Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Justice – part 1

What is justice?

One of my seminary professors asked my class that deceptively simple question almost four decades ago. The question and resulting discussion were so surprising that I still recall it, one of the few seminary class sessions that I can still remember. Nobody had a good answer to the professor's question. I thought I should know the answer, but after each proposed definition – suggestions such as fairness and equality –the professor asked the respondent, or anyone else in the class, to define that term.

Most people, I suspect, like to think that they know what the definition of justice but if pressed find it a frustratingly abstract and elusive term to define. That has certainly been my experience when I've asked ethics classes that I've taught to define justice and when I've asked church groups, both youths and adults, to do the same.

Some examples of fairness and equality are obvious. At a meal served family style, people, generally without realizing it, count the number of people present (=n) and then take no more than the appropriate portion of each dish (=1/n).

But what is a fair distribution of political power? What do mean when we speak of equal opportunity? What is a just distribution of income between labor and capital?

Justice is one of the most important biblical themes (the word appears 131 times in the New Revised Standard Version). Although Scripture contains numerous illustrations of justice and injustice, the Bible does not define the concept of justice.

God is for justice and actively works to establish justice in the cosmos, especially for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. God invites humans to work with God to establish justice for all creation, i.e., everything God created deserves justice, i.e., some measure of fairness or equality. The next three posts define justice in ways that provide practical guidance (i.e., prudential wisdom) to those who wish to act justly.

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