Justice in All Its Parts (pt. 2)
Doing the right thing to the right extent for the right people in the right way at the right time according to a right interpretation of God’s word.
That’s how I’ve defined “justice” in this series of posts. It’s an admittedly broad definition. But I’m trying to include in the definition not only a sense of outcomes (punishment or reward) but also a sense of well-being (restoration) and process.
In our last post, we considered the biblical basis for retributive and restorative justice. We continue in this post with consideration of two further aspects of justice: distributive justice and procedural justice.
A common simple way of defining distributive justice is “making sure everyone has their fair share.” Distributive justice does not require equality of possessions or outcomes. Nor is it simply defined as fitting the thing to be distributed to those who deserve it or are best for it. Neither is distributive justice a matter of everyone keeping what they’ve earned.
Distributive justice focuses on meeting the needs of the vulnerable and oppressed in society. Yet, it does so by calling forth individual generosity. God commands generosity and care for the poor in His word. Because God commands it then generosity cannot be solely a matter of individual choice. What the individual chooses to do becomes either just or unjust, righteous or unrighteous, good or bad, obedience or sin. This moral judgment keeps legitimate biblical freedom from becoming wanton worldly individualism.
Where do we see distributive justice in the Law?
commands generosity: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’.” commands the people of Israel to redistribute by leaving gleanings in their fields at harvest time. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” Laws about gleanings were one way righteous Israelites provided a fair share for the poor while at the same time allowing the poor to get their fair share with dignity by working to pick the gleanings.
We see distributive justice played out for us in the New Testament as well. commands, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
The key question with distributive justice is, “Does what I am seeking and calling ‘justice’ provide for the needs of the vulnerable?”
But all of this—punishment, distribution, and restoration—has to happen in a fair or righteous way for it to be truly just. We know something is not quite fair if a good outcome happens but happens in a shady way. The key question becomes, “Has what I have been seeking and calling ‘justice’ been reached in a righteous way?”
Suppose we hear about a judge making a ruling where he gave each brother exactly half of an estate. We might think that’s a good outcome. But then we learn that one of the brothers bribed the judge. Even though we think a 50-50 split might be a just outcome in principle, we now consider it injustice because the process was unrighteous.
The Law addresses procedural justice in several places. Most appropriately, procedural justice applies to the courts. Legal testimony must be given in a fair way according to and 6-8. False witness perverts justice. So does partiality (whether shown to the poor or the rich), bribes, and false charges. True justice also requires hearing all the relevant sides in a matter. As Proverbs 18:17 puts it, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” True biblical justice requires the appointment of judges with integrity who do only justice ().
Procedural justice also applies to business practices. For example, demands “full and fair weight” and abominates “all who act dishonestly.” We see the same thing In and 20:23. According to , such a person will not be acquitted for wicked scales and deceitful weights—procedural injustices.
Of course, procedural justice comes into play with our Lord’s earthly ministry. In , the Pharisees wanted soldiers to arrest Jesus and condemn him. But Nicodemus asked the question, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (v. 51). Nicodemus was calling for procedural justice. Ultimately, the Pharisees got their way and our Lord was condemned in a kangaroo court of false testimony and partial judges ().
We cannot hope to “do justice” as the Bible commands without understanding the various aspects of justice. We must keep an eye on outcomes as well as process. We must be concerned with justice not only in legal and political matters but also in personal and business dealings. The biblical notion of justice aims at our entire life. We cannot delegate it or diminish it to only one aspect.
Other Posts in This Series:
- Prolegomenon: On Authority and Sufficiency
- What Do We Mean When We Say “Justice”?
- Justice in All Its Parts (pt. 1)
11 A just balance and scales are the Lord’s;
all the weights in the bag are his work. (ESV)