I’ve been thinking a lot about justice these last few days. Maybe it’s because the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18) came up in the lectionary readings, and it reminded me of news segments about families seeking justice for their murdered loved ones, and of those seeking justice for immigrants held in harsh conditions on no charges. Appeals to justice dominate the current impeachment investigation. Letters to the editor demand justice on all kinds of issues. It brings up another demand: What is justice?
Philosophers and theologians have argued the case for justice for centuries, with words so thick, and sentences as long as paragraphs, they’re all but impossible to understand. I’m more interested in whether the popular understandings of justice are more able to lead in a useful direction that might help us become a more just society.
The parable of the unjust judge gives at least a hint of what justice might be, because we have to ask, what made the judge unjust? Jesus said he neither feared God nor had respect for people, and I think that’s a part of what made him unjust. It wasn’t a question of how he ruled on matters of law, but that he didn’t acknowledge divine authority to declare what is right or wrong. On a more secular level, one might say he didn’t acknowledge a higher authority than himself. Moreover, he had no respect for the people who came before him. Justice, it seems, requires submission to God’s ultimate authority, and a commitment to caring for the needs and interests of God’s people.
In defense of the judge, I had a professor many long years ago who taught that courts and judges must be disinterested in justice. They’re to decide on what’s legal or illegal. What is just or unjust is a legislative responsibility, not a judicial one. I guess the unjust judge was his kind of guy. To be fair, my old professor understood the importance of justice, and was passionate about what he believed it to be, but defining it was not the job of the courts. But I digress.
The parable also features a woman who was aggrieved by something, we don’t know what, and demanded vindication against the one who aggrieved her. What can we learn from her about the meaning of justice? The parable doesn’t say what she meant by vindication, but for many it means vengeance that would inflict an equal measure of pain on her opponent. Is vengeance a legitimate element of justice? In any case, she relentlessly pestered the judge until he gave in, granting her petition, not because she was in the right, but because he was tired of her pestering him. It was, perhaps, another sign of what made him unjust. Rather than deciding on the merits and the law, he decided on what was convenient for his own comfort. The complaining widow wanted restoration of comfort in her life, and so did the judge. Is one’s discomfort or inconvenience an element of justice? Apparently not when it’s labeled a sign of unjustness.
From the parable we gain an idea that justice has to do with recognizing who has the ultimate authority to set the standards; it requires caring for the well being of others; and one’s personal comfort is probably not a part of the equation.
Does it leave room for vengeance: the settling of scores by inflicting pain and suffering on the one who caused pain and suffering? God says no. “Vengeance is mine,” says God (Deut. 32). Paul, writing to the Romans says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; …Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12)
As clear as that sounds, it runs headlong into vengeance as the central theme of all the action and super hero movies, many t.v. series, and more than a few of what we see on the news. We want our pound of flesh no matter what God says, and we call it justice. Even Paul, in his testier moments, got more than a little vengeful with his words.
What is comes down to is this: the question of justice comes up when something beyond the usual has upset the equilibrium of life. Life is filled with little disturbances, but they usually fall within a tolerable range. When something happens outside that range, it becomes an injury, a betrayal, a threat to safety that cannot be tolerated. Justice, in this sense, is the restoration of personal or social equilibrium. But how?
By the standards of vengeance, the offending party must be made to pay by inflicting a requisite amount of pain and suffering on them. If possible, they should be removed from the community so they can’t do more damage. Then things can get back to normal. God’s standards put a check on that, and demand that retribution be replaced by ways to not only restore social harmony, but restore the offender to a state of harmony with society. Maybe God can do it, but we haven’t figured it out yet, so it’s always a struggle to find what works without being cruel.
You see where the conflict is. The parable teaches that important elements of justice are acknowledgement of God’s authority, caring for God’s people, and willing disregard for one’s own comfort, if it comes to that. Holy scripture rules out vengeance as a tool for getting justice, but secular stories tell us that justice means getting even, and maybe more than even.
It gets more complicated when people who have been oppressed, held in subjugation by others, denied access to the good things of life reserved for some, rise up to claim their fair share, shaking the very foundations of social equilibrium. Those who have been privileged are likely to see it as insurrection against the natural order of things, and unjust act by out of control others. Those who have risen up are likely to see it as a long overdue fight for the right to enjoy all the benefits of justice in a new social equilibrium that doesn’t exclude them.
My old professor was right. Justice is not a question of what is legal or illegal, it’s a question of what is moral or immoral, and it’s always a moving target. In the pursuit of justice we try to move from what we now recognized as less moral than we used to think it was, to what is more moral according to what we now believe.
Questions of justice will always arise when the social equilibrium is sufficiently disturbed. Restoring it will always be the goal. In some cases it will be a deeply emotional struggle at a very personal level through which a restoration of equilibrium, if it happens at all, will not be like the way it was before. In some cases it will be a struggle to redefine a new moral order in a social equilibrium more just than it used to be. Both cases will always get tangled up with each other in ways taking generations for resolution.
Martin Luther King, Jr. cited Theodore Parker in one of his speeches when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It’s become a popular rallying cry for those who believe the arc has been a little too long. For Christians, the arc, however long it is, must bend quickly toward the elimination of barriers that have prohibited a portion of the population from enjoying all the available benefits of justice, moral and legal, that exist in society today.
I end this brief article not with a conclusion, but with questions. Can we ever define what justice means, or is it always in the process of becoming? Are we able to become more just persons in more just societies, or can we lose it all? As a Christian, guided by the authority of God’s word, I cannot keep from working toward more just societies, regardless of the outcome. As a human being of limited capabilities, my ability to hear and understand God’s word is always changing, so my moral judgements about what is just or unjust must always be provisional.