Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. [Matthew 24:12]
In the wake of many recent prominent trials, I have heard many people question whether ‘justice’ was served. In listening to their arguments pro and con, I began to wonder if these people even understand what ‘justice’ means.
What some seem to want is not justice, but revenge.
Others express the culturally popular dogma of blame shifting and the separation of responsibility from personal actions – or what might be called ressentiment.
Both extremes seem to be willing to sacrifice truth in favor of their personal bias and political agenda.
This led me to take a deeper look at justice.
What is justice?
The symbol many recognize as depicting justice is commonly the Roman goddess, Lustitia, or the equivalent Greek goddess Dike, i.e. Lady Justice.
She is equipped with three symbols:
The sword – might represent the power wielded either for or against any party. It might also represent vengeance as in the sword-carrying goddess, Nemesis.
The scales – might represent how justice measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. I’ve written elsewhere about how honest scales and honest weights are required if we are to deal justly with one another.
The Blindfold – might represent objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favour, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness; blind justice and impartiality.
For the Christian, I believe this concept of justice based on Greek and Roman mythology is insufficient. We must look further if we are to understand justice from God’s perspective.
Justice is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as:
- the maintenance or administration of what is just esp. by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
- the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
- the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
- conformity to this principle or ideal: RIGHTEOUSNESS
- conformity to truth, fact, or reason: CORRECTNESS
It’s important to note that justice is the standard for both punishment and benefits. It is the standard by which penalties are assigned for breaking the obligations of the society as well as the standard by which the advantages of social life are handed out, including material goods, rights of participation, opportunities, and liberties.
Cultures differ widely in determining the basis by which the benefits are to be justly distributed.
For some it is by birth and nobility (ex. divine right of kings). For others the basis is might or ability or merit (ex. survival of the fittest). Or it might simply be whatever is the law or whatever has been established by contracts.
The Bible presents another possibility. Benefits are distributed according to need. God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” – Deuteronomy 10:18
What Is Biblical Justice?
A more biblical definition of justice is, “the order God seeks to reestablish in His creation where all people receive the benefits of life with Him.”
As love is for the New Testament, so justice is the central ethical idea of the Old Testament.
The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.
But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. [Tim Keller, “What Is Biblical Justice?,” Relevant Magazine, August 23, 2012]
What About Social Justice?
There is a tendency in some Christian circles to downplay social justice while highlighting personal morality.
Jesus rebuked this in the Pharisees:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
Social justice should reflect our concept of restorative justice which is concerned not so much with retribution and punishment as with (a) making the victim whole and (b) reintegrating the offender into society. This approach frequently brings an offender and a victim together, so that the offender can better understand the effect his/her offense had on the victim.
Sadly, that does not seem to be the case in today’s version of social justice. Instead it would seem those seeking social justice want to punish the living for the sins of their fathers.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971), writes “the principles of social justice: they provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social co-operation.” Notice, he says “institutions of society”, not individual responsibility. The relevant institutions often include taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labor law and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, and equal opportunity.
True social justice is treating people fairly TODAY and providing help to those in need by all INDIVIDUALS. Forcing their social justice from the top down (government) through laws and regulation is not justice… it’s tyranny. America was founded on the principle of true social justice as proclaimed by The Declaration of Independence and the formation of the U.S. Constitution.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – The Declaration of Independence
Further, the government was not instituted in America as a provider, but a protector.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – The Declaration of Independence
Our government was founded on the principle of protecting our God given rights – “to secure these rights.”
The Constitution’s Preamble says the federal government was established (and the Constitution was adopted) to “form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Government’s role of provider was limited and specified in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment states that all prerogatives not explicitly given to the Federal Government, nor prohibited of the states, are reserved to the states or to the people (i.e. individual Americans). Government was to be narrowly limited to perform the essential task of protecting each individual’s right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. The government is assigned the duty of impartial umpire, enforcing the societal rules against assault, murder, robbery, and fraud. All human relationships are to be based on mutual consent and voluntary association and exchange.
Nowadays, the American government maintains 15 Cabinet departments, 2,001 subsidy programs, thousands of pages of federal regulations on the Federal Register, a job-killing EPA, highways that states don’t even want, and government-owned enterprises. It regulates everything, from fuel production rates, to the financial industry, to the oil industry, to minimum wages. It has bailed out many corporations and distributes hundreds of billions of dollars of pork programs (including those 2,001 subsidy programs) every year. (The Constitutional Role of the Federal Government)
Increasingly, government is being used to try to modify, influence, or dictate the conduct of the citizenry. Government is an active player in people’s affairs, using its legitimized power of coercion to determine how the members of the society may live, work, and associate with each other. The government tries to assure certain outcomes or forms of behavior considered desirable by those who wield political authority.
The main protections of individual liberties comes not in the Constitution itself, but the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.
Although the coverage of most of the Bill of Rights has been expanded to the actions of state and local governments, it does not generally apply to private conduct. With some exceptions, private persons and organizations do not have to comply with the Constitution. For example, while a public university cannot unduly restrict the free speech rights of its students, private universities are not subject to this rule.
This “state action” doctrine applies not only to the Bill of Rights, but also to the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court held in 1883 in the Civil Rights Cases, that the language of the Fourteenth Amendment which begins “no state shall…,” requires this result. Although the doctrine is called the “state action” doctrine, it actually refers to any governmental conduct. Local governments are considered arms of the states for this purpose.
There are a few situations in which the Constitution does apply to private conduct, such as situations in which a private entity exercises powers usually exercised by the State, for example, holding a primary election, or running a prison or a city. The law also applies to private parties when they conspire with public officials to violate constitutional rights, or when they otherwise form a joint enterprise with the government. (Constitutional Protection of Individual Rights)
While it may be true that the Bill of Rights may not apply to private actions, I think most Americans embraced the ideals of the Bill of Rights into their personal psyche. The common man understood these rights of Life Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness were granted by God, not government. I believe most Americans shared the ideals of America and lived their individual lives guided by those principles. It was the role of government to “protect” the rights of ALL it’s citizens.
Increasingly today, that individual liberty is being divorced from society and reserved for multi-national corporations and their crony government. Private corporations such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others are given a free pass to violate our God given rights, even while being on the receiving end of millions of dollars of taxpayer money transferred to them from the government.
Despite their best efforts, no government will ever succeed in legislating morality. You can’t eradicate racism and bigotry with laws and Government, at least not in a true sense.
If true Biblical social justice is to be manifested, it will come from the individuals that make up the corporations and governments.
That means YOU and I.
Biblical social justice is not reserved only to those privileged individuals in society, but also to the most vulnerable: the poor, the widow, the aged, and the unborn.
Biblical justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality. It stands at the center of true religion, according to James, who says that the kind of “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). [Paul Louis Metzger, “What is Biblical Justice?,” LeadershipJournal.net & Christianity Today]
How is justice manifested?
Justice presupposes God’s intention for people to be in community. When people had become poor and weak with respect to the rest of the community, they were to be strengthened so that they could continue to be effective members of the community–living with them and beside them.
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. – Lev. 25:35-36
Thus biblical justice restores people to community. By justice those who lacked the power and resources to participate in significant aspects of the community were to be strengthened so that they could. This concern in Leviticus 25 is illustrated by the provision of the year of Jubilee, in which at the end of the fifty year period land is restored to those who had lost it through sale or foreclosure of debts (v. 28). Thus they regained economic power and were brought back into the economic community.
The way justice is dispensed in a society is a function of its basic moral values, especially in a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. If the majority of its citizens understand and are committed to fundamental principles of right and wrong – based on the Ten Commandments and what has been called “the natural law of God” – then their judges and juries will render decisions based on those values. But, if the people become confused about what they believe, then their legal apparatus will also lose its focus. A system of justice can be no better than the value system it represents.
As we move away from our Judeo-Christian underpinnings, the standard by which we determine right and wrong has become blurred.
How else can we explain that day in Los Angeles when hundreds of people lined the road to cheer a man accused of killing a young mother and her friend? “Run, O.J. run!” they shouted, as he fled from the police. It was great fun. But it was tragic. There and elsewhere, a transformation of values appears to be occurring. Interpretations of right and wrong are being compromised by individual rights, grievance groups, race, money, popularity, and attorneys who will manipulate these irrelevancies for a price. [James C. Dobson, Focus on the Family newsletter, September 1994.] (see Mark 12:40)
The forces which deprive people of what is basic for community life are condemned as oppression (Mic. 2:2; Eccl. 4:1). To oppress is to use power for one’s own advantage in depriving others of their basic rights in the community. To do justice is to correct that abuse and to meet those needs.
Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth. – Job 29:11-17
Injustice is either a sin of commission or of omission. Injustice is depriving others of their basic needs or failing to correct matters when those rights are not met.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:15-17
What is the source of justice?
As the sovereign Creator of the universe, God is just (Ps. 99:1-4; Gen. 18:25), particularly as the defender of all the oppressed of the earth (Ps. 103:6; Jer. 49:11).
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. – Jeremiah 9:23-24
God’s justice is not a distant external standard – it is the source of all human justice (2 Chron. 19:6,9).
Many seek an audience with a ruler, but it is from the LORD that man gets justice. – Proverbs 29:26
The most prominent human agent of justice is the ruler. The king receives God’s justice and is a channel for it (Ps. 72:1; compare Rom. 13:1-2, 4). There is not a distinction between a personal, voluntary justice and a legal, public justice. The same caring for the needy groups of the society is demanded of the ruler (Ps. 72:4; Ezek. 34:4; Jer. 22:15-16).
Justice is also a central demand on all people who bear the name of God. Its claim is so basic that without it other central demands and provisions of God are not acceptable to God. Justice is required to be present with the sacrificial system (Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Isa. 1:11-17; Matt. 5:23-24), fasting (Isa. 58:1-10), tithing (Matt. 23:23), obedience to the other commandments (Matt. 19:16-21), or the presence of the Temple of God (Jer. 7:1-7).
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand at the gate of the LORD’S house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.
But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. [ Jeremiah 7:1-8]
Justice is redefined by the godless.
And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there. [ Ecclesiastes 3:16]
It seems everything is turned upside down in our culture today. The system has been rigged and the masses of people continue to be exploited by a small cabal of godless individuals.
People are not merely acting more wickedly — they are redefining righteousness, justice, and virtue according to a new standard.
“We are redefining in practical terms the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning.” – President Bill Clinton
In our culture, talk about individual responsibility, moral fortitude, and facing up to one’s faults isn’t tolerated. Instead, those who utter those principles are denounced as racist, homophobic, and narrow minded.
The loving of what’s right, the loathing of what’s wrong, and the ability to distinguish the two is considered irrelevant. Instead we’re told to do “that which seems right in their own eyes.”
These “immutable ideals that have guides us from the beginning” are being replaced with a morally relativistic humanist political correctness.
The action that despises the external restraint of law in favor of self-determination is one of self-deification. We can expect nothing from such a position but brutality. Describing the ferocity of the Chaldean hordes, one of the prophets put his finger on the source of their evil: “their justice and dignity proceed from themselves…guilty men, whose own might is their god” (Hab. 1:7,11).
No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak 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 deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace. So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away. For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. – Isaiah 59:4-15
Until modern times, the foundations of law rested on the Judeo-Christian concept of right and wrong and the foundational concept of Original sin – that humans are capable of wrongdoing by nature. It was the belief of traditional law that without suitable social and moral restraints and a strong legal code, society would inevitably degenerate into chaos and anarchy. Modern secular sociology, however, shuns such biblical teachings in favor of an evolutionary hypothesis based on the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and others. This view, often called “secular humanism,” takes the view that man has evolved from the slime and that with time and ever greater freedoms, mankind will ascend to the stars. These ideas, which are contrary to the Word of God, have led directly to the bitter conflict and social chaos of our day, and furthermore, they have somber implications for the future health of the justice system in this country. [Pat Robertson, The Turning Tide, pp. 112-113.]
What happens to ethics as humanists distance themselves further from the restraining influence of law? Mortimer Adler concluded that the naturalism and materialism that inform humanist thought would destroy the humanitarian ethic. For without anything transcending the material, the love ethic is without foundation. [Mortimer J. Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, 1967, pp. 283ff.]
The irony of humanism is that it dehumanizes. Adler’s examination of the consequences of naturalist thinking led him to conclude that if man is taken to be different from animals in degree only, and not radically in kind, then there is no logical reason to treat him differently from the animals. The exploitation or killing of people deemed to be inferior could not then be condemned any more than the killing of steers in a slaughterhouse.
Once we reject absolute law and adopt theories that regard human beings as simply manifestations of natural forces, it only requires a serious crisis for those ideas to bear their evil fruit. Death becomes the answer to our economic problems. We are being given philosophical justifications for the inflicting of death that treats such actions as enlightened and compassionate. The elderly will be called selfish if they insist on living, and it will be a humanitarian deed and moral duty to see that they do not continue to live and so deprive others of the quality of life to which they aspire.
“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? – Jeremiah 5:26-29
Walter Olson in The Litigation Explosion correctly observes that the problem in the structure of the law are intractable, but they are also symbolic of a deeper failure in our philosophy. “This practical failure,” he says, “is born of an underlying moral failure. Our law has ceased to attach moral significance to wrongful accusations.” In other words, the law has lost the moral connection between truth and justice.
Principles that derive from the Ten Commandments and from a code of Christian morality are no longer deemed “legal” in America. Men and women today prefer to do “that which seems right in their own eyes,” and the entire nation pays a terrible price for this arrogance. There is little certainty in the courts today, and the law is no longer an inviolable standard.
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. – 2 Corinthians 9:8-10