Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God.
– Dueteronomy 1:17
Since ancient times justice has been portrayed as impartial – an elegant lady holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in her other hand. Known as the goddess Ma’at by the ancient Egyptians, Themis by the Greeks, and Justitia by the Romans, she was the personification if not the deification of justice. Representations of “Lady Justice” continue to this day. She still carries the balances symbolizing fairness and the sword symbolizing power and authority, and in many countries she is also depicted wearing a blindfold, symbolizing the fair administration of justice. The point of this depiction is that of equal and objective justice for all people, without preference or discrimination, regardless of identity, wealth, power, social status, position, or circumstances.
Yet in reality, many people do not experience justice that is fair, objective, and without bias. Since 1992, “The Innocence Project” has been working on behalf of wrongfully convicted individuals. To date, they have helped to exonerate more than 250 people, restoring freedom and “life” to many who had been facing the death penalty. It is estimated that up to 5 percent of prisoners in the US have been wrongfully convicted and that the majority of those are people who are poor and from minority racial backgrounds. The situation is not very different in other countries and far worse in many.
Many people experience justice that is neither objective nor blind to power, race, wealth, or position. The wealthy, who often have access to power and influence and to the best possible legal representation, often experience better treatment and consideration than the poor who are powerless and without influence. All too often, racial minorities such as indigenous and tribal people or immigrants find themselves victimized by a justice system that is “owned and operated,” biased to support the status quo of the majority race and class and sometimes political persuasion. Justice that should be blind to social, racial, and political differences is not blind at all. But often when it comes to consideration for the pain and loss of victims or for the life circumstances of the offender, all too often justice turns a blind eye. The blindfold and the scales of Lady Justice might just as well symbolize justice that is heartless, unsympathetic and unyielding, and blind to the abuses occurring under her own nose.
It is not only the accused who can be wrongfully treated by the justice system; victims also suffer the consequence of injustice when wealthy offenders with powerful connections simply get a slap on the wrist instead of being held responsible to face the consequences of their crimes.
We stand with victims before “Lady Justice,” who overlooks the loss and injuries that they have suffered at the hands of those who have committed crimes against them. And we stand before “Lady Justice” with offenders as she looks beyond the weakness of the evidence against them or the afflictions of poverty, abuse, and circumstances over which they have had no control.
All we want for victims and offenders is to have justice with a heart, justice that cares, justice that takes them and their circumstances into consideration when passing judgment. We stand with them before the bench of justice and know that it is not a level place where all are really equal before the law. We want justice done without bias and myopia, where fairness is not just a forensic technicality and where consideration is the same for all persons regardless of race, religion, creed, or social standing. As believers we yearn for God’s true justice to triumph – to bring an end to the inequality and partiality of what we call our justice system.
As persons of faith we recognize that all of us will one day stand before God’s judgment at the foot of the cross where victims and offenders and people of every race, tribe, status, and means will find themselves on the level ground of grace. God’s justice is neither blindfolded nor His scales imbalanced, for He sees and knows every condition of our lives – our history, personality, motivations, sufferings, weaknesses, strengths, addictions, and inclinations. God delivers justice with a heart, for He loves us beyond measure, and sees us without any partiality or bias. He extends to every victim and offender not what they deserve under law, but what they don’t deserve – the lavish grace that heals our wounds and forgives our transgressions (Psalm 103:1-18; Isaiah 53:5-12).
Yet we continue to live in the real world of imperfect justice where judgment is not fair, decisions are not biased, and “Lady Justice” is neither blind nor objective. We have a higher vision for justice that sees all people through the eyes of truth, dignity, and compassion.
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.