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Obligatory Justice

What we owe to others.

The Law of God and Public Policy: Justice (2)

Then the LORD said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.
“While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Winter and summer,
And day and night
Shall not cease.”
Genesis 8.21, 22

“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you.” Deuteronomy 24.10, 11

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Romans 13.8

Justice and the character of God
We said that justice, in Biblical terms, is an expression of the very character of God. God is just; and men act justly when, in their actions, they reflect His being and attributes as revealed in His Word, beginning with His Law. When our view of justice is anchored in the character and purpose of God, we may establish public policies that are reliable and sure from one generation to the next, policies that do not favor one group or individual over another but consider all alike as unto God.

Our responsibility, in seeking to apply the Law of God to public policy, is to understand the nature of justice, as revealed in the Scriptures, and to think through the application of the ancient canons of God’s Law to our contemporary situation. 

Justice as neighbor-love
In His covenant with the earth, God obligated Himself to continue His grace to His creation for as long as that creation continues. He chose to do this; He was under no compulsion to do so. But in so obligating Himself to His creation, He shows us an aspect of His character that we should reflect in the justice we seek.

The first and most basic facet of justice is obligatory justice. In the exercise of obligatory justice, we acknowledge in others the dignity, respect, and love they are due by virtue of their being image-bearers of God. All people bear the image of God, even though many deny or are ignorant of this. We who know God and His truth know this, and knowing this obligates us to our fellow image-bearers in certain ways.

Obligatory justice is thus foundational to all other forms of justice. Unless obligatory justice is learned and practiced, from early on in life, it will be difficult to achieve justice according to any other of the facets of a Biblical view.

Deuteronomy 24.10, 11 gives an example of obligatory justice at work. Loans were not encouraged in ancient Israel, but neither were they forbidden. God understood that people could come upon hard times, and at such times it might be necessary to borrow from one’s neighbor. But coming into the debt of another person did not mean forfeiting one’s integrity.

Making a loan to someone did not give the one who made the loan the right to violate the privacy or integrity of the one who was the recipient of the loan. If the terms of the loan included a pledge, the one making the loan was expected to trust the good intentions, as well as the word, of the one receiving the loan, and wait for him to bring the pledge out to him. Justice—neighbor-love—obligated the one making the loan to honor the word and property of the borrower.

We owe a good many things to all our fellow human beings. Together, these make up the various obligations of neighbor-love. We owe them honesty, truth, and fairness in contracts, wages, and communications; respect and care for their persons and property; due process in civil matters; the protections of justice; and the truth of God. We are our neighbors’ keepers, and whatever love requires of us, we must be ready to perform.

It is not the place of public policy to require neighbor-love, but to assume it. The institutions of society—beginning in the family and the church—must inculcate such love for there to be a foundation of it on which to build a just society. Much of what constitutes obligatory justice will be practiced out of a sense of gratitude to God, devotion to His Law, or common courtesy, quite apart from any statutory obligations.

In ancient Israel, a man would have come under judgment who did, in fact, enter his neighbor’s home and rifle through it to find the pledge his loan required, while his neighbor stood by, humiliated. Physical punishment might not have been out of the question. At the very least, the violator would have been required to put his neighbor’s home back in order and to recompense him for any damage. 

Every breach of obligatory justice would have to come before the judges and officials of the community for a ruling (cf. Ruth 4). We can only speculate as to how they might have corrected the injustice—the slight done to a neighbor’s dignity—such an unlawful action would have incurred.

But that judges had the power to correct for failings of obligatory justice, through one or another form of restorative or retributive justice, was certainly the case, as we shall see.

Learning to do justice is not, therefore, in the first instance a role for government. It is a role for parents—and by extension, churches and schools—as they raise children to love and respect them and their siblings and to treat others as image-bearers of God. Were the practice of obligatory justice, understood in terms of neighbor-love, more faithfully taught the children of the land, ours would be a society more given to justice in all its forms.

For reflection
1. How would you like people to be “obligated” to treat you? What does this suggest about how you should treat them?

2. Why must obligatory justice—the sense of what we owe others, rather than what we think we are due from others—provide the foundation for all other justice?

3. In your experience, where have you learned about the Biblical principles of obligatory justice? Where might you teach them to others?

Next steps—Demonstration: Make a list of five things you would like others to do for you today. Then go and do those five things, as often as you can, for others.

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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