“Biblical Justice”

Tags:  Punishing Criminals       Biblical Justice  Seeking Biblical Justice

Criminology and Theology

Justice is a major theme and emphasis in the Bible.  The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “justice” (mishpat, sedeqah, dikaiosune, krisis) are used more than 1000 times in the Bible.  “Doing what is right and fair” and “treating all persons fairly” have always been important among the people of God.  Biblical justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept of justice.  It touches every part of life: the personal, the social, public and private, political and religious.  Biblical justice includes both social and criminal justice.

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Hebrew and Greek terms for biblical justice are translated into English as “righteousness,” a term that carries a connotation of “religious piety” or “personal moral purity,” thereby limiting its presumed impact to only “religious” persons and institutions.  As a term for Biblical justice however, “righteousness” refers more broadly to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right”—in all of life, the religious and the secular.

The very foundations of justice for all persons, societies, and institutions can be found in the Bible. Theologians and Bible scholars believe that the sixty-six books that make up the Hebrew and Christian (Old and New Testament) Bible reveal the nature of God, God’s revelation and actions among people throughout history and through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s teaching on justice is significant for Christians, Jews, and all persons of faith; and has had an immense impact on cultural and political developments throughout history.  People in every nation throughout the world cry for and demand justice.  We all want to be treated fairly. We want all persons, authorities, institutions, and businesses to “do what is right.”

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The work of Christopher Marshall has been invaluable in my understanding of biblical justice. [See The Little Book of Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall. Published in 2005 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.]

Justice is an Attribute of God

Biblical writers wrote of justice as the very nature, personal attributes, and virtue of God.  Justice is the very being of God.

“I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!  The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.  A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).

Emulate God’s Justice

Human beings, who are created in the image of God, are to emulate, live out, practice and reflect God’s justice.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Biblical Hope is Rooted in God’s Justice and Faithfulness

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God… who executes justice for the oppressed…” (Psalms 146:5-7).

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

A Commitment to Action

Just as God is the epitome of justice, so also God demands a commitment from all people to act and treat one another fairly and justly.

“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes… Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

Justice is Relational

Justice is an attribute of God and all persons are to bear God’s image in how they treat one another, so it follows that justice is all about relationships.  All persons are to act toward one another in the same way that God has acted toward them—with justice, mercy, and equity.

“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Justice is Restorative

In contrast with the Western concept of administering justice, Biblical justice is not about punishment but about restoring the victim of injustice.  Justice is satisfied by repentance, restoration, and renewal.  Restitution and compensation to the victim are more important than punishing the perpetrator.

“But if (an offender) has caused pain, he has caused it…to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him…. I urge you to reaffirm your love for him…. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:1-3).

Criminology-Theology Connection

Biblical Justice is in many respects more complex and demanding for all persons than our Western concept of justice.  It relates to all persons in every part of life.  It is not limited to “justice professionals.”  It is not singularly focused on a “criminal” or “perpetrator” but involves the community and the victim toward the goal of renewal and restoration.

Is Biblical justice an unachievable goal?  Is it unrealistic and impossible to achieve?  No. But it is difficult in a society that is individually-focused more than community-oriented.  “Restorative Justice” is the newest form of response to criminal behavior; and has been an active component of judicial sentencing and offender change strategies in the past three decades—from North America to New Zealand.  Restorative justice is a promising approach that can accomplish what our current retributive justice has not done in the two hundred years of harsh punishment and mass incarceration.  Restorative justice promises to bring long-term change to the perpetrators of crime, the communities in which they live, and the victims who suffer the effects of crime.

“White Privilege and Justice”

Tags: https://wordpress.com/prison  + White privilege + racial disparity  

    Growing up in North Dakota, the first African-American I saw was among a group of airmen in Minot who had come into town from the Air Force Base north of the city to do some shopping.  

   Fast-forward several years and I find myself as a juvenile probation officer assigned to the southwest part of San Antonio, where Air Force officers begin their service in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Children of the officers often acted out in school and the community, bringing them to the attention of the Juvenile Court.  Attending six or more different schools by the age of 13 might explain their difficulty in adjusting! 

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   My caseload included Hispanic, White, and African-American youth from the south and east sides of San Antonio who were facing a juvenile court appearance.  Talking with my probation officer friends over coffee one day I asked them about the differential treatment I observed among youth of different economic and racial backgrounds.

   After listening politely to my accusations of racial disparity “down here” they asked me about my Native-American neighbors up in North Dakota. “Oh, they have it pretty good.   The government provides good schools for them there on the reservation, and they get some financial assistance.”  To which my friends responded: “Oh, so they’re fine on their Indian Reservations, as long as they don’t mess with ya’ll in your white communities, is that it?!”

  Well, I assured my friends I didn’t exactly say that, and certainly didn’t mean that.  But on reflecting further, then and the years since then, my friends had a point.  No place in America is free of racial disparity and the effects and consequences of “white privilege.”  Our nation was settled on the lands of Native Americans.  Our economy was built on the backs of African-American slaves.  White privilege has been a part of America since its development and continues today.

  We usually think of the South when we think of racial discrimination.  In reality the “race problem” is not restricted to the southern U.S.  My home state of Minnesota offers an example of racial disparity in criminal sentencing.

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   Black residents make up about 6 percent of Minnesota’s general population, but 37 percent of the state’s prison population is black. American Indians and blacks together made up nearly half of Minnesota’s prison population but comprise only 7 percent of the state’s population.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune  used data from the Minnesota Dept. of Corrections to show this is not a new problem. In 1990, black people made up about 2 percent of the state’s population and 20 percent of people in Minnesota convicted of felonies. The black population increased by the 2000 census to nearly 4 percent of Minnesotans but were then 28 percent of the state’s convicted felons and 36 percent of prisoners.  American Indians made up 1 percent of the state population in 2000 but comprised 6 percent of felons and almost 7 percent of state inmates.  

    Justice officials are quick to note that several factors account for these disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionate number of police arrests, and prosecuting attorneys are more likely to forward their cases on to court.  This is not to say that either police or prosecutors engage in racially-biased decision-making.  They are acting on police calls, observed behavior, and official reports.  Crimes committed in public places in high-crime neighborhoods are more likely to get police attention and official action because police patrols are more concentrated in high-crime areas. 

   Persons who are lower income, under-employed, and racial minorities do commit a slightly higher proportion of index crimes—but not in the same disproportionate rates as those reflected in prison populations.  State and federal prisons hold a large number of drug offenders who are racial and ethnic minorities.  Based on self-report and related evidence the majority of drug buyers and users are Whites, many of whom are from middle and upper-class backgrounds.

   “White privilege” clearly explains many of the disparities in arrests, court cases, and prison commitments of African-Americans and Native Americans.   

 Criminology-Theology Connection

  In a country that calls itself “one nation under God” and that aspires to “do the right thing” in upholding high standards of criminal justice, what are we to do with the glaring realities of racial disparity in sentencing and the evidence of white privilege? 

   Michelle Alexander refers to the black incarceration rate as “The New Jim Crow.” 

     “It was the white men who dominated politics, controlled the nation’s wealth, and wrote the rules by which everyone else was forced to live.  No group in the United States can be said to have experienced more privilege, and gone to greater lengths to protect it, than ‘the white man’. …. (I)f meaningful progress is to be made, whites must…be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege.”  (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (The New Press, 2011, pp. 255, 257).

     As a white man who has been complicit in enforcing laws, court orders, and probation conditions for young offenders from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, it is not easy to recognize and accept my privileged status.  I do not personally feel and experience the effects of racial disparities in sentencing; but I see them each week as I enter a prison to work with offenders preparing to reenter society.  The disparate prison sentences for Blacks and Native Americans is not just their problem.  It is an American problem, and it affects all of us.