So the people of the valley sent a message up the hill,
asking for the buried treasure, tons of gold for which they’d kill.
Came an answer from the kingdom “with our brothers we will share
all the secrets of our mountain, all the riches buried there.”
Now the valley cried with anger, “mount your horses, draw your swords”
and they killed the mountain people, so they won their just reward.
Now they stood beside the treasure, on the mountain dark and red.
Turned the stone and looked beneath it; “Peace on Earth” was all it said.
Go ahead and hate your neighbor
go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven,
you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
come the judgment day
on the bloody morning after
One tin soldier rides away
– Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, “One Tin Soldier
I began this year by thinking about justice – what does justice look like in everyday life; what does it mean for me to live justly? Increasingly, during the past several months, I’ve begun to realize that justice is not only a philosophical ideal, nor a system, nor even an expectation we have of fair and equal treatment under the law. I see justice wearing different faces as I look at the implications of criminal justice, economic justice, environmental justice, social justice, racial justice, gender justice, political justice, and international justice. And the places where justice shows up are as varied as its faces – in families, communities, neighborhoods, tribes and races, churches and social clubs, businesses and organizations, states and nations, and even in our friendships.
The more I’ve been thinking about justice and the more I explore what it means for me to live justly, the more I am coming to realize that, at its heart, justice is a relationship. Justice is all about relationships, there is no justice apart from the realm of human relationships. Justice is not realized or experienced in an abstract ideal, or in an impersonal system, or even in a legal code – but only in our relationships with others. Justice is ultimately just between us! Almost everything I say and do impacts on other people. Every human attitude, decision, or action has an effect for good or ill on human relationships – directly or indirectly, immediately or eventually.
Justice has everything to do with relationships; even seemingly “impersonal” business and corporate actions that might technically be outside the reach or definition of the law do not take place in a relation-less vacuum. They affect people either justly or unjustly. Ultimately, justice isn’t narrowly a matter pertaining to laws, criminality, and judgment; rather it encompasses the whole fabric of social relationships and inter-relationships between individuals, families, communities, nations—economics, politics, religion, gender, race, environment, etc. Justice is all about us and how we live with one another in nourishing and supporting the individual and social well-being of not only the people close to us and around us, but all people.
Justice involves both rights and responsibilities, and these dimensions are twinned in the etymology of the word “justice.” The ancient words for justice in Hebrew (tsedeq) and Greek (dikaios) represent a unity between justice and righteousness (or right living) implying that there can be no real justice apart from right relationships. In their article on Relational Justice, Jonathan Burnside and Nicola Baker write that “Relationships mediate between choice (my freedom to do as I wish), and obligation (my responsibility towards others). They go on to reference Philip Allott of Cambridge University who observes that “love in all its forms is so similar to justice in its effect that it is hypothetically tempting to suppose that each is the other, that justice is love and that love is justice.”
Justice is always relational. While legal, judicial, civil, and criminal justice systems play a necessary role in modern society as a means of defining and maintaining public order and advancing the public good, justice can never be accomplished in any society apart from the goodwill and actions of people in their relationships with another. There is no standard or system of justice in the world that can substitute for right relationships or remediate for relationships that have been violated.
If justice is done when the relationship between me and others is right and good then I probably need to pay a lot more attention to the way my attitudes, choices, and actions impinge on my family, my friends, my neighbours, the community, the nation, and unknown people in other parts of the world. I’m even beginning to wonder how my choices as a consumer – in the vehicle I drive, the foods and beverages I consume, the entertainment I pursue, the things I purchase, and so many other aspects of my “good life” ultimately impact people I may never see.
Ultimately, it seems to me that justice is just between us — isn’t it?
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.
– Micah 6:8 (The Message)
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.