“The Bible and Justice”

The word “justice” brings to mind civil and criminal courts; attorneys, judges; laws that define illegal behavior, and our rights and responsibilities under the law.  In a nation that holds to a principle of “separation of church and state” we associate the application of justice with the state.  “Justice” is an official function of local, state, and federal courts.

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Concerns for justice did not simply originate with the establishment of state and federal governments, however.  Demands for justice can be traced back to earliest recorded history.  Justice is one of the most frequently recurring topics in the Bible, appearing more than 1000 times.  Readers today often fail to recognize how often the word “justice” appears in our English translations of the Bible, because the original Hebrew and Greek terms for justice (mishpat, sedeqah, diskaiosune, krisis) are often translated differently, such as “righteousness.”

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Biblical justice touches every part of life, referring to both criminal justice and social justice.  Multiple English translations for the Hebrew and Greek terms for justice in the Old and New Testaments are necessary because the biblical concept of justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept.  The well-known statement of the prophet Amos offers an example of two Hebrew words for “justice” in a single Bible verse:

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” –Amos 5:24

In this verse one Hebrew word for “justice” (mishpat) is translated as “justice” and a second Hebrew word for “justice” (sedeqah) is translated as “righteousness.”  Why is this?   The biblical language of righteousness refers to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right.”  When used in contexts that refer to conflict, coercion, or social distribution, the term often signifies the force of justice or justice-making.

Our English language meaning of “righteousness” carries the sense of personal moral purity and religious piety, while the Hebrew term relates to public judicial fairness and equality of rights.  Unlike our English words for “justice” the biblical terms for “justice” are not limited to “secular” versus “sacred.”  “Righteousness” to us signifies a moral or religious meaning, but in biblical use “righteousness” includes what we mean by “justice.”

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Those of us who wish to study and better understand the biblical perspectives on justice must therefore include words like “righteousness” that are frequently used in our English translations of the Hebrew and Greek words for justice.  The biblical view of justice is the focus of many Bible scholars.  The work of Christopher Marshall (The Little Book of Biblical Justice, 2005) and many others have been invaluable to me in my explorations of the Bible and justice.

 

 

I invite you to join me in further explorations of the Bible and Justice, and a theology of justice—both of which are extensions of the criminology-theology connection.

Criminal Justice and the Church

Criminal Justice is a function and concern of government institutions.  Police protection, the courts, and correctional institutions deal with criminal justice.  So what does the church, a religious organization, have to do with justice?

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  The Church is the “body of Jesus Christ.”  Weekly Sunday worship featuring songs of praise, prayer, and proclamation of the Word of God is the most notable activity of the Church and its members.  Sunday worship sermons focus on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Justice is a central topic of Jesus and throughout the Bible.  Thus, the Church that is faithful in following the teachings of Jesus is actively engaged in promoting justice.

   The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has been actively promoting Criminal Justice for decades.  Sunday, January 21, 2018 was designated “Criminal Justice Sunday,” one of the initiatives to increase awareness of the needs for victims and offenders involved in crime.

   The following entry was posted on the “Mission Yearbook” page of the Presbyterian Church.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. —Hebrews 13:3

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Let us, on this Criminal Justice Sunday, be reminded of these sad facts:

  • That our country is the world’s leader in incarcerating our own
  • That the United States of America, which holds 5 percent of the world’s population, holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners
  • That the vast majority of people incarcerated in our country are from poor, inner-city neighborhoods and are of predominantly African-American and Latino descent

   Let us be reminded also that our stance on punishment is in sharp contrast to our Christian gospel’s redemptive message of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, as expressed in Luke 4:18; and that our salvation, individually and collectively, is linked to our treatment of those in prison, as declared in Matthew 25:41–43.

    Society’s stance on criminal justice is historically a pendulum swinging between restorative and punitive. Our country is long overdue for prison reform based upon rehabilitative and restorative principles, as practiced in other developed cultures with which we compare ourselves. This should include the “Mandela Rules,” reflecting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the abolition of for-profit prisons and an end to capital punishment.

    Today, on Criminal Justice Sunday, join with fellow Presbyterians and others of all faiths in seeking to raise awareness about our outdated, punitive and costly criminal justice system, so that those sitting in darkness behind tall walls and barbed wire may experience hope.

Hans Hallundbaek, DMin, Coordinator, Prison Partnership Program, Hudson River Presbytery,

UN NGO Representative for the International Prison Chaplains Association and Citizens United for the Return of Errants

MLK, Jr. –A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

On Monday, January 15, 2018 we celebrate “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.”  Dr. King was assassinated nearly 50 years ago on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.  He was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement.  He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights through nonviolent means and through civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.   Dr. King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolent activism to push for freedom in India and independence from British rule.

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Dr. King attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He earned a B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College; a B.D. degree in 1951 from Crozer Theological Seminary where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class; and completed his doctorate degree from Boston University in 1955.

Dr. King followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and his father, serving as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia until his death in 1968.  Some of the highlights in Dr. King’s leadership in the struggle for racial equality and justice in America include:

  • 1955: Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.
  • 1957: Southern Christian Leadership Conference is founded
  • 1963: Campaign against racial discrimination and inequality in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • April, 1963: Dr. King is arrested and jailed in Birmingham.  He writes “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
  • August, 1963: Dr. King gives his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
  • 1964: Dr. King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; at the age of 35 he was the youngest person to have ever received the award.

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“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Dr. King wrote his famous letter in response to a public statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama.  They had called his civil disobedience and nonviolent protests “unwise and untimely.”  Dr. King explained in detail why African-Americans were no longer patient to “wait” for justice and equality.  They had waited for more than 300 years since being brought to America and denied their constitutional and God-given rights.  How much longer would they have to wait to simply be allowed to sit with dignity on buses, to sit at a lunch counter for a cup of coffee?

In his plea for racial equality, Dr. King pens one of his most well-known lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

A Theology and Law Connection

Fellow clergymen had questioned and criticized Dr. King for his willingness to break laws.  In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he notes that there are two types of laws: just and unjust, and emphasized that he and his followers obeyed the just laws; but felt they had a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

Drawing upon his theological studies, Dr. King cited St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  He continued with reference to the great Roman Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas:

“An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.  All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.  It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. …. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in J. Rieder, Gospel of Freedom (2016, p. 175).

Dr. King concluded the letter with a sense of humility, love, and hope: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (“Letter….” In Rieder, p. 185).

 

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Our nation’s recognition and celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate.  Dr. King represents the highest ideals and aspirations of this nation, despite all odds, obstacles, and barriers placed before him.  We would do well to read his words, to remember his life, and pass along to our children the great legacy of this great American.

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Crime, Justice, and Inequality

Americans think we know a lot about crime and criminal justice.  We actually know very little.  Most Americans depend on television for this information. Not the news, but crime shows. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections workers are well informed—but only on the specific part of the justice process in which they work.

This is not a criticism.  Criminal justice involves thousands of persons, each doing their assigned jobs (often at considerable personal risk).  They are expected to enforce hundreds of laws covering illegal behaviors ranging from the minor to the serious.  Laws and enforcement policies vary between the federal, the states, regions of the country, and urban versus rural areas.  It’s complicated.

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One of the fastest-growing fields of study in U.S. colleges and universities has been criminology and criminal justice.  More education and training for criminal justice professionals has resulted in better quality policing and better jail and prison conditions.  Education and training requirements for police and corrections workers brings them a little closer to the law school requirements of attorneys and judges.  In sum, the U.S. has one of the best justice systems in the world—thanks to the high standards of justice workers, and constitutional and legal standards.

Injustice in the Justice Process

Despite constitutional safeguards and legal restrictions against bias and unfairness in administering justice in America, we find some disheartening facts:

  • Racial and ethnic minorities are arrested, stopped and questioned, and shot and killed by the police out of proportion to their representation in the population.  African Americans represent only 12 percent of the population but 30 percent of all arrests. They are shot and killed three times as often as whites by police.  (Samuel Walker, et al., The Color of Justice, 2000), p. 87.
  • African-American history is linked with the history of America’s prisons. Blacks have been more likely than whites to go to prison since the 1920s. Blacks are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
  •  Imprisonment among young black men is more common than military service or college graduation, especially for black men who dropped out of high school. (Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, 2006, pp. 3, 12)
  • Contrary to popular beliefs, blacks are not more criminal than whites; and the increase in prison populations is not due to higher rates of violent crimes.  Victimization rates actually went down, from 1980s to 2000, and yet incarceration rates increased.
  • Higher rates of police arrest and prison sentences of African-Americans does not necessarily mean that police, prosecutors, and judges are racist or discriminatory.
  • Police arrest is more likely among the poor than the affluent. Police patrols focus on poor urban communities partly because more visible illegal activity occurs there in public and they respond to calls for enforcement.
  • Judges may treat poor defendants with less empathy and more harshly in court because they are seen as more blameworthy, have fewer social supports, or less potential for rehabilitation.
  • Police, prosecutors, and judges are sworn to enforce the law fairly and impartially regardless of social class, race, or other factors; but individual discretion is a part of the justice process and ethnicity, race, and appearance often do affect decisions.
  • Lawmakers are also part of the justice process and in fact determine what behaviors are criminal, misdemeanors or felonies, and the punishment for convicted offenders.
  • Laws and policies in the “war on drugs” at the federal and state levels have done more to put more non-violent offenders behind bars than any other single factor.

Is Race a Factor in the Justice Process?

   In a word: Yes.  Multiple studies including those noted above (“The Color of Justice” and “Punishment and Inequality in America”) confirm racial bias in arrests, prosecution, and sentencing of African-Americans.

Mass incarceration that disproportionately affects Blacks in America has been referred to as “the new Jim Crow.”  (Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2011).

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Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.  Segregation of public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks were enforced under Jim Crow.  The laws were finally abolished when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Alexander maintains that federal and state laws against drug-related crimes unfairly target Blacks.  Criminal justice has become a system of racial stigmatization and marginalization with laws, rules, and policies that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.  Unjust laws and enforcement are like Jim Crow because so many African-Americans are locked out of the mainstream society and economy.

The racial disparities in the criminal justice system are not due to differences in drug use and sales. People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates.  Contrary to media images, whites are the majority of drug users and dealers.

Violent crime is not responsible for mass incarceration. Homicide convictions are only a small fraction of growth in prison populations. The drug war is targeted on poor and minority sellers and users, sending more black and brown offenders to prison. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 102).

Criminology-Theology Connection

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Racism and white privilege that contribute to injustice for African-Americans have been called “America’s original sin” (Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin, 2016).

That’s a shocking statement and accusation!  How am I responsible for racism, white privilege, and injustice against minorities?  When I support tough enforcement and prison sentences based more on my beliefs and fears than on factual information, I am responsible.  My vote for lawmakers promising crime reduction and public safety by targeting drug offenses of racial minorities more than drunk drivers who cause 22,000 deaths annually, then I am supporting unjust laws and policies (Wallis, p. 158).Bible2

Lawmaking, law enforcement, and the criminal justice process are complicated.  That fact does not excuse responsible citizens from seeking to be informed.  Jewish and Christian communities of faith frequently read about “justice” when we read the Old and New Testament Bible scriptures.  Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).  Beliefs and views about crime and criminals that are based on untruths cause us to act unjustly against our neighbors, thereby increasing crime rather than promoting justice and public safety for all.