What is Justice?
I recently read this piece from Shalom: The Bible's Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace by Perry Yoder and was impressed by his clear articulation of a much muddied word. Misguided ideas of what constitutes justice is one of the Church's (many) big issues in terms of coalescing around a shared mission and making movement on it. The selection I'm offering hits stronger when built up to by first reading the exegesis he does on previous pages, but I thought it was still well worth sharing and reflection. Contrast this restorative, redemptive, reconciliatory, relational model to the retributive, punishment-centric model we see expressed through our criminal justice system, schools, and many of our homes.
"To sum up this material, we can say that God's justice is characterized in two basic ways. First, God is judge of all the nations, the whole earth (Ps. 9:7-8; 9:20; 67:4; 82:8; 94:2; 96:13). This we might describe as the range of God's justice, its quantity.
Second, this universal justice expresses itself through acts on behalf of the underclass who gain relief and liberation through the exercise of justice (Ps. 7:11; 9:8; 10:18; 37:9; 76:10; 103:6; 140:6; 140:13; 146:7). We might label this the quality of God's justice.
We return now the questions with which we began: what is the nature of God's justice? what are the marks of God's justice? Two things seem obvious. First, in terms of its object, God's justice is shown to the poor, the disadvantaged, the weak. This was seen not only in the persons named as objects of God's justice, but also in the reversal of fortunes theme and in the plight of those praying for God's justice.
Second, in terms of its results, God's justice helps the needy, it delivers people from bad circumstance, whether it be hunger, prison, or another case of suffering or form of oppresion. God's justice sets things right, it is a liberating justice.
God's justice which sets things right takes two forms. First, God's justice delivers the underclass from their oppression and transforms their situation. Second, God's justice judges the oppressors; it shatters the power which enables them to oppress. In the psalms quoted above, oppressive power opposes God's rule--it is a sign of atheism, it is a sin. In short, God's justice as shown and sought in the psalms demolishes the oppressive status quo by acting for the disadvantaged and oppressed, and by crushing their oppressors.
Since material want, oppression, and lack of moral integrity are the opposites of shalom, God's acts of justice reverse a non-shalom situation. God's justice makes things right by transforming the status quo of need and oppression into a situation where things are as they should be. This transformation forms the basis for shalom. Given this connection between God's justice and shalom, we shall call this shalom justice. And where shalom justice is missing, there shalom is missing. Peacemaking means working for the realization of shalom justice which is necessary for the realization of shalom.
Flowing from these two aspects of God's justice--the object (the underclass and needy) and the objective (shalom)--is another major characteristic of God's justice, perhaps its most basic aspect: God's action for justice is not based on the merit of individuals, but on their need. The fact of their oppression calls forth from God an act of justice. The fact that they are blind makes them an object of God's care. Nothing in Psalm 146 says that it was some special merit on the part of the needy that caused God to act for them. Shalom justice is not based on calculating what people deserve, but rather on making an unright situation a right one. God's justice is a response to the lack of shalom in order to create the conditions of shalom.
While we are prone to assess blame--the plight of the poor and disadvantaged is their own fault--or to assign responsibility--someone else is responsible for their situation--Jesus acts to deal with the need. He performs an act of shalom justice. Regardless of all other consideration, people ought to see rather than to be blind! People ought to be liberated rather than be oppressed. As a result, shalom makers are more concerned with transforming situations rather than meting out what people deserve."