Ted Grimsrud

The prophet Amos and restorative justice

In Biblical theology, Justice, Old Testament, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Theology on June 4, 2012 at 8:38 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.3

[Published in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, Justice and Peace Shall Embrace: Power and Theo-Politics in the Bible: Essays in Honor of Millard Lind (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 1999), 64-85]

When I was a doctoral student in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of taking a year-long seminar on justice from Professor Karen Lebacqz of Pacific School of Religion.  At the time, Lebacqz was in the process of writing a two-volume theological study on justice.[1]  As we read and discussed works such as John Rawls’s classic, A Theory of Justice[2], and Robert Nozick’s critique and alternative, Anarchy, State, and Utopia[3], I found myself increasingly disenchanted with these modern philosophical theories.

I was uneasy with both points of view, and I saw them having many problems in common—things that were particularly troubling to me in light of my own faith commitments. They both share certain assumptions (or faith commitments) that are problematic.  I will mention a few, in general terms, not so much in an attempt to criticize them significantly, but more as a means of expressing part of my immediate motivation in seeing if an alternative might be constructed.

Briefly, these assumptions (sometimes more true of one than the other, but largely applicable to both) include:

(1) a fundamental rationalism, an assumption that we can come up with a notion of justice which all “reasonable” people can accept;

(2) an emphasis on self-interest, a kind of faith that a balance of self-interest can lead to the common good for society;

(3) individualism, a locating of the basic unit of moral discernment with the autonomous individual;

(4) an emphasis on what seem to be quite abstract principles such as “equality,” “fairness,” “liberty,” “entitlement,” etc.;

(5) a utopianism (in the sense of utopia = “nowhere”) which is ahistorical and not closely tied to historical developments concerning genuine injustices and genuine practices of justice;

(6) a bracketing of any discussion of religious and faith and rejection of any notion of “particularlism;”

(7) a focus on western consumptive goods and notions of liberty as if these are the ultimate human values.

Out of my unease with this general approach to justice, I decided to look at the Bible to see if it might contain something that might provide help in formulating an alternative approach.  I wrote a letter to my seminary Old Testament professor, Millard Lind of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, asking if he had any help to offer.  Professor Lind kindly sent me several papers, including a most helpful unpublished (at that time) essay, “Transformation of Justice:  From Moses to Jesus.”[4] Lind is one of the few pacifist theologians and biblical scholars I am aware of who has accepted the challenge to attempt to rethink justice.  A pacifist theory of justice that would serve as an alternative to the problematic approaches mentioned above continues to be an urgent need.[5]

This essay is only one more fragmentary attempt to point toward a thorough-going Christian pacifist approach to justice.  One of my main arguments, following Lind, is that the Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a resource.  In fact, if we can get beyond what Canadian social theorist George Grant called “English-speaking justice”[6] (or, said in other words, beyond the western philosophical tradition represented in recent years by Rawls and Nozick) and look at the biblical materials concerning justice (including the Old Testament) on their own terms, we will find that they are a tremendous resource for a pacifist approach to justice.

In this paper, I will focus on one Old Testament text that speaks of justice in particular, the Book of Amos.  My assumption (which I cannot do more than assert here) is that Amos is a representative text.  What we find in Amos concerning justice we also find elsewhere in the Bible.

Historical setting

The oracles contained in the book of Amos, were addressed to the ruling elite of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, the so-called “northern kingdom” which had split off from Judea; especially those in Samaria, which was the capital and primary center of urban power of mid-eighth century BCE Israel.[7]

This was a time of peace and prosperity for Israel.  The main superpower of the day, Assyria, was not much of a factor internationally (at least temporarily, it turned out) due to its internal problems, nor was anyone else.  Given this lack of outside interference, Israel reached its largest geographical size during the reign of King Jeroboam II—786-746 BCE.

The book of Amos gives glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (6:1; 8:3) and their popular religiosity that saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.

However, all was not well—which is why Amos came from Tekoa in the south to prophesy.  Israel was at the end of a social transformation.  Israel had originally been a fairly egalitarian society.  Some scholars attribute this to the “conquest” of Canaan following the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt being, in part, a peasant revolt followed by wide-ranging land reform.[8]  The concern for marginalized, vulnerable people (such as widows and orphans) and the commitment to minimizing the social stratification characteristic of much the Ancient Near East between a few wealthy and powerful elite and a mass of poor, even landless, peasants were institutionalized in the law and social practices of Israel.

A key aspect of this land reform was the inheritance system.  This served not as a means of keeping control in the hands of a rich elite but instead as a means whereby the peasantry themselves controlled their own resources.  Foundational to this system was the belief that ultimately Yahweh was the lord of the land and holder of eminent domain.[9]  The land was for the sake of the good of everyone, not for the sake of the profit of a few.

Closely connected with the inheritance system was a decentralized legal system—the court in the gates of the villages (the area which was essentially the village’s town square).  This system was democratically run and had as one of its main concerns the helping of the weaker members of the society who otherwise were without power and influence.  Without the justice of the court they would not be able to maintain themselves in the social order.[10]

The “ideological” basis for this social ordering was the Israelites’ view of the covenant they had with God.  God had established their nation in his gracious love and desired the people to live in communion with him and with one another.  The covenant community was accountable to God—if it did not maintain its faithfulness, it was liable to be judged (cf. Exodus 19:5-6).

Amos came onto the scene to announce that this threat of judgment was indeed about to be carried out.  The social transformation of Israel was a decisive move away from covenant faithfulness.  Of course, this was not the perception of those Amos was addressing.

However, poverty and distress were widespread among the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.  One key aspect of that reality was the shift from the situation where control of the land was inherited to one where the control was in the hands of a few centralized owners.  These owners were exploiting the peasants for their own gain.  This shift apparently resulted from the efforts of the powerful in the society.[11]

The fueling of this transformation dated back at least to the reign of Solomon.  Walter Brueggemann summarizes Solomon’s main “accomplishments” thus:  (1) an economics of affluence; (2) a politics of oppression; (3) the establishment of a controlled, static religion.[12]  By the time of Amos, apparently these “accomplishments” were bearing their fruit.

This process cut to the heart of the covenant-community concept, which paid special attention to those on the bottom of society and saw itself as based on the notion of a liberator-God.  This God cared for the Israelites when they were all impoverished and enslaved in Egypt (and, perhaps, in Canaan) and saved them so that they might take responsibility to show the nations what a community based on God’s justice looks life.

Amos’s general message

In chapters one and two, Amos begins by prophesying against Israel’s neighboring nations.  This sets his listeners up for the punch line that begins in 2:6.  In speaking against the nations, Amos would gain the sympathy of his listeners—who would all agree that, of course, the nations are terrible and unjust.

However, then beginning in 2:6, Amos charges Israel with decisively-judged crimes.  In particular in these verses, he focuses on transgressions against the harmonious ordering of Israelite communal life: (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy; (2) the oppression of the poor; (3) the abuse of poor women; and (4) the exploitation of debtors.[13]

In 3:2, Amos turns Israel’s complacent view of election and its place as God’s covenant people on its head.  He insists that privilege entails responsibility and that the unfaithful Israelites have been irresponsible.  Therefore, they are even worse than the despised pagans who never knew God.[14]

Due to this reality in Israel, their salvation history will become judgment history in their near experience.  Amos preaches a transcendent ethic—God is not identified with Israel per se.  God is identified with justice and righteousness.  When Israel itself is unjust, it also is judged.[15]

Because of its past history as the recipient of God’s gracious acts, Israel was in a unique position to know that the cause of the needy is the cause of God.[16]  Because this is forgotten by the powers-that-be in Israel, the society will be destroyed.  The whole book contains impressive imagery driving this world-shattering thought home.

The problem in Israel was not that the people did not know intellectually the precepts of the law and their concern for the needy.  The problem was the unwillingness on the part of the leaders and judges to administer the law fairly.  This is what led to the disregard for justice.  And, what was worse, all this happened in the midst of thriving religiosity.[17]  People flocked to the shrines but totally disregarded God’s call for his people to justice to the needy.  Amos’s message essentially asserts that religion made things worse for Israel.  Their ritualistic faithfulness masked ethical unfaithfulness.

Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, Amos proclaims, judgment is coming.  The context for this judgment is Israel as God’s covenant people—delivered from Egypt, given law to order their common life, given the land in which to live out God’s will.  However, Israel was rejecting God’s ways of justice and goodness and by doing so breaking its side of the covenant bargain.  Destruction, in reality, self-destruction, was inevitable.

In Israel, a veneer of peace and prosperity covered a corrupt reality.  Rather than being a sign of God’s favor, this reality (even with its apparent peace and prosperity) and the process that created it will be judged and destroyed by God.  The reality is more than that many people are poor while a few are rich and insensitive.  Even worse, the rich contribute to the problems of the poor.  Even the one refuge of the poor, the court-system, has been corrupted and turned on its head to serve the rich instead of the poor.

Amos gives an example in 2:6.  For rich creditors money has more value than the people.  And even the people who are needy are victims for insignificant reasons.  In effect, Amos here is saying that the needy are sold “because they can not pay back the small sum they owe for a pair of sandals.”[18]

This covenant disloyalty will result in judgment.  In 4:6-11 Amos’s narrative of disasters apparently is a rather free synthesis of traditional curses and depends on the general tradition that God acts in typical ways to judge those who are disloyal to the covenant.[19]

The vast majority of the book is an elaboration on this theme.  In 7:8 there is the image of the plumb line—showing that the Israelites are like a wall that is out of line.  This is what characterizes injustice.  It is things distorted and at variance with what they are intended to be.

Amos says that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, is being judged due to its injustice—especially injustice with regard to people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, people who were being deprived—systematically and purposefully—of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community.  Amos’s condemnation is pretty complete.  He, unlike previous social critics, is not saying that with some relatively minor adjustments things can go okay.  He is saying, more or less, that it is all over for Israel.  Nevertheless, there are a few calls to turn back.  This implies that it is not completely too late, at least not for a remnant.

The book closes with a somewhat incongruous vision of hope in 9:11-15, a vision of redemption for a remnant.  This is a kind of new exodus, a liberation from servitude to and oppressive exploitation by the ruling elite.[20]

These verses add a sense of God’s ultimately redemptive purpose in his judgments.  The book as a whole, it seems, makes the point that God’s people need to live  according to God’s justice.  Those who do not will be judged (and self-destruct), those who do are given hope for the future.  If there were no judgment, the poor would have no hope since their oppressors would never be called to account.  Two other prophets (Isaiah and Hosea) speak of God’s chastisement for the sake of God’s people (Isaiah 19:22; Hosea 6:1—“come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us”).

Amos’s view of justice

Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice” (mishpat):

Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth (5:6-7).

Justice and righteousness are clearly associated here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force.

By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate which had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, which was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhoring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.  Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (5:14-15).

When Amos 5:10 speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhoring those who speak “the whole truth,” it is apparently referring to personal opposition to the essence of the court-justice system.  To do so, in God’s eyes, is to embrace death.[21]  True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the weak is expressed in its social life.  One key way this happens is when the justice at the gate is truly justice, when it is truly corrective of wrongs done.

Concern for this goes back to the legal code itself:  Exodus 23:6-8—“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit.  Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.  And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.”

The key to experiencing the presence of God, according to Amos, is inter-human justice.  It is not religiosity.  This is emphasized in the next passage we will look at.

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream (5:21-24).

Again, justice is connected with life.  Water is the key to life existing in the desert.  By doing justice is how the community exists.  The worship of the cultic community is unacceptable because Israel does not live as the community of God.  Thus it is without life.

For there to be life, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams who do not fail in the summer draught.

Do horses run upon rocks?  Does one plow the sea with oxen?  But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (6:12).

The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can, that it is, and (implicitly) that the leaders of Israel are doing it.[22]

It is incredible to Amos that the rich could be content in their luxury and grieve not over the ruin of “Joseph”—that is, the destruction of the covenant community (6:6), and that a place of justice (the court at the gate) could become unjust, poison.  This staggers the mind and he can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.[23]

Key points regarding justice in Amos

(1) The most foundational point is that justice is tied up inextricably with life.  Do justice and live, Amos asserts; do injustice and die.  Justice is not an abstract principle but rather it is a life-force.  An unjust society will die, it cannot help but collapse of its own weight.  The goal of justice is life.

(2) More particularly, the goal justice seeks is life for everyone in the community.  Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people who are being denied life.  Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.”  None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others.

(3) Amos sees justice as part of the created order.  It is unnatural to be unjust, like a crooked wall or an ox plowing the sea.  To be unjust is thus inherently self-destructive.  Injustice is the poison that poisons its practitioners.

(4) Chapters one and two show that Amos saw God’s justice as intended for everyone, including the pagan nations.  The covenant people have a special responsibility due to their special awareness of God’s justice.  Their failure is very serious.  They are not punished more than the other nations.  Those too were destroyed and Israel is the only one with a remnant.  But Israel’s failure to practice justice, in Amos’s eyes, destroys the hope of the nations.  Israel’s faithfulness is for the sake of the nations, that they might thus see the light of God’s justice and love.  When Israel is unfaithful, there is no light to be seen.

(5) Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected.  Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with a meaningless cult.  In its essence, justice in Amos is historical.  It is tied to specific acts and people.  It is not abstract nor ahistorical.

(6) The ultimate goal of God’s justice, we see from 9:11-15, is redemption.  The judgment of Israel is ultimately for that end.  It is expressed in the hope that Israel’s self-destructive injustice might thereby be corrected.  The threats and warnings, the judgment of God, is not for the sake of punishment, of retribution, of repaying rebellious Israel an eye for an eye.  The threats and warnings are given in hopes of salvation,of transformation—with the recognition that should Israel not respond God’s respect for her free-will will result God allowing the collapse of her as a nation-state (which, as we well know, is precisely what happened—Israel playing power-politics to the end and succumbing to the much superior power of Assyria).

Thoughts on biblical justice in general

 The first general conclusion we might draw from Amos’s teaching—and which we find elsewhere in the Bible—is that justice is for the sake of life.  God’s justice in the Old Testament is not primarily retribution but salvation, not primarily punitive but corrective.  There is a strong sense that the justice of God is saving power, God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant.  God is pictured as the one who created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships and who continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to effect those relationships.

That justice is for the sake of life is reinforced by the fact that in the Old Testament it is not primarily a legal concept, but it rather tends to merge with concepts like “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation.”[24]  Justice has ultimately to do with how a loving creator has made the world.  To be just is to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until this is the case for everyone else too.

A second general point about the biblical perspective, is that justice is part of the created order.  The Old Testament connection between justice and life follows from some of the ideas regarding creation contained there.  A foundational concept in the biblical teaching is that “creation” is confessed to be an act of the covenant-making God of Israel.  Therefore, the basic character of creation is in harmony with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—all the things which sustain and nourish life.  There is no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God.  In fact creation was God’s first covenant-making act.  Thus these values ultimately are part of the very fabric of creation.

This means that human life has meaning, purpose, and destiny.  Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love.  So all human action that is in harmony with that love has meaning and is part of the basic meaning of creation–and is thereby “just”.

The creation of humankind in the image of this God means that all people need relationships—with each other and with God.  The purpose of human activity is to facilitate these relationships.  Since all people, simply by virtue of being people, are in the “image of God” and thus have dignity and value, there is no justification for discrimination and disregard of any human life.  Injustice is the severing of relationships, justice is their establishment and/or restoration.

The cosmos are created good.  Evil is an aberration.  It can and must be resisted.  No evil is such an intrinsic part of the structure of reality that it cannot be conquered by the creator’s power.  To conquer the power of evil—a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships—is to do justice.

God’s will has to do with all parts of creation.  There is nothing that is autonomous from that will or that is ethically neutral.  The challenge of the Old Testament for people of faith was that the creator’s will be carried out in all spheres of human existence.

Ultimately, the Old Testament makes no distinction between the order of creation and the order of redemption.  The creator-God and the redeemer-God are one and the same.  They would never have recognized the former without their historical experience of the latter.

The central theological reality in creation is seen to be love.  Therefore, faithfulness to the “creation mandate” equals living lives of love.  It is thus seen to be incumbent upon people of faith to shape their lives and their social order according to the values of love.  Love is seen to be the motivation and determining factor for doing justice.

The heart of God’s character is steadfast love, which for God means desiring the good of all people.  This includes God’s enemies and especially social outcasts.  God’s love provides the model for God’s followers.

A third general point is that loving justice is not soft on evil but rather seeks to destroy evil.  God’s love for enemies means that God hates that which evil does to humankind and works to heal its effects.  Evil is only ended when the cycle of evil fighting evil is broken.  The Old Testament model for this is the suffering servant in Isaiah, for Christians the precursor to Jesus, who did not retaliate but accepted all that the powers of evil could do and conquered them.  This is the ultimate model for biblical justice.

Love applies to all areas of life according to the biblical teaching.  It is the element that is to shape decisively the means and ends of all activity of the people of faith.  The only way to become loving is to be loving at all times.

Love gives those who shape their lives by it a hopefulness that provides the energy which moves people to believe that God’s justice and God’s love can be a reality in the world–and thus to act to make it so.

Biblical justice equals conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God.  Thus it is part of love, not in tension with love.  God’s justice is seen in that God’s intervention has always been intended for the salvation of God’s people and thus for the restoration of covenant relationships.

One of the characteristics of God’s love is that it works to set right that which has been corrupted.  This is justice.  One way of characterizing justice, therefore, is to say that justice is how love is expressed in the face of evil.  Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects; that is, to be redemptive, salvific.

God’s justice is seen in the creation of life and in every act which God has done to sustain and restore life.  Human justice, in the Old Testament sense, would seem only truly to be justice when it also acts to sustain and restore life.

A fourth general point is that part of the reason Israel existed as a people was to be a light to the nations, to show them the loving and just ways of their God.  The goal of this witness is the transformation of the nations.

It would seem that the Old Testament people believed—when they thought about it, which apparently did not happen often enough—that God’s justice was normative for the nations as well as for Israel.  When Amos condemns the nations for their injustices, no one would have questioned whether it was legitimate for him to do so.  God’s will was for all people, and all people were to be held accountable to how they responded to that will.

This is true because God is seen to be the creator of all that is.  Justice is imbedded into creation (hence injustice is as unnatural as an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked).

It would not have occurred to them to wonder if their concept of creation (tied up with their particular experience with their covenant-making, liberating God) was really an adequate basis for a universally accessible system of justice.  Creation theology came not from reason but from their historical experience of God as their redeemer.  But the implications of their creation theology would have led them to see all people as part of God’s creation, all people created in God’s image, and all people accountable to God.

These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (like Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations.  The accountability generally was used to support the fact that the nations too will be judged by God for being unjust.  But there are scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the harlot; the repentant people of Nineveh in Jonah; even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader).  These perhaps indicate that God’s justice was seen to be knowable and do-able by anyone—by virtue of their humanness.

To me it would seem likely that the Israelites would have said that all people should and could follow God’s prescriptions for doing justice (caring for widows and orphans, loving neighbors, etc.).  So in a sense they would have had a natural theology.  But it would be a natural theology derived from the creation-based values of the covenant-making God.  Hence, it would be seen as totally consistent with their revealed theology.  The point would be that the nations could also perceive and act according to God’s loving will.

Of course, even more, the point was that the nations were not in fact living according to this will—even if theoretically they could have been able to understand it and even follow it.  Thus God’s revelation to and it Israel was intended to show God’s justice even more clearly than that seen in (now fallen) creation—and to provide a better means of empowerment for living it via the elected covenant-community.  This fact meant that Amos (and the other prophets), self-consciously speaking words from God, could more sharply and specifically address the injustices of Israel than the injustices of the other nations.

In Amos one and two, the prophet speaks in general terms of blatant injustices.  From 2:6 on he speaks more specifically to Israel.  This is not primarily because the nations were in principle incapable of perceiving the need to be just in the ways Israelites were.  Rather it reflects the idea that Israel’s calling entailed a closer relationship with God at this point in time.  More was expected of Israel—for the sake of the nations.  They would perceive true justice when they indeed saw it in Israel (without the aid of “special revelation”) and, according to Isaiah’s vision, flock to Mt. Zion to share in it (Isa. 2:1-4).  But the point of Amos, and the rest of the Old Testament, is to facilitate Israel manifesting this justice.  God’s justice is part of God’s covenant love.  Where there is justice there is life, there is a relationship with the Giver of life.

Justice is thus more a relational concept than an abstract principle.  The goal of justice is human beings in relationships with each other and God—not “fairness”, “equality”, “liberty”, “holiness,” etc.  Israelite law was for the service of this communal goal—given not as something eternal and immutable, but as law that comes from a God who is merciful and forgiving.[25]

For example, the purpose of a Hebrew trial was to settle a dispute between members of the community so that harmonious coexistence would be possible.[26]  The goal was correction of the wrong.  Something is just if it contributes to the on-going well-being of the community.

A fifth general point is that the biblical teaching ends up emphasizing the poor and needy so much because they, in their oppression, were being excluded from community life and from the shalom God wills for everyone.  This destroys community and ends up lessening the well-being of each person in the community.

This communal justice was not to be for the Israelites’ own sake alone.  The ultimate purpose for justice in Israel was for it to be a lead to world-wide justice.  Even in the story of Israel’s initial election in Genesis 18, a major reason given for it is to bring about “justice and right” for all humankind.

The New Testament carries on this connection between justice and salvation—one prime example being in Romans where Paul talks about God’s justice as being expressed in Christ’s work of salvation (Romans 3:21-26).

Implications

The Bible can help us to understand justice.  In fact, if we take the biblical teaching seriously, it seems to me that it would lead us to redefine what we mean by justice.  If we did so, we might be somewhat better oriented to do justice in a still largely unjust world.

A key point to me is the belief that the Bible ultimately identifies love and justice with each other.  This seems crucial because it protects us from a situation where in the name of justice we justify treating some people as objects instead of as human beings.  Then “justice” becomes a dehumanizing power-struggle with winners and losers.  One practical problem with this is that the losers are never content with being losers and so the battle never ends.

Also, holding love and justice together protects us from making justice an abstraction, separate from its real meaning as a relationship-building, life-sustaining force.  The concern for justice is people much more than “fairness”, “liberty”, or “entitlements”.

In this way of thinking, justice is primarily “corrective justice”.  Thus, justice’s goal is reconciliation.  Injustice must be opposed and resisted—but only in ways which hold open the possibility of reconciliation.  What happens to the oppressors matters, too, if justice is the goal.  Also, corrective justice rules out death-dealing acts such as war and capital punishment as tools of justice.

In this way of thinking, self-interest in the narrow, individualistic way it is used by modern philosophers can not serve as a motivating force for true justice.  At the same time, biblical teachings on creation and providence support the idea that considering God’s will and the good of the community above one’s own narrow, individualistic self-interest would, in the long run, be the best for one’s own good as well.

Biblical justice actually has many parallels with other indigenous viewpoints on justice.  We see this illustrated in a discussion reported in Tony Hillerman’s mystery novel, Sacred Clowns, set among the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico.  The main character in the novel is Jim Chee, a traditional Navajo who is an officer with the Navajo tribal police.  Chee articulates a Navajo understanding of justice in a discussion with his friend, Janet Pete, a lawyer who is part Navajo but who grew up and was educated in white society.

They were discussing a case of a hit-and-run driver.  Chee sets up the problem:  “For convenience, let’s call our hit-and-run driver Gorman.  Let’s say he’s a widower.  Doesn’t drink much usually.…He’s a hard worker.  All the good things.  Something comes along to be celebrated.  His birthday, maybe.  His friends take him out to a bar off the reservation.  Driving home he hits this pedestrian.…He hears something and backs up.  But he’s drunk.  He doesn’t see anybody.  So he drives away.  Now I’m a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, also deputized by a couple of the counties in Arizona and New Mexico, sworn to uphold the law.  My boss wants me to catch this guy.  So one day I catch him.  What do I do?”

Pete responds from the perspective of English-speaking justice:  “Well, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not too hard either.  You just think about why you have laws.  Society puts a penalty on driving drunk because it kills people.  It puts a penalty for leaving the scene of an injury accident for pretty much the same reason.  So what you do is arrest this guy who broke those laws and present the evidence in court, and the court finds he was guilty.  And then the judge weighs the circumstances.  First offense, solid citizen, special circumstances.  It seems unlikely that the crime will be repeated.  And so forth.  So the judge sentences him to maybe a year, maybe two years, and then probation for another eight years of so.”

Chee makes the case more complicated.  “We’ll give this guy some social value.  Let’s say he is taking care of a disabled kid.  Maybe a grandchild whose parents have dropped him on our Gorman while they do their thing.”

Pete insists this doesn’t change anything.  “Society passes laws to ensure justice.  The guy broke the society’s laws.  Justice is required.”

In response, Chee focuses on the concept of “justice.”  “We’re dealing with justice.  Just retribution.  That’s a religious concept, really.  We’ll say the tribal cop is sort of religious.  He honors his people’s traditional ways.  he has been taught another notion of justice.  he was a big boy before he heard about ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ or ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’  Instead of that he was hearing of retribution in another way.  If you damage somebody, you sit down with their family and figure out how much damage and make good.  That way you restore…harmony again between two families.  Not too much difference from the standard American justice.  But now it gets different.  If somebody harms you out of meanness—say you get in a bar fight and he cuts you, or he keeps cutting your fences, or stealing your sheep—then he’s the one who’s out of [harmony].  You aren’t taught he should be punished.  He should be cured.  Gotten back in a balance with what’s around him.  Made beautiful again.…

“Beautiful on the inside, of course.  Back in harmony.  So this hypothetical cop, that’s the way he’s been raised.  Not to put any value on punishment, but to put a lot of value on curing.  So now what are going to do if you’re this cop?”

Chee’s solution in this situation was not to arrest the hit-and-run driver, but to take some steps which would help facilitate the man’s healing.[27]

There are many questions left—e.g., What are the legitimate means for doing justice which are consistent with the ends of peace and love?  How can the needs of those at the socio-economic bottom of the heap be met without coercively forcing those at the top to give things up?  What if those at the top do not choose to be reconciled with those at the bottom?  What about the incredible forces of selfishness and pride in the real world?  And the “moral man and immoral society” phenomena?  How can a viewpoint based on a particular religious tradition be applied to a pluralist society?  However, I believe that an approach to justice that takes seriously biblical teaching is not ruled out by these questions and may in fact be well suited to answer them in helpful ways—to the degree than any approach can answer them.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1]Karen Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice:  Perspectives from Philosophical and Theological Ethics  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1986) and Justice in an Unjust World: Foundations for a Christian Approach to Justice  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1987).

[2]Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1971.

[3]New York:  Basic Books, 1974.

[4]“Transformation of Justice” was first published in 1986 as part of the Mennonite Central Committee’s series of Occasional Papers of the MCC Canada Offender Ministries Program and the MCC U.S. Office of Criminal Justice.  It was also included in Lind’s book, Monotheism, Power, Justice:  Collected Old Testament Essays  (Elkhart, IN:  Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 82-97.  My references will be to the latter version.  Millard’s graciousness in responding to my inquiry was typical of his approach to his students.  I offer this essay in gratitude to his scholarship and his personal kindness.

[5]These are some of the other beginning attempts to address this need:  C. Norman Kraus,  “Toward a Biblical Perspective on Justice”  (unpublished paper presented to Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Colloquium, Elkhart, IN, November 1978); Ted Grimsrud,  “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed.,  Essays in Peace Theology and Witness  (Elkhart, IN:  Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-153;  Harry Huebner,  “Justice and the Biblical Imagination,” in Harry Huebner and David Schroder, Church as Parable:  Whatever Happened to Ethics?  (Winnipeg, Man.:  CMBC Publications, 1993), 120-146;  Glen H. Stassen,  “Narrative Justice as Reiteration,” in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds.,  Theology Without Foundations:  Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), 201-225.  An insightful study by a non-theologian was written by Howard Zehr, one of the grandfathers of the restorative justice movement in the criminal justice field:  Changing Lenses:  A New Focus for Crime and Justice  (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1990).  Karen Lebacqz’s two books mentioned above are also important resources, but were not written from an explicitly pacifist point of view.

[6]George P. Grant,  English-Speaking Justice  (Sackville, NB:  Mount Allison University Press, 1974).

[7]Robert C. Coote, Amos Among the Prophets: Composition and Theology  (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1981), 16.

[8]Coote, Amos, 28.

[9]Coote, Amos, 28.

[10]James Luther Mays, Amos: A Commentary  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1969), 92.

[11]Coote, Amos, 26-27.

[12]Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1978), 31.

[13]Hans-Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1977), 165-167.

[14]John Barton, Amos’s Oracles Against the Nations: A Study of Amos 1:3-2:5 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1980), 36.

[15]Mays, Amos, 8.

[16]Wolff, Joel, 173.

[17]Ronald E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant (London:  SCM Press, 1965), 76-77.

[18]Jan DeWaard and William Smalley, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Amos (New York:  United Bible Societies, 1979), 47.

[19]Mays, Amos, 80.

[20]Coote, Amos, 123.

[21]Mays, Amos, 93.

[22]DeWaard and Smalley, Handbook, 137.

[23]Mays, Amos, 121.

[24]Eliezer Berkovits, Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1969), 331.

[25]Hans Jochen Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980), 136.

[26]Boecker, Law, 37.

[27]Tony Hillerman, Sacred Clowns (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 269-273.

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