What is justice?
Merriam Webster defines justice as so:
1 a: the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishmentsb: judge
c: the administration of law; especially : the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity
2 a: the quality of being just, impartial, or fairb(1): the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2): conformity to this principle or ideal : righteousness
c: the quality of conforming to law
I was at a meeting earlier this week, and the conversation starter was the question, “When you close your eyes and think of justice, what do you see?” And the variety of answers led me to truly wonder what justice is and if it is a battle worth fighting for.
It appears to me that there are two major facets to justice: judgment against those who act wickedly and vengeance for those who have been mistreated or who are suffering. Justice in the humanitarian world often deals with issues of physical suffering: providing clean water, food, clothing and shelter, assistance for starting a business or profitable trade so that the individual and/or community can become self-sustaining. It also focuses on the victim: offering protection and counseling for children and women in the sex trade, providing schooling for children who are out begging. Justice in the judicial world deals with prosecuting crimes and criminals, enforcing judgment and sentence upon them for crimes committed, or retribution in war on the mass scale.
But what is the foundation? What is the standard? Philosophers have wrestled for centuries over the ambiguity of justice, and as the world continues to develop we are assuming basic human rights of which the entirety of history has never even conceived.
Clean water, for example, is one of the most well funded and diversified intentional relief projects around the world. There are thousands of non profit organizations who have formed with the goal of taking clean water to those who do not have it. There are packets of chemicals that cause contaminants to coagulate for filtering, there are well diggers who go in search of deep, natural springs, there are irrigation systems that use the force of a stream to pump water for miles, there are filtering pots to purify murky water… And there are innumerable people convinced that this is the greatest need of the world. It is a tragedy, to them, that there are still people who do not have access to clean water.
But do you realize that even though irrigation and primitive plumbing have been used for centuries, the first idea of mass water filtration was not until the the 19th century? That was a simple sand filter, which still allowed for plagues like typhoid to take out much of London. Late in the 19th century, the first water chlorination attempts were made, and the US saw it’s first water chlorination treatment in 1908 in New Jersey. There are still homes in the US that do not have indoor plumbing.
So, is it logical to assume that since water treatment is accessible to most people in the United States and Europe, and has been so for roughly fifty years, that it is an injustice that much of the world would function as it has for the entirety of history?
Is this truly an issue of “justice” or of comfort? I lived for four years in a country where I had to boil any water for five minutes before using it, unless I bought bottled water – which is how everyone does it. Is that unjust? Or just inconvenient?
On the other side, in dealing with wickedness, crime and evil, we have to wrestle with the question of standards. How do we know what is evil? This aspect of justice has been more clearly developed throughout history as the concept of law and judgment has been established since the day that humanity was created.
Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
– Gen 2.15-17
God created Adam and put him in a garden, and immediately gave him one rule: Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or else you will die. God did not warn Adam because of the nature of the tree. The fruit was not poisonous. The knowledge attained of “good and evil” was not supernaturally infused into the fruit. The knowledge of good and evil was the expression of the evil spirit of rebellion that was within Adam and Eve to disobey, and that knowledge was realized in the act of eating the fruit.
It is very trendy these days to say that God prohibits and commands things for our good: that the nature of laws in and of themselves are to keep us happy. And while it is true that keeping God’s laws will often (but not always) result in our temporal happiness, that is not God’s motivation. His motivation is His glory. And He is glorified when we obey. The people of Israel did not have sensitive skin that would rash and blister if they wore clothes that were mixed material like cotton and burlap. God commanded them to not wear clothing of mixed material to set them apart and to be a symbol before the nations that they served only one God. God was not sparing them from turmoil or pain by commanding this. He was glorifying Himself.
So then we return the question at large: What is the standard? If we look at the world, we are left wondering. Some societies accept petty theft, and some cut off hands. Some societies accept nepotism and some have laws against it. Some societies function in cast systems and some say that everyone is equal. Some societies condone honor killings and others condemn all taking of life. Most of us would consider ourselves pretty good people as we compare ourselves to each other and society at large, but how do we know if we are good enough?
We have to return to the judge and ask him His foundations and expectations. While we have mirrored His system of judgment and accountability, only He has the final say in eternal accountability.
What we learn is that His expectation and requirement is perfection. He gave a very clear and detailed Law, and to break any of those laws, even one time, defines us as guilty.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
– Rom 3.23
Adam ate a piece of fruit. And that small sin was enough to incur judgment both upon him and upon the entire human race.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
– 1 Cor 15.22
And the punishment for ANY sin is death.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Rom 6.23
Therefore, in the eyes of the creator and the judge, we are all guilty. Even though we can compare ourselves to one another and make ourselves feel better by thinking, “I’m not as bad as him”, God’s ultimate verdict is that we all deserve the death penalty.
We all deserve the death penalty.
Do you believe that? I think we as Christians – I know that for myself – I say that I believe that, but when a trial comes I am often tempted to scream, “This is not fair! I don’t deserve this!” But in reality, the very fact that I am still breathing is a blessing and grace of God. I do deserve whatever trial I am encountering, and much, much worse.
Justice. What a strange, ambiguous concept. We function within the laws of our respective situations, but true justice is defined and upheld by God alone. Thankfully, He offers us a a way out. No sin will go unpunished. God cannot overlook wickedness, even in its smallest form. But Jesus died on the cross, and suffered the punishment that we deserved and offers to stand in our place. God’s wrath against your sin can be appeased in the death of Jesus, if you confess your sins and ask Him for forgiveness.
We are supposed to care for the poor:
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
– James 1.27
We are also commanded to love and seek justice because God loves and seeks justice:
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.
– Is 1.17
But in our pursuit, let us consider that true justice is God’s eternal judgment over our sin, and therefore the greatest and only true help we can give another person is the offer of eternal forgiveness through the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Providing clean water is a good thing. But it will not eternally save anyone. Locking up a murderer is an act of righteousness, but it will not save his potential victims from an eternity of damnation. Only Jesus can provide true and everlasting hope and joy.
Do you love justice? Then share the Gospel.