What is justice? What constitutes a just society? What are the responsibilities of citizens to their neighbors, to their government, to other humans? Should everyone be treated equally? Or should people be treated on the basis of some special status? Is there any just war? Why do we punish people? What is our responsibility to the environment? These have been questions raised by every civilized society. Answers to such questions are embedded in ancient traditions, mythology, philosophy, theology, history, law, and political theory.
In the final analysis, the notion of justice is a human construct used to describe the actions of humans. We do not describe earthquakes as “unjust,” although we might use that term to describe inequities in the way assistance is provided to the victims of an earthquake. As Aristotle has observed, if we lived in a perfect society, we would not need to define and dispute this notion of justice.
Generally speaking, justice may be divided into two main spheres. One is concerned with the justice of the individual in relation to other human beings and to the organized community itself, the state. The other is concerned with the justice of the state—its form of government and its laws, its political institutions, its military postures, and its economic arrangements—in relation to the human beings that make up its population.
In the language of justice, five words act as justice markers. They are equality—everyone being given the same treatment and access to goods; merit—getting what one deserves; need—some sort of “safety net” for those who cannot function in society; rank—many institutions such as military, universities, churches, think in terms of rank structures as a means to think about justice and, finally, there is fairness—justice is treating people fairly if not equitably. Law is often the last interpreter on what is just, even if a law is considered unjust.
Although justice is a short, simple word, it is a complicated idea with many dimensions. Presenting a broad overview of these dimensions is the task of the next four chapters. In these chapters, the discussion will focus on religious and philosophical perspectives, justice and the state, and social justice.
Some of the earliest thinking about justice comes from religion and philosophy. These two sources have evolved along a similar path. Early versions of each saw justice as demanding harsh punishments for those who break the rules (either God’s or society’s). Over centuries, harshness gave way to mercy and fairness. As nation-states emerged, justice increasingly came to be seen as the province of governments. In the most recent step in the evolution of the meaning of justice, social justice broadens concerns to include a wide range of groups, even moving beyond people to include nature.
From the beginning of human existence, people have wanted to understand the mysteries surrounding them. Primitive humans lived in a fearful world. Forces of nature needed to be understood. Bad things—such as drought, flood, disease, and death—happened all around people in an arbitrary way. Good people suffered, and bad people prospered. Religion sought to give meaning to the world, to help people understand mysterious things. It also tried to account for injustice and to outline proper responses to injustice. Perhaps the first formal efforts to delineate the meaning and implications of justice can be found in religion. Though questions of justice were present from the beginning, answers evolved over time.
Because natural forces were everywhere, they were readily worshipped. The weather, the seas, the mountains and, above all, the sun were made gods. The mystery and complexity of life was such that worship of multiple gods, polytheism, developed early. There was little room for one god in a world that demanded so many players.
The Incas of the Andean regions of South America created monumental sacred spots like Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman. The Mayas and Aztecs did similar things in Central America. Babylonians in the Euphrates Valley created stories assimilated by a variety of tribal peoples that would become sacred texts that lasted for thousands of years. Egyptians posited an afterlife based on decisions after a judgment day. Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen had supreme councils comprising many gods who were deeply involved with human history and divine justice.
Initially, justice in these religions was harsh and vengeful. In the ancient Babylonian culture, which arose on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (an area known today as Iraq), issues of justice were being addressed as early as 1750 BCE
. The Hammurabi Code
, an ancient text of laws, reflected a rigid static society in which obligations and responsibilities were well known and fixed. Consequently, justice was rigid, uncompromising, and absolute. For example, if a building collapsed because of faulty design, the architect could be put to death. If a person under medical care died, the physician likely would face death. However, there was some proportionality. For example, if the daughter of a gentleman were struck and suffered a miscarriage, the fine was 10 shekels. If the same thing happened to the daughter of an ordinary man, the fine was 5 shekels. In a similar fashion, if an ordinary citizen’s daughter died, the perpetrator was liable for a heavy fine; if it were a gentleman’s daughter, the wrongdoer could face execution. This code established the concept of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, an idea that found its way into the law outlined by Moses in the Bible. It was harsh, but it shows that ancient peoples struggled to find justice.1
The earliest stages of Old Testament justice were theocratic and tribal, with God’s reactions swift and uncompromising. Written around 1000 BCE, the Pentateuch, or Torah, contained stories with themes that have continued in Western culture for centuries. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all considered The People of the Book, believe these stories to be sacred.
When Adam and Eve were tricked into sin by Satan disguised as a serpent, the creature and its progeny were condemned to crawl the earth forever. The couple was then exiled from the Garden of Eden because they wanted knowledge and the ability to reason. Eve, and all women thereafter, was to suffer in childbirth, and man was to toil by the sweat of his brow. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God did not condemn the killer to death but to a life as a fugitive and vagabond. A mark was placed on him so that no one would take revenge on him. Legend has it that he became a builder of cities, a negative thing for these tribal people. The story of Cain and Abel has been used by generations of reformers to defend alleged murderers against the death penalty. Later, the wickedness of the world compelled God to destroy all the inhabitants of the earth, with the exception of a small party of elect gathered into an ark. Young and old alike were drowned in the deluge. In a classic example of rural fundamentalism versus urban secularism, Sodom and Gomorrah met a similar fate. Even Lot’s wife, whose only sin was to look back on her home with longing, was condemned and turned into a pillar of salt. Moses brought plague and death to thousands of Egyptians, even innocent children, because of the actions of the Pharaoh.2
When Moses was crafting a new set of tribal laws, to be found in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), he set forth a justice system that affected much of Western culture for thousands of years. After his people had lived for generations in Egypt, Moses needed to slough off the alien ways they had adopted. None but their one tribal god should be worshipped. Family ties needed to be strengthened. Due to the social chaos of slavery, proper relations between people had to be established. They were guided by a new set of laws, the Ten Commandments.
As the roaming Israelites settled and began to build a distinct culture in a new homeland, issues of justice emerged. In an attempt to bring some softness, proportionality, and reason to justice, they borrowed lex talionis, or an eye for an eye, from the Babylonians. For example, Leviticus 24:17–22 states,
If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make retribution—life for a life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native born. I am the Lord your God.
While today we may think of “an eye for an eye” as a call for harshness, at the time, it called for no more than an eye for an eye, thus limiting harshness.
Numerous offenses warranted capital punishment. For example, profaning the Sabbath could result in death (Exodus 35:2; Exodus 31:14–15; Numbers 15:32–36). Blasphemy and sacrifice to other gods resulted in death (Leviticus 24:11–14; Exodus 22:20). The 20th chapter of Leviticus commanded death for a variety of familial and sexual violations, including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality (Leviticus 20:9–16).
The history of the Jews is one of captivity, occupation, and dispersion by foreign empires. In 598 BCE
, the Babylonian empire destroyed the Jewish state and then carried off the population for enslavement for over 60 years. In 63 BCE
, the Roman Republic made Israel a protectorate. Jews were allowed their religious practices, but politically they belonged to Rome. For the next century, a variety of rebellious leaders, called messiahs, arose to preach against Roman occupation.3
They were rounded up and executed. Rebellion became so prevalent that by 73 CE
, the Roman Empire stepped in and destroyed Jerusalem. The Jewish state came to an end as Jews were dispersed (the diaspora) throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Three ethnic traditions developed as the Jews scattered throughout the world. By the seventh century CE, many moved to the Iberian Peninsula and became the Sephardim, flourishing in Spain until expelled in 1492 along with the Moor or Muslim population by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The Mizrahim Jews moved eastward to what became known as Iraq and Iran and other parts of Asia. Following the waterways, by the eighth and ninth century CE, the Ashkenazim were settled in Germany, Northern France, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine. They formed a new dialect called Yiddish.
Though tolerated in some places, widespread persecution occurred for over a thousand years.4
Besides various pogroms in Russia and Poland, anti-Semitism was widespread. Christians commonly blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of their god. In addition, there was the belief that Jews were part of an international conspiracy to take financial, and eventually political, control of the world. Such luminaries as Henry Ford were avowed Jew-haters. Of course, so was Adolf Hitler as the Holocaust of the 1940s attests. After World War II, because of the shock of the Holocaust and feelings of guilt, the Jews were given a Jewish state in Palestine. The rest of their history will be connected to the Palestinian people they displaced and the Arab neighbors who resent their presence.
Today, Judaism may be viewed as three groups, each with a different emphasis on justice. The Orthodox Jews are the most traditional, with bearded men wearing furry shtreimel hats and side locks (peyot). Women wear long skirts with high necklines and full-length sleeves. They maintain and abide by the traditional rituals and obligations of the ancient law. Though strong in modern-day Israel, they are a minority elsewhere. The Reform Jews adhere to the ethical laws but believe the rituals should be adapted to the modern world. A product of nineteenth-century Germany, and flourishing in the United States, their dress and manners are not distinguishable from any secular citizen. The reform branch is very humanistic and very different from the orthodox. The Conservative Jews are midway between the Orthodox and Reform Jewish persuasion. They study the ancient texts and laws but believe they need to adapt to modern conditions.
Though few in number worldwide, the Jewish people have made contributions to politics, the arts, scholarship, and issues of justice.
In the midst of the turmoil caused by the Roman occupation of Israel, many peasant prophets arose. To name a few, there was Athronges the Shepherd, John the Baptist, Hezekiah, Simon of
Peraea, and Judas the Galilean.5
One who stood out was Jesus of Nazareth. These were Jewish nationalists, zealots challenging the Roman Empire. Like others, Jesus was duly arrested, tortured, tried...