I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day “A Longing for Justice”

When I was in undergraduate school, I took a class in Political Philosophy. We discussed a big question: “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Interestingly, Many people think power is the only thing that really exists. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never had a single discussion about the subject. We were preparing to win cases and assumed that justice would happen if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Every so often throughout the years, I would wonder, “Is there anything called ‘justice,’ or is justice the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?”

This Christmas, our mediations have centered around Isaiah and the verses of a chosen Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the American Civil War, a time that bears some resemblance to our own. Here are the Poet Laruate’s lyrics:

I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,/ There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thought how, as the day had come,/The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

The Carol speaks for many of us this Christmas Season.

Our Innate Sense of Justice

When Kathy and I had children, the subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child, and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this complaint a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did, someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point, every parent has experienced the claim that what they are doing is unfair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false but the fact that children and adults seem to have a kind of natural idea of justice and fairness, and we complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

The Jewish People and Injustice

Humans do not necessarily agree about what justice is, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. On the other hand, injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews had a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David was divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans mistreated the Jews. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler. Today, we see the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, even in our own country.

Isaiah and the Just King

The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. One central theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. Here is a vision from Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty, and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds, they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

A Cold and Unjust World.

Several years ago, the Christmas theme came from movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. It turns out that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has arranged for Narnia to be frozen in winter. It is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and her magic wand immediately freezes everyone who opposes her. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of evil rulers, including that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made Narnia a cold place, our world is not as intended. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. We  easily join the poet in saying, “there is no peace on earth.” None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments; they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue malicious schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation, as Isaiah saw it, was just as complex as the situation we sometimes see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah predicted suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is ending, and Spring is finally coming. Even Santa Claus appears to give the children gifts before Spring arrives. In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when he comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people. In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt, and faithfulness will be the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3]

Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and believe that a just and peaceful world would be happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, almost all of us also desire our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and the powerless, of the insiders and the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

The Work We Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we will not have a perfect world, at least not for the foreseeable future. This world will always be imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unattainable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, we will never have a perfectly just world or society on this earth. This does not mean we should not work towards one.

Not so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

One of our elders and a few others visited Thailand to visit a mission for such women. They had a week or so of helping and learning about this serious problem. Kathy has been involved with Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico. At least some girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities. We help in a lot of ways.

I do not want to continue to go on and on with examples. Instead, I want to point out some things we can all do to bring peace and justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to bring justice in the form of  a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us, in our hearts, knows of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested in. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. A true disciple of Christ worships God, grows in Christ-likeness, and serves others as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is important.
  • Be patient. No problem, especially no serious one, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We must hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

We cannot be entirely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often, in liberal churches, sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our actions. Often, in conservative churches, we forget that God has created his church upon the earth to bring a foreshadowing of the kingdom until Christ returns.

The cross is a great reminder that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will ultimately win over injustice.

Christmas is our reminder that the King has come. Winter may not be over, and it may get colder before Spring, but spring is coming.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” ends with this Word of hope:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,/ For Christ is here; His Spirit near/ Brings peace on earth, goodwill to men.” [4]


This is my final post of 2023. I hope that 2024 will bring an end to this long series of posts on Justice. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that 2024 produces the sequel to Marshland. Merry Christmas Season and a very Happy New Year!

Copyright 2024, G.  Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (I864). This blog is not original, but is based on two sermons I preached at Christmas in my former Church. I am a great fan of the Casting Crowns Version of this hymn, which we sang every year!

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences, even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world, there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world, I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” I have seen the phenomena with my own eyes.

[4] “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” previously cited.