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Preventive Justice

Think ahead.

The Law of God and Public Policy: Justice (3)

“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.” Exodus 22.6

“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11.7

Learning justice at home
The Biblical view of justice is a jewel of five facets. The first of these, obligatory justice, relates to what we owe our neighbors in the way of love and respect as fellow image-bearers of God. Obligatory justice must be learned at home, not, first in the courts and legislatures of the land. And unless we learn obligatory justice at home—and church and school—we shall be unable to achieve much more in the way of justice in other sectors of society.

It might surprise us how quick children can be to grasp the wisdom, beauty, and justice of the Law of God. Not long ago, I was reading from the Law to three of our grandchildren. The passage we were discussing was Deuteronomy 22.8: “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.” I asked Reagan to consider whether, because we did not have a railing around our roof—though we had not built this house—we were in violation of the Law. She quickly answered, “No, no one ever goes up there.” Then I asked, “But what if I put a swimming pool in my back yard.” She replied, “Then you would need to put a fence around it, so that no one fell in accidentally.”

We were conversing about preventive justice, those actions we take with forethought to care for the wellbeing of our neighbors. It was by an act of preventive justice that God confused the languages of the people and scattered them throughout the earth, thus decreasing the likelihood of their committing greater injustice than they already had (cf. Acts 17.22-28).

Thinking ahead
The second facet of the jewel of justice as revealed in the Law of God is preventive justice. God instructed His people to take precautions in certain of their activities so that they did not jeopardize the property or wellbeing of their neighbors. They were expected to prevent injustice by thinking ahead and taking actions appropriate to ensure that neighbor love would not be interrupted or compromised.

The practice of preventive justice is exemplified in the Law of God in various ways, designed to suggest a variety of situations and circumstances. One must guard against his flocks or cattle grazing in a neighbor’s fields (Deut. 22.1-4). Open pits should be covered (Ex. 21.33, 34). Homes must be built to guard against injury to people (Deut. 22.8). Dangerous animals must be kept in (Ex. 21.35, 36). Inheritances are to be protected (Num. 27.8-11). And so forth. Even animals and the creation itself are protected by the Law from being treated unjustly by human beings (cf. Deut. 25.4; 22.6, 7).

Public policy should provide laws and statutes that help to ensure that people will always keep the interests and wellbeing of their neighbors in mind. People cannot be permitted to undertake endeavors which have the potential to endanger their neighbors or their property without taking appropriate precautions. By keeping watch over a fire one has started, one may ensure that only what should be burned is burned, thus preventing injustice from occurring against one’s neighbor.

These various statutes serve primarily to remind people to consider the interests and wellbeing of their neighbor to prevent any injustice arising from negligence or indifference. As with obligatory justice, preventive justice is backed up by other forms of justice. These statutes and precepts are intended to guide people in loving their neighbors so that no unintended harm may come from any of our actions. 

Preventive justice today
In the community where Susie and I used to live, we were required by our neighborhood association to remove the snow from our sidewalks within 48 hours. This was to protect the safety and ensure the wellbeing of delivery persons and neighbors who may be out on a stroll. There was no penalty for not removing the snow. However, if we did not remove it, and someone was injured or could show that he had been unduly inconvenienced by our neglect, he may have had grounds to collect damages from us.

The neighborly thing to do was to keep the sidewalks clean in front of our homes and thus bear witness to all who may enter our neighborhoods that here we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Further, in that same neighborhood the members of the community covenanted together not to use certain kinds of chemical fertilizers on our lawns, as our drainage and runoff ultimately found its way into the Chesapeake Bay. This was not a statute of our town but simply an agreement in our neighborhood covenant, so that we would be doing our part to prevent injustice to the environment.

The community in which our neighborhood was located depended for its water on seven wells. To ensure that our water was as good as it could be, a local statute prohibited the use of certain kinds of fertilizers or other outdoor chemical treatments. During summer months, signs would appear in various places in the community advising us that the town council had determined that “Voluntary Water Usage Restrictions” were in effect. The policy of our elected officials was to discourage neighbors from committing injustice against one another by failing to exercise appropriate regard for the water supply.

Welcome statutes
Such policies and statutes reflect the preventive justice facet of God’s Law, and are to be welcomed, not begrudged. While it is possible to go overboard on such matters—ask any small business person who must conform to certain OSHA regulations—we still require such laws to keep us thinking about our neighbors and working to maintain justice within our communities.

Cut back your bushes if they block a driver’s view of traffic. Keep you dogs from roaming free and possibly harming a neighbor or a neighbor’s property or pets. Follow the speed limits and other rules of the road. Don’t leave your toys—especially LegosTM— lying about in walkways.

These are all welcome rules and statutes, and they demonstrate the importance of understanding preventive justice, the second facet of the five-faceted jewel of Biblical justice.

For reflection
1. How do “rules of the road” work as forms of preventive justice?

2. Preventive justice takes forethought, and forethought is a form of neighbor-love. Explain.

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

Next steps—Demonstration: Pay attention throughout the day for examples of preventive justice at work in your community. At the end of the day, thank God that He has written such laws on the hearts of people (Rom. 2.14, 15).

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. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a free copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, 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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