Personal and Social Righteousness by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.

I John 3:16-18 (NLV)



At its very core, righteousness has to do with love. Love expands our hearts. It deepens our compassion and heightens our sensitivities. Therefore, if we exercise the virtue of love, justice and righteousness will follow naturally in its wake. In strengthening our capacity to love, we strengthen and encourage righteousness within ourselves. Then, when we respond to God’s love for us with love for each other, justice takes care of itself. We all know this is easier said than done. If it were as simple as it sounds, my family never would have had to leave Mississippi. But we all know that’s not how it is. It’s definitely not like that outside of the church; and unfortunately, it’s not even like that inside the church. So where do we begin

We begin with ourselves. Social righteousness cannot be achieved without personal righteousness as its foundation. Yet personal righteousness does not mean private righteousness. The values we commit ourselves to in our personal lives must emanate outward from us to the world. Only then will our love be more than words and talk; it will be true love, which shows itself in action. When our love is made manifest in action, then the prophet Amos’ word will be true: Justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

The love that we speak of is more than ritualistic kindness. Amos was talking about an everflowing stream, not short spurts or trickles here and there. A bonus at Christmas is no substitute for a living wage. A homeless shelter is not a legitimate replacement for affordable housing. Short bursts of compassion in response to situational needs such as famine or disaster are not an adequate alternative to ongoing support and development.

The rolling waters of justice depend on our personal commitment to righteousness. We are to be the everflowing stream, through our living out of the Ten Commandments, through our commitment to treating others as we would want them to treat us, through our loving of neighbors as we love ourselves. When we become the everflowing stream, rather than trickling it fits and starts, the marks of God’s righteousness will be seen in our world: justice that is blind to color or gender; protection for the weak, fairness in the courts, the opportunity for honest work for all who are willing, greater care of the earth. It is the virtue of love that must be translated into action if righteousness, both personal and social, is to prevail. In a few months we’ll explore the virtue of love at greater depth; for now, however, I want to focus on three important marks of personal and social righteousness: truth-telling, forgiveness, and promise-keeping.

Truthfulness is a dying art. Recall the striking image of Isaiah from the beginning of this month: “Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14, NIV). A sociologist once estimated that the average American tells 200 lies a day. I hope that’s not true in every country! But the norms of politeness in many of our societies can encourage lying. I recall a time when I changed the way I cut my hair. I was nervous about how it looked but when people began telling me they liked it, I felt slightly more comfortable. Until the day my husband finally told me the truth – it was not a flattering style at all! Surprisingly, instead of being upset, I was grateful and immediately scheduled an appointment for another cut.

Truth-telling is essential for healthy relationships. Wedges are driven into relationships when people lie. This is true not only in our relationships with other individuals, but in our relationship with God, in the relationships between various groups, and in relationships between governments and nations. Righteousness is the power of God that makes relationships healthy. Truth-telling is the deliberate act of the will that enhances our personal righteousness and makes us partners with God in doing justice in our world.

A second aspect of personal righteousness is forgiveness. Forgiveness is crucial to God’s justice. Experiencing God’s forgiveness in our own lives is the first step in experiencing God’s justice. So too, if we are to be instruments of God’s justice in the world, forgiveness must be a crucial part. If we are unable to forgive, we will continue to fight. This is true in our personal lives as much as it is in the lives of competing groups and nations. Witness all the racially motivated and hate-instigated violence, as well as all the stockpiled weaponry lying in wait for destruction. We must decide to live by mercy or die. Forgiveness is the answer to the dilemma of war – war between nations, war between groups, war within families, war between persons.

Justice without mercy is too harsh; it is demanding and uncreative; it becomes life-denying rather than life-giving. Both justice and mercy are attributes of God. Therefore, justice without mercy is not God’s justice at all. There is a story from The Midrash that tells of the integration of these attributes.

Justice and mercy are also attributes of God. How does God exercise these divine attributes? The case is like that of a king who had some empty goblets. He said, “If I put hot water in them, they will burst. If I put cold water in, they will crack.” So the king mixed cold and hot water together and poured it in and the goblets were uninjured.

Even so, God said, “If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, sin will multiply; if I create it with the attribute of justice alone, how can it endure? So I will create it with both, and thus it will endure.”[1]

True righteousness is justice tempered by mercy.

Finally, promise-keeping, like truth-telling, is necessary for the health of all types of relationships. If we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the commitments we make to others, we have no reason to be surprised when others do not keep their commitments to us.

Isaiah points us in the right direction when he says, “This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” (Isaiah 58:6-7, NLT)

If this is the task of justice, then we must stand as ones who are trustworthy to accomplish the task. If we don’t stand with integrity, so that all who know us know that we are promise-keepers, then how can the hungry trust we will feed them or the oppressed that we will remove their chains?

Personal righteousness is a supreme act of the will, empowered by God. It takes effort – effort to tell the truth, effort to forgive others, effort to keep promises. Yet, if we rise to the challenge, our personal righteousness can affect others and thus be transformed into social righteousness.

This process of translating personal righteousness into social righteousness is not an easy task. There are many pitfalls that can entrap us and misdirect us; two are worth noting. The first is the assertion that one particular group is the instrument of God’s righteousness. This is the scenario that is played out time and again on political stages around the world. While God has always worked and continues to work in our lives and history, it’s dangerous for a political party or any other group to claim that they are the instrument of God’s righteousness. The Bible refers to this as blasphemy. The second pitfall is closely tied to the first and involves the church. When the church identifies God’s will with the activity of a particular political party or group, they are in a spiritually dangerous situation because of the subtle sacrifice of religious freedom in favor of political religion. The Bible calls this idolatry.

Justice is a gift of God to us that evidences God’s power to make things right, to heal relationships between persons, within communities and nations, and the world. When we commit ourselves to personal righteousness and become the everflowing stream, God’s righteous power will become more evident and justice will indeed roll down like waters to refresh and renew our barren lives and land.




[1] William B. Silverman, Rabbinic Stories for Christian Ministers and Teachers (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), p35.

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