Acting Justly

by Dr William Wan

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

(Micah 6:8)

People of faith are prone to create false dichotomies. One of them is the dichotomy between rites and rights. A rite is a ceremonial or formal, solemn act, observance or procedure in accordance with prescribed rule or custom especially in religious use. A right is that which is just, lawful, morally good, proper or correct.

In both the Old and New Testaments, we find examples of the dichotomy at work. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, ministered to the people of Judah in the 6th century BC, calling on the people to repent. The spiritual condition of God’s people is summarised in 2:9 where God declares: “Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realise how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of Me”. And so it came to pass, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC, and God’s people were punished even as they were exiled.

It was in that context that the people, in their spiritual blindness sought refuge in the rite of the temple instead of doing the right. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place…I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever, But look, you are trusting deceptive words that are worthless.

In the same manner, the Lord Jesus thundered against the teachers of the law and Pharisees for “neglecting the more important matters of the law, namely justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23). These religious leaders were well-known for their punctilious observance of the letter (the rites) but they had neglected the spirit of the law (doing the right). By observing rites without doing right, they were like “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 22.27). The deadness of religious rites reminds us of James exhortation: “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17).

The prophet Micah encapsulates God’s requirements for godly living in the most succinct way in our text. God’s people are called not only to observe the rites of worship and praise, we are also called to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). As a lawyer, I am naturally drawn to the call to act justly. After all, our Professional Conduct Rules (1978) require us not to do anything, which will hinder certain clearly defined obligations in the conduct of our practice. These include the maintenance of the Rule of Law and assisting in the administration of justice. We are also under a duty to facilitate access to justice by members of the public.

So what is justice? Potter Stewart says that “Fairness is what justice really is” (Time, Oct 20, 1958). To act justly is simply to act fairly. To deal with each other justly, is to deal with each other fairly. We speak of upholding justice in a lofty macro sense. We deal with the courts and with the notion of justice day in and day out. But the question for us is “Do we deal justly with each other?” Be careful that we do not exhibit the Charlie Brown syndrome when he said to Lucy: “I love the world but I cannot stand my neighbours!

When King David sinned against God by having an affair with Bathsheba, Nathan was sent by God to confront him. You will notice that Nathan did not give David a lofty self-righteous lecture on the sin of adultery. He simply told him a story. It is a very simple story of a rich man and a poor man. It is a story about how the rich man unjustly treated the poor man. Nathan cast the sin of David as a justice issue. David, the king, in taking Bathsheba to himself, was unfair to Uriah, her husband. David was as unfair Uriah as the rich man was unfair to the poor man for taking his only ewe lamb.

In effect, Nathan translated the lofty ideal of justice into a fundamental principle for every day living. Justice must begin with us. It must be upheld in the mundane business of our interpersonal dealings. In our circles of relationships, we are called to deal fairly with each other. Within our own family of parents, siblings, spouses, and children, we owe a duty of fairness. Our expectation of our children’s performance at school in the context of our educational system is often a source of unhealthy pressure. Perhaps Paul’s counsel to the Colossian Christians affords a timely reminder that we need to deal with our children fairly: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged”. (Colossians 3:21).

Conflicts in the church are becoming commonplace. There are many wounded healers among those who are in full-time Christian service. Many pastors and church workers often feel unjustly treated. Some are treated not better than an employee of the board of elders and deacons. Some are crushed by the unreasonable expectations imposed upon them by church leaders and congregation alike. This is contrary to the teachings of Scriptures. “…respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12).

And what about the way we treat those who work for us? Many in our employ, especially domestic helpers, are foreign workers. In Israel, there were aliens living and working among God’s people. God’s word to them is unambiguous: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels like to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt”. (Exodus. 23:9). What the Lord says about doing to others as you want others to do to you should also apply in this context. There is really no excuse for treating our domestic workers badly. They add value to our lives and should be treated with respect just as we expect to be treated with respect by our employers.

We are called to seek first not only God’s kingdom, but also His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). However way we cut it, His righteousness, must include His sense of fairness in the way we deal with people around us. As Christians who are also lawyers, it is our calling to uphold justice not only in the courts of law, but also in the way we live our lives before a watching world.

Jimmy Carter, who was never shy about declaring his Christian faith in the public square was interviewed about and justice when he was the President of the United States. What he said should resonate in our spirit today as we seek God’s blessing on us at the opening of the legal year:

“The law is not the private property of lawyers, nor is justice the exclusive province of judges and juries. In the final analysis, true justice is not a matter of courts and law books, but of a commitment in each of us to liberty and mutual respect.” (Dallas Times-Herald, 26 April 1978).

This message was given by Dr William Wan at the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship Dedication Service
on 3 January 2004 at St Andrew's Cathedral.