“Justice” is a polarizing word. Progressives have camped on it so much that conservatives have a Pavlovian reaction to its mention, as they do with “global warming.” Inject the word “justice” into a room and you can begin to extract blue from red.
However, the conservative reaction against government overreach also has a foundation of concern for justice. It’s not worries about economic efficiency that fuel white-hot rage against government mandates . It’s unfairness—the perception that it’s unjust for unaccountable pen pushers to rule over personal liberty. “You’re not the boss of me” is also a cry for justice.
Both sides of this divide have this in common: their idea of justice is punitive and accusatory. Somebody is to blame, and justice involves assigning that blame and making somebody pay.
This is in accord with the American justice system, which has to do with applying written laws uniformly, such that all wrongdoers are punished and forced to repay their victims.
Much can be said in favor of that, especially by anyone who has brushed up against whole countries where the rule of law is only arbitrarily applied. Indeed we Americans also have a lot to improve on, since our American legal system punishes or rewards some groups more than others, depending on their income or their skin color. Conservatives and liberals can easily agree that this fails the standard of justice.
It seems to me, however, that we need a more expansive view of justice, one that draws on an ancient tradition that is largely forgotten. I have recently understood this from studying the ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible. There one learns of a justice that demands love for neighbor, and welcome for strangers. There one learns of a justice measured by the care of the poor and the vulnerable in society. There one learns of a justice where “trees clap their hands in joy.”
A “judge” in these ancient societies was not someone who had studied the law carefully and knew exactly how to apply it to particular cases. The judge was not a legal technician. Rather, the judge might actually be a warrior, defending an embattled tribe or liberating an embattled people. A judge took tangled disputes and had the wisdom to bring harmony to quarreling people. It is not that the English word “judge” does a poor job of translating the Hebrew. It is that a very different view of the law and of justice is in view.
I recently served as general editor for a Bible (God’s Justice: The Holy Bible) that examined the theme of justice throughout the sacred text. This edition of the Bible was remarkable because of its authors: 55 scholars and activists from all over the world, north and (emphatically) south. It was fascinating to see how they commented on familiar material. Westerners are accustomed to a tradition that reads the Bible as a matter of personal spirituality. That is, of course, certainly in view. But my authors from the global South rather easily pointed out that the Bible has to do with history, that its history constantly comments on alienation from other people and from the created world itself. They saw how often it spoke to the condition of the poor and the most vulnerable—not merely the fact that they got a raw deal in court, but that they were and remained poor and vulnerable. And most importantly: they saw everywhere that a God of justice is determined to set the world right!
What does that mean? In these ancient traditions, setting the world right certainly means setting it spiritually right. But it also means the full flourishing of the whole creation. It means an end to war. It means international reconciliation and peace. It means building beautiful cities and producing bumper harvests. It means nature itself rejoicing in the goodness intended for it from the beginning—nature frolicking! Justice, in these ancient traditions, is beauty and truth. Justice is love, and love is justice. Justice is a flourishing society.
And yes, these ancient traditions certainly recognize the existence of real evil. They speak of the judgment of evil powers. Here too, God is determined to set things right. That means not just punishing evil, it means doing away with it.
Thus our western fascination with crime and punishment is a portion—an important portion—of a much larger picture. The world is intended for good. On the road to that good, we need laws to promote that good, and these laws must be enforced.
However, preoccupation with crime and punishment will not get us very far down the road. Rather we need to be clear on where we want to go, and we must focus not only on what has stopped our progress, but on what we must do to get where we seek to go.
I do not know how to “fix” our current political polarization, the reflexive assigning of people to camps of good and evil that stops all discussion and has, as a matter of fact, put an end to politics that can accomplish anything.
I believe, however, that a fix will come only when we re-learn to focus on what the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth.” That speaks not of a filmy spirit reality but of a real and physical society with real people who flourish together. Assigning blame invariably leaves a residue of anger and resentment, and rarely leads to productive encounters. Defining hopes and arguing over how to realize them has a tendency to push us closer together. We will not always agree. Perhaps we will not agree very often. But we will point forward, rather than only doling out scorn on the sins of the past.