Monday, June 5, 2017

what is justice?

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Image from ec.europa.eu
There seems to be an increasing emphasis on addressing injustice, at least in the circles I move in. Everywhere I turn, it seems that someone is talking about how we can become more just people. On a recent trip to Toronto for a conference, I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy which tells about his work as a lawyer in Alabama, addressing systemic injustices in the legal system. When I arrived in the city, I visited a downtown church which had posters and banners addressing issues of social justice all around their sanctuary. At the conference, some of the presentations identified specific people groups who have been victims of injustice and suggested ways we can move forward to more equitable interactions.

What is justice? The symbol for justice in the legal system is a blindfolded woman (known as Lady Justice) holding a set of scales. The symbolism suggests an impartial, careful, and accurate weighing of matters. The dictionary tells us that justice is fairness, equity, impartiality, neutrality, honesty, and righteousness. In the Hebrew bible, the word tzedek (to be just or righteous) is rooted in the nature of God, joining the idea of impartiality with promoting the good and dealing with sin. In Greek, we have the word dikaiosune which basically means approved by God. When we link justice to the nature of a loving, merciful God, we get a slightly different view of justice than when we equate it with moral rectitude. I offer two stories to illustrate this, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.

In Deuteronomy, we find specific laws given to the nation of Israel which were to guide their behaviour and ultimately, reflect their worship of a just God. One of these had to do with ensuring that a widow was not left destitute when her husband died and she had no sons. Since the women in the Ancient Near East had their value and their livelihood tied to men, when a woman's husband died and she had no sons to receive the family inheritance, her situation was precarious. The law made provision for this.

"When two brothers are living together, sharing family property that hasn’t been divided, if one of them dies leaving a widow without sons, his widow must not be married to a man outside the family. The brother should marry his sister-in-law and try to have children with her in his brother’s name.
Her firstborn son will be named after the brother who died, so that the first husband’s name will not disappear from Israel and that son will receive his share of the family inheritance" (Deut. 25:5-6, The Voice).

Basically, the brother-in-law of the widow was to ensure that the deceased brother's name and inheritance were not lost. In effect, a man who married his brother's widow was sacrificing part of his inheritance in order to honour his dead brother and protect his widow. Understandably, some men were not too keen on fulfilling this obligation.

Case in point. In Genesis 38, we find the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah had three sons and the first one married Tamar. He died, and since Tamar had no sons and no means of income, she depended on the family she married into to take care of her. Judah told his second son that he must marry Tamar and any sons she bore would have his dead brother's inheritance. Well, he resented the imposition and the implications it had for his prospective wealth, so he begrudgingly took Tamar as his wife and had sex with her, but took precautions to make sure she would not become pregnant. That second son died as well. Now, Judah had a third son who was not yet of marrying age and, understandably, Judah was reluctant to have Tamar wed him. The two men who had been her husband had both died, and it seemed like she was a cursed woman. In fact, in the story we learn that both her husbands were wicked men. Nevertheless, Judah told Tamar that when the third son reached marrying age, she would be guaranteed a husband and a future. She waited and waited, but even though the youngest son became eligible for marriage, there was no talk of a wedding. Judah's wife died, and after the time of mourning was finished, he went on a trip to work with some sheepherders. Tamar was desperate and saw an opportunity. She dressed up as a prostitute and waited on the side of the road. When Judah came along, he saw her and expressed interest in engaging her services, offering to send her a goat when he got home. She insisted that he give her the cord he was wearing and his staff as a personal guarantee. He did so and they had sex. When he got home, he tried to send a goat as payment and get his possessions back, but no one could find the prostitute.

A few months later, Tamar was reported to be pregnant. When word got to Judah, he demanded that she be dragged into the public square to be condemned and burned. He had always had suspicions about her. As Tamar was being brought out, she let it be known that the man who had made her pregnant was the one who owned the cord and staff she had. It was soon revealed that Judah was the one responsible for her pregnancy. Judah's response is noteworthy: "She is more in the right (tzedek) than I." Justice, that attribute which links someone to the nature of God, was found in Tamar, the woman who played a prostitute to trick a man into taking care of a widow.

This reminds me of another story, this time in the New Testament. Jesus was teaching people at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and presented her to Jesus, asking him what to do. The law allowed for the stoning of such a woman, and the religious leaders were trying to trick Jesus into doing something that would allow them to accuse him of breaking the law. Jesus didn't fall for it. Instead, he ignored them, drawing something in the dirt with his finger. They continued to bother him and demand an answer, so he finally said, "Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned." The Pharisees had no response to this, so they left, one by one. Eventually, it was just Jesus and the woman. Jesus asked, "Where is everyone? Did no one condemn you?" She replied that no one had. Then Jesus said, "I don't condemn you either. Go on and sin no more" (John 8).

The Jewish religious leaders had, in fact, not accurately quoted the law. It states that both the man and the woman involved in adultery should be stoned (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:24). They were twisting the law to their own purposes: making a trap for Jesus so that they could get rid of him. One commentator has speculated that Jesus writing in the dust might be a reference to the law which forbids writing on the Sabbath, but does permit writing with dust. If this was the case and it was a day of rest, Jesus might have been illustrating that he knew the details of the law just as well as they did and would not be trapped by it. Others have suggested that Jesus wrote words of condemnation regarding the woman's accusers. Whatever the case, in this story we find the same kind of inversion that happens in story of Judah and Tamar: the one looking to condemn someone for an unlawful act is shown to be the one who is unjust. Jesus put the shame of adultery in direct contrast to the shameful way the Jewish leaders were acting (trickery, bending the law to suit their needs, treating the woman with disrespect, rejecting God in the person of Jesus). Jesus does not condemn the woman, but calls her to a new life. We can be prone to over-emphasize this last line (go and sin no more), but in doing so. we unravel the mercy evident in Jesus's refusal to condemn, even though he would have been lawful in doing so. It is important to remember that the law is not the standard for justice, Jesus is, and he requires those doing the judging to reflect on their own sinfulness before judging others (Matt. 7:1-3).

So what is justice? It is that which reflects the nature of God, that which God approves of, and in these two stories, the person on the side of justice is not the religious leader or respected citizen (those in positions of power), but a woman who has committed a shameful act and stands ready to be condemned and killed by her accusers. As I stated before, the law does not equal justice; only God is justice, because being just means being approved by God. So how do we stand on the side of justice, and how do we respond to injustice?

We can be prone to ignoring or doubting stories of injustice when they don't directly affect us. We can complain about the inconvenience of injustice and try to remove ourselves from its effects (NIMBY: not in my backyard). We can be prone to judging (it's their own fault) or begrudgingly agree to do the bare minimum to fulfill the law (like Judah's second son), hoping to mitigate its effect on and cost to us. If we are the ones wronged, we can seek to exact revenge on those who have wronged us, or prosecute someone to the full extent of the law, assuming that we are the faultless ones.

Looking at these two stories, it seems more in keeping with the nature of God to stand as sober witnesses to those who have suffered injustice, making sure that we hear their voices and their complaints. We can pray, repenting for our part in injustice and asking God for healing and reconciliation. We can change the question from "How does this affect me?" to "How does it affect the most vulnerable, the least of these?" We can make sure that we are not stone throwers, but stone catchers (a phrase I came across in Bryan Stevenson's book), that we step in-between those who condemn and the condemned, showing mercy instead of judgment. It is what Jesus does for us everyday. We can seek wisdom to discern what compassionate, thoughtful action we might take. Above all, like Jesus, we can seek to bring hope to the hopeless.

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