We cannot do the right thing, live ethically, fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship, know how to vote, or carry on a decent argument without justice. Justice describes the way we ought to live and relate. It is the basic building block of civil society. You can’t watch the news, or anything, in a really human way if you don’t have a clear idea of justice.
Dictionaries define justice in terms of fairness, honesty, impartiality, truth or reasonableness, in the way people relate and the way decisions are made. Further definitions deal with the application or administration of justice in terms of law and the courts.
Small groups sometimes ask its participants: “Name one thing you would change about the world.” Or, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” In such a situation, what would you mention? Do you see how this involves some sense of justice?
Injustice in the world is so widespread many have given up hope of correcting current woes. Some would like to become involved, to make a difference, but have no idea where to start. The problems seem overwhelming. Part of the inertia and apparent apathy may come from lack of a basic understanding as to what makes things just or unjust. A basic appreciation of the meaning of justice, I believe, might help propel many into significant action.
The relationship between justice and love has been discussed and debated. Most see love as the basis of true justice. In civil practice, justice must often be enforced before there is love. The American Civil Rights Movement and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa took place without everyone loving those on the other side. Legislation can sometimes change minds and attitudes over time. Carefully study of the lives and works of leaders like Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. reveals deep hearts of love which inspired the power of their demands for justice.
Both the definition and connotations of justice throughout history, are important. Though absolute preciseness in definition may be lacking, the concept or principle of justice is more than important, it is critical to theology, to ethics and to faithful living. Though we will never all agree, realize the need for some foundation of justice or righteousness in your beliefs and practice and in society at large. The way you think about the idea of justice may be the key to how you live. And the idea of justice is more than personal, it involves our expectation as to how others, society in general, carries on. To get a better picture of this important concept, let’s take a walk through history and various cultures.
Justice in the Ancient World
Long before the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Law, the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt had ideas of justice and codes of law that influenced the Hebrews and demonstrated a deep concern for the poor and general ideas of fairness. Enrique Nardoni’s Rise Up O Judge: a Study of Justice in the Biblical World begins with chapters and numerous examples of justice in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt from the 3rd millennia BCE. The book continues with an objective and scholarly analysis of justice throughout the entire Bible.
Jewish Ideas of Justice
In both Old and New Testaments (Hebrew and Greek), justice and righteousness are interchangeable terms. (Mishpat and tsedeq or tsedaqah are often rendered dikaiosune in the Septuagint, or the Greek version of the Old Testament, and New Testament.) If there are different connotations, righteousness can be seen to pertain more to character or attitude, and just(ice) to character and actions. Still, someone can be just in character, and actions can be righteous. One simple synonym for justice and righteousness is fair. To be righteous is to be right, straightforward, fair. To act justly is to act according to truth with equity, to be fair.
This notion of justice does not proceed from objective theological principles but from the strong biblical ideas of relationship and partnership. God’s just character is to characterize relationships among human beings, as it must describe partnership between human individuals/societies and God. “You shall be just because I am just” is as true-and actually the same-as, “You shall be holy because I am holy.” The contribution of ancient Israel, therefore, was an emphasis on a transcendent justice that reaches above our private opinions or the will of the most powerful.
Justice in the Classical Greco-Roman World
The Greeks sought harmony (harmonia) in personal character and in society. They placed great emphasis on balance. One way of expressing this was to speak of “pursuing the rational mean.” The good person pursues a balance of personal virtues. In this sense, the good life, for the Greeks, is close to the Hebrew sense of being whole. Without clear divine revelation and personal relationship to God, the Greeks developed humanistic concepts of virtue and justice. Too much emphasis on any one virtue was seen by the Greeks, as a tragic flaw. Similarly the just city (or polis) needed a balance of constituent parts and function. It needed a balance among upper and lower classes. This ideal approaches the Hebrew sense of shalom. The ancients had no dream of an egalitarian society, but did strive for equity or fairness.
Cicero and the Romans used an important phrase that might be translated “to each his or her due.” Here again is the sense of fairness among rulers, managers and merchants, wealthy and poor, slave owners and slaves. The classical world taught us to know ourselves and to seek balance in our personal lives, harmony in the community.
Medieval European Conception of Justice
Late medieval theology tended to combine Greek definitions and ideas with developing Christian understandings. Thomas Aquinas, for instance described justice as “a fidelity in giving (redere or rendering) to another what is his/her due.” (José Diez-Alegria, in Rahner’s Encyclopedia of Theology). Justice was still seen as flowing from the nature of God, between God and humankind, and among God’s creatures. The medieval world, then, believed that God’s justice, ideal human justice of the ancients was a real possibility in society.
Modern Conception of Justice
The Enlightenment, Deistic and Agnostic worldviews began to separate justice from the divine nature. It was a concept to be derived from natural reason and natural law. (Note the idea of justice in the American Declaration of Independence: “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”) The modern world believed that justice, with or without belief in God, was a real basis for ordering human life and societies. As objective systems of thought began to fail in modern times, justice would become a subjective concept, an opinion about what is right or wrong in the world. Postmodern thought might even flaunt and glorify the inconsistencies and demise of objective standards in human affairs. Regardless of the decline in human theories of justice, I would argue that a sense of justice remains in all of us-that a sense of decency and fairness lies beneath our differing philosophies.
It is difficult, but important, for non-Muslims to understand the sense of justice in the Islamic world. They must first understand that for Muslims the Koran (QUR’AN) is the only book that claims to be the very words of God spoken in the first person, without error or contradiction, originating from the All-knowing, and unchallenged effectively by any other book or persuasion. Justice proceeds, then, from moral and legal instructions of that book. The Sharia system and courts literally interpret the precepts of Koranic Law as a basis for stability in Muslim societies-challenged as they are by the indecencies of Western media and behavior.
Besides the strict injunctions for Muslim believers to punish strictly all moral offenses within their own societies, and to protect themselves against unbelievers, there are also principles with clear, peaceful intent:
Surely Allah enjoins the doing of justice and the doing of good (to others) and the giving to the kindred, and He admonishes you that you may be mindful. (Koran, 16.90)
Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves doers of justice. (Koran 60.8)
It will take a great deal of listening and thought for Westerners to appreciate what Arab Muslims in the Middle East have to teach us about justice. It is not that the sides will agree on many points. But it is important to hear the concerns of those who see justice forsaken in the media of the West and in the profiteering from the less fortunate that huge international businesses and practices can bring to less fortunate regions.
Seeking Justice in the Contemporary World
Justice for poor Eastern Muslims and rich Western Christians may not look the same. Arabs and Israelis are both fighting for justice. Conflicting notions of justice drive terrorists and the people they attack. Younger and older generations may also have contrary approaches to the issue of justice.
What these seemingly irreconcilable differences have in common seems to be a perception, on the part of those with less power, that arbitrary justice, or injustice, is being imposed on them. Often times the major powers intervening in certain “trouble spots,” seem to be looking for solutions that will avoid conflict that threaten their self interests rather than for a just solution of root problems.
What seems to be lacking in regards to justice in troubled places seems to be a failure to take time to hear out the personal and corporate stories of all parties involved. Should various sides in all struggles hear the pain, shame and fear, as well as the dreams and hopes, of the other, a beginning might be made. Then, there needs to be a long investigation of eastern and western (northern and southern, richer and poorer) concepts of justice. It would be exciting to see the quest for such understanding taking place in schools everywhere, at all levels-and with cultural exchanges. Muslim justice, Jewish and Christian justice, as well as justice in eastern societies, would have to be examined. Slowly an idea of justice and injustice and peace or general welfare, might emerge-a common sense of what is fair in today’s complicated world. Upon the foundation of a greater understanding and consensus of justice might come a global commitment to find peace through justice.
Obviously such a dream can only take place slowly as respect replaces hatred and good will overtakes bitterness and cynicism. Deep shame on the part of “weaker,” offended or neglected cultures must yield to a hopeful and realistic cultural pride. Powerful societies must look beyond their self-interest and understand their ethnocentrism. A new humility must grow and be held in high esteem. An ability to see behind and beyond our cultural blinders is needed. We must develop the ability to critique that which we take for granted.
Gradually, a common sense of what is right and what is wrong must emerge. Principles stated in the United Nations charter and policies, the American Declaration of Independence and documents of the New South Africa could guide world justice and peace initiatives. Development projects might become even more important than military and defense programs-or space travel.
Kinds of Justice
Charles Colson and others have pointed out various kinds of justice. Liberals in contemporary society tend to emphasize the dole, giving people whatever they need. This has been called distributive justice. Conservatives, on the other hand, have emphasized the punishment of criminal offenders (although they have been lax on rich, white-collar criminals). This is an emphasis on retributive justice. Extreme emphasis on either of these is bound to be counter-productive. Jewish and Christian Scriptures, along with Aristotle and Aquinas, would bring these together in a more holistic and productive manner. Classical and more current terminology speak of corrective or restorative justice. The goal of such justice is the biblical Shalom, an earthly reflection of the divine ideal. From ravaged areas of the world to suffering ghettoes, restorative justice is needed and has been shown to work practically.
The challenge here begins with willingness, on the part of each individual, to think and do the right thing. This leads to determination and then challenge of injustices in personal relationships, education, the media and government policies. We must question racism, classism, sexism, and the justice of war and peace initiatives. Critique of the media is crucial.
Each person has a responsibility to assess his or her role in society. What power and opportunities does each of us have to do justly and to love mercy? We should be vocal and vote for all that is just while standing against all this is not right. Honest discussion is needed as to the role of the U.S., the U.N. and other powers in the world today. Above all, cynicism and apathy must give way to interest, concern, and hope. Guilt can paralyze; hope renews.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Why, or why not, are you interested in justice? How have you experienced justice and injustice?
If you are an American, have you taken time to consider your pledge of allegiance and its insistence on “justice for all?” Does that phrase ever ring in your mind as you see the results of racism or violent conflict in the world today? Whatever your nationality, what is your creed regarding justice and human rights?
What was helpful in the article above and what was not helpful? What suggestions do you have for improving it? How would you write an article on justice?
How, in your opinion, do justice and love relate?
How do you see justice between two individuals, between an individual and an organization or society, and between organizations or nations?
How do you see the need for racial justice (or justice among socio-economic classes) in your society today?
Most would agree that peace and the alleviation of desperate poverty are critical needs in today’s world. Many fear that failure of adequate response to these twin crises could bring about global catastrophe.
A consideration of these crises brings together and demonstrates the interdependence of justice and peace.
Our educational system (and theological education) seems to be failing in adequate discussion and understanding of what justice means and how it might be worked out in today’s world.
Ideas of justice need to be applied to issues as far ranging as the taunting kids who don’t look cool receive from rich and popular kids, to racial and ethnic discrimination, to the content of advertising and popular media, to global violence.