In 1992, the trial of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King ended with no convictions and the city exploded in violence. Riots filled the streets of the city and protestors burned and looted their own neighborhoods. The chant of “No justice, no peace” was the calling card of the rioters. The fact that many of the businesses that were looted were owned by Koreans was beside the point. Many people died.
Anti-war protests in the Vietnam era up to the present conflict in Afghanistan have repeatedly chanted the same phrase. Civil rights leaders since the sixties have used this same theme to justify their marches, sit-ins, and boycotts to gain their ends. Gay rights advocates have marched the streets of the nation shouting this phrase to bring pressure to accept their “lifestyles.”
Last fall the Rev. Al Sharpton led a march on the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. over unemployment in the country of 9.1% for the general population, and 16% for African Americans and led the crowd in chanting “No justice, no peace.”
More recently, the chant has been used by Rev. Sharpton in the protest over the killing of Travon Martin in Florida and the delay by authorities in bringing charges against the shooter. Louis Farrakan of the Nation of Islam has joined the chorus and used the same phrase in a speech at the University of California, joining with it the promise that the “law of retaliation” will follow if the authorities don’t act.
I have been hearing this phrase shouted by protesters since I was in law school in the sixties during the Student Strike Days at San Francisco State University. It always seemed to me it was the all-purpose excuse to react to any perceived injustice or imagined wrong, and it could be used to excuse any act of civil disobedience or even violence on the part of the protestor. Not being one of the protestors, I took it as cynical and hypocritical — self-righteousness hiding behind the veil of moral outrage and excusing group deeds they would not otherwise commit alone.
I was both right and wrong.
I was right in that those groups and individuals were cynical and opportunistic in their use of the phrase to justify doing whatever their relativism and humanism told them to do. Their guide was not the justice of faith or Scripture. Neither was their guide one of law. Their use of the concept of justice gave them license to follow the imaginations of their hearts, unrestrained by real concepts of right and wrong.
But in another sense, I was also wrong, and I have come to love the chant, “No justice, no peace.”
When Jesus was on the cross He said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If I may be so bold, I will paraphrase that saying as “Forgive them for they know not what they say.” The protestors and rabble-rousers shout a biblical truth without knowing what they say. They are like a modern day Caiaphas, High Priest of Israel, who said of Jesus that it was better that one man should die than that the people of Israel should perish. His words rang true, and we should thank him for unknowingly giving testimony to the sacrifice of Jesus and its saving work. God used Caiaphas to set the stage for His plan on Good Friday.
Our relationship with God is never more clearly stated than in the phrase “No justice, no peace.” That is the essence of the sacrifice of Jesus and the plan of salvation of the elect.
Much of the modern church has forgotten that part of Christian theology. While chanting the mantra of the God of love, they have abandoned the idea of how that love was accomplished. Whether it is caused by the squeamish reaction to the bloody sacrifice of His Son as the final act of justice, or by their limited ability to imagine a God only as one of love, many modern Christians insist on a deity that is one-dimensional. That is, the modern church worships a god who meets their standards; one who is measured by their standard of right and wrong and who couldn’t possibly have any revulsion against sin. Essentially, they love a God who is softhearted, but not holy, and not just.
Some years ago there was a program on PBS about the song “Amazing Grace.” For 90 minutes the show covered every possible angle in looking at the song— its different versions, how many original verses it had, who sang it, how it sounded in jazz and as a black spiritual. There were details about where it was performed and how it has become the standard funeral hymn, usually accompanied by bagpipes at police memorials. But there was not one word about what it actually meant. The content of the words was completely ignored.
Never once was the profound idea that Jesus died for our sins even mentioned. Missing was the discussion of how the true Christian has to stand in stunned silence when we contemplate that act of justice that made justification by grace possible. The power of the song is in the word “amazing” rather than in the word “grace.” The author, John Newton, clearly had the sense of awe and wonder at the good news of the sacrifice of Jesus on his behalf. Who else could include the line, “that saved a wretch like me?” That sense of awe and wonder is impossible without a profound belief that without God’s justice, there is no peace with God.
The love of God is profound, boundless, and cannot be understood. The same can be said of His attribute of justice. His love is measured by the mercy He shows toward us. His mercy is measured by the eternal plan to satisfy the demand of justice. His justice is measured by the sacrifice He ordained on the cross as the terrible price Jesus paid in order to save us from our sin.
Now when I hear that phrase, “no justice, no peace,” shouted in the streets, I don’t react with disgust. I glory in knowing “they know not what they say.” They proclaim a biblical principle that is at the root of everything we believe about Jesus and His work on our behalf. We, of all people, should join their chorus, but not their meaning. Their version of peace is unattainable, fraudulent, and perishable. Our peace with God is certain, real, and eternal.
Please Lord, reveal your justice and then we shall have peace indeed.