Justice is a great concept … as long as you don’t think about it much. If you do, it becomes rather funny.
Hollywood has made a career, as they say, out of promoting a certain brand of justice: the bad people will pay for what they have done (which we all instantly recognize as bad) while the good people will get their just rewards in the end. We know what this looks like: happy endings of love, marriage and peace for the good; death, pain and/or prison for the bad.
Most of us can probably identify with watching these movies and having this rising sense of euphoria as the plot inexorably moves toward its inevitable conclusion. We know what’s coming, and we love it … but why? Hollywood doesn’t like us to think much about that part.
Of course, there is the appeal of a 90-120-minute slice of life wherein everything is set right, just like sitcoms that introduce a problem and find resolution in 21-22 minutes. That contrasts with our lives, where difficult conversations, relationships and work situations can take days, weeks or months to resolve … or maybe even last forever, without resolution.
But I think there may be more to it than that. When I first began following Christ more than 30 years ago, I was exposed to the logical fallacy of what people consider “good.” On contact evangelism outings, I would hear people say that they were basically good, and they would justify this by saying, “I’ve never killed anyone” or similar defenses. The follow-up question was always, “Is that what defines a good person? Someone who has not literally murdered someone?” This question was designed to lead people to think about who really is good (none of us) and how Jesus is and yet died for our sins.
I wonder why we haven’t worked through the same set of questions related to our version of justice. We condemn injustice, and we march and protest and chant more and more stridently for justice for individuals and groups. (“Black lives matter!” “Protection for the unborn!” “We are all immigrants!”) But what really is justice?
Many years ago it was explained to me that fairness means treating everyone the same – so, comparing them to each other – whereas justice means treating everyone according to the same standard. Fairness in a class is grading on a curve; justice is grading against the 100-point scale, even if everyone gets a 95 or everyone gets a 60.
In recent years, a third term has been introduced: equity. Equity deals with the idea that people may not start from the same place (think African-Americans and the history of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining), and to treat them fairly is, on the whole, patently unfair and unjust. Equity takes steps to address those systemic barriers (economic, social, political, institutional) to get everyone to the same starting line.
Equity, of course, is unfair and even unjust: How can it be fair or just today, we think, to grant one person or group a favored status, which will harm us, to make up for previous generations who were harmed to grant us favor?
The fact that we ask this question exposes the gap in our understanding of biblical justice. We struggle mightily to reconcile our understanding of a loving God with Old Testament passages where the Israelites are commanded to kill every man, woman and child as they invade the Promised Land. We don’t understand how God could choose, and bless, people whose whole lives are defined by lies (Jacob), pride (Samson) and genocide (Joshua).
As some have pointed out, though, there is plenty of mercy and grace in the Old Testament. The people we just mentioned are evidence of that: Where God is perfect and holy, they have proved themselves unholy and deserving of instant and everlasting death … and yet God shows mercy and even gives them opportunities. On the other hand, there is plenty of injustice in the New Testament: What about all those babies Herod killed after the Magi tricked him? What about all those who weren’t healed when Jesus chose to heal others? The ultimate injustice is one we celebrate every Good Friday: The only spotless human to ever live was killed for sins others had committed.
If we think about justice, and our version of it, it’s rather funny. We don’t question our own individual or common understandings of justice. We have come to a place where we believe our own consciences, we believe our own standards of what is just and unjust, and we are not afraid to tell people about it, especially on social media.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t have much use for our understanding of conscience; he said, “Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man,” but he instead contended that conscience was the very evidence of our sin and separation (fmchr.ch/dhconscience). Conscience is indeed a voice telling us what is right and wrong, but Scripture makes it clear that the only one who can really lead us into all truth is the Holy Spirit, not our own consciences.
Usually when we are looking for justice, we are using our own understanding of justice. We like to forget all the wrongs we have done to others in our pursuit of getting what we “deserve,” which is typically just what we want and think is rightfully ours. It is certainly true that we like to forget all the ways we have benefited from others’ sacrifices — yes, but even more, how we benefit from their building of systems that make us believe we deserve all the good things we have.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (fmchr.ch/mlkinjustice). We like that — it sounds great! But if you stop to think about it, if the “anywhere” is where I commit injustice, it’s not so simple.
David Brewer, Ph.D., is the director of MBA programs at Anderson University. He formerly co-led SEED Livelihood Network, the economic development ministry of the Free Methodist Church – USA, and established a church collaboration network after working in the corporate world for 20 years. His passions are systems, process, and deepening discipleship.0