Posted on October 28, 2013


Justice is a tricky concept. It has many meanings, some with legal implications, some with theological meanings, and the term is thrown around freely from Presidents to prisoners in the local county jail.

James Madison wrote that justice is the end of government, or, put another way, the role of government is to see that justice reigns in the land.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, President Obama noted that “justice is done.” Justice in this sense is about settling a score, righting a wrong.

A different meaning, as stated in one of Webster’s definitions, is the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964, he entitled his Nobel Lecture, “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” This summarized, if we can be so simplistic, his life.

By justice King usually meant addressing and eliminating “racial injustice.” So, in this sense, achieving justice was moving to true equality, recalling one of Thomas Jefferson’s most felicitous phrases, “all men are created equal.” How to make this happen was a function of justice. It has been a long struggle in this country.

We do not have the space to examine the Civil Rights movement in this short column, but I think all would agree that its goal was “justice,” very broadly defined, including freedom and liberty.

This definition has nothing to do directly with “administering justice” within the system of law as we understand it.

Defendants before the law want their cases evaluated “justly,” they want “justice,” or to be vindicated or cleared of the charges against them. Justice to them is the even handed application of the law, although most of them would like the law to be flexible enough to examine and take into account the nature of their misdeeds. These generally portray themselves as victims in one way or another, and so they want justice to be flexible, not blindfolded as Lady Justice is usually portrayed.

Perhaps the greatest of American Presidents–Abraham Lincoln—also cast his life into a struggle to remove an injustice. In his time and case, it was the continuing existence of black slavery. Lincoln was quoted in an excellent article by a scholar of the Civil War, Allen C. Guelzo, entitled “Lincoln and Justice for All.”

“ ‘Your sense of justice, and human sympathy’ is ‘continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself—that those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt and death.’ What trampled across this inherent sense of the injustice of slavery was nothing but self-interest, aided by pure, raw power, since ‘an arbitrary exercise of power’ is what leads to ‘still more flagrant violations of right and justice.’ ”

Going back even further in time, justice appears more than a hundred times in the Bible (depending on the version you are reading), which is a lot, so there must be high regard for “justice.” Admittedly though, “sin” appears more times than justice, 430 times in the New International Version, which can be interpreted as man being more burdened by sin than by seeking justice.

Regardless, they are inexorably linked and it is to Scripture I think that we must seek the roots of justice, a word and concept that permeates our society.

Here is one example of justice in Scripture.

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.
Psalms 86, KJV

The above use of justice by the Psalmist obviously refers to helping the poor, the needy, and the afflicted, a theme that also marked Jesus’s ministry.

Justice is closely associated with righteousness in Scripture. In fact, the two words are not rendered separately in Spanish language versions of the Bible, but almost always by the same word, justicia.

Righteousness, which appears over 200 times in the New International Version, generally identifies someone in a right or correct relationship with God.

We cite but two verses among hundreds, one each from the Old and the New Testaments.

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

This righteousnessis given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22)

I even noticed a stamp I put on an envelope a few days ago. It had a picture of an American flag, and the motto “Justice, Forever” emblazoned across the stamp.

Justice must be important if both secular and religious authorities and individuals impute so much desire to have it.

“I want justice!” cried the defendant’s lawyer. And in one form or another, thousands, probably millions across time, from the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther King, Jr., have desired, and spoken to or about justice and injustice.

My only thought on this whole matter built around one short word—justice–is to seek it with desire and persistence always.

But remember that Lady Justice wears not only a blindfold, but also carries a balance or scales to measure the merits of your case, and a double-edged sword to ensure that justice be done.

I can’t improve on the first two verses of the seventh chapter of the Book of Matthew:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.(NIV) That’s justice.

Published as an OpEd column in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013