We’re born with fully developed injustice sensors. We can sniff out unfairness from the first time someone divides a cookie and gives us the smaller half. At that age, maybe two or three, our vocabulary is limited but even words aren’t necessary. Our tears say “That’s not fair!” before our words can.
But as we age, our vocabulary and our ability to detect greater injustices, grow.
“She got more!”
“I was here first.”
“You like him better.”
“Hers is bigger.”
“He got to pick last time.”
“She’s on my side of the board room.”
This isn’t learned behavior–toddlers don’t grow up watching Mommy and Daddy fight over who got the larger cup of coffee–this is inborn. Our sense of righteousness, our desire for justice, is in the package we receive at birth. We’re hardwired to recognize what’s fair and what’s not. And to complain loudly when it’s not.
In a violent neighborhood in north Minneapolis, Alywyn Foster opens the gym doors of Hospitality House at 3:00 p.m.. Thirty minutes later, the place is packed with kids looking for a warm, safe, and welcoming place to hang out. Foster sets up court just off center court. His role is something of a mongrel cross between big brother, county court judge, boxing referee, and school vice principal. He calls the kids by name. “Eddie! Hey . . . none of that!” But mostly, the kids referee their own games. Foster steps in only when things get rough.
“That was a foul!” shouts Alec.
“No way!” argues Eddie.
“You fouled me. Now give me the ball,” insists Alec.
They stand toe to toe. Their argument is telling. Neither denies the existence of fouls, or whether fouls should be overlooked. Every 12-year-old knows that a foul is a foul and that basketball wouldn’t exist without some established set of standards. What Eddie and Alec scuffle over is whether that particular elbow-to-the-ribs was a foul.
Justice and injustice are a given, and every kid knows the bottom line–even those raised on the streets where justice so often seems perverted. That’s why pick-up games, even in the most unruly neighborhoods, are remarkably self-contained. Foster is simply there to teach the rules, not to create an awareness that there are rules.
Paul of Tarsus, the first public broadcaster of Christian ideas, wrote in a letter to believers living in Rome that the concept of right and wrong is written into the heart of every human being. Everyone, he said, has justice encoded. It’s like a preference for pretty faces or broad shoulders; it’s part of our genetic code.
The ancient Hebrews didn’t stand around discussing justice, they simply prayed for it to come. Jeremiah took his case directly to God. “Lord, you always give me justice when I bring a case before you. Now let me bring you this complaint: Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why are evil people so happy?” The Hebrews prayed this way because they believed God cared deeply about righteousness. The prophet Amos rampaged through the streets crying out on behalf of God, “. . . I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry.” Amos’s oracle was a cry for justice.
What do our cries for justice look like?
“It’s not fair!”
“Did you see what he did to me?”
“It’s my turn.
In adult terms, our prayers might sound something like:
“What did I do to deserve that?”
“He should be locked up for life!”
“Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?”
Like Jeremiah, are we provoked to pray when we see injustices? Could our cries for a remedy, our desire for things to be righted, actually be in response to God?