Some thoughts and emotions on justice

What is justice? How do you go about determining what is just and what is unjust?

If you are like me, you’ve had a number of conversations and thoughts about justice in the last 48 hours. I can only believe that such conversations about justice are good, especially if we apply our philosophies to ourselves as well as others.

So, how do you answer my first questions? Do you lead with your intellect or your emotions? Let’s consider each (even though we can’t really separate these two parts of our being)

The intellectual approach to determine what is just

1. What is legal? Lawful = just. This works if you assume that those who create the laws are just lawmakers. But, we all can point to some draconian laws that we would not consider just.

2. What is deserved? Justice = penalty fits the crime. If you get what you deserve, an eye for an eye, then you have been served justice. Of course, if we follow this thinking, it could be just to walk up to a pedophile and castrate him. This would be illegal whether he was tried and convicted or not.

3. What is adjudicated fairly? Justice = blind adjudication. If you are accused of a crime, then justice is served if you receive a fair trial. However, justice does not hold exactly the same meaning as fair. It more accurately means righteous. One could have a fair trial and still get away with murder.

The emotional approach to determining justice

If we are truthful, our emotions tell us what is just. We hear of someone getting their due and we feel relief. Or, we hear someone who got his due but we hear that the one measuring out justice did so in a vicious or destructive way…and we feel conflicted if not downright sickened. Some of our thoughts on justice reveal certain values that we have yet to articulate. Consider the following options from an emotion perspective:

  • Law enforcement attempts to capture a killer but uses deadly force because they thought they saw him reach for a gun
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier on the battlefield
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier who was unarmed and running away
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier who had dropped his weapon and raised his hands in surrender
  • A mass murderer who was not given a final time to give self up before being shot to death
  • A mass murderer killing another murderer who had only killed once

I suspect we could argue that in each case, the killing was legal, even deserved. But does it pass the emotional smell test?

Think this is a new issue? Then check out Habakkuk in the Old Testament. He raises a complaint to God about the sinfulness of his own people, Israel. God answers him and tells him that a heathen group of terrible sinners will bring just punishment on Israel. Habakkuk, as you might expect, struggles with this. “You are going to you THEM? Why they are the WORST!” God answers and tells him that he, God, is going to act in righteous and mind-blowing ways. And Habakkuk responds in only the faithful way he can: I see your fame, I see your Glory and I stand in awe. You are just in all you do. And even if there is no food to eat, I will yet praise you.”

Justice, it turns out, doesn’t always make sense to us. It may be easier to tell what is not justice than what is. For example, we ought not promote pragmatism (e.g., killing someone because jailing him will cost too much) or vengeance (e.g., eye for an eye…since bin Laden didn’t warn 9/11 victims, we ought not warn him).

We cannot go on human laws alone, intellect (as good as it is), or feelings. God’s view of it surpasses all of these ideas. And even when we come to terms with justice, we recognize that justice, without mercy also, is something none of us want to see. We will treat others better than they deserve. We will rejoice when evil men may no longer harm. We will be thankful when governments deliver justice and yet hold them to higher standards than those they judge. We will not return evil for evil. And we will mete out justice yet knowing that we too will face our day of justice as well. And so we will ask God for the grace to live justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly!


Filed under news, News and politics, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Some thoughts and emotions on justice

  1. Thanks for the Micah 6:8 reminder. It seems that I’m seeing that a lot lately. I even blogged on it a while back Hope you don’t mind the shameless promotion, but it is always nice to feel you are in the stream of the Holy Spirit. I’m starting to understand it is that simple.



  2. brooke

    Micah 6:8…One of my very favorites…..
    Great post.

  3. D. Stevenson

    Here is another question(s).
    Can it be unjust to show mercy? Can it be unjust to forgive?

    (perhaps I am confused on both those words)

    • Scott Knapp

      Interesting questions. I’ll throw out a thought on both.

      Usually “forgiveness” implies an accurate assessment of the weight of guilt to begin with; looking squarely at what was done, what was right, and how much the two diverged. When there is a divergence from “right” there is a correlated penalty, or price to be justly paid; Paul used this metaphor when he wrote “the wages of sin is death” in Romans. To forgive, in a strictly forensic sense, is to declare that the guilty one no longer is responsible to pay the “wage”, as the wage has been assumed by someone else capable of taking responsibility for it. “Justice” is served when, and only when, the “wage” has been assumed and paid by someone…in the case of those who are saved, it was Someone. Paul writes in Romans 3 that Christ stood in our place as a “propitiation” or satisfactory substitute, in order that God could “…be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God couldn’t simply wipe the slate clean in the sense of “forgiveness” we usually think of…He was equally concerned with reconciliation and justice, which had to be simultaneously satisfied.

      Now, is forgiveness “fair”? Not really…the one who deserves punishment is legally freed from the Damoclesian sword hanging over his head for all time, while the innocent One had to face the fearsome wrath of God. Was God just to offer it? Absolutely. I would think the same is true of human forgiveness, as well.

      Mercy, on the other hand, involves suspending meted-out justice for the the guilty, as a choice on the part of the one (or One) who would otherwise rightly mete it out. Is one wrong to show mercy, if justice does not appear to be fulfilled? God told Moses in Exodus “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” Paul later quoted this passage in Romans 9 while making his case concerning the very controversial topic of God’s predestination of those who will be saved. God’s and Paul’s point about God’s mercy is that it is not subject to what men call “fair” or “just”, but rather to what God Himself calls fair and just…whether we comprehend it or not. So when the author of righteousness and definer of “justice” Himself chooses to show mercy, our weighing in on the matter is of little relevance. The one who is wronged has the privilege of suspending justice as he chooses, which, in a sense, is an act of assuming responsibility for the wage of the wrong, an act of forgiveness. Mercy isn’t mercy, in my opinion, without forgiveness…it’s an act in which the one wronged personally assumes the weight of the offense, in order to offer the invitation of mercy (which can be turned down and spurned by the potential receiver).

      My humble thoughts on the matter, for your consideration.

  4. The issue with the killing of Osama bin Laden is to differentiate justice from vengeance. It seems to me more “eye for an eye” than justice done. Our challenge as “little Christs” is not to intellectualize from the Testament.
    Robert Collie

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