by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)
written in December 2004
It is easy to see that the meaning the word justice varies radically with the ideology of the speaker. Here are some examples from recent human history:
OPPRESSIVE MONARCHY If a Pharaoh, King, or Dictator attains absolute power and uses it for his own luxury, pleasure, and glory, his people have no rights of any kind. They are merely kept alive to serve as slaves to accomplish what the monarch has in mind. He might want to build pyramids, palaces, hanging gardens in Babylon, or the glory of Versailles. Or he promotes wars and the subjugation of other nations. If people serve his purpose, they survive. But life is cheap. And no one can claim that he or she is being treated unjustly.
ECONOMIC COMPETITION When business interests are able to topple an oppressive ruler, those who are successful demand free trade, law and order, a stable currency, and the strict operation of supply and demand. The majority of those who benefit from the system will make rules against the monopolistic advantage of any one of them. In this model perfect justice would be a situation where the government makes it possible for people to work or withhold their labor, and prosper as best as they can. And if some individuals fail and become destitute, they only have themselves to blame.
WELFARE STATE In this model money is a necessary evil. Although business enterprises are needed to create wealth, the state must tax their profits to provide for the medical, educational, transportation, policing, and other community needs of all the citizens. A progressive income tax is also required so that individuals who make more than is reasonably needed can help the unemployed, the aged, and the unfortunate. An ideal system of justice would make sure that proper taxes are paid, and the money is used fairly for the good of all.
COMMUNISM As propounded by Karl Marx, a system of greed and economic competition is inevitably unjust. The profits that capitalists cream off is stolen from the poor. Justice demands that all surplus value from the labor of working men belongs to the state. And it is then distributed for the good of all. Each person should give according to his or her ability and receive according to essential needs. This means that private property and privately owned farms are inherently unjust. And justice demands that those who resist and try to gain their own advantage must be sent off to labor camps to correct them.
ANARCHISM In every generation there are those who assume that any kind of government is oppressive and unjust in favoring the powerful. Justice requires the elimination of laws, judges and the police. In the ensuing freedom people would learn to respect and relate to one another as they share in working for the common good. That kind of anarchism has never worked in practice, but it illustrates a meaning of the word justice which has often been expressed in the motivation of idealists in every age.
GOD’S JUSTICE Beginning with the five books of Moses, and more fully expressed three thousand years ago in the Psalms, there is a longing to seek out and find the Creator God’s definition of justice. This vision of justice was more fully preached among the eighth century prophets of the Old Testament. It is the meaning of justice which is taken for granted in the New Testament. And although atheists try to remove the word God for our vocabulary, the vision of justice as somehow God-given still dominates western civilization.
The idea of God’s concern for justice goes back to the first murder recorded in the Bible. “The LORD said to Cain, ‘where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’ (Genesis 4:8-10). The sixth of the ten commandments (universal moral absolutes) given to Moses was “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
The interesting thing is that murder which is not authorized by the king, or government, is viewed as a crime in each of first four ideologies outlined in the previous page. Only anarchists assume that murder would not take place if there was no government or private property.
The eighth of the ten commandments made clear that God also views stealing as unjust. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). But stealing was defined as much more than taking the property of another. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:21-22). “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits” (Exodus 23:6)
In his final instructions before he died Moses reminded the people of God’s special concern and intervention for these four groups of people who were endangered by the greed of the powerful: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing:” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, see 16:11). That is why a foundation of justice was to be their special protection. “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (24:17). “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (27:19).
Three hundred years after Moses, in the Psalms all the weak and oppressed in society were called “the poor.” And the LORD was known to intervene on their behalf. “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” . . . For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish for ever” (Psalm 9:9, 18). “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up says the LORD; I will place them in the safety for which they long” (Psalm 12:5, see 22:26; 69:33; 94:3-7; 146:9).