Wednesday, September 12, 2012


This third entry in what has come to be known as the "politics not Politics" series borrows heavily on the concepts in the previous post - Peace. The concept of shalom weighs heavy in any discussion of justice.

Justice is perhaps the most misused word in our culture today (except maybe love). We have everything from the Justice League (which is a fictional organization) to the Justice System (which we only wish were fictional). But throughout our world, the concept of justice is all about punishing bad guys and restoring good guys. There's a lot of retribution, perhaps not the violent kind, but retribution nonetheless.

Now don't think I'm again consequences for behavior or restoration for the aggrieved; those are both essential elements to society. No, my question involves why we divide ourselves into good guys and bad guys and what standard we use for "making someone whole."

We hear that Osama bin Laden's death brings justice to the victims that died under his various attacks. We hear that justice is served when a criminal is locked behind bars for the rest of his life. In those instances, justice has become synonymous with punishment. Someone commits a crime, thus they are penalized - monetarily, with time, or with their own life.

This is a perversion of justice (again, not that consequences for bad actions are wrong, but that this system is incomplete and is not really justice). Like many things in our society, justice has become too individualized.

Our legal system is based on making individuals whole. If I steal $100 from you, I must pay back that $100 and any interest that would have been earned during the time you didn't have it. You are made whole. If my drunken driving causes you to be paralyzed, I owe you a lifetime of medical bills and lost earnings. If a woman is raped, well, there's nothing to make her whole - so we do the next best thing, the guilty party pays as much as possible, by forfeiting freedom and spending time in jail. Sometimes the crime is horrific enough that it requires the perpetrator's life in payment. All in attempts to make the victim, or their loved ones, whole.

You can see, as crimes and violations increase in seriousness, the ability to make an individual whole diminishes. We can never think of an appropriate way to restore lost innocence or lost life - even torture, while satisfying on some primal level, doesn't do the job.

It becomes even less realistic when we move beyond one-on-one crimes and speak of sociological atrocities. How does the world compensate Africans and their descendants who suffer from the effects of the trans-atlantic slave trade? How does a nation compensate its indigenous people for the loss of a way of life and for near genocide? It would bankrupt our societies to make these individuals whole, so we give lip service to the injustice.

We celebrate justice or our attempts at justice until justice gets in the way of our way of life.

What if justice were not about making a group or individual whole, but about making creation itself whole? Justice, at least in its biblical sense, is about restoring shalom - about bringing society back (or at least closer) to what God envisions for the world.

This is where our idea of punishment as justice comes from. Of course, for justice to be done, some who have must have less and some who lack must have more. This is not a socialist utopia; God never said there should be no rich and poor. God did say that we should leave the gleanings of the harvest and the crops at the edge of the field so the poor will not be hungry. God did say that those who are foreign residents among you must be treated as native born.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those with wealth and power because they must give it up. Is it right to buy bottled water when a billion people lack access to the kind of clean water that runs out of your tap all day, every day?

Justice is not about Robin Hood robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Justice condemns stealing, even if it's from a greedy, heartless corporation. Justice does not recognize victimless crime. Of course, justice also asks if the greedy, heartless corporation is acting justly in its dealings. Profits may have to be sacrificed for justice. Justice does not recognize a victimless crime (even if society doesn't recognize it as a crime at all).

But I earned this, I worked for it. Justice takes that into consideration as well. God created this world with enough. In a just society no one should be afraid of not having enough. We are afraid because we don't trust each other to be just.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those who lack power and standing because they must submit. Justice does not mean punishment or retribution. After decades of slavery, it may seem only fair for the roles to reverse, for the slaves to becomes the masters and the masters, slaves. This is not justice, for people still suffer, for society still fails to live up to its created purpose.

Justice costs something because it requires repentance and forgiveness.

Justice is the restoration of shalom.

When Dr. King quoted the prophet Amos - "May justice roll down like waters..." he was not calling for an overturning of the tables, but a meeting at the table. Party allegiances aside, when John Lewis speaks of meeting one of the men who beat him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, heard his confession and offered forgiveness, that was the beginning of justice. Justice is seen in the ongoing relationship of perpetrator and victim as friends.

Justice is George Bush and Osama bin Laden having a meal together.

That is, of course, impossible now - and likely was always impossible. Human nature is opposed to justice; we have to work at it. And likely we can't start with the biggest rifts, the biggest problems, the biggest injustices. We have to start with the small ones. The spats between husband and wife, the way we treat rebellious children and irresponsible neighbors.

Justice is not about demanding individual or group rights, justice is about commitment to making creation whole. It is about working for the good of others at the cost of your own. Proper justice rests on a proper understanding of peace and freedom.

True, justice is not expected in this world of sin and filth. Even those of us who are committed to the cause of Christ may never expect to see justice on a grand scale. But it is possible. Justice is not a pipe dream.

As we approach our politics and our Politics, justice should be an important foundation. We should be working for justice and supporting others who do as well. We should be celebrating those who sacrifice, both those with power and those without, for the cause of justice.

Most of all, we should not be fooled into calling our legal system a justice system. I don't think it's worthless. In our world, it is the best we have to keep order - and it certainly avoids some wicked calamities. We can always work to make our legal system more just - to make it more focused on the redemption of those who break the law rather than on retribution.

And we can work to make society more just, even if it's only where you live and with the people you know. We can work for justice so those in the legal system have a more just community to come home to, so we all have a more just place to live.

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