Thursday, April 9, 2009


Jordan Sketch
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
We've been having an interesting, rambling discussion about the nature of mercy and justice a few posts below. In the process, I ran across the Holman Bible Dictionary's definition/explanation of the terms and really liked it. I offer it here now, in part, for consideration. Enjoy...


The order God seeks to reestablish in His creation where all people receive the benefits of life with Him. As love is for the New Testament, so justice is the central ethical idea of the Old Testament. The frequency of justice is sometimes missed by the reader due to a failure to realize that the wide range of the Hebrew word mishpat, particularly in passages that deal with the material and social necessities of life.

Nature of justice Justice has two major aspects. First, it is the standard by which penalties are assigned for breaking the obligations of the society. Second, justice is the standard by which the advantages of social life are handed out, including material goods, rights of participation, opportunities, and liberties. It is the standard for both punishment and benefits and thus can be spoken of as a plumb line. “I shall use justice as a plumb-line, and righteousness as a plummet” (Isaiah 28:17, REB).

Often people think of justice in the Bible only in the first sense as God's wrath on evil. This aspect of justice indeed is present, such as the judgment mentioned in John 3:19. Often more vivid words like “wrath” are used to describe punitive justice (Romans 1:18).

Justice in the Bible very frequently also deals with benefits. Cultures differ widely in determining the basis by which the benefits are to be justly distributed. For some it is by birth and nobility. For others the basis is might or ability or merit. Or it might simply be whatever is the law or whatever has been established by contracts. The Bible takes another possibility. Benefits are distributed according to need.

Justice then is very close to love and grace. God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and… loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18, NRSV; compare Hosea 10:12; Isaiah 30:18).

Various needy groups are the recipients of justice. These groups include widows, orphans, resident aliens (also called “sojourners” or “strangers”), wage earners, the poor, and prisoners, slaves, and the sick (Job 29:12-17; Psalms 146:7-9; Malachi 3:5). Each of these groups has specific needs which keep its members from being able to participate in aspects of the life of their community. Even life itself might be threatened.

Justice involves meeting those needs.

The forces which deprive people of what is basic for community life are condemned as oppression (Micah 2:2; Ecclesiastes 4:1). To oppress is to use power for one's own advantage in depriving others of their basic rights in the community (see Mark 12:40). To do justice is to correct that abuse and to meet those needs (Isaiah 1:17). Injustice is depriving others of their basic needs or failing to correct matters when those rights are not met (Jeremiah 5:28; Job 29:12-17). Injustice is either a sin of commission or of omission.

The content of justice, the benefits which are to be distributed as basic rights in the community, can be identified by observing what is at stake in the passages in which “justice,” “righteousness,” and “judgment” occur. The needs which are met include land (Ezekiel 45:6-9; compare Micah 2:2; Micah 4:4) and the means to produce from the land, such as draft animals and millstones (Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Deuteronomy 24:6).

These productive concerns are basic to securing other essential needs and thus avoiding dependency; thus the millstone is called the “life” of the person (Deuteronomy 24:6). Other needs are those essential for mere physical existence and well being: food (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalms 146:7), clothing (Deuteronomy 24:13), and shelter (Psalms 68:6; Job 8:6). Job 22:5-9,Job 22:23; Job 24:1-12 decries the injustice of depriving people of each one of these needs, which are material and economic.

The equal protection of each person in civil and judicial procedures is represented in the demand for due process (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). Freedom from bondage is comparable to not being “in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:48 NRSV).

Justice presupposes God's intention for people to be in community. When people had become poor and weak with respect to the rest of the community, they were to be strengthened so that they could continue to be effective members of the community—living with them and beside them (Leviticus 25:35-36). Thus biblical justice restores people to community. By justice those who lacked the power and resources to participate in significant aspects of the community were to be strengthened so that they could.

This concern in Leviticus 25:1 is illustrated by the provision of the year of Jubilee, in which at the end of the fifty year period land is restored to those who had lost it through sale or foreclosure of debts (Leviticus 25:28). Thus they regained economic power and were brought back into the economic community. Similarly, interest on loans was prohibited (Leviticus 25:36) as a process which pulled people down, endangering their position in the community.

These legal provisions express a further characteristic of justice. Justice delivers; it does not merely relieve the immediate needs of those in dire straits (Psalms 76:9; Isaiah 45:8; Isaiah 58:11; Isaiah 62:1-2). Helping the needy means setting them back on their feet, giving a home, leading to prosperity, restoration, ending the oppression (Psalms 68:5-10; Psalms 10:15-16; compare 107; Psalms 113:7-9).

Such thorough justice can be socially disruptive. In the Jubilee year as some receive back lands, others lose recently-acquired additional land. The advantage to some is a disadvantage to others. In some cases the two aspects of justice come together. In the act of restoration, those who were victims of justice receive benefits while their exploiters are punished (1 Samuel 2:7-10; compare Luke 1:51-53; Luke 6:20-26).

The source of justice As the sovereign Creator of the universe, God is just (Psalms 99:1-4; Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4; Jeremiah 9:24), particularly as the defender of all the oppressed of the earth (Psalms 76:9; Psalms 103:6; Jeremiah 49:11). Justice thus is universal (Psalms 9:7-9) and applies to each covenant or dispensation. Jesus affirmed for His day the centrality of the Old Testament demand for justice (Matthew 23:23). Justice is the work of the New Testament people of God (James 1:27).

God's justice is not a distant external standard. It is the source of all human justice (Proverbs 29:26; 2 Chronicles 19:6,2 Chronicles 19:9).

Justice is grace received and grace shared (2 Corinthians 9:8-10).


Wow. Can I get an Amen?


Bubba said...

I would like to reiterate just one point I made in the earlier thread.

"Justice is grace received and grace shared."

Is this definition to be applied to the state? That certainly seems to be the goal, since the cause of so-called "social justice" is an overtly political cause, and since this conversation came up in an attempt to define wealth redistribution as a matter of justice rather than mercy.

If this formulation is applied to the state, then every criminal conviction is inherently unjust. The only just act of the criminal justice system is grace: acquittal and pardon.

Dan Trabue said...

I dunno. I'm not necessarily trying to apply it wholesale to the state.

One thing (perhaps) to keep in mind is that the Bible, when talking about justice, grace or any other subject I think, almost always is talking in terms of community, not individuality.

I have just now read this phrase for the first time, as far as I know, and haven't really formed a solid opinion on it, but off the cuff, if we're thinking about justice on a larger, community-wide scale, "grace received" does not seem to imply necessarily to me a "Get out of Jail Free" card.

Just my initial thought.

Dan Trabue said...

If my son wrecks his car, for instance, the grace I extend to him may be my constant love and support. It would not, however, mean I try to remove all consequences from his actions. I don't know that grace implies no consequences.

That would not be very just or grace-full for either the individual or the community, seems to me.

John said...


Marty said...

"Is this definition to be applied to the state? That certainly seems to be the goal, since the cause of so-called "social justice" is an overtly political cause,"

No Bubba, the social justice goal is to "loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke".

This quote is from a study I lead last week entitled "This is the fast I choose" at my United Methodist Women's General Meeting.

The Israelites had returned to their homeland after the Babylonian exile, but things weren't going quite as they had expected. Economically they were in the toilet...hungry...homeless. They had been better off in Babylon. So they decided to fast and God would notice their suffering. But he didn't. Or so they thought. God had something else in mind. He pointed out to them that their fast was serving their own self-interest. They continually fought with each other, oppressed their workers and turned their backs on their neighbors.

God wanted them to see fasting from a different perspective. What does He tell them? ..."Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice...."

The study continues:

"They are to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and free the oppressed. If they choose to glorify God in this way, the whole community will change. This 'fast' will lay the foundation for a better life for future generations, and they will be remembered as the 'repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.'"

Bubba, perhaps God is calling you to see peace and social justice in a new light, not from a political perspective, but from the fast that God has chosen for us to do.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Bubba said...

Marty, I certainly don't have a problem with pursuing peace and social justice (the latter being a somewhat redundant term, if you think about it) through non-political means.

My concern with Dan's invocation of these goals is almost solely related to my suspicion that he invokes these goals to justify primarily political means -- specifically, an expanding government that infringes upon individual property rights and other freedoms.

If he does not want the needs of the poor to be met by the federal government, and instead wants to leave (at least the bulk of) the responsibility to private institutions and maybe government at the most local level, then we probably agree in both ends AND means far more than our different terms suggest.

If, instead, Dan supports another New Deal or Great Society through which the relationship between citizen and state comes to more closely resemble that between a ward and his benefactor, I will oppose his statism.

But that opposition to those particular, statist means should never be confused with ambivalence for the goals of peace and justice themselves.

Marty said...

I'm not sure how working for peace and justice, even through government channels, would infringe upon property rights. I don't follow you there.

For instance rather than a minimum wage, provide a living wage. Fair trade rather than free trade. Or making sure, through the commons, that everyone has clean water to drink and health care. How would those justice issues infringe upon property rights or other freedoms?

My church partners will several local non-profits to alleviate poverty by providing computer training, GED, ESL classes, health care, and job training. We are also hoping to receive a grant and work with AmeriCorps through their anti-violence and anti-proverty program. We are located in an area where only 32% of kids graduate high school and gangs are prevalant.

I consider our ministry to be "the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in".

Bubba said...

Marty, if you support providing universal health care through strictly private organizations, and if you support merely encouraging a "living wage" and "fair trade" rather than imposing those goals through the force of law, those goals don't infringe upon individual freedoms.

But the moment the state imposes these arguably honorable ends through the compulsory force of law, freedom is INHERENTLY restricted.

Minimum wage laws, and "living" wage laws, are price controls -- specifically, controls on the price of labor -- and they therefore infringe upon the fundamental economic right to set prices: the buyer's right to dictate the price at which he's willing to part with his own wealth in exchange for some good or service, and the seller's right to dictate (in this case) the price at which he's offering his own time and energy.

When you contrast "fair trade" with "free trade," you imply -- quite accurately -- that the former is LESS FREE than the latter, when it's imposed by the state.

(For what it's worth, I think "fairness" is often a term with no obvious meaning: ask nine people for a definition of "fair trade" and you'll get ten answers. On the other hand, "free trade" is fairly easily defined, and I think the nebulous nature of the idea of "fair trade" opens the door to all sorts of trouble if the state begins to concern itself with imposing fairness.)

And when the government guarantees health care (or any other good, like food or shelter) it does so ONLY by confiscating property from one group of people and using that property to provide that good to another group of people.

Maybe the costs of lost freedom is worth it.

I certainly think the cost of lost freedom is worth having laws prohibiting fraud, theft, assault, and murder -- in part because the costs of depriving Smith's right to steal from Jones results in the benefit of ensuring Jones' property rights -- but I acknowledge that ANY move away from pure anarchy toward state power, however limited, entails a loss of individual freedom.

That's part of the social contract: the individual parts with certain rights to be a citizen in good standing, in order to partake of the benefits that standing provides.

I don't think the costs are worth it to ensure a particular wage (for those who can find jobs) or to guarantee universal health care.

But I REALLY wish this cost in terms of the loss of freedom was honestly and immediately acknowledged.

Dan Trabue said...

You say an awful lot here with which I agree, Bubba. Yes, most times when we regulate and legislate, there will be a loss of liberty. We aren't free to drive as fast as we want, whenever we want, wherever we want and that loss of freedom is a blessed good thing. We aren't free to do with our waste what we wish. We aren't free to beat up folk who annoy us.

We have, as a responsible society, placed limits upon individual freedom to better ensure the greater freedom of everyone's life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Our liberty is a collective liberty, as much as it is an individual liberty.

And I am absolutely fine with acknowledging that anytime we regulate and legislate. It is a very good thing to think: "THIS rule will represent a loss of liberty to some. Is it worth that cost?" and weigh the issues carefully. That would be a great thing.

Similarly, I think it would be a great thing to responsibly be honest about other costs, too. "If corporation X disposes of waste with NO toxic side effects, Product X would cost $10Z. If we regulate the toxic side effects, but allow SOME toxic wastes (what we think is a reasonable amount), Product X will cost $5Z. If we let Corporation X dispose of their toxic waste with complete liberty, Product X will only cost $1Z. But, what are the full consequences and costs of that sort of decision?"

By all means, let's always count the cost, in loss of liberty, gains in liberty, in environmental damage, in environmental preservation, in loss of workers rights, in gains in workers rights. Let's count the costs.

I think that is a lot to do with what the bible (and reason) has to say about the true nature of Justice and I think it behooves us as individuals and a nation to consider.

Marty said...

Bubba, like Dan, I agree with much of what you said.

But quickly... I have a busy weekend ahead.... with regard to health care...I have a real problem with private corporations profiting off the backs of sick people. I do hear what you are saying, however, with regard to nationalization.

The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church provides
health care to the underserved in Harris County. I wish we could somehow, through the local commons, expand that type of care to include everyone.

So far as fair trade, I would encourage every one to buy fair trade products rather than forcing it as mandate. We the people have the power to change things. This can be done online and locally.

Something I didn't mention, but Dan did was the environment. United Methodist Women are encouraging all units to become green. My unit is considering it and is now gathering information on how we can do that. That is a community effort. Again power to the people.

I would encourage employers to pay a living wage by doing business with them. A good example of this is Costco. Rather than buying from your neighborhood Sam's or WalMart drive the extra distance and pay a little more to Costco or other living wage businesses. Power to the people.

One area where I am totally against privatization is our water supply. That belongs to the commons and should stay there. I will never waver on that.

I will make time this weekend to look at your link.

Marty said...

Oh... Happy Easter all.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I keep showing up late to all the fun parties . . .

I want to offer my own perspective on the question of "Justice", referencing what Dan has written here. First, justice indeed flows from God's grace. I would go even further and say that it does so necessarily If we affirm that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has not only revealed who God is, but what God intends for all creation, then it should follow that we who make this confession must follow through and live this out with our neighbors.

Bubba's concern confuses some things, which is not necessarily uncommon. Politics involves questions of power. The pursuit of justice in the name of Jesus Christ means following his path of powerlessness. In St. Paul's letter to the Phillipian Church, he starts off the recitation of a confession with the words, "Let this mind be in you as it was in Christ Jesus . . .", and the confession includes the reality that Jesus forswore power for the ignominy of death, which St. Paul magnifies with the addition, "even death on a cross".

There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians lobbying state actors to pursue goals they believe worthy. Yet, at its heart, the pursuit of justice is not about political action but rather about living out the Great Commandment, in humility and without any consideration of what possible power we might gain over others.

Bubba said...

Briefly, Geoffrey:

There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians lobbying state actors to pursue goals they believe worthy.

I think that really depends on the goal. Justice for someone guilty of fraud, theft, assault or murder should be pursued first through the criminal-justice system of the state: if vigilantism is ever morally permissible, it is as a last resort.

On the other hand, the evangelization of a community is a very worthy goal in which the government should have no part whatsoever.

There are "worthy goals" where reasonable, devout Christians can disagree about the propriety of involving the government and the question of the level of their involvement. Meeting the poor's material needs is one such question.

Even then, I do think we can appeal to the virtue of prudence to argue for or against a particular alternative.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

You are confusing different understandings of "justice". A criminal defendant's status is not necessarily an object of Christian concern, although that may be the case. What I am referring to is the question of the role of the church lobbying the legislative branch of government in pursuit of a policy agenda that it sees as falling in rough line with Christian notions of social justice.

Marty said...

"Bubba's concern confuses some things, which is not necessarily uncommon. Politics involves questions of power. The pursuit of justice in the name of Jesus Christ means following his path of powerlessness.".......

"You are confusing different understandings of "justice"."

I agree Geoffrey. It is what I tried to get Bubba to understand with my Lenten study example.

Oh well. I will read his link later on.

And yes Bubba I have a problem with "anyone" profitting from health care. To me it is a justice issue right along side clean water.

United Methodist women are at the forefront on healthcare. In January at the Texas State capitol our Legislative Caucus decided the Social Action Priorities for 2009. It was agreed that health was the number one priority, focusing on "Nothing But Nets" and the contiuned support of CHIPS (Childrens Health Insurance).

Along with those issues support of alcohol and drug dependency and mental health programs were added and as I mentioned above "being green".

I really don't see any conflict here with either property rights or freedom issues. And as Dan has so eloquently stated - even with those rights come restrictions for the good of the whole community.

Marty said...

I really enjoyed reading that Sowell article Bubba.

"Most important of all, attempts at bettering the lot of society in general, as well as the unfortunate in particular, need not take the form of direct aid at all. Rather, these efforts can more effectively take the form of creating economic and other circumstances in which individuals can themselves find "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Such an approach does not seek to feed the hungry but to establish conditions in which no one has to be hungry in the first place, circumstances in which there are jobs available for those willing to work. Its emphasis is not on helping those in poverty but on getting them out of poverty and preventing others from falling into poverty."

My church is doing exactly this partnering with a Community Development Corporation, using Technology, providing health care, job training, etc.

However, we still feed the hungry and minister to the homeless. But at the same time provide them with opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty.

You can't neglect the one and only do the other.