Two Kinds of Justice

In my last post I made the point that we typically use the word “justice” differently from the way the Bible uses it. Our justice is limited to the ideas of fairness and just desserts. Everybody gets treated the same, and everybody gets what’s coming to him. This is justice suited to the courtroom.

God’s justice is much broader, incorporating mercy and charity. Its aim is to set the world right, by all means. Care for the poor is not voluntary, it is a requirement —as justice always is.

What practical difference does this expanded understanding of justice make?

First, though this may not seem very “practical,” a wider view of justice enables us to understand the Bible as a unified book. How many times have you heard the remark that “there are [pick a number] 900 verses about caring for the poor in the Bible?” One Bible highlighted all such verses in orange—a sort of red-letter edition for justice.

Indeed, if you pay close attention you will be overwhelmed by how much of this kind of “justice” can be found in the pages of the Bible. But most of us read Scripture as mainly about God and personal salvation, and it’s hard to say what those verses on justice have to do with that. Justice appears to be just a seasoning to flavor the main meal.

If you accept the broader meaning of justice, however, you see that justice is the main story line of Scripture. God is setting the sin-sick world right. He is in the business of causing all his creation to flourish, and doing away with all evil. And we are to join him in that! There is no real division between personal salvation and creation care or the welfare of the vulnerable. They are all part of God setting the world right, doing justice at every level: personal, social, ecological, spiritual, physical, economic.

As I say, not everybody will see Bible comprehension as very practical. But these different views of justice permeate politics and society. It makes a very large difference which definition you adopt.

The attraction of narrower justice is the ease with which it can be applied. It’s useful in court. You can adjudicate it according to rules. Fairness and equality can be defined with some precision. Crimes and punishments can be codified. Whereas, wider justice is imprecise. To set the world right—who knows exactly how to do that? It’s like carrying water in a leaky bucket. You are always drizzling, and you never can get enough water where you want it.

You see both kinds of justice in our debates about illegal immigration in America. One kind of response takes its cues from the law. Undocumented aliens have done wrong; they should be punished. The illegality of illegal immigrants overwhelms every other response. Christians who make this kind of response—and I suspect the majority of American Christians do—hunt the Bible for texts to reinforce their viewpoint. The main thing they find is Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Indeed, Paul (and Jesus) were not rebels; they obeyed the law unless it was deliberately counter to God’s word, and so should we. But Romans 13 doesn’t say too much about illegal immigrants; it tells me I ought not to be one, but nowhere does it say (nor does Paul or Jesus hint anywhere) that I should be vigilant to make sure that my neighbor isn’t one.

Yes, we are to obey the law. No, legality is not the sum of everything good. Love is.

Does wider justice help me know what to do with illegal immigrants? Yes and no. The problem with wider justice is that it merely tells me I ought, with God, to set my community right. It tells me to be kind and generous to those in need, particularly the immigrant. It doesn’t specify policy. If my job is to figure out how to set right the mess we are in—to help create just communities—that’s a very difficult assignment, with perhaps 12 million undocumented aliens, some of who came here when they were in diapers. I don’t know anybody who has a policy that claims to perfectly set that situation right. It’s all messy. In that respect, wider justice—God’s justice—isn’t morally satisfying. It never leaves me thinking that I know exactly what to do, nor do I feel justified after I’ve applied it.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. Who ends up with clarity and righteousness? The older brother, I would say. He knows it is not fair that his brother gets a party, while he never did. He knows that his brother should be treated as he deserves. His brother, you might say, is the illegal. The older brother knows he is in the right and his brother in the wrong.

The father’s idea of justice doesn’t really disagree—he’s not defending the prodigal as though he were innocent. But something larger is at stake. The father knows that the prodigal is wrong, but he also knows that he is his son; he knows that the older brother’s justice won’t set their family right. There’s no hint that the father has a clear policy in mind, but he knows that love is the right response. Who stands for justice in this story? The older brother stands for our justice; the father stands for God’s.

I don’t know what policy exactly will solve our immigration dilemma. But I know that an older-brother response will not heal us. It will simply further tear apart our communities.

Narrow justice has a very deep appeal in our human psyche. It is what animates every child who ever wailed and moaned over perceived unfairness. And it is not wrong! Evil must be punished. Fairness should be rigorously applied. The law should be obeyed. But in the Bible it coexists with a larger justice known for forgiveness and mercy and kindness and humility. How do the two fit together? I know of only one point where they do: at the cross. There mercy and judgment meet, absorbed in the sacrifice of the Son of God. If we want justice, that is where we have to begin. We have to follow Jesus, and become like him.

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One Response to “Two Kinds of Justice”

  1. Andy Kingston-Smith Says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is Tim Stafford’s helpful follow-up piece on justice. Andy

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