Justice Defined

This is the first blog entry in a series on justice.

Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment (mishpat), and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. 

God. Jeremiah 9:23-24

What does it mean to live in a just society? The ancient world knew little of justice in the sense that we think of justice. Justice was whatever the ruler, king, or local bully made of it. There was no legal recourse to correcting an “injustice” because there was no such thing as an injustice, intrinsic human rights, and such things that we take for granted.

When God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, His purpose was to create an entire civilization that exhibited justice. They were to be the light to the nations and show the true way of God. Even a cursory reading of the Pentateuch would demonstrate this in the commands to care for the poor, to not oppress the foreigner, and to provide for orphans and widows. Centuries later, when God is expressing his grief and anger over Israel’s failure to live up to their calling, He sends prophets to condemn their failure to exhibit His justice. So how exactly do we define justice?

There are a couple of Hebrew words that are used throughout the Old Testament to describe justice, but even in the English we get a sense of what justice really is. To be “just” is to be “right”, or “righteous”. Justice is righteous behavior. It is impossible to think about justice without thinking about words such as virtue, sin, wickedness, mercy, and such. This is because justice is as much a personal attribute as it is a list of rules. Because God is fully righteous, He makes fully righteous laws. A morally virtuous people will enshrine their virtues into law while a wicked people will enshrine their greed, envy, and malice into law. The law simply reflects the heart of the law-giver.

All of this may seem somewhat nebulous and undefined, but that is chiefly because the concept is so large. We can bring the point home a little more clearly with a specific example from the Pentateuch: the law about loans and pledges. As in our day, oftentimes a lender would demand some sort of pledge to ensure that the loan was repaid. In ancient Israel that pledge might be something as simple as a man’s outer garment. In Deuteronomy 24:13, the lender is prohibited from keeping the outer garment overnight – even if it is the collateral – because that is what the man needs to stay warm at night. When a lender returns the pledge before nightfall, even if the loan has not been repaid, God counts that as righteousness (the same Hebrew word used for justice) . The legal terms of the loan are less important than the treatment of the actual person.

So in God’s eyes, justice is something like “treating others in a way that is consistent with the way God made the world.” In the case of the cloak, it would be wrong to allow another human being to sleep out in the cold without protection from the elements. Allowing him his cloak back is a superior form of justice over keeping the legal terms of a loan. Ultimately, the treatment of human beings in a “just” way comes down to the reality that man is made in the image of God. Outside of this there is little theological, philosophical, or sentimental rationale to treat others in a just way. When the Christ came, he championed this same rule of justice and His Church followed in His footsteps, infecting Western civilization with these previously foreign concepts. Thus, the Western world is founded on Judeo-Christian values.

Of course, the Church has not always succeeded (or succeeded immediately) in carrying out these forms of justice. One reason for this is that it has been difficult historically to always distinguish those who are the recipients of “the righteousness that comes by faith” from the recipients of a cultural tradition to which they only pay lip service. In other words, true believers are often hard to distinguish from those who only pay lip service as a cultural tradition. But as a whole, the marks of the Judeo-Christian tradition of justice have yielded the most humane, civilized, and just society known to mankind. For that we ought not make any apology. We should simply contrast it with those who rejected this tradition in order to form their own “just societies”, and the 20th century abounded with them. Standing out above all others would have to be the USSR and China, both of which thought some sort of functional society could be founded apart from individual righteousness, and both of which resulted in abominations.

This standard of justice also means that we must treat others as responsible moral agents, since they are the image of God. There is no injustice in refusing to feed a lazy man who refuses to work, or in holding a drunk driver responsible for causing an accident. True justice is more complicated than simply giving people what they want because what people want is often contrary to the intent for which they were created. If we are to treat people as the image of God, we must acknowledge that there is a transcendent truth governing the reality of man’s existence. Outside of that ideal there is no moral travesty that mankind will not perpetrate on each other, as evidenced by the secular societies of the 20th century.

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