Dawning Justice


Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20b,21 NRSV)

So, it’s a blessing to be poor, hungry, or grief-stricken? No, that absurdity misses the message completely because it ignores context, and in biblical theology (and all theology) context always matters. Jesus has announced the coming of the kingdom or reign of God, and these blessings upon the presently downtrodden belong to his announcement. The way of the world will be reversed. Here are the corresponding woes:

Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24,25 NRSV)

What, it’s a sin to be rich, well nourished, or happy? No, the question is the system or order of life to which we are attached. Do we favor and defend the status quo in which relatively few prosper and even fewer prosper exorbitantly, or will we welcome a change that brings about a new set of conditions in which abundance is shared, in which cooperation replaces competition for life’s benefits and from which privilege and dominion are gone?

All Jesus’ teachings come attached to and dependent upon his announcement of the in-breaking of the reign of God, and the promise of that coming reign continues to guide his followers as the vanishing point that gives perspective to all of life, the “north” pole which draws all individual and social compass needles toward itself. Blessed are those whose hopes and values align with that promise, who want for this world and its people what Jesus declares God wants for them. Blessed are those who welcome the kingdom wherever and whenever it pushes its way into life and disrupts the status quo of injustices and gross inequities.

Here’s a flaw in our understanding of Christianity’s newer Testament. In two of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, this in-breaking reign of justice and compassion is called the kingdom of God, but Matthew follows Jewish piety by not naming God directly. When in my former pastorate we prepared the bulletin for the interfaith Thanksgiving service, the rabbi would put in the Jewish parts of the service the word God as G-d to avoid even that much of a graven image and show special reverence for the name. So, in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is rendered in Jesus’ teachings as the “kingdom of heaven,” but the teachings are still for this world and not some other. The word heaven simply stands in for the word God; it does not direct our attention away from this world’s people or its systems and structures, either.

Much of Christianity has made the goal of faith to be getting us into heaven when we die, but the goal of the gospel, the good news, is to get heaven (God) into our lives and our world. The transformation is to occur here and now. Justice must come upon us on the ground these days, not up in the clouds some day. I am not denying our resurrection hope, but that’s another matter. Justice postponed is justice denied here and now. If our lives are oriented in faith, hope, and love toward God’s reign on earth, our beyond-death hopes will be taken care of, but the time for change toward justice is now.

It is an enormous perversion of the Bible and the gospel to tell the poor to be content with their lot in life, the cheated to “count it all joy,” the shamed and outcast to humble themselves, and the enslaved to obey their masters – all as we enjoy the benefits of the present systemic injustices they suffer. We tell hungry school children they need more rigor. We tell children in pain from lack of dental care they have no excuses for doing poorly on standardized tests that confront them with questions drawn from contexts they have never experienced. We produce metrics to drive workers harder and harder until we have broken and then replaced them, casting them aside like junk. We tell woman in various ways that they are bodies that exist for the pleasure of men. We tell the cheated to “get over it.” We tell people who are seeing their hopes stolen from them, “Suck it up, snowflake.” We divide people who are supposed to be our sisters and brothers in life into “winners” and “losers.”

Jesus declares of the in-breaking reign of God, “Many who are now first will be last, and the last first.” In other words:

Blessed are you who are losers in this world’s systems,
for you will be given victory.

Woe to you proud winners,
for you are losing and don’t know it.

Or as in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, Jesus’ mother, and drawn from Hannah of long ago:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
. . .
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and set the rich away empty. (from Luke 1:46 ff NRSV)

The kingdom of God comes to heal and restore but also to bring forth justice on earth. To it belong both restorative justice and distributive justice.

Disruptive Justice


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.

Restorative Justice


From the Web site of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, these statements about its restorative justice conferencing process:

Justice. Faster.

Transforming conflict into cooperation

Responding to destructive behavior in constructive ways

Positive relationships build safer schools

Using conflict to build community

After my earlier post about retributive justice, a friend suggested the desire for punishment is fed not only by having been wronged oneself but also by sympathy with the victim. She acknowledged also the common desire to see and feel that wrongs get repaid, that offenses fall back hard upon the offender. We chafe at the thought that offenders may get away with their crimes and so be able to laugh at their victims and take pride in remaining untouched by the harm they have done. Quite naturally, we want them touched and touched hard. We long for them to rue the day they hurt their victims. Crime is not supposed to pay.

The modern movement of restorative justice seeks to heal and restore, as much as possible, all affected by the offense: victim and offender both but also the others hurt including family and friends of both victim and offender. Whole neighborhoods and communities are harmed by, say, a rash of home invasions. People’s sense of security is shattered because their personal space has been violated or threatened. They no longer feel safe in their own homes or, for victims of rape or other abuse, in their own bodies. Their homes may feel dangerous to them or their bodies stolen. They have been robbed of control over what is supposed to be their own. They may even come to despise what they should be able to cherish – their homes or their bodies.

What could be worse than having your child hurt (or killed) criminally? There may be something worse: having your child be the one who did the harm. Crime brings grief upon both those who care for the victim and those who care for the offender. Restorative justice begins with the acknowledgment that crime breaks far more than the law.

The restorative justice movement is not a single entity but many. Howard Zehr likens it to the many streams that flow together to form a river (The Little Book of Restorative Justice, p. 61f). While cautious about either/or contrasts between the restorative and the retributive as practiced under the rule of law, Zehr says restorative justice asks questions that differ from those of retributive justice, and I find that the questions we ask about any important matter affect greatly the lenses we choose to examine that matter, the needs we recognize, the resolutions we seek, and the outcomes we will celebrate or lament. Zehr identifies the guiding questions of any restorative justice process as these (38):

1. Who has been hurt?
2. What are their needs?
3. Whose obligations are these?
4. Who has a stake in this situation?
5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

Retributive justice under the rule of law (rather than blood revenge or vigilantism) focuses upon crimes and other offenses as rule breaking. The offending behavior has violated some code, standard, or rule. Zehr’s very first guiding question leads the quest for justice in another, more personal direction: not, “What rule has been broken?” but, “Who has been hurt?” We need not follow that question very far before realizing that while the immediate and obvious victim is a person not a rule, the list of people hurt may include the perpetrator as well as the victim plus friends and family of each plus a community.

Consider a case of bullying in school. Who has been hurt? Obviously, the bullied child has. What about the victim’s family members? Friends and classmates of the victim? Perhaps a teacher whose teaching has been disrupted and class made fearful or (worse) gleeful over the bullying? The bully? The bully’s family and friends? Does the bully realize the harm the bullying has done to him or her? Does the behavior arise from harm previously done to the bully?

I view school “zero tolerance” policies as cop-outs, abdications of adult responsibility, and violations of the trust students and their families should be able to have in the adults responsible for fairness and safety. In a school system with which I was familiar for years, students who gained street cred from being suspended would taunt “good kids” into fights because the district had a policy that whenever there was a fight, both fighters would be suspended, even if the victim did not actually fight back. Did anyone really think justice was being done? In some cases, the policy produced real-life, painful versions of the old joke, “Mom, I didn’t start it; Billy hit me on the knuckles with his chin.” Who sees justice when the victim of taunting, spitting, and punching or hair pulling is suspended and kicked out of the honor society while the bully gets desired time off from school, enhanced street cred, and laughs shared with friends over the success of getting the “good kid” punished?

From a YouTube video presentation (“Better Justice”) offered by Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, I took the following notes on the center’s conferencing process and its order of events:

1. The offender goes first to tell what happened, as he or she recalls it.
2. All share how they have been affected by what happened. This process can and does become very emotional.
3. All involved work out together what they think needs to be done (a) to make this situation better and (b) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

From whatever desire for payback is within us, skepticism almost surely arises. The more we see people as resistant to change (or even as types of greater or lesser value), standards as of primary importance, leniency as moral failure, and punishment as the right response to offenses, the stronger that skepticism is likely to be. But – the Community Conferencing Center reports that 98% of their conferences result in written agreements to which all involved in the conferencing have signed on, and there has been greater than 95% compliance with those agreements. Interestingly, conferencing also costs far less than court trials.

Can the process be played? In his short book cited above, Zehr suggests potential for misuse of restorative justice procedures, but what human system need not be vigilant about preventing abuse? I think that the more we believe or at least hope people can change, see healing as preferable to punishment and as the right goal for punishment, recognize that rules and laws exist for people and communities and not the other way around (Jesus, “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”), and value reconciliation over payback, the more we become open to restorative justice.

A few resources on restorative justice:

The Community Conferencing Center Web site

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Ted Wachtel, Real Justice

Lauren Abramson’s YouTube videos

There are many more.

Next: Restorative justice is one higher form of justice biblically. There is, however, another high form not so often recognized as biblical: distributive justice. If the thought of restorative justice can offend the virtuous who “want to see some punishment” and maybe even eternal punishment, the very idea of distributive justice challenges the orders of power and privilege in human societies and so can infuriate the “haves” in society. For next time: “the Mosaic revolution” (as Walter Brueggemann calls it) known as distributive justice.

Healing Justice (Revised)


Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 NRSV)

The Bible enables us to sketch a progress of justice, starting in the fourth chapter of Genesis with the legendary figures of Cain and his brutal descendent Lamech. Having murdered his brother and been found out, Cain wails to God:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:13-15 NRSV)

As numbers are used in the Bible, sevenfold is not a literal six plus one but an indication of complete retaliation – a sort of, “You start it, and Cain’s people will finish it!” Most recently I have heard this kind of declaration of a personal revenge principle from president-elect Donald Trump who, like Lamech from whom we’ll hear next, prides himself in hitting back harder.

If Cain stands as the archetypal figure of retributive justice by blood vengeance, Lamech proudly pushes retaliation beyond all self-restraint. To his wives, Lamech boasts:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23,24 NRSV)

Here again, the number is not literal but represents, no longer merely complete revenge, but wholesale, unlimited brutality. People familiar with the Bible’s newer Testament will make the connection to Jesus’ counter command to his disciples, that they forgive the one who has offended them, not merely seven times (fully persistent forgiveness) but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven), representing an unfettered desire for healing and reconciliation. This relentless spirit of restoration is the opposite of Lamech’s.

One early meaning of a Hebrew word for “redeemer” refers to the avenger of blood, the kinsman who takes up the responsibility to kill the killer even if the slaying was accidental. To provide for accidental killers, the Israelites established six cities of refuge in which the avenger of blood could not kill them.

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you . . . . (Numbers 35:10-13 NRSV)

The idea of a trial before the congregation represents the emergence of law and order. Another step against unrestrained vengeance with its perpetuation in cycles of revenge came with the lex talionis or “law of retribution” – the famous “eye for an eye.”

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
(Exodus 21:23-25 NRSV)

I believe there is general agreement among scholars that the law of retribution began as a legal restriction of revenge: only an eye for an eye, rather than the overkill of Lamech and his kind. By the time of Deuteronomy, however, the restriction had turned into a mandate, and so we find added a command against leniency, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NRSV) For his followers, Jesus overrides even regulated vengeance (see Matthew 5:38-41, the well-known “turn the other cheek” teaching).

I have sketched this progress of justice to bring us to the primary biblical concern for justice which is the healing of persons, relationships, and community. What is violated by crimes? Perhaps in our efforts to depersonalize and regulate retribution, we lost sight of the relational nature of human life and the harm crimes do to real, live people; perhaps we did the best we could to establish the rule of law as the alternative to chaos and barbarism. In biblical thought, all of life is relational. Even truth itself is a relational concept rather than a merely factual or philosophical one. The biblical concept of sin is not the violation of law but the denial and violation of relationship, first of all with God and then with other people and the human community. Sin is even extended further to include the denial and violation of our rightful relationship with the earth and our non-human fellow creatures. The goal, therefore, of God’s justice is not rewarding or punishing but healing. Even punishment has the goal of healing and restoring. Our thirst for retribution has miscast truth as the verdict of judgment so that justice seems to us fulfilled by the expiration of leniency and the distribution of rewards and punishments according to a standardized determination of what each person deserves. According to the great prophets and Jesus, God sees truth and justice differently – as healing and restoration rather than evaluation and punishment.

So it is that Jesus summarizes all God wants from us and for us in two relational commands: to love our God completely and to love our neighbor as (we love) ourselves. Justice is done, not by evaluating and then rewarding or punishing, but by healing and restoring those who have been harmed individually and collectively. Who are those harmed by crimes or other offenses? That question leads us to the modern restorative justice movements I’ll look at in my next post. How does restorative justice work and for whose healing? What does it seek to restore?

Next:  a look at modern restorative justice movements

Starting with Justice


I’ve taken a longer than intended break from blogging, but now I need to write again. Getting started, I’m combining my two blogs into one, now called “Faith Thinking Aloud.” Rather than explain, I’ll go ahead with it.

For starters, I’m going to think about some basic concepts of biblical faith that challenge us if we let them. Alternatively, to protect ourselves from their challenges and maintain our comfort, we over-simplify or ignore them. I’ll start with the biblical concepts of justice. No, the plural of concept is not a typo. The Bible evidences at least three concepts of justice, but the three are not equal, and so I’ll take them one at a time starting with the familiar and most widely accepted. Ironically, we are most comfortable with this one, even when it makes us uncomfortable. We approve this view of justice especially when it seems to favor us but also when it makes us feel guilty with what we tend to accept as proper guilt.

This one is called retributive justice. Many call it more simply payback, karma, or “just deserts.” It is the notion of getting what we deserve according to standards of right and wrong, good and evil, worthy and unworthy. Retributive justice works from linking fairness to merit and sees justice as a matter of evaluation followed by appropriate reward or punishment.

Forgiveness finds some room within the operation of retributive justice but mostly for those who have tried hard but fallen a bit short of the standards and are willing to try harder. Sometimes forgiveness is given slightly more leeway for those who may not have tried hard but who repent and promise to stop the behavior that violates the standards and so prove they can deserve better.

Retributive justice is named for retribution which is payback. Within its purview, retributive justice sees evaluation as the revealer of truth about the person being judged, so that the real truth about me is what I deserve, what I have earned, what I merit. Because God sees all, no matter how cleverly hidden, divine judgment reveals true truth.

Is retributive justice biblical? I must answer both Yes and No. People who want biblical support for this view of truth and justice can find what they seek within the pages of the Bible with plenty of verses to quote. They must, however, ignore very strong arguments for higher and better views of God’s truth and justice within that same Bible in both testaments. Defenders of strict retributive justice frequently follow this reasoning:

If justice isn’t based upon merit so goodness is rewarded and evil punished, then I suppose God doesn’t care how we behave or what choices we make (which cannot possibly be correct). Why do what is right if wrongdoers fare just as well or even better? Forgiveness is okay when someone has either tried hard but fallen short or else had a change of heart followed by a change in behavior, but eventually the truth must be told and each person rewarded or punished as deserved.

Forgiveness is here seen as a second chance and perhaps a third, but such forgiveness is merely the suspension of judgment and retribution for a time, and that time must come to an end. Hence the concept of final judgment after which reward and punishment become everlasting and unchangeable.

Hollywood makes a cash cow of retributive justice on the screen. Think of Dirty Harry and all of that ilk of payback heroes. Audiences cheer when the bad guys get their payback at last – their final judgment from the righteous if not always strictly law-abiding hero. The movies play to people’s sense that too often our courts fail at providing true payback, that wrongdoers get off, and that prisoners are coddled. Like the Mr. Filch of the second Harry Potter movie, they cry, “I want to see some punishment!” Of course, the evildoers in payback movies tend to be one-dimensional: they are bad guys and little if anything more. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and it gratifies something within us to see the bad get what they deserve.

Rather than argue the cases against limiting justice to the retributive – cases made by the book of Exodus, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostle Paul – I’ll stop for now except to name two higher biblical concepts: restorative justice and distributive justice. The former focuses God’s truth upon the individual offender and all those hurt by the offense, the latter upon groups within our societies. To my mind, both are more strongly biblical than retributive justice’s view of truth as evaluation (judgment) and justice as deserved reward or punishment.

Next:  restorative justice.

Until They Have Faces


I’m borrowing the title of a C. S. Lewis novel, Till We have Faces. Though it held my interest, the novel itself ultimately disappointed me by leaving me in much the same place I find myself at the end of the biblical book of Job – silenced before the ineffable splendor of the divine. Being silenced by superhuman majesty is for me neither persuasive nor salvific.

Christianity is incarnational. For us, truth has a face because the nature of biblical truth is covenantal – that is, relational and communal, personal but not isolating. It is never just God and I apart from the community of faith, and it is never just God and the church apart from the world God loves and longs to heal.

Issues without faces divide us. We take sides and fight for our side to win. We refute the other side’s concerns as well as their arguments because the situation has become win or lose. We do not hear each other’s pain. We do not respect each other’s dignity.

Issues argued as issues divide churches. They make us feel we must choose to be in the right group or the wrong one. Often the dividing line is drawn between respecting standards or respecting people, between order and compassion. The truth is we need both and most of us care about both, though we differ on which we favor. But as we debate the issue as a principle, we lose sight of the humanity on the other side. We cease to see the faces of the others, and they become for us a type – the type who oppose what we stand for and believe.

Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society.

I am not suggesting we take the issues out of justice and just make nice. Neither should we dilute the offensiveness in cruelty and injustice. If what happened in Ferguson, Missouri was disturbing and the actions of the prosecutor there deeply troubling, what happened on Staten Island is alarming and the grand jury’s refusal even to send the killing to a trial is outrageous. The police should not get a pass because they are, all together, a glorified type; neither should they get blanket condemnation because they are, all together, a vilified type. Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society. Police power can be comforting or frightening, protective or destructive. Racial prejudice skews that power toward evil, and so does a macho culture of “Don’t mess with me, punk!” Young men (and women) in gangs have always been dangerous, and keeping the police from becoming a gang requires constant vigilance. After all, the police are trained to be violent so they can overcome the violent, and they are disrespected and taunted regularly. Young men in gangs preserving their honor and exerting their superior force have always been dangerous. When the gang mentality takes over a police force, it becomes very dangerous.

When I was in seminary I heard William Sloan Coffin preach in Princeton University’s chapel,

Continue reading →

What Does It Matter Anyway?


I have been posting about the relation between justice and equality.  Why do I care what people think about that relation, and why should anybody else care?  Aristotle, Harry Potter (Joanne Rowling, actually), Martha Nussbaum, and Moses?  Good grief, who’s next?

Justice is a lofty ideal, and it would be strange indeed to hear anyone seeking a position of leadership in the United States speak against the ideal of justice.  What I hope I have been able to point out, however, is that there is not agreement on what justice involves in theory or practice.

The biblical view of justice involves fairness but with a compelling bias toward the poor and disadvantaged in the society.  Biblical justice does not merely measure or balance; it rolls up its sleeves and gives compassionate help to the deprived, with special care not to trample on their dignity, not to shame them.  The aristocratic ideal of justice, in which the more important people rightly receive the larger shares, stands diametrically opposed to the biblical view.

An observation I have long found most helpful comes from the Jewish philosopher and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel in his work, The Prophets.  Heschel insists we human beings and our societies do not need more people who extol the lofty ideal of justice but, rather, more who refuse to abide the injustices done to others.  Praise justice all day every day, and you offer the world hot air.  Make yourself care about the wrongs done to the vulnerable and the sufferings inflicted upon them and keep caring and unite with others who care, and you can make justice happen for those who need it most.

Without empathy and compassion, justice does not happen.  Without respect for the human dignity of those whose dignity and worth are being denied, what passes for justice is little more than the conceit of those who have done very well reaching down to do a bit of good for the poor unfortunates – or as they are now being labeled, the lazy and dependent who will not take personal responsibility for their own well-being.

A teacher is invited to participate in an education round-table discussion by a presidential candidate.  He, the candidate, spells out his views on what’s wrong with America’s public schools and his desired means for making teachers and administrators accountable.  The teacher, imagining she has been invited to discuss education issues, says she can answer each of the candidate’s points.  He replies that he has not asked her a question.  End of discussion.  Clearly, her thoughts do not matter because she is only, well, a school teacher and a female one at that.

The Aristocratic view of justice as proportional, meaning the more important people receive justice only when they are given more respect, more regard, more wealth, and much more say than the rest of us can be proudly and confidently dismissive of the thoughts, needs, sufferings, and hopes of the lesser people.  And it is.  It is dismissive.  That’s the way of “proper pride.”  It’s the way of people who really do think they are more important and more deserving than others.  Give them deference, and they may toss you some charity; it makes them feel good to be charitable, and it makes them look good, too.

Equality as an On-going Promise


What is the politics of humanity? Centrally, it is a politics of equal respect. Our nation is built on the idea that all citizens as citizens are of equal worth and dignity. Rejecting the feudalism and monarchism of their European experience, our forefathers rejected all titles, ranks, and hereditary honors. A person’s birth, wealth, and status had no bearing on his political opportunities and entitlements. The American Revolution was in that sense radical, rejecting all previous modes of social organization and opting for one entirely new, built on the idea that all persons have equal human dignity and equal natural rights. The key idea of the new political order came to be one of nondomination: the idea that what was centrally bad, in politics, was the systematic subordination of some citizens to others. Because all citizens are equal, domination, whether based on class or religion or some other principle, must be firmly rejected. [Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law]

After the paragraph above, Nussbaum recognizes the exceptions at the time of our nation’s founding. “The Founders,” she notes, “were famously obtuse on some matters,” those matters being, of course, the persistent exceptions to the practice of equality made for women, Native Americans, slaves, and those who owned no property. After our nation’s founding, there was still much equality-making work to be done, and the task is not yet complete. Nussbaum reasons, “Our founding documents, then, are properly construed as more egalitarian in their general promise of human equality than in the particular understanding of that equality that was prevalent at the time of their composition.” That conclusion she draws is crucial to our future as a nation in this time when powerful voices are calling for the stifling of our progress in humanity as a people by insisting our Constitution must be limited in interpretation and application to what the nation’s founders could seem to have meant by its particulars at the time of its adoption. Thus these so-called originalists would strip the Constitution of its power and vitality, making it instead a frozen and restrictive document that would leave us mired in the Eighteenth Century.

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Created Equal?


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . .

We repeat these great words as though we believe them, and most of us probably think we do, as long as we don’t have to explain what we mean by them, including what we do not mean by them. Like justice, equality is a noble concept, a grand idea, a truth more easily held as ideal than applied to life’s choices. Just how radical and how difficult a thought equality becomes when taken seriously enough to influence our choices and challenge our prejudices may not occur to us.

Needless to say, all people are not equal in wealth, education, measured intelligence, influence, or social standing. In the United States, we like to perpetuate the fantasy of equal opportunity, even as powerful forces in American society do their best to make sure it never becomes the nation’s reality. Indeed, those who feel themselves entitled to superiority and who enjoy far greater privilege than most Americans are the very ones who insist most loudly and steadfastly that opportunity and only opportunity should be equal for all Americans. Make it if you can, but don’t expect help! Thereby, we perpetuate the delusion that people get what they earn and no more or less than they deserve, even as those with influence make sure hard work does not pay off for most of the disadvantaged and there is never a level playing field of opportunity.

In what sense, then, are all people equal? Since equal opportunity is a lie, does any truth remain to the profession of equality among human beings?

I was taught to believe that people are all of equal worth – not worthiness, but worth, value. Human societies, of course, have not accepted this idea but, rather, have structured themselves upon the belief that human beings are of decidedly and measurably unequal worth. Hence, even in the land of one person, one vote (when it’s not suppressed), we have always had the lessers and the greaters, the “common people” and the aristocrats. These days, we even have an educational concept, however unworthy of the name, called “value added” – added, that is, to our children! Do parents realize their children can come home from school more valuable than when they left the house? Valuable to whom, and by what measure? The answer is that they are being trained to be of more use to the masters of the world of business and commerce whose measurements for our children are being standardized. In the face of rampant standardization, constant competition, and ceaseless faulty measurements, how can we maintain that all people are of equal worth?

Parents already know the answer. One of their sons or daughters may be better at this or that, maybe even more successful at life overall, but none is of greater worth than another. Why not? The system of valuation is relational not competitive, and the measure is love. Which child is loved more? That question is easy to answer: the one in more immediate need of the love receives it more intensely at the time. None is truly loved more. It’s just that the need of one or the other is more pressing at the moment.

In the biblical view, human life is relational, and the truth of God is relational, also. There is no such thing as “value added” to a person. There can be growth, development, improvement, forgiveness, and even redemption, but not value added. But the biblical view goes further. According to the Bible, starting with the book of Exodus, God does not simply declare equality an ideal but deliberately takes up the cause of the very lowest of human beings: slaves. The Creator of the universe enters the stage of human history as the God of slaves, thereby turning our human notions of relative worth upside down. So, it is that “the first will be last and the last first.”

I have much more to consider on the topics of equality and justice and on their relation to each other. Is justice proportional – that is, are some entitled to more in life because of the accidents of their birth (to some sort of aristocracy) or their exploitation of their advantages (financial success)? Or should there be such a thing as equal justice? Further, is justice retributive (punishing) or restorative? What does it mean to love justice?

“. . . with liberty and justice for all.” The words sound noble and eminently fair. What do we mean by them, and what do we steadfastly not mean by them?