Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Dikaios, the right word, translated the wrong way. Part of my journey toward a more just form of NT Christianity

It's the right word, but it is used the wrong way. Here is how the Church begins to divorce itself from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ: just change the way we translate one word. Justice, Righteousness. Dikaios.

So what is the right word used the wrong way? The translation of the word Dikaios. It can be translated either as Righteous/Righteousness or Just/Justice. Are we to be known more by the fact that we are righteous, or by the way we do justice? I loved studying the doctrine of salvation, I got to take an entire course in it when I was preparing for ministry. We looked at salvation from what I thought was every possible angle. We leaned big words like harmatology (the doctrine of sin) and pithy phrases like “Justified means `just as if I'd' never sinned.” I remember learning how, in Romans 4&5, the written decree of our own sin was canceled by the blood that Jesus shed on our behalf. One good man, the perfect man, died for sinners. He describes how these sinners were actually enemies when Jesus died for them. I remember the incredible sense of gratitude I felt toward God when, not only did the Holy Spirit give me a sense of personal assurance that yes, indeed, my sins were forgiven. But I also understood it. I felt privileged that God was giving me a glimpse into His mysteries. It seemed that when the mystery was explained to me I had a complete picture of theology because I felt it; I sensed it by the power of the Holy Spirit and now I also knew it. What joy to experience that level of trust from God, to me! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I couldn't wait to get into the pulpit and proclaim not only the mystery, but also the knowledge of God's salvation. Dikaios! I knew that word! I understood it. I imagined Paul writing these chapters under the power of the Holy Spirit and experiencing the same, almost drunk feeling of being overwhelmed by the intimacy and glory He was experiencing. I wondered if that is what it must have felt like for Moses to be coming down from the mountain after hearing the Word of the Lord first-hand.

I was the righteous. I don't remember feeling condescension toward those who were not “the righteous.” When I considered their fate, most often it was with a sense of sadness. Not the sadness that I was the righteous and they weren't, or the sadness that I was going to attend a party upstairs while they were burning in the basement.* I never had the thought that they were getting what they deserved. My only real gut feeling was a profound sense of worship because I was lucky enough to have believed the message. I never felt like I was “the elect” as if God for some unknown reason had given me the faith to believe the report about Jesus. 

*From Brian McLaren: "The Last Word and the Word After That."

I felt guilty that I was the elect if “the elect” were chosen by God. Who am I that God should love me? I know my heart and its quick ability to deceive me. I know how far from deserving I have ever come. I have never gotten close to earning it. So why me? I confess a lingering doubt, nagging in the corners of my mind where unknown fears can somehow take root that maybe something was missing from this “complete” construct of theology. The complete construct didn't allow for the unfairness that somehow God gave me the faith to believe and then excluded someone else.

There were some theological underpinnings that worked for a while to assuage that doubt, or guilt. Things like: the people who question the fairness of God do so only because they love the darkness rather than the light and this is their excuse to keep on sinning. Or: when a person chooses to reject God, then there is a good chance that they will not teach their children and those children won't teach their children and that initial person's rebellion has consequences for generations.... That almost works. Except. God loves every one of those children as much as He loves me and I am still lucky. So, what do I do with this nagging sense in the corners of my mind? What do I do with this concept that the God of love, God, God who defines justice, God who defines unconditional love can allow something unfair to happen? “The Soul that sins will die,” but what about their children? What sin did they commit? Ezekiel makes it clear that righteousness is imputed to the one who acts with justice. Righteousness and justice cannot be divorced.

So, lets get back to the translation of the word: Dikaios. Then next five paragraphs are for the theologians and Bible scholars out there. The rest of you can ignore them if you care.

In the NASB, OT, the root word for righteous is also translated both ways. However, in the OT, only 4 out of 41 times is it translated as righteous in the New Living Translation. It is almost always translated as some form of Just, and a few times, as a form of vindication. See here.

In the New Testament, the word Dikaios is used 79 times in the NASB. See here. 8 times it is translated with a form of justice, 71 times as righteousness. I submit that for the most part, in Romans, righteous/righteousness is clearly the preferred word usage (14 times). But in the gospels, by the standard of context, just/justice as a translation makes sense more often than not. This isn't Paul's fault because of the doctrine set forth in Romans. It is the interpretation of the translators.

How does it change our perspective of justice when we substitute the word “just” or “justice” every time we can? In so doing, we keep faith with the three years of Jesus' teaching, the witness of the prophets and the theology of justice behind the OT law. It is important to do so because it keeps faith with the rest of scripture.

What actually is the historical and literary uses of the word? Dikaios' root word is Dike. Dike was the name of the goddess of Justice, the goddess of revenge. Dike is never translated as righteous in the NT. But because it is a legal term dealing with retribution for evil in the Greek/Roman world, and the rendering of Romans 4 and 5 that God wiped out the legal decree against us through the death of Jesus, translators preferred righteous over justice. However, a Dikaios person, in Greek culture was a “just” person. Matthew 1:19: Joseph was a just (Dikaios) man so he had mercy on Mary. Matthew 5:45, God causes rain to fall on the evil and the good (Dikaios). Matthew 13:49*, God will separate the wicked from the good (Dikaios). Matthew 20:4, you also go into the vineyard and work and whatever is right (Dikaios) I will give you. The culture translated the word as people who do the right thing to others. 

*This is a great example of interpretative translation. The contrast in almost all translations is wicked verses righteous. But “wicked” should be contrasted by “good,” or “just” when we let the context do the translating. Here is the problem if we follow that logic, we could twist it to mean that everyone who is not righteous (saved) is wicked. I know some very moral and just non-Christians.

So, consider the word Dikaios to be a coin. On one side, the head if you will, we have the word translated as "Just," on the other side, we have the word translated as "Righteous." They cannot be divorced from each other. They are inseparable. And the anomaly is, we have been using a mis-struck coin. For the most part, Western Christianity has a coin that is struck with two tails.

Jesus spent three years teaching His disciples how to be just. He confronted the injustices done by the religious leaders and by so doing declared them unrighteous people simply because they were unjust. Jesus spent three days making us righteous, three years teaching justice.

From Jesus' teaching, one could easily say that an unjust person cannot be a righteous person. The two go hand in hand. The recent evangelical push toward justice, social justice, is a work of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 25 makes it very clear that if justice is not synonymous with righteousness, then there is no righteousness. Unjust Christians will be separated by the angels at the end of the age and thrown into the fire.

So what has that done to my joy? It makes it greater. No longer do I have this nagging doubt about the fairness of it all. I still believe in Jesus. But Jesus gave this parable, and I hang God's perfect fairness on Jesus' own words:

Matthew 21:28-32
The Story of Two Sons
28"Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, 'Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.'
29"The son answered, 'I don't want to.' Later on he thought better of it and went.
30"The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, 'Sure, glad to.' But he never went.
31-32"Which of the two sons did what the father asked?"
They said, "The first."
Jesus said, "Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God's kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn't care enough to change and believe him.

God is and always will be just and fair. It is no longer my problem to worry about who is in and who is out of His family. God wants everyone back.

You may be asking the question: Why bother pointing all this out? Are you speaking of universal restoration? Are you saying that Jesus is not the only way?

Maybe, and nope. Neither is my point at all. I point it out because the way we translate that word informs the way we do justice. I am more interested in this question: Did the King James Translators deliberately use righteous/righteousness instead of just/justice in order to rationalize Imperialism? Does that distortion still affect the NT perspective on Justice?

When a nation sees itself as a righteous nation because it is called Christian, does that excuse whatever impact they have on other nations? Do we believe in American Exceptionalism because we are the righteous -and therefore God's favored, or because we are just? 

It happens both as a collective as well as individuals. If my righteousness makes me more just, then my decisions will not be about what is good for me, but what is good for all. The impact of my decisions both on future generations and my neighbors is just as important as the impact on me. That is justice. But if I am merely the righteous (and not also the just), and therefore God's favored person, then the impact it has on me is more important than the impact it has on others. And that can lead to me attempting to justify unjust actions. (Does anybody else cringe when they hear that sometimes, 20-40 innocents, including women and children, are killed during a US predator drone strike in order to take out just one suspected terrorist?)

We do indeed try to be just, but our language needs to change in order to accomplish NT justice. Language affects our actions. What if, in consistency with Jesus teaching, we also translate the word as just/justice as often as possible? How would that begin to affect our for actions?

Here is just one example of language influencing justice: In 2008, Senator Bob Casey ran against the incumbent, Senator Rick Santorum.  It was a race between two strong Christians. At a ministerial alliance meeting, one dear colleague of mine was begging us to vote for Santorum. In defense of Santorum he said: When the righteous rule, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan. Proverbs 29:2. (Notice again how the opposite of “wicked” is righteous instead of “good,” or “just.”)

His statement was given in the form of a prayer request and as it turned out, I was the one leading in prayer. So, when I prayed, I translated the passage he referred to without the imperialistic interpretation and prayed: “When the just rule, the people rejoice, when the wicked rule, the people groan.”

Casey ended up winning that election. And I am not angry at my colleague for his subtle confusion of scripture. We remain good friends. I point this out to see how subtly the Good news of God's Kingdom has been misshapen for by the language used.

The campaigns were, as usual, a battle of sound bites designed to appeal to the constituencies.  Santorum was running on a Christian values platform. He had three main items to work with, pro-life, anti-terrorism and illegal aliens. Since every one is anti-terrorism, he couldn't distinguish himself with that cause. Since his opponent was also pro-life, he couldn't distinguish himself with that cause. So, he chose “illegals.” But bashing a minority group of people because of who they are and where they are born is not a Christian value. The Bible is clear in Leviticus 19:33-34 that the alien is to be treated as our neighbor. He choose to call people who are undocumented as "illegals." Jesus calls them "neighbor." Language changes the way we think.

Enter into that debate with someone and ask them, are they "neighbor" or are they "illegals?" I would guess that one who is more comfortable translating dikaos as Just would also call them neighbor. What would Jesus do?

Author's Note: this was written June 1, 2011, it is now March 20, 2014. I just returned from a breakfast meeting for clergy with Brian McLaren and he spoke about how we mistranslate Diakonos. I felt good -as I always do when I read McLaren because I am not alone in my struggles. But he went right to Romans, and he suggested we translate "righteous" with "Restorative justice." He was also quick to point out that he doesn't mean payback, but forgiveness as a reaction to God's forgiveness of us. God's forgiveness is what restored us to God and the righteous standing -the standing of being restored to God by God- is what Paul is speaking of in the book of Romans. Praise God!