Sunday, March 19, 2006
What is Justice?
Lately this question has been coming up in a number of conversations: What is Justice? The scriptures talk constantly about God's justice, his desire for us to act justly, and his hatred of injustice. So what is it exactly?

I think many people, and perhaps especially Christians, would primarily define justice as "punishing wrongdoers", what we might call Retributive Justice. And certainly, this meaning is sometimes what scripture is referring to when it talks about justice. However, I don't think that is the primary or most important definition of justice.

Consider for a moment what we mean by the opposite of justice, "injustice". When we say something is unjust, we don't usually mean that a wrongdoer went unpunished. When we talk about injustice we talk about people being treated unfairly or unequally, being exploited, being falsely accused. If I were to put it in theological terms I'd say that to treat someone unjustly is to disrespect the Image of God in that person, to treat them as a mere object that can be exploited for my personal gain.

So if injustice means to disrespect people as God's children and image bearers, then wouldn't justice, by definition, mean to respect people as God's Image Bearers? Wouldn't it mean to treat people with equity and value them as fellow human beings? Wouldn't justice ultimately mean to treat people with love? To heal the brokenness and sins that mar our relationships with each other? We might call this definition Restorative Justice, in the sense of restoring broken relationships between people and putting right all the things that have gone wrong in the world because of sin and injustice.

No doubt putting right the wrongs will sometimes require punishing the wrongdoers - to prevent them from continuing in their injustices and perhaps make them aware of the seriousness of their actions. But wouldn't a fuller application of justice actually be to restore the wrongdoers to a whole and healed relationship as well? If we are to respect the Image of God in all people, then we need to not only heal the ways that Image has been marred in the victims of injustice, we need to also heal the ways the Image of God is marred in the perpetrators of injustice.

This healing, restorative justice could also go by the name mercy. People often wonder how to reconcile God's justice with God's mercy, but this dilemma only exists if we define justice solely in terms of Retributive Justice. But if we instead definte it primarily in terms of Restorative Justice, then mercy is simply the application of justice to those who are oppressed by their own practice of injustice. True Justice thus liberates both the oppressed from the oppression of the oppressors, and liberates the oppressors from their own selves. Through the practice of justice and mercy, both are able to enter into a restored and reconciled relationship with each other. God's broken Image is thereby restored in all people, both oppressor and oppressed.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 5:43 PM | Permalink |


At 3/19/2006 11:25:00 PM, Blogger Chris Monroe

Important topic, Mike.

I think that both understandings of justice are needed: retributive and restorative. There needs to be a place where the oppressed are not only restored, but their oppressors receive retribution -- not to destroy them, but (hopefully) to help them to oppress no longer (at which point it too becomes restorative!).


At 3/20/2006 02:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Just wanted to say that I really appreciated these thoughts, Mike. Very helpful. You put the issue in such a life-giving way. Thanks for that.

Your friend,


At 8/11/2007 11:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

True Justice thus liberates both the oppressed from the oppression of the oppressors, and liberates the oppressors from their own selves.

Ahh, liberation theology. Are we talking Jesus here, or Che Guevara?

I commend you for your one use of oppress as a verb, and three uses as a noun, in a single sentence none-the-less! Lit Theory fined tuned my Marxist alert system.



At 9/03/2007 01:31:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

You know Jesus mentioned liberating people from oppression too... I wonder, does that make him a Marxist as well?