Thoughts on Justice

‘It is not the abstract entity ‘justice as such’ that God loves. What God loves is the presence of justice in society. And God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society – loves them, too, not with love of admiration but with the love of benevolent desire. God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, that each and every shall experience what the Old Testament calls ‘shalom’. Injustice is perforce the impairment of ‘shalom’. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 82)

This is an understanding of ‘justice’ I like – one with breadth and nuance. Here, justice is not simply rendering to each his due, as it was for the great Roman legal minds. Wolterstorff defines justice as something Christians are called to actually practice – justice is something we do and are called to do.

In the book quoted above, Wolterstorff brilliantly shows how the themes of justice are central in both the Old and New Testaments – part of it can be read here, and I highly recommend it as a brilliant work of exegesis:

Here’s another thought on justice from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

‘God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men.

Justice is not important for its own sake; the validity of justice and motivation for its exercise lies in the blessing it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to Me, I swill surely hear their cry…if he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Exod. 22:22-23, 27).

When Cain murdered his brother Abel, the words denouncing his crime did not proclaim: “You have broken the law.” Instead we read: “And…the Lord said: What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground.’ (Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘The Prophets’, p. 216)

Both Heschel and Wolterstorff both ground their concepts of justice not in the abstract (even if their wording and language is fairly different – one is an analytic philosopher and another a rabbi/mystic) but in God’s love and relation to all of mankind – and both see justice as something we practice, something we do and are called to do. This is where justice-talk in Christianity needs to go – justice seen as something we are called to practice, instead of an abstract concept somewhere out there that serves political ends. Bonhoeffer’s ethical though follow similar lines, and the reason I find these thoughts so attractive is that they move past the ideas of justice and ‘the good’ as being things somewhere out there that we strive to do in every circumstance and bring them down into concrete relation living.

Grounding justice and ethics in relationship and in love provides, so far as I can see, the strongest framework for these subjects – and is the direction that Christian ethical thought needs to take if it’s going to have any relevance in the world.

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