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Home / Commentary / What is Justice? (Part 1) UPDATED

What is Justice? (Part 1) UPDATED

scales of justice and gavel(BCN editor’s note: While the writer uses the term “murder” to describe the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it’s not a characterization of events that BCN shares.)

In the wake of the recent grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths and the ensuing cries for “justice,” it is important to have an understanding of what justice really is, how to find it, and what it looks like. Is justice a feeling of vindication for wrongful murders? Is it a tool to right the racial wrongs of the past? Before we address these questions and decisions of the grand juries in these recent cases, let’s first be clear what justice is not. What we seek in response to these murders is not “social justice.” That term is widely misused and clouds the conversation.

Social justice is an economic term that has its roots as a religious doctrine to do charity to the poor. Both the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths have longstanding traditions in this regard and adhere to this idea of delivering charity, or social justice, to those in need. The distorted term, as used today, has become a euphemism for redistributive wealth schemes. It requires the government to take by force or involuntarily the wealth of others and redistribute it to others. This can only be done by an overpowering government, reducing the liberty of every American, and is not biblical. I reject the distorted use of the term “social justice” in the context of seeking justice for these recent murders.

On the other hand, God is a God of justice, and His justice indeed applies to us all. It is from a biblical perspective that I want to define the term. Justice comes in two parts: justice in our relationships with each other and justice as a part of God’s redemptive goal for us all.

The Hebrew word for justice as used in the Bible is tsedeq and misphat (Old Testament) anddikaiosyne in the Greek (New Testament). When they are used, they are interchangeable with the idea of “what is right” or “righteousness.” When used, these terms are applied to fair weight and measures, legal proceedings, personal behavior, and the responsibility of the ruling government authorities, to name a few. In these examples, we can deduce that biblical justice focuses on “what is right” or depicts how things should be. That’s consistent with our secular idea of justice. However, in this biblical context, we have a human responsibility to deliver what is right to one another too. For the secularist, the Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” the biblical version of that secular saying says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength and with all your mind; and Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This is the standard for justice in action whether you are religious or irreligious. It is fundamentally a personal charge.

Secondly, in scripture God is the defender of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. In this way, the term for justice is expanded and looks like deliverance or victory for the oppressed. In other words, we are not alone in the pursuit of “what is right” in the world. We have partnership with God and therefore are not pursuing justice alone. Justice plays a role in God’s redemptive plan for His creation but in His divine providential timing. With a steady hand He will even bring about change to our criminal justice system.

A lot can be said of our criminal justice system, and, specifically, the industrial prison complex but that must be for a different time. I will only say now that the industrial prison complex is not focused on real justice (“what is right”) but rather is focused on retribution and the economics associated with that business. In this way, over two million men and women are behind bars (and growing) with no path to restoration; rather, the system creates a permanent underclass of Americans, perpetuates recidivism and broken families. We need a restorative criminal justice system — a system that contributes to mending the breach in our culture and minimizes the profit from our moral failures.

But the focus for justice cannot be only on the criminal justice system. Justice must first be delivered between each of us in our respective homes and in our respective communities. We must first treat one another as we would treat ourselves. Justice in its truest form restores what has been broken. As a community, we are broken along racial and socio-economic lines and we must seek a “restorative justice” between ourselves and in doing so we restore the breach we have with God.

The breach of relationship we have with God is evidenced, in part, by crime and poverty statistics. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that, “94% of the murders of blacks in America for decades have been at the hands of other blacks.” Also, we spend one trillion dollars a year as a country in programs to help the 1 in 6 Americans living in poverty today and that community continues to grow.

The response to these statistics looks outward for justice with blame and dependence and not inward (personally and in our communities) which misses the larger problem. These statistics are symptomatic of untreated decay in the moral fabric of our society. By letting this decay go untreated, we foster a broken relationship between us and with God. Man is made in God’s own image; we assault God when we murder ourselves. We fail to lift the Golden Rule when we don’t do our part to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We have a spiritual problem that requires repentance if not the wrath of God itself.

And so, the question “What is Justice” is on the floor. In this context, justice, or “what is right” or “righteousness” is defined first in our own lives. It is personal. It is an act of love for ourselves and for our neighbor.

I submit to you that we, as a nation, cannot begin to reform our criminal justice unless and until we understand the core idea of restoring interpersonal relationships within our own families and communities. When we start there, when we understand and deliver justice to one another, we restore our own brokenness and then we bring ourselves into right relationship with God. When we take up this charge, we begin to fulfill His redemptive purpose in our lives and our communities can begin to experience healing, deliverance, and alas – justice.

Please join me for Part II next week for Where Is Justice. I will discuss the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the findings of the respective grand juries.

(Correction: I received commentary to my article titled What is Justice posted this week. The commentary indicated that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not murders as I stated. These commentaries are accurate and I used the term “murder” inadvertently. As an attorney, I am aware that “murder” is the premeditated taking of a human life. In these cases, murder is not an appropriate term; moreover, the grand juries did not find probable cause that crimes were committed in those cases. While many disagree with those decisions, the grand juries rendered their respective decisions. I trust my error does not distract from the broader point of the article.)

Featured image credit: Scott* (Creative Commons) Some Rights Reserved

Marc Little_2Marc Little is the author of The Prodigal Republican: Faith and Politics. His web site is The Prodigal Republican.

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