Retributive justice seeks for each what each deserves, reward or punishment, according to a system of judgment by some set of standards. In practice, it seeks in human courts to convict and punish the guilty. A great strength of our justice system in the United States is that it is based upon evidence rather than presumption. Our criminal justice system is not entirely retributive; it has additional motives of protecting the public and, perhaps, rehabilitating offenders where possible.
So, it is not my purpose in this series of blog posts to attack our criminal justice system. Neither is it my purpose to suggest we suspend all sense of guilt or innocence, fairness or unfairness, right or wrong. It is my purpose to elevate people above standards, not by eliminating all standards but by supporting restorative justice which strives, not to excuse wrongdoing, but to recognize and heal the harm done.
There is yet another form of justice which Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann insists is biblical also: distributive justice. The Bible does not offer a model of distributive justice that could be implemented in a modern society. It does provide insight into God’s passionate concern for justice on earth and, more particularly, God’s hatred of the injustices inflicted upon people who cry out in their suffering. And their cries need not be prayers. To Cain, the archetypal murderer, God does not say, “I see that you have committed a serious crime,” but rather, “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10b NRSV).
Ask responsible, loving parents which of their several children they love most. The theoretical answer is, “We love them all the same,” but in practice, love reaches out most strongly to the one presently in distress. Here we have the human parallel to God’s declaration to Moses:
I have observed [seen, not just observed] the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . . (Exodus3:7,8 NRSV).
I objected to the translation “observed” because to us observation is neutral, whereas the Hebrew word ties perception to caring and caring to active response. In this Hebraic way of thinking, if I observe but fail to respond, I have not seen. If someone’s distress reaches my ears, but I do not respond, I have not heard. So, Exodus is telling us something much more than merely that God has good ears. Along the same lines, “I know their suffering,” does not mean that God is aware of the suffering but that God feels it and shares it. It is a declaration of empathy and compassion, not mere omniscience. This way of speaking is relational rather than detached and indifferent. The God by whom we are encountered in the various witnesses of the Bible is never indifferent to us.
Distributive justice deals with a problem much broader than an individual’s criminal or otherwise harmful behavior. It challenges injustices within our systems upheld by law and order and so disrupts the hierarchies and workings of our social, economic, and political systems considered right and proper by those positioned to benefit from them.
Biblical justice can clash with “law and order.” That clash begins in the biblical story when Moses and Aaron go to the king of Egypt (the pharaoh) with God’s demand, “Let my people go!” But to comprehend what is happening in the making of that demand, we must use this God’s name: YHWH, reconstructed by scholars as Yahweh. Why the name, as though there were more than one God? In ancient Egypt, there was more than one god, and distinguishing this one is imperative because Yahweh is so different and so disruptive.
In what Brueggemann labels “the Mosaic revolution,” Yahweh enters the stage of human history as the self-designated God of slaves. Because gods shared the glory of their worshipers, Yahweh appears ingloriously as a slave god, and the pharaoh (a son of the high gods) is unimpressed. Predictably, the pharaoh responds by telling Moses and Aaron, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV amended by replacing the conventional substitute for YHWH, “the LORD,” with the name Yahweh so this particular God is identified. Pharaoh would not call YHWH “the Lord”).
The Mosaic revolution disrupted the system of law and order, certainly not by overthrowing the pharaoh or the system itself, but by challenging it and, in a movement from slavery to freedom, delivering Israel into a new way of social, political, and economic life. To be sure, the progress of this new way was neither steady nor consistent, but it was carried forward in Israel with continual struggles, championed by the great prophets, and revitalized in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, for Christianity this disruptive justice is epitomized in the crucifixion of Jesus by the imperial forces of law and order (with encouragement from the religious champions of reward and punishment) and, for believers, vindicated by his resurrection. Brueggemann writes:
It is fair to say that given its subsequent exposition through time, the Exodus event and the Sinai structure do indeed witness to Yahweh’s preferential option for the poor, weak, and marginated. Or said another way, Yahweh is here known to be a resilient and relentless advocate of and agent for justice, which entails the complete reordering of power arrangements in the earth. (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 736)
The intention of Mosaic justice is to redistribute social goods and social powers; thus it is distributive justice. This justice recognizes that social goods and social power are unequally and destructively distributed in Israel’s world (and derivatively in any social context), and that the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have too much, for the sake of those who do not have enough. (736, 737)
Next: The newer Testament’s call for distributive justice.