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    painting of a man reading a Bible

    God Demands Justice

    Justice is not simply a virtue; it is as necessary as breathing to human life.

    By Abraham Joshua Heschel

    January 25, 2023
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    This article is an excerpt from Thunder in the Soul, this week’s free ebook.


    In a sense, the calling of the prophet may be described as that of an advocate or champion, speaking for those who are too weak to plead their own cause. Indeed, the major activity of the prophets was interference, remonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people, meddling in affairs which were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility. A prudent man is he who minds his own business, staying away from questions which do not involve his own interests, particularly when not authorized to step in – and prophets were given no mandate by the widows and orphans to plead their cause. The prophet is a person who is not tolerant of the wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries.

    Why should religion, the essence of which is worship of God, put such stress on justice for man? Does not the preoccupation with morality tend to divest religion of immediate devotion to God? Why should a worldly virtue like justice be so important to the Holy One of Israel? Did not the prophets overrate the worth of justice?

    Perhaps the answer lies here: righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history. Perhaps it is because the suffering of man is a blot upon God’s conscience; because it is in relations between man and man that God is at stake. Or is it simply because the infamy of a wicked act is infinitely greater than we are able to imagine? People act as they please, doing what is vile, abusing the weak, not realizing that they are fighting God, affronting the divine, or that the oppression of man is a humiliation of God.

    He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
    He who is kind to the needy honors Him.

    (Prov. 14:31; cf. 17:5)

    The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history. For accomplishing His grand design, God needs the help of man. Man is and has the instrument of God, which he may or may not use in consonance with the grand design. Life is clay, and righteousness the mold in which God wants history to be shaped. But human beings, instead of fashioning the clay, deform the shape.

    painting of a man reading a Bible

    Eastman Johnson, The Lord Is My Shepherd, 1863, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    The world is full of iniquity, of injustice and idolatry. The people offer animals; the priests offer incense. But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in the temples, in space, but only in history, in time. It is within the realm of history that man is charged with God’s mission.

    Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern. It is not only a relationship between man and man, it is an act involving God, a divine need. Justice is His line, righteousness His plummet (Isa. 28:17). It is not one of His ways, but in all His ways. Its validity is not only universal, but also eternal, independent of will and experience.

    People think that to be just is a virtue, deserving honor and rewards; that in doing righteousness one confers a favor on society. No one expects to receive a reward for the habit of breathing. Justice is as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.

    The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos. The chief characteristic of prophetic thought is the primacy of God’s involvement in history. History is the domain with which the prophets’ minds are occupied. They are moved by a responsibility for society, by a sensitivity to what the moment demands.

    Since the prophets do not speak in the name of the moral law, it is inaccurate to characterize them as proclaimers of justice, or mishpat. It is more accurate to see them as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice. Divine concern remembered in sympathy is the stuff of which prophecy is made.

    To the biblical mind the implication of goodness is mercy. Pathos, concern for the world, is the very ethos of God. This ethical sensitivity of God – not the ethical in and for itself – is reflected in the prophets’ declarations. Prophetic morality rests upon both a divine command and a divine concern. Its ultimate appeal is not to the reasonableness of the moral law, but to the fact that God has demanded it and that its fulfillment is a realization of His concern.

    Editor’s note: The following passages specifically address the American civil rights movement. While the terminology may be dated, the issues are not.

    What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol. Faith in God is not simply an afterlife–insurance policy. Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.

    The redeeming quality of man lies in his ability to sense his kinship with all men. Yet there is a deadly poison that inflames the eye, making us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face. Pigmentation is what counts. The Negro is a stranger to many souls. There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament.

    There is a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation. What afflicts my conscience is that my face, whose skin happens not to be dark, instead of radiating the likeness of God, has come to be taken as an image of haughty assumption and overbearance. Whether justified or not, I, the white man, have become in the eyes of others a symbol of arrogance and pretension, giving offense to other human beings, hurting their pride, even without intending it. My very presence inflicting insult!

    There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.

    The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.

    The prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others. Wherever a crime is committed, it is as if the prophet were the victim and the prey. The prophet’s angry words cry. The wrath of God is a lamentation. All prophecy is one great exclamation: God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos.

    In condemning the clergymen who joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in protesting against local statutes and practices which denied constitutional liberties to groups of citizens on account of race, a white preacher declared: “The job of the minister is to lead the souls of men to God, not to bring about confusion by getting tangled up in transitory social problems.”

    In contrast to this definition, the prophets passionately proclaim that God himself is concerned with “the transitory social problems,” with the blights of society, with the affairs of the marketplace.

    What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God, with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred. We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. We think of God in the past tense and refuse to realize that God is always present and never, never past; that God may be more intimately present in slums than in mansions, with those who are smarting under the abuse of the callous.

    There are, of course, many among us whose record in dealing with the Negroes and other minority groups is unspotted. However, an honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the public climate of opinion, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, racial discrimination would be infrequent rather than common.

    That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God. 


    Source: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God (Plough, 2021) 45–55.

    Contributed By AbrahamJoshuaHeschel Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was one of the most prominent Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century.

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