Biblical Justice: It’s Not What You Think

(bears repeating as we start a new year)
By Ray McGovern (Jan. 1, 2000)

The full text of that post:

Someone saw me described on twitter @raymcgovern as a “Justice person” and asked me “what’s that supposed to mean?”  New Year’s Day seems like a fitting time to attempt an explanation.  In short, it is a faith issue, born of life experience and “Justice-person” mentors specializing in what I would call “applied theology.”  One key mentor is Daniel C. Maguire, who taught Ethics at Marquette University for almost 50 years.  I have internalized what Dan wrote in his seminal work: “The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution.”  ( Dan also has been an occasional contributor to Consortium News. See, for example: .)

In my own teaching/speaking/writing/thinking, I have plagiarized Dan with reckless abandon, with his blessing, and I do not plan to stop anytime soon.  Below is a passage lifted from The Moral Core (pp. 131-132) that speaks to what a “Justice person” is or, at least what I try to be.  In sum, I have learned that there is one thing — first and foremost — that Yahweh, Jesus, and The Prophet care about.  It is that we do justice. (After the quote from Dan, I’ll add a short note about another mentor, Dean Brackley, SJ, a Jesuit with a finely tuned activist social conscience pursuing, first and foremost, justice.)

[from The Moral CoreThe Biblical Perspective on Justice

Bias versus Bias

Most modern, Western conceptions of justice stress its essential impartiality.  For us, judges who are supposed to symbolize justice … could not be considered proper judges and at the same time be biased, prejudiced, and partial.  Bias is incompatible with our abstract concept of justice.

Biblical justice will have none of this.  It is forthrightly biased, prejudiced, and partial.  More accurately, it recognized that all systems of justice are biased, covertly or overtly, and it opts for overt discovery of the bias.  Biblical justice theory is biased and it admits it.

Its bias is two-edged: it is unequivocally partial to the poor and suspicious of the “rich.”  This meaning is etymologically grounded in the very word for justice, since the biblical root for sedaqah, the prime Hebrew word for justice, has from the first a bias towards the poor and needy.  The related Aramaic tsidqah meant “showing mercy to the poor.”  Our modern tendency is to think of justice in terms of criminality or litigation.  Our justice is concerned with trouble.  The biblical preoccupation is wholly other.  Justice is “good news,” especially “to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

So positive (versus punitive) is the terminology used for justice.  God says (literally), “I will not do justice … to the wicked.”  Justice applies to the innocent.

Justice is not reacting to evil, but responding to need.  Woe to those who “deprive the poor of justice” (Isaiah 10:2).  The prime focus of this justice is not on the guilty, but on victims and the dispossessed.

Deuteronomy says:  “You shall not deprive aliens and orphans of justice.”  What justice requires is spelled out in detail: never “take a widow’s cloak in pledge” or a poor man’s cloak if he needs to be warm — even if it is owed to you by a mathematically strict standard of justice.  “When you reap the harvest in your field and forget a swathe, do not go back and pick it up; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” When you are harvesting your olives or your grapes, leave some behind: “What is left shall be for the alien, the orphan, the widow” (Deut. 24: 10-22).

This early and often repeated formulation of justice primarily involves not contracts or torts, but compassion, benevolence, and redistribution.  Augustine summed up the tradition simply when he said: “Justice consists in helping the needy and the poor.”  The poor, quite simply, are God’s children and they are marked out for special handling.  That special handling is the prime work of justice.

Because of its overarching concern for the poor, biblical justice is not quibbling legalism.  It is largehearted and magnanimous.  It must, in the course of life, descend to the picky details of legality, but its heart is not there.


Another mentor/friend, Dean Brackley, SJ, put it even more simply:

“It all depends on who you think God is, and how God feels when little people are pushed around.”

You may wish to give that some thought.  Too simple?  I don’t think so.

Dean Brackley applied his experience as a Bronx community organizer and his theology training (PhD, U. of Chicago Divinity School), to “doing justice” — including in El Salvador, where he quickly volunteered to take the place of one of the six Jesuit priests murdered there in late 1979.  Dean died in San Salvador in October 2011. 

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