The Law of God and Public Policy: Justice (6)
“For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which anotherclaims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whomever the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor.” Exodus 22.9
“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” Matthew 5.25, 26
The jewel of justice
We have seen that justice is a jewel of many facets. In its obligatory facet, justice requires that we love our neighbors simply because they are made in the image of God. We must regard them, and do with them, as we wish to be regarded and done with ourselves. In its preventive facet, justice demands that we use forethought in all our actions to make sure, as far as possible, that our neighbor or his property is not injured by what we do. Distributive justice encourages us to share generously with our neighbors and others in need. Restorative justice comes into play when the balance of neighbor love has become disturbed and the one guilty of disturbing it is required to set things right again.
Each of these forms of justice, grounded in the Law of God, is very much a part of life in our society today. It is simply mindless or prejudicial to insist that we should have no input from Scripture or the Law of God, either in the public square or in the making of public policy. Our nation was founded on Biblical principles of justice, and to deny this is to rewrite history past and to put in jeopardy history to come.
But if those principles are to remain and be reinforced, we who know and love them must be active in seeking to shape public policy according to its proper logic, in all available loci, and with the language of prayer, grace, and truth.
And this includes even when justice requires punishment to set the scales right.
Justice as punishment
When the peace of justice is intentionally or maliciously violated, the final facet of justice—retributive justice—is invoked. Under the practice of retributive justice those who have deliberately disturbed the peace and brought injury or damage to their neighbors, in addition to being required to restore the balance of justice, are punished in ways appropriate to the offense. The pain of punishment is directed toward the heart of the offender, to discourage any future such acts, and to the community, to instill fear of transgressing against their neighbors’ peace.
Punishment. Fear. To some of us, that may not sound very “Christian.” But they are Biblical ideas, and if our Christianity is based on Scripture, we will see the value of these as aspects of this final facet of justice.
Jesus affirmed the legitimacy of retribution when He warned those who have offended to do whatever they could to avoid punishment by civil magistrates. Paul did as well by warning that governments “bear the sword” against evil—a clear reference to punishment (Rom. 13.4, 5). In ancient Israel retribution could include restoration or payment in kind (two oxen for one stolen), recompense in money or other goods, or even by bodily harm—beating, as well as the well-known practice of lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”). In extreme cases, banishment from the altar and community of God and even capital punishment could be inflicted.
Retribution was reserved for crimes so malicious and heinous that the perpetrator must be severely rebuked and the community warned against committing any similar transgressions.
Thus it is clear that one purpose of the use of retribution, besides setting the balance of justice to right again, was to convict the hearts of the entire community, to remind everyone of the high value God places on the practice of neighbor-love: “So all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you” (Deut. 13.11). “And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously” (Deut. 17.13).
Ruling on matters of justice
It is important to notice one thing more about the text cited at the beginning of this study. Whenever a complaint of injustice was lodged, a case would be brought “before God.” What happened, as we see in Deuteronomy 1.16-18 and Ruth 4, was that the contending parties would come before the rulers of the city, assembled in the gates of the city, and argue their positions relative to the accusation. It would be up to the judges to hear the arguments and determine which man was in the right. The phrase, “before God,” is intended to remind us of the solemnity of such proceedings. These were not actions taken merely for the sake of revenge or partisan interest; the honor, Presence, and truth of God were at stake whenever injustice was present. God Himself must be vindicated, and He entrusted this duty to public servants, that they might do what was right and good before Him (Rom. 13.1-4).
A healthy polis, one where justice and all its benefits obtain, will not shy away from the use of retribution when it is appropriate. Public policy should reflect a determination to “wield the sword” against all evil, so that transgressors will be punished, victims will be relieved, and people will fear to violate the bounds of justice and instead will train their hearts to do what is right and good.
We may not like the idea of retribution as part of the process of maintaining justice. However, God Himself will exercise retribution against all who willfully sin against Him and refuse to repent. Since retribution is part of the very character and will of God, we must not fear to include it in our work of public policymaking.
Thus five facets of justice are presented in the Law of God, and we shall see how, working together, the commandments, statutes, precepts, and rules of God’s Law can help us in our day to see our way through to sustaining a more just, peaceable, dignified, and productive society. But before we go there, we need to see how God has taken His norm for justice seriously in the extreme, and what this means for us as the beneficiaries of His justice.
1. Increasingly, the idea of retribution as part of the justice process is looked at askance. Why do you think this is so?
2. Have you ever experienced retribution? Ever had to be punished for a willful transgression? Was it helpful?
3. It makes sense that, since governments are empowered to bear the sword against evildoers, we should fear doing evil. Why is fear a necessary component of justice?
Next steps—Preparation: What are some crimes that our society deems worthy of retribution? What forms does that retribution take?
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.