Doing justice today: what does it look like? Understanding Empire: Justice#8

Doing justice today: what does it look like? Understanding Empire: Justice#8 February 25, 2021

My wife and I have always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes movies. We recently decided to watch the Netflix film Enola Holmes. The movie tells the tale of Sherlock’s younger sister Enola who has fled to London both in order to search for her missing mother and to escape being sent by her brothers to finishing school where she was to learn to behave like a lady.

Sherlock, in search of Enola, makes his way to London. There he comes across the path of Edith a jujitsu trainer and tea shop owner, who is both an acquaintance of his mother and someone that Enola had recently been in contact with—though she doesn’t reveal that to Sherlock.

Edith is an activist. She, and as it turns out Sherlock’s missing mother, have been advocating for women’s rights.

During the exchange with Sherlock, Edith asks Sherlock if he engages in politics. He replies that he has no interest in politics. After all, politics are “fatally boring.”

Edith interjects, “of course you don’t.” Why, after all, she inquires, would someone like you be interested in bringing change to a system that benefits you? Certainly, you have no need for politics because you have never known what it is like to be without power.


I have been arguing in this series of posts that the kingdom of God is predicated on justice and righteousness (see my post: “what is justice?”). We have looked at what biblical justice looks like in the OT and NT’s. I have noted that the people of God are called to be the means through which God does the work of His kingdom (see my post: “Does God call us?”).

But what does doing justice look like today?

One of the first problems we encounter here is that the biblical world was not the same as ours—especially for those of us who reside in a western context. This means that it is not possible to simply read what the Scriptures say and then assume that it translates directly into our modern democratic system. After all, Rome was far from a democracy.

Secondly, we need to recognize that when we read the Bible, we tend to weave our own narrative into the text.[1] The result is that the Bible often says exactly what we thought it was going to say. Consequently, we can find those who use the Bible to support all kinds of dangerous views.

In case you might doubt this, allow me to remind you that Christians in Nazi Germany used the Bible to justify support for Hitler.[2] We could also note that the crusades were led by the church. The Bible was used to justify American chattel slavery and the genocide of the native Americans. Shall I continue (because unfortunately, I could for some time)?

Now you might respond, “well, that was them and not me.” Before you say this, I strongly caution you: “not so fast!”

This is why my first post in this series was titled, “Injustice, maybe I’m the problem.” (I titled it this way because I figured it would get more sympathy than, “Injustice, maybe we’re the problem”).

NB: the reason why this site is called “determinetruth” is not because we have it all figured out. Precisely the opposite. Under the tab Determinetruth on the homepage of this website I note: “What I hope to do through this site is to explore questions of truth in order to determine (hence, the name “determinetruth”) what the biblical worldview was and how this affects our understanding in relation to many matters today. I am not suggesting that everything I determine here is the truth. I am merely suggesting that we must constantly wrestle with determining what is the truth. I ask you, then, to join me as we wrestle with Jesus, the Scriptures, the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the call and mission of the Church as bearers of the kingdom, and the challenge of living in the 21st century.

Understanding Empire

Critical for understanding the biblical world and the call for justice and its application for today is discerning the nature of empire—whether it be the Roman empire which resided behind the NT, or the Ancient Near Eastern Empires (Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, etc) and the world of the OT.

Why is empire so key? Because the proclamation of the kingdom of God in the OT/NT was not uttered in a vacuum.

A key feature of the Roman empire (and empires in general) is that wealth and power were obtained at the expense of the poor.

In Rome, upwards of 90% of the people would have been classified as “poor”: meaning they were commonly hovering just above or just below the subsistence level.

These “poor” provided goods and services that were largely consumed by the wealthy (the other 3%). The wealthy obtained their goods by means of taxation, confiscation, and land foreclosures. (note: Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who is described as: “you take up what you did not lay down and reap what you did not sow” (Luke 19:21).)

A key element of the economy of Rome was the principle of reciprocity. That is, I do something for you and now you owe me.

The problem with such a system is that the wealthy and powerful would often not do anything for the poor because they were unable to repay. Or, when the elite did provide the poor with something—e.g., food distribution, civic services—they did so in order that the poor would be obligated to pay them back (which would have to take the form of goods and services). The end result is that the poor would fall deeper into debt and under the oppressive control of the elite.

It is not an overstatement to say that Rome was built on a system of oppression and subjugation for the benefit of the very few at the expense of everyone else. 

One of the most common ways in which this manifested was with food. While the poor struggled to obtain enough food for the day, let alone the prospect of healthy food, the elite were well supplied and regularly hosted lavish banquets for other elites.

This is the context for Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke (note that the Gospel of Luke has food in virtually every chapter and the narratives are regularly woven around meals).

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:19-21).

The lack of food had numerous effects on the people. NT scholar Warren Carter notes: “limited quantities of food, inferior quality, and uneven supplies reduced its actual healthfulness, resulting in widespread malnutrition. Malnutrition was evident in diseases of deficiency and of infection. Deficiency diseases included painful bladder stones from lack of animal products, eye diseases from vitamin A deficiency and diets low in animal-derived products and green vegetables, and rickets or limb deformity from vitamin D deficiency. Malnutrition also renders people more vulnerable to infectious diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, and dysentery. High population densities in cities; poverty; inadequate sewage and garbage disposal; limited sanitation; inadequate water supply distribution and unhygienic storage in cisterns; transmission of diseases in public baths; the presence of animals and feces; flies, mosquitoes, and other insects; and ineffective medical intervention ensured widespread infection. Swollen eyes, skin rashes, and lost limbs were common, as were cholera, typhus, and the plague bacillus. Meningitis, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and smallpox affected many, causing deafness and blindness.”[3]

Not only was one’s quality of life severely impacted by the lack of access to regular food, but so was the expected length of one’s life. It is estimated that in the Roman world half of the kids died by age 10. Those who survived into their teens had an average life span of around thirty. The wealthy, however, could expect to live into their seventies.

Not only, then, did the wealthy live lavish lives, they did so free from many of the health concerns that impact everyone else and they typically lived much longer lives. (I truly hope that you are finding this information grieving).

How could the wealthy and powerful indulge in such extravagance and not be moved by the poor and needy around them?

Among the many answers is the fact that they had woven a narrative that placed everything in context. According to Rome, the gods had appointed the emperor and the elite as the savior of the world. The reason why the mass population had anything was because the gods placed the elite in power to provide for the well-being of the empire.

We must understand that almost every aspect of Roman life went to reinforce this narrative. Regular events—such as processions, feasts, and festivals—all served to fortify the conviction that the elites were placed here by the gods in order to manifest the will of the gods and care for the empire.

This means that the poor often came to accept their place in this divinely orchestrated system. As the emperor Titus famously stated, the rest are “inferior” and have “learned to be slaves.”

NB: I may have mentioned this in a previous post but I’ll repeat myself anyway. When I was young, I used to look forward to the day when I could travel to Rome and see the ancient city and its marvelous sites. Now that I know what I do about the Roman world of the NT, I no longer have such anticipation. I am repulsed at the thought that these great monuments were made by those who lived under severe oppression and that it was all for the pleasure of the elite.

What does this mean when it comes to doing justice today?

It means that we cannot simply attempt to translate the biblical call to do justice from the Scriptures and directly apply it to our present context.

For one, as I have only begun to address in this post, we often have a poor understanding of the empires behind the biblical world.

Secondly, which I will address in upcoming posts, we often have a skewed conception of our own context.

To be continued . . .


[1] To some extent, it is not possible to read the Bible from outside our own context. We necessarily take certain assumptions about the world into the reading of anything!

[2] In fact, Christian antisemitism has been a major problem that has infected the church since the early days of Christianity. I personally do not think the NT is antisemitic (I wrote a chapter for an upcoming book John Among His Critics (Lexham Publishers) on the question of antisemitism and the book of Revelation. The book should be available this fall.)

[3] Carter, Warren, The Roman Empire and the New Testament, 116-117.

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