Justice: Who is it For? 

The Bible speaks of justice in many voices. Dr John Duddington compares some key biblical examples of law with current human rights’ legislation.

man with hand on bible and a judges hammer in the other

Justice: Who is it for, and how can we apply it?

Isabelle Hamley, at the start of her book ‘Embracing Justice’ [1] asks: ‘What is fair? What is just?’ As she says, the answer is elusive as we are better at recognising what is unfair and what is unjust than at agreeing on what is actually fair and just. These are pressing questions and sometimes academic discussions on the meaning of justice do not seem to get us very far, which is why we need to look at the different Biblical conceptions of justice. Isabelle Hamley says, ‘The Bible does not have one story of justice, it has many. It speaks of justice in many voices, which interweave and nuance one another’. We need also to look at justice from an incarnational perspective: not in an abstract way but in the context of ‘The Word made flesh’. (John 1:14)

The human conception of justice is based on the idea of receiving what one deserves but this is not divine justice. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) clearly shows this: those who came last received the same amount as those who were first, but to the owner this was irrelevant and in answer to the protests of the first comers he simply said’’ I choose to pay the late comer as much as I pay you’.

The story of the good thief (Luke 23:35-43) also illustrates the human and the divine conceptions of justice. The good thief, in answer to the taunts of the other thief, uses the idea of retributive justice: you get what you deserve: ‘You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong’. The reply of Jesus lifts the question of justice onto an altogether higher plane with the promise to the good thief: ‘Indeed I promise you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. Here we see divine justice, where the reward is, in human terms, out of all proportion to what is deserved. Instead, it is justice which, through grace, is transformed. Here we can make a link between justice on the human level and divine justice which reflects the mercy of God.

Yet this still leaves us with the need to grapple with the demands of justice in everyday situations such as the Prophetess and Judge Deborah was able to provide for over 40 years in Judges 4 and 5. Deborah sat under a palm tree which was a symbol of justice as it provided an open, neutral place to arbitrate; and where everyone could hear. Today’s legal system must achieve justice, something which the events leading up to the crucifixion signally failed to do as David McIlroy remarks in A Biblical View of Justice:[2] ‘Two of the finest legal systems of the ancient world, the Roman and the Jewish, combined and conspired to put to death a man, who in the opinion of the Roman judge, had committed no crime: ‘I have found no case against him that deserves death’ (Luke 23:22).

Where do we start? The ‘lex talionis’, the principle of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:23–27) is often quoted as an example of injustice rather than justice but in fact it is the reverse: in primitive societies where the possibility of legal redress was limited or non-existent it was common for those injured and their families to exact vengeance and engage in a blood feud. Thus, in Genesis 34, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped and her two brothers, Simeon and Levi in revenge ‘took their swords and marched into the town unsuspected; they killed all the males’. Instead, the lex talionis argues that justice should be proportionate: we may not like the idea of pulling someone’s tooth out because they have pulled out one of mine, but it is a good deal better than if I kill that person! This principle of proportionality is, incidentally, making its way into our law as the European Convention on Human Rights, which has legal force in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998, and often uses this principle to decide if the convention has been infringed. For instance, Article 9 provides that ‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. The principle of proportionality is in action here in the form of balancing different interests and needs. [3]

Justice is many sided: it requires both justice for individuals and a just society, although of course the two are interlinked. It is remarkable how often the Bible highlights the need for justice for the vulnerable. So the Book of Deuteronomy repeatedly commits to respecting the poor by paying them promptly and by providing for the most vulnerable from the harvest. (Deuteronomy 24:6-22). While in James (1:27) we find the injunction to ‘come to the help of widows and orphans when they need it’ and in Amos (8:4) ‘you who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor people of our country’ are stingingly rebuked. In Exodus 22:21-23 and Jeremiah (22:3) we find an extra category: ‘do not exploit the stranger, the orphan, the widow’. All of these have resonance today with the obvious example of the ‘stranger’ as applied to refugees. The link is that all of these are people who are vulnerable and today we could add many others; for example, those living with a disability.

When we strive for justice we must not confine ourselves to mere platitudes but instead we must look around us to see how we, as individuals, can help, perhaps by being involved with political parties or voluntary organisations. We must not stop at justice per se but look at how justice is actually achieved. Speaking personally, one of the great changes in my own lifetime has been the restriction of legal aid and advice paid for, at least in part, by the state so that now the bringing of cases to court is beyond the means of many. There are various reasons for the decline in the availability of legal aid but overall, this cannot be right.

Human justice will always be but a pale shadow of divine justice but that must not stop us trying. King David was undoubtedly a very flawed individual but nevertheless we are told that: ‘David ruled all over Israel, administering law and justice to all his people’. (Chronicles 18:14) In this at least he is not a bad example to follow.

Dr. John Duddington is Editor of Law and Justice: The Christian Law Review, a Fellow of the Centre for Law and Religion, University of Cardiff and a leading member of the Newman Association.

He is the author of ‘Christians and the State: a Catholic Perspective for the 21st century.’ (Gracewing, 2016) and ‘The Church and Employment Law.’ (Routledge, 2022). 

[1] SPCK, 2021.

[2] Paternoster Press, 2004.

[3] Look at the website of the ECHR for examples of how this principle has been applied in actual cases: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/human-rights/human-rights-act/article-9-freedom-thought-belief-and-religion#:~:text=1.,worship%2C%20teaching%20practice%20and%20observance.