While justice is singled out as a prime concern, it is variously understood. Which recalls an amusing story, concerning a person who was rebuked for trespassing. “How did you lay claim to the land?” the intruder inquired.
“I inherited it from my father,” the alleged owner replied. Then when pressed, he added: “He received in from his father, and his grandfather before him.” Pressed yet further, he acknowledged that a distant ancestor had fought for it.
“I’ll fight you for it!” the challenger heartedly exclaimed. A fanciful account? No doubt, but not in principle much different than much of the discussion concerning justice. So it was with this in mind that I recently authored The Enigma of Justice.
Initially, the discussion deals with justice in context the prophets. “I hate, I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies,” the Lord protests. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21, 24). “In a region where wadis (dry river beads) proliferate, this amounts to an appeal for abundance and constancy.” (p. vii).
“Failing to respond to the prophet’s appeal, they can expect the temple to lie in ruins and the people carried off into exile. As C. S. Lewis aptly acknowledges, only God knows when more time will serve no constructive purpose” (pp. 9-10). So that one should not fall prey to a sense of false security.
It is of consequence that justice is found in the context of the cardinal virtues, including prudence, temperance, and fortitude. While this could be considered at great length, I treat the topic in a single chapter. “Last but not least of the cardinal virtues is justice. This, moreover, implies that we should treat others fairly. Initially, because this is God’s way of dealing with us (cf. Acts 10:14). In addition, because it is the way we would have others treat us (cf. Luke 6:31). Finally, since it is to our corporate advantage” (p. 17).
“Even so, justice turns out to be more complex than we might have imagined.” For instance, there is legal justice. “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” God indignantly inquires. “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psa. 82:2-3).
The discussion next delves into six theories concerning justice. Which reminds Karen Lebacqz of the proverbial story of blind-folded explorers who examine a elephant. Each feeling a different part, they consequently describe it differently.
By way of illustration, there is the social contract theory. “Imagine a that a group of people decides to establish a set of principles by which to determine whether justice is served. If the principles were genuinely fair, one would suppose that they must have the input of those implicated—if not a consensus, then by representative individuals” (p. 21).
“The previous chapter has subtly turned our attention to the theological/spiritual virtues mentioned earlier. In particular, faith, hope, and love. These were highlighted in the context of redemptive history, so that righteousness/justice appears in connection with our relationship to God and one another” (p. 30). A chapter is devoted to each of these three topics.
As representative, “‘Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right,’ the psalmist acknowledges (106:3). Since it may not appear so at any given moment, one has only the promises of God on which to rely. These provide not simply assurance, but enablement. In metaphorical terms, one walks by faith” (p. 30).
Alluded to in passing earlier, the following four chapters explore in greater depth commutative, distributive, legal, and retributive justice. For instance, commutative justice regulates the exchange of goods and service. In this regard, “You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 25:15).
Moreover, “A person exercises distributive justice when a assuming a legitimate obligation for society, while not insisting on excessive privileges” (p. 62). Former president John Kennedy’s memorable appeal, “Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is thus vintage distributive justice.
Certain nuances of justice remain to be considered. In particular, justice and poverty, mercy, freedom, life, idolatry, reality, and international justice. These combined topics constitute about a third of the text.
As for justice and poverty, I cited two prime concerns from the 1980 Consultation on the Theology of Development. First, “We are deeply disturbed by the inability or unwillingness of the governments of the world to grapple this injustice and tragedy—associated with dire poverty.” Second, “We are deeply disturbed by the extent of apathy within the Christian church in the face of widespread suffering and injustice in the world” (cf. p. 90).
As for justice and life, it recalls a memorable incident that took place during World War II. The Nazi regime had determined that those who could no longer fend for themselves should be terminated, rather than hinder the war effort. “So it was that several military vehicles arrived at a facility ministering to the incapacitated. It was administered by a pastor, who met the officer in charge at the front entrance. ‘Pastor,’ the officer assured him, ‘you have done what you could for these, but it is now time for us to relieve you.’”
“Knowing full well what was implied, the pastor resolutely replied: ‘If you harm these people
God will damn you for eternity.’ At this, the officer paused momentarily, and the ordered his troops back into their vehicles” (p. 111). Thus were their lives preserved, at least for the time being.
In conclusion, “The tail of two kingdoms best illustrates the legacy of justice. The northern kingdom went into a deep spiral, from which there was no recovery. In contrast, the southern kingdom benefitted from periodic renewals, before eventually succumbing to the Babylonian incursion. Even then, the prophets held out hope for restoration” (p. 143).
We are thus reminded of the saying, “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to relive its failures.” Learn from the past, live toward the future, but live in the present. Thus to deal creatively with the enigma of justice.
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