When I was in college, the students were often preoccupied with what most considered an important decision, the choosing of a "life-verse." This choice required the solution to two questions, what verse describes my life, and what verse do I want to describe my life. In retrospect, the pursuit of a "life-verse" seems crude and unbiblical. Should any Christian hold one verse above the other or make a single verse the cornerstone of their Christian life?
Before my call to the ministry, I actually had a "life-verse," of sorts. It was Micah 6:8. "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" The idea of doing justly, doing justice seemed to me an admirable goal, and one I pursued for quite a while.
This verse, along with many others, reveal God's interest in justice. The concept of justice appears in the self-declaration of God's character in Exodus. After the regrettable incident with the golden calf, Moses asks a bold thing of the Lord. "I beseech thee, shew me thy glory." (Ex.33:18) In the aftermath of the sin of Israel, to ask the Lord for such a blessing displays an incredible reliance on his relationship with God. The Lord obliges with an incredible revelation found in chapter 34. "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." (Exodus 34:6-7)
God will by no means clear the guilty. The guilty must make amends. The nature of justice demands penalty to the guilty and reward to the righteous. The demands of justice appear in the lex talonis, we know this concept by its description. "And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." (Deut.19:21) This is God's demand for absolute parity. The evil done or thought to be done is done again to the offender. The good done or thought to be done is rewarded to the righteous.
The concept of parity is the essence of justice. You receive what you deserve. The absence of pity means that justice, pure justice does not take personal relationships or extraneous circumstances into account. Justice does not consider the personal connection to the judge or the hardship to the offender in so far as it has no bearing on the offense. In order to do justice, the analysis of what is just must remain impartial and determine the parity of what someone deserves.
Justice is simple. The concept is easy. What God is, does, and requires in principle isn't hard. We may not like it, but the idea is not confusing.
If the foregoing is true, why do we find justice such a difficult thing to obtain. We all confess that we live in a very unjust world. Economically, politically, socially, and legally people simply don't get what they deserve, or at least what we think they deserve. Even the preacher of Ecclesiastes comments on this reality. "There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler: folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth." (Eccl.10:5-7) The foolish rule instead of the wise. The servant rides while the master walks. The world is turned upside down.
Why is justice so hard to obtain? We can put some of our problem down to sin. But there are elements to our own finitude that hinder the administration of absolute justice.
First, we are not omniscient. Justice presupposes knowledge. In order to administer justice, you must first know the truth. We practice this in our legal system where the trial, the pursuit of the truth precedes the judgement. The adjudicator searches for the truth in order to render a just verdict. Our justice system uses a confrontational trial to facilitate the search for the truth. Scholars still debate the success or failure of the confrontational system. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that knowing the truth is necessary to administering justice.
The fact that we are not all-knowing is a heavy blow to human justice. In the Bible, often the facts were derived by divine oracle. The one who was all-knowing could divulge the hidden facts to man by oracle. For instance, the fidelity of a woman accused of adultery was determined by a water trial. (Num.5) That trial had no natural reason for ending one way or another. God directed it to be done so that He might reveal the truth that no witness could have provided.
Without a divine administer of justice, man will always struggle with justice. How can we know perfectly whether a person is guilty or innocent? How can we know perfectly what parity would be in a given crime or circumstance? Will the worker ever be perfectly recompensed for his labor? Will society ever police itself perfectly? Will the most qualified people fill governmental posts? Can the electorate have perfect knowledge of the candidates? Our lack of omniscience lowers our expectation of justice.
Another blow to human justice has arisen in our modern era. We cannot achieve parity. We cannot return eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound. First, we revolt at the ides of eye for eye. How many doctors would be alive if medical malpractice claims were resolved according to this concept of parity? If you think we would do better if they were, I refer you to the previous point about our lack of omniscience.
Since we have backed away from the lex talonis, (for the worse in my opinion) we have created a problem. We still want parity, but we added the complication of conversion. In one of the few academy award decisions I agree with, John Houseman won Best Supporting Actor, the only Oscar for the movie, The Paper Chase, because he was the only good part of that movie. In his opening discussion, he deals with the problem of conversion. In the case Hawkins v. McGee, a boy was burned by touching an electric wire. A doctor, eager to try skin grafting, guaranteed to restore the hand. The surgery left the boy with a scars and a hairy palm. Kingsfield then asks what the damages should be, how much the doctor should pay.
Do you see the problem? Parity under the lex talonis would demand that the doctor receive a hairy hand as well, potentially. Society finds that kind of justice objectionable and nearly impossible to achieve. Thus, some type of conversion must take place from that physical damage to monetary damage. In criminal courts, we also convert physical damage to time, time in prison. This conversion is at best imperfect and unsatisfying.
So, do we give up on justice? Certainly not. God requires of us justice, to do justly. We are committed to deal with lack of knowledge and conversion to do the best we can before God, relying on His final justice to recompense where ours cannot.
Two final thoughts about justice as we think about living in an unchristian world. We are called to consider what we as Christians owe people. We often think of justice as reactionary, and so it often is. However, the concept of doing justice is a proactive one. We are do do justice, to do what is right for us to do toward others. This forces us to remember the Lord's law, even summarized by Jesus, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." (Matt.22:39) To do justice, we must pay what we owe to our neighbor according to God's commandment.
Finally, building on the previous point, doing justly requires forgiveness. In Matthew 18, Jesus describes the duty of the Christian to forgive and restore. This duty means that justice does not demand a parity that we often think necessary. Let us consider this situation. In modern days, parents use a concept of "time out" to discipline their children. (N.B. Discipline is not always punitive justice. Punitive justice means the punishment must fit the crime. Parity and retribution govern this type of justice. Discipling aims, not at retributive justice, but in training and behavior modification.) "Time out" permits the child to calm down, to consider their actions, and to decide what their actions should be. It can be very useful for children.
Now let us take more mature relationships. Often, we talk about people being "in the doghouse." By this we mean that someone has done something to offend us, has repented, but still remains outside full fellowship. It is like we have put them in "time out." But we are not responsible for discipline. Christians are to forgive. This behavior is not forgiveness and finds no support in the Bible. It is not justice at all, but malicious vengeance.
The simplest example of this appears in David's dealing with his son Absolom. After killing his half-brother, Absolom flees from the king's justice. Unwilling chase his son, David lets him go. Joab intervenes for the king's son to the king, and David allows Absolom to return to Jerusalem, but forbids him from seeing David's face. Leaving to one side the lack of justice for a murderer, David puts his son in "time out". Whether this be right or not for the father and son, king and subject, it is not forgiveness. It is not just for the Christians. Justice demands that we owe all who truly repent forgiveness.
Justice is simple in the abstract, simple in its mathematics, but also hidden in ignorance, complex in calculation, and difficult to live. These challenges ought not cause us to give up, but strive the harder to live, if we would live Christian in an unchristian world.