What is Justice?

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The Triumph of Justice by Gabriel Metsu.

I was talking with an old college friend about the Zimmerman trial, race, Martin Luther King, and the concept of social justice.  My friend expressed some discomfort with the term social justice because it seems to get thrown around quite a bit without ever being specifically defined.  His last written statement was “Justice = ???”

I think that’s a fantastic question.  I can’t claim to answer it once and for all, but I’ll present my angle on what I mean when I use that word.  I’m a Christian and so is my friend, so I’ll be speaking in Christian terms and making primary use of the tools of our tradition to develop my ideas.

For me, on the most basic level, Justice = Being in Right Relationship.

My understanding of right relationship involves things like fairness, equity, informed consent, reciprocation, empathy, compassion, trust, and shared responsibility.

The term justice can be broadly applied to the interaction between any collection of two or more moral agents (e.g. person-person, person-object, person-planet, person-society, society-society, person-God, etc.).  Wherever one of these relationships is broken or violated, injustice exists.

Social justice is simply the concept of right relationship applied to the political and economic connections between people in large groups. 

Speaking as a Christian, I believe there are plenty of texts in the Bible that speak on this subject.  Here are just a few of my favorites:

Psalm 9; Psalm 12; Isaiah 58:6-10; Amos 5:11-12; Matthew 25:31-46; James 5:1-6

Before you read on, take a minute to click and read those links.  Let those words sink in a bit.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Fairness in political and economic relations is a big deal.  Our hyper-individualized consumerist society does its best to shield us from witnessing the effects of the unjust relationships in which we participate.  We are actively discouraged from examining the real human and environmental costs of our way of life.  Those who pursue ethical integrity in these matters are typically ostracized as weirdos or else canonized as saints.

The particular model of justice to which I subscribe is the model called Restorative Justice.  This theory of justice was used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his work with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa. 

The opposite of Restorative Justice is Retributive Justice (quid pro quo, and eye for an eye, etc.).  Under Retributive Justice, justice is served when an offender is caught and made to “pay the price” for what he/she has done.  To me, this is a dead-end street.  As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.”

Restorative Justice, on the other hand, says there can be no justice without mercy and no mercy without justice.  Under Restorative Justice, a relationship has been damaged when an offense is committed.  Punishment and reparations may be part of the mending of that relationship, but punishment is only ever a means to an end.  Justice is served when right relationship is restored.  Reconciliation, not punishment, is the proper end of justice.

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