“Theology & Justice: Barth to Zehr”

Theology is the study of God:  our beliefs about God, the nature of God, how God is revealed to humankind, how we believe God intervenes in the world and in the lives of persons.  We believe the Bible is a record of God’s revelations to humankind.

My previous blog post noted the central place of justice in the Bible.  Words for “justice” appear more than 1000 times.  It is clear that Justice is important to God!

Biblical justice touches every part of life, referring to both criminal justice and social justice.  The God revealed in the Bible through narratives, Psalms and songs of praise, and declarations of prophets is a God who hates injustice.  The God in whom we believe is a God of justice who demands justice for all people.

It would stand to reason then that theologians would include some references to “justice” in their published works. Let’s take a look at a couple examples.


Karl Barth (1886-1968) is considered the most important contemporary theologian.  Pope Pius XII described Barth as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.  Barth was a Swiss Reformed pastor and professor and was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that actively resisted the Third Reich.  Barth is best known for his multiple volume work entitled Church Dogmatics.

Students of theology find Barth to be “heavy reading”—and they are not likely to easily find clear references to discussions of “justice.”  What is less well known is that Karl Barth made regular visits to the inmates of a Swiss prison.  The distinguished Professor of Theology at Basel University did not so much write about “biblical justice” as much as he lived and practiced “God’s justice” through his visits and Sunday sermons in the prison.


“We are sinners.  And we are prisoners.  Believe me, there is a captivity much worse than the captivity in this house.  There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you.  All of us, the people without and you within are prisoners of our own obstinacy, of our many greeds, of our various anxieties, of our mistrust and in the last analysis of our unbelief.  We are all sufferers.  Most of all we suffer from ourselves. We each make life difficult for ourselves and in so doing for our fellowmen.” – Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock, 2010, p. 37).

The prayers of Karl Barth during his prison visits exemplified his biblical message of God’s call for justice as much as his sermons:

“O Lord our God! …. Let thy lovingkindness shine upon our loved ones, upon all prisoners, and those in the pangs of misery, illness or death.  Bestow upon the judges the spirit of justice and upon the rulers of this world some measure of thy wisdom, that they may strive for peace on earth.  Give a clear and courageous witness to all who are called to preach thy word here and abroad.” –Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock, 2010, p. 27).


Howard Zehr is not a highly-published theologian like Karl Barth.  His understanding of biblical justice and theology is clearly demonstrated however in his role as Professor of Sociology and Restorative Justice at a Mennonite University.

Zehr criticized the traditional form of “retributive justice” in our criminal justice system.  The biblical idea of “an eye for an eye” is more than retribution or revenge. True biblical justice means justice that is “proportionate” to the offense—not just “harsh punishment.”

Howard Zehr insists that biblical justice is “covenant justice” focused on the community.  The offender is held accountable but is not the sole focus of justice.  The crime victim and the community must also be included, made whole, and restored.

“According to restorative justice, (1) crime violates people and relationships; (2) justice aims to identify needs and obligations (3) so that things can be made right; (4) justice encourages dialogue and mutual agreement, (5) gives victims and offenders central roles, and (6) is judged by the extent to which responsibilities are assumed, needs are met, and healing (of individuals and relationships) is encouraged.” –Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Herald Press, 2005), p. 211.

I encourage you to join me in future blog posts as we continue to explore theology and justice.

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