As one could easily notice, Justice is one of the main themes in this blog. But I’d guess it’s probably also the most confusing of the themes. It seems like one of those words that people just throw around without it actually meaning anything. Or it’s used as another word for karma, like in this fun little CollegeHumor article.
But that’s not the justice I want to talk about here. In fact, there are a few kinds of justice that I want to verbally differentiate from each other so that I can best describe the kind of justice I want to focus on in this blog. So without further ado:
Put as simply as possible, this version of justice involves a judge and sometimes a jury listening to two different parties in a criminal or civil court case with the goal of trying to determine the party who is at fault in a balanced and unbiased manner. The phrase “Justice is blind” is used here to show that justice does not show favor to any particular person or party, because it is based on the principle that all people are created equal in the eyes of the law. It is often depicted by a woman known as Lady Justice who is blindfolded and holding a scale which represents evidence being weighed by its own merit. Sometimes, she is also depicted with a sword, which is always facing downward and held below the scale, and that represents the punishment that awaits the guilty (and, presumably, only the guilty) once their guilt has been shown. This idea of justice along with the symbol of the woman with the scale has been used for thousands of years, with elements of it being seen as far back as ancient Greek and Egyptian culture, but it is, of course, also a major part of the American and other democratic nations’ judicial systems.
One of my favorite quotes regarding this idea comes from Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and is spoken by the well-loved lawyer, Atticus Finch*. In this quote, he is discussing all the ways that justice should work, and yet despite that, fails to work for him and his client. He says in chapter 20,
Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal,… [and yet] we know that all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe–some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it…, some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal… [and] that institution… is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest [Justice of Peace] court in the land…. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
An audio recording of Gregory Peck reciting this in the Oscar-winning movie adaptation can be found below (I did not make the video).
This is a beautiful view of justice. In a perfect world, democratic justice works 100% of the time, and the criminal is punished while the innocent is set free. But, as Harper Lee/Atticus Finch astutely observed, such is not always the case.
Another thing we tend to think of when we hear the word “justice” is a thing called social justice. Commonly associated with social workers–and rightfully so–this kind of justice works to bring up, empower, and restore basic human rights to those who might not have the opportunities and privileges that others have. Advocates of social justice (such as myself) believe that many of our government and economic systems are flawed and show favor to certain people over others, and to go along with that, we believe that that is an issue and that it obviously needs to be fixed. It bleeds into many other parts of our society and is, indeed, unjust. If all people are truly created equal, then should they not be treated as such in every aspect of life? I can and surely will go deeper into this in future posts, but I have gone as far into this as I believe I need to for now.
Both of these aforementioned types of justice are important and, when used correctly, can work to bring our world to a better place. There are certainly even areas where these two can intersect with each other and work hand-in-hand for the sake of a deeper cause. In fact, let the records show here that I will never stop being an advocate for pursuing these these types of justices.
However, as a Christian, I believe that I am called seek a higher kind of justice. And even more than that, I believe that because of my Christian faith I am called to pursue justice throughout the world. Unfortunately, justice seems to be one of the very things a lot of American Christians fail to pursue with the kind of passion they’re called to have.
While I have been struck with this conviction for some time, it has been only deeper enforced in me this past semester in some of the classes that I have taken.
James 1:27 (NIV) says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widow in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
To put this into context–because context is important–James was telling his readers to pursue action as a result of their faith. They were relatively new to Christianity and were being harassed for their beliefs, but James encouraged them to hold fast and continue living a Christlike life.
This meant doing more than simply proclaiming one’s faith, doing more than just listening to what the Bible says, for “anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in the mirror and… immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24). This meant going out and trying to change things.
Care for the “widows and orphans” was a common motif throughout the Bible, reaching back to some of God’s first commands for the people of Israel in Exodus and Leviticus. The reason for this was because there were no laws made to protect them–which essentially meant that if a child or mother had no male figure to protect them; they were left with nothing. They’d be ignored and neglected by society. They were among the most vulnerable people in their culture at that time.
But the people of Israel worshiped a loving God who cared for his creation. He wanted what was best for people. However, he also assigned human beings to be the primary caretakers of creation (Genesis 3:23), meaning it was the Christians’ job to seek justice wherever justice was lacking. And if humans did not hold each other accountable for their responsibilities, then injustice was bound to endure and humans would be bound to suffer because of it.
In the Old Testament, this led to exile of God’s people–Israel–in Babylon. While they were there, the prophets would tell them about their failure to follow God’s commands of loving their neighbor, which Micah sums up well in in the familiar verse: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus also discusses justice, telling his followers that serving him meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and providing shelter for the homeless (Matthew 25:31-46). The people Jesus would rebuke were not the Gentiles (those who did not believe in God), but rather the ones who focused much on their religiousness and little on serving others, those who through their own personal piety rejected and excluded other human beings.
I believe that it is the calling of all Christians to seek justice and to love our neighbors as ourselves, because God commands it. This is something that trumps doctrinal disputes and believing all the right things. This is bigger than our “personal relationships with God” because it is something that involves the entirety of all creation.
Injustice is still alive and active in our world. The oppressed cry out for someone to love them and to treat them as human beings. Women are being sold into slavery and raped against their will, not just on the other side of the world, but in our own nation. People in the Middle East–human beings, just like us–are being forced out of their homes and are now, much like Jesus in his infancy, refugees without a place to live. Even here in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, racial tensions are stirring up as if we were back in the 1960s, and those who are still being oppressed and discriminated against in our nation are finding their voice and crying out for change.
And, as Christians, we should care. We should care when someone is being treated as less than human, when instead of being loved, someone is being discriminated against because of their race and/or gender and/or sexual orientation. Above all else, we as Christians should love and care for those who feel unloved. That is our calling as the body of Christ.
(I would love to talk about this more, but this post has been long enough. I’ll go deeper into other matters regarding justice in future posts.)
So may we not be stagnant. May our faith be focused on more than just our faith, but on the well-being of God’s creation. May we mourn with those who mourn. May our hearts break with those whose hearts are breaking. May we see others as God sees them: as loved. Child. Son. Daughter. Beautiful. And may we, as Christians, choose to walk with God by seeking justice, loving mercy, and showing justice and mercy to all we may encounter.
ATTICUS FINCH’S CLOSING SPEECH IN TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
*Before you tell me about Atticus Finch in the second book, I would ask you to read it first, and then get back to me on the matter. I’d love to discuss it with you!