God is going to be pleased because you pray and clap and get all excited. Don’t come in here, having taken advantage of people, having assassinated people’s character, having perverted the course of justice. Don’t come in here having stood silently by while other people were oppressing the poor. Don’t do these things and think you can get away with it, because God is not impressed.
Proverbs 21:15 says, “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous, but terror to evildoers.”
Proverbs 28:5 says,“Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.”
God expects us to know what justice is and to work for justice in the world.
Proverbs 29:4 says, “By justice a king gives a country stability. The one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.”
Proverbs 29:26, “Many seek an audience with a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice.”
What has struck me as I read these verses and pondered them is that there are certain things that God is really concerned about in my life Maybe I have not thought much about this until recently. That bothers me. What I find as I read these verses is there are four forgotten groups of people that God remembers.
1. He remembers the widows.
2. He remembers the orphans.
3. He remembers the poor.
4. He remembers the foreigners.
The Bible is addressing the very problems that are tearing our society apart.
You just can’t read the Old Testament without seeing that God cares what happens to these four groups of people. By the word widow I have also written down “single parents,” by orphans I have written down “latch-key kids,” by the poor I have written down “homeless,” and by the foreigners I have written down “despised ethnic and racial minorities.” What strikes me is how amazingly relevant God’s word is today. If you take the Chicago Tribune, the Wednesday Journal, USA Today or any newspaper, you’ll find out that the Bible is addressing the very problems that are tearing our society apart. God is showing us that he cares about these people and wants us to care about them too.
God sees the displaced peoples of the world. He sees the refugees of the world. He sees the homeless, the hurting of the world, and he cares about them. He wants his people to care about them too.
Here are the four character qualities I think God really values when it comes to justice:
1. Fair play.
Remember all those verses that talk about the unjust scales. That’s like the old story where you go to the butcher and you think you’re buying two pounds of meat because he puts his thumb on the scale. So you really only get a pound and a half, but you don’t discover it until you go home. God tells us not to rig anything, not to cheat; truth in selling, truth in merchandising, truth in advertising, fair play toward other people. No favoritism, no pulling strings, no secret bribes, nothing done under the table or behind closed doors. Everything open and above board; all the cards on the table face up. That’s what God wants.
2. Fair pay.
God talks about robbing widows’ homes. He talks about people who extort money from the poor. How about some of those people on the west side of Chicago, not all of them, but those rich people, those slum lords, who go into depressed areas and buy a building. They let the poor come in and charge them a little bit of rent and never fix it up. They never intend to, because they live some place else and they don’t care. It’s an abomination to Almighty God and the people of God ought to stand up against it. If you want to know why it’s so hard to bring some of these neighborhoods back, it’s because some of the people who own these buildings, living here in Oak Park or Oak Brook or Winetka, way out in the suburbs, don’t ever come into the city. They just get their monthly check and take it to the bank. God hates it. Fair pay means no getting rich at the expense of others.
3. Absolute honesty.
Truth in speech. Keeping your promises. What you say you’re going to do, that’s what you’re going to do.
4. Compassion towards the needy.
Turn to Proverbs 24:11, 12: “Rescue those being lead away to death. Hold back those staggering towards slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” In that verse God is saying that when you see suffering, you’re supposed to do something about it. Do something! You can’t do everything, but you can do something.
Remember the story from nearly 30 years ago. I believe her name was Kitty Genevise. The setting was the streets of New York City, in the evening, but not too late. She was assaulted by a man and began to scream. He told her to shut up but she kept on screaming. She screamed for about fifteen minutes until he dragged her off to the side and killed her for her money. And when the police investigated, they asked the neighbors in the apartment houses, “Did you hear anything?” It turned out that 36 people heard Kitty scream and some of them even opened the window, looked out, saw her being assaulted, and yelled, “Shut up, we’re trying to sleep.” When asked that if they saw it happening, why didn’t they do something, all 36 people said the same thing: “We didn’t want to get involved.”
God only judges on the basis of what you actually did. Good intentions don’t count.
That, brothers and sisters is why America is in such a mess today. We see the problems and we don’t want to get involved. God says, “When you see the hurt, when you see the needy, you’re going to have to do something. You can’t just walk on by. You can’t pretend you didn’t see it, because God sees the heart.” On what basis does God make his judgment? Not on the basis of what you thought. Not on the basis of what you said. Not on the basis of what you felt. God only judges on one basis, on the basis of what you actually did. Good intentions don’t count.
This is the reason for the pro-life movement. This is the reason for Circle Urban Ministries, for Inner City Impact, for Lawndale Community Church and Glen and Jane Fitzjerrell’s work out on the street. This is the reason why we keep sending teams down to Mexico and Haiti. This is why next year we are already planning on sending a team down to Haiti again. I talked to Caleb Lucien this week and confirmed the dates. Next July we’re going back again. There is so much poverty, how can you help those people? Well, if we don’t do something, it can only get worse. The fact that we can’t help everybody is no excuse to not help somebody. God will not hold us guiltless if we stay in our safe, middle class lifestyle while people are suffering and dying all around us.
The fact that we can’t help everybody is no excuse to not help somebody.
Justice matters to God and it ought to matter to us because of the following reasons:
1. Because God is a God of justice it is one of his attributes. He cannot help but be concerned because of who he is.
2. Because we live in an unjust world. We sing that song “This Is My Father’s World.” It sounds so sweet. “And to my listening ears, all nature sings and around me rings the music of the spheres.” You can almost hear the flutter of angels. You know what we ought to do when we sing that? We ought to put the sound of machine gun fire behind it. We ought to put on the screen the faces of the children of Chicago shot dead in the last year. This is my Father’s world but something terrible has happened. There is injustice on every hand. We ought to care because of the kind of world we’re living in.
3. We ought to care because justice is the reason Christ came. That’s why God sent his son, so that the penalty for sin could be paid and you could be set free
4. Because when we work for justice, we’re truly working for God. When you stand up for justice in the school, on the streets, in the workplace, in our neighborhood, when we stand up for justice, we are doing God’s work. Since we live in an unjust world, there is going to be plenty for us to do. There is so much injustice out there, you don’t have to do what I do and I don’t have to do what you do. There is so much out there, we could all be busy 24 hours a day and not correct everything. People of justice will rarely be rewarded because this is an unjust world, but we ought to treat each other fairly anyway.
My conclusion is this: it’s time for us to start making a difference as the people of God. Today we’re so far from the real American dream of liberty and justice for all. But we can make a difference. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Here’s what I want to say to you. This week, stand up. This week, speak up. This week, when you see something evil going down, don’t just pass it by. Get in there and make a difference. Stand up this week for what is right. Stand up for justice and when you do, God will be standing with you. Amen.