Friday, June 29, 2007


This may be the post where you conclude that I've lost my mind.

Following a theme from my last post, I've been contemplating the nature of justice. In American culture justice is generally understood as punishment for wrongdoing. Justice is found when the guilty receive equal retribution for what they have done. Not surprisingly we read this understanding of justice into the Bible, and hence we get theories of the atonement where "God's perfect justice" requires that there must be a punishment for sin. This, of course, is not a new development.

What is a relatively new development is the recognition in certain quarters that this isn't the predominant Biblical meaning of justice. It's easy to read the above meaning into the Bible, because it fits well in instances like "David administered justice and equity to all his people" (2 Sam. 8:15), but it's not such a good fit for other uses such as "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). I'd like to say that the Biblical model of justice means relieving the poor and needy of the burden upon them, but it doesn't seem to be quite that simple -- almost, but not quite.

As a simple start, I did a search for the word "justice" in the Bible. I think that in every instance in this search, a case can be made that the idea of relieving oppression fits better than the idea of punishing guilt. But this could be a trick of the translation.

I tried to get into the Hebrew a little bit, because the concept appears primarily in the Old Testament, but I don't know any Hebrew and am completely reliant on language tools, so my conclusions will be very tentative.

It seems that the primary Hebrew word translated as "justice" is "mishpat". It's translated as "justice" more than any other single word, but this only accounts for 118 of the 419 occurances of this word in the Bible. So what does "mishpat" mean?

It apparently means "justice" but also "judgment" -- it's what the Israelites hoped for from God to vindicate them against their enemies. One interesting use is in Joshua 6:15 where it is translated as "manner" as in "[they] marched around the city in the same manner seven times." In Judges 13:12, it is used to ask about the "rule of life" intended for Samson. Often it is translated "ordinance". And so I get the sense that it means "the way things ought to be" or something like that.

This, of course, leads me right back to the ambiguity between justice as retribution and justice as vindication. Vindication for some people has harsh consequences for others.

The reason this troubles me is that if we approach things from the perspective of justice as providing help to those in need, then the American judicial system has the effect of being almost the exact opposite of justice. That is, it punishes the poor.

We tell ourselves that it's only the "bad people" who are punished, but this is a lie that we have bought into -- the lie that criminals are bad people and we are good people. Now I know that for the most part the people in our jails have done some very bad things. They've hurt people much more than the average sinner would even imagine doing. The problem is that socio-economic factors are just too good as predictors of criminal behavior.

At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, the narrator relates some advice he received from his father, "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." St. Francis of Assisi said, "If God had given the greatest criminal the graces He has given me, he would have used them to better advantage than I have done."

How far can I push this?


Pastor Eric said...

I am just getting my mind around what you are saying but let me start with this:

If justice means "the way things ought to be" then that definition does not seem to fit with how we use it today in our criminal justice system. Like you said, too many people have a harsh view of justice (like revenge). If the word "justice" truly means "the way things ought to be" then who, other than God, can be the judge of how things ought to be. If no one (which is my stance), then our crinimal justice system falls short of true justice.

I am curious on what other people think here. Great post, Andy.

Andy said...

Personally, I think our criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, I don't know how to fix it. The deep interrelation of poverty and crime should really embarass us, particularly those of us who like to idealize America. I'm really convinced we can do better.

I like people like Jim Wallis who challenge us to wonder what the prophets would say to us, but as you pointed out about "WWJD" on the previous discussion, it's really hard to say what the prophets would say, given that they speak for God.

I guess what I'm trying to do is take a Jim Wallis-like appropriation of the prophets and combine it with a Howard Zinn-like questioning of the status quo. But it yields a scary concoction.

I am also very curious what other people think.