The Law of God and Public Policy: Justice (5)
“If one man’s ox hurts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it; and the dead ox they shall also divide. Or if it was known that the ox tended to thrust in time past, and its owner has not kept it confined, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall be his own.” Exodus 21.35, 36
“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
The crawling locust,
The consuming locust,
And the chewing locust,
My great army which I sent among you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
And praise the name of the LORD your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you… Joel 2.25, 26
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham…” Luke 19.8, 9
God, justice, love
This statute in Exodus 21.35, 36 reflects both the character of God, Who works to restore goodness to His world, and the fourth facet of the Biblical teaching on justice, restorative justice. When injustice has occurred, and some loss has been experienced by the person wronged, whoever is responsible for that injustice must be held responsible for setting things right again.
We’ve seen thus far that justice reflects the character of God in human society. Justice is love in a variety of forms, beginning with obligatory justice, or, what we owe one another in terms of love simply because we are all beings made in the image of God. Beyond that, justice requires careful forethought in certain actions, lest those actions upset the balance of justice and bring harm to our neighbor or his property. We call this facet of the jewel of justice preventive justice. In distributive justice neighbor-love leads us to share of our wealth and possessions with those in need, whether poor, clergy, workers, or heirs.
In restorative justice, the fourth facet of justice, actions are taken, under the direction of proper officials, to restore the balance of justice occasioned by some failure of neighbor-love. Let’s look more closely.
Three facets in one
The statute cited above shows how the practice of restorative justice was nuanced to encourage both obligatory and preventive justice. If the ox simply, without warning or provocation, killed a neighbor’s ox, the owner of the goring ox had to sell it and share the proceeds with the owner of the dead ox. Also, the two would share the dead ox, whether the proceeds of its sale or its meat. Since we owe our neighbors due respect for their property, we should take whatever preventive measures as will keep us from bringing injustice against them.
However, if the goring ox was known to do this, and the owner did not keep it in—did not honor the requirements of obligatory and preventive justice—then a greater injustice would have been committed requiring a greater act of restoration. In this case the owner of the goring ox comes away with only the dead ox, while the owner of the gored ox receives a new beast.
People who are responsible for damage to the persons or property of their neighbors cannot simply be excused, whether for political or personal reasons. When injustice is committed, justice requires restoration at the very least.
The beauty of restoration
There is true beauty in the restorative practice of justice. Whenever someone was injured by the neglect, indifference, or ill intentions of a neighbor, restoration was required to right the balance of love in the community. Once restoration was made, the injured party was satisfied, and the guilty party was exonerated. Neighbors could quickly get on with being neighbors without grudges building up against one another. No prison time was involved, and no revenge was needed. Restoration could include money paid to return an injured person to health or for lost opportunity costs (Ex. 21.18, 19); the restoration of borrowed things that become broken or lost (Ex. 22.14, 15); or even lost items that one might find (Deut. 22.1-4).
Jesus affirmed the restorative character of justice and all the Law of God as being entirely consistent with the promises made to Abraham as well as with being saved. Zacchaeus, under conviction by the character of Jesus and His kindly disposition toward a measly taxman, repented of the ill he had done and resolved to make things right with his neighbors. He was not even sure that he had done anything wrong, but he resolved that, if he had, he would restore it to his neighbors fourfold. Here he was putting himself under Leviticus 22.1 and Leviticus 6.5, which clearly spell out the duty to restore plus some whatever was taken falsely from another.
And notice Jesus’ response: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham…” Jesus saw true faith at work here. Zacchaeus was not earning his salvation by keeping the Law. He was demonstrating it, showing that he was a true child of Abraham whose righteousness was connected to his faith.
Justice is so important because it reflects the character and Presence of God within a community. Public policies should exist which promote the practice of restorative justice according to the spirit and not merely—or even primarily—the letter of the Law of God. The implementation of such policies in the public arena begins in individual believers and their believing communities, who understand that the promises of God, which are all “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus, are expressed in obedience to the Law of God.
Restorative justice will either be grossly overused or simply ignored unless it is embodied in the people who know their God and take justice seriously.
1. What is restorative justice and when is it necessary?
2. Sins that demand restorative justice include gossip, backbiting, false accusations, and fraud. Explain.
3. How can you see, in your own community, that the sense of restorative justice is active?
Next steps—Preparation: Of course, forms of restorative justice already operate in the law of the land. Can you think of some examples? Can you think of examples where restorative justice is ignored, say, for political reasons?
T. M. Moore
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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.