Friday, July 11, 2014

Justice or Righteousness?

English has one of the richest vocabularies of any language in the world. It is classified as a Germanic language on the Indo-European language tree because of the way it is grammatically structured, but it gets more of its vocabulary from other sources. More than half comes from Latin, mostly through the French.

This richness of vocabulary is both a bane and a blessing because English often has two (or more) words that mean the same thing; one coming though its German sources and the other through its French sources. For example, we get “shy” from the German and “timid” from the French and they are synonymous. Interestingly, the euphemistic words that English uses to replace the dirty, impolite words, often come from French while the prohibited ones come from the German. Manure would be such an example. I don’t think it is necessary to give the English equivalent.

This can be a problem when translators of the Bible try to decide which word to use given a choice. One such problem area, in my view, is the difference between “justice” and “righteousness.” English gets the word “justice” through its French roots (spelled the same way in the French), while “righteousness” comes from its German roots—Gerechtigkeit. Recht=right, Gerecht=fair, keit=ness. Put the components all together and you get the word in German for “justice.”

For most of us, the English word “righteousness” has strayed in meaning from its German roots. It has come to mean “personal piety,” or being “morally right.” For the beatitude in Matthew 5:6, translators chose the word “righteousness” instead of “justice.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” In both my German and Spanish Bibles, the word used is “justice.”

Would it make a difference if we hungered and thirsted for justice instead of righteousness? I think it would. For righteousness, I see myself huddled in a corner reading my Bible and praying—bettering my relationship with God. For justice, I see myself involved with the marginalized, “the least of these,” trying to work towards Jesus’ mission of “setting the oppressed free.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, both of these activities are important. In fact, righteousness really means “right relationships”—right relationship with God and with others. When Jesus was asked what the “greatest commandment” was, he replied in Luke. 10: 25f, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But he didn’t stop there like we mostly do with righteousness. He continues, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is righteousness, loving both God and one’s neighbor. Loving your neighbor adds the element of justice.

When Jesus was pushed on who “the neighbor” is, he responded with the story of the good Samaritan. Two people who were “the least of these.” One who was robbed and needed help desperately, and the other the despised Samaritan. Serving these needy ones is righteousness. It is justice. It is right relationships—with both God and the neighbor.

In Amos 5:24 we have an interesting scene where both righteousness and justice are used in the same verse in English. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” How do Spanish and German deal with this? In standard translations (i.e., the ones used the most), both languages use “right” in the first part of the verse, and “justice” in the second part.  “But let “right” roll down like waters and “justice” like an ever-flowing stream.” Does this change the meaning of the verse for you?

It is interesting how language evolves. Did the words “righteousness” and “justice” in English receive separate nuanced definitions because there are two separate words? Or, did the word “righteousness” evolve to have the “personal piety” meaning because of cultural influences? More than likely both, but I can think of several cultural influences. We are very individualistic culturally, so personal definitions suit us better. The influence of pietism, revivalism, and a “personal savior” have pushed our religion to be a private practice; what matters is “my God and I.” Finally, being well-to-do makes us less interested in working with “the least of these” because it may well threaten our own opulent lifestyles.

Can you think of other reasons? 


  1. I like your thinking here, Don. Another way to make the point is to think which is a better translation for the opposite of justice/righteousness—"injustice" or "wickedness."

    Another point is that in Romans, Paul uses several words with the dik root. If we translate them justice, injustice, and justification it's a lot easier to see that they are connected than if we translate them righteousness, wickedness, and justification.

    1. Thank you, Ted, for your comments. With language being my first discipline, these word discussions really intrigue me. I'd be delighted if you could give me a verse or two in Romans to tease out your interesting comments on the "dik" root. I know I should read the whole book on my interlinear Bible but I'm too lazy. :)

      Thanks again.