The Justice Impulse – What it means
When I was a little boy (around 9 years old), our home was robbed twice. A few weeks prior to the first robbery, our beloved dog was hit by a car right before my eyes. He lived for a few hours before dying. In the midst of the grief of losing my dog, our house was burglarized. The thieves stole pretty much everything of value, including a gold ring in the shape of Texas my grandfather gave me. My mom was keeping it for me until I was old enough to wear it. That gold ring and a pool cue were the only things I had from my mother’s dad. I still have the pool cue.
After the robbery, I remember feeling afraid and having nightmares.
About a month later, we had replaced most of the “stuff” like the TV and VCR. We installed a security system. My parents were divorced and didn’t care too much for each other but my dad bought us a puppy. It was his way of bringing some joy back into our lives. I remember mom let me name him Ralphie and let him sleep in my room sometimes. Within a few weeks, we were robbed a second time. This time the thieves entered through the empty house next door and broke through the adjoining wall of our duplex (to avoid the new alarm system and burglar bars on the windows). They took all the new stuff that replaced the old stuff… and they stole our puppy, Ralphie.
This time anger overtook fear. It dawned on me that something is wrong with the world. This is my first memory of feeling injustice.
Fast forward to the morning of November 10, 2015. I had been selected for jury duty. Sitting in a most uncomfortable chair, we were introduced to the case. It was the worst kind of criminal case you could be assigned as a juror. It involved an older man sexually abusing a 5yr old little black girl. Nothing could take my mind from my own daughter, who was 4 at the time.
It was the one of the most heart-wrenching, sickening and traumatic situations I have ever experienced. After six days of testimony, a heroic little girl took the stand and faced her abuser. After 9 hours of deliberation, we found the man guilty on several charges. He was sentenced to what would amount to the rest of his life in prison.
I walked away knowing that justice had been served.
What do I mean by justice?
I think that defining terms is very important when we talk about ultimate issues. John Stonestreet likes to say that, “People use the same words but different dictionaries.” To put it another way, people can use the same words in a discussion but those words have different meanings. A good example is the word ‘love’. I love my wife, I love my kids, I love cheeseburgers, I love my mom and I love my best friend. However, I do not love them all the same way. Love means something different in each instance. “Justice” has multiple meanings and applications as well.
Here are a few definitions of ‘justice’ from online dictionaries:
- the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness:
- rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason:
- the moral principle determining just conduct.
- conformity to truth, fact, or reason : CORRECTNESS
The definitions above are helpful but they don’t quite point to the source of justice.
Let me put forth a deeper foundation for your consideration.
From a biblical perspective, justice is rooted in the character of a creator God. Justice, also referred to righteousness, is an attribute that flows from God’s goodness. In order to flesh this out, we must go to Genesis 1. When God created the world and everything in it, he claimed “it is good.” When God created man in His own likeness, God saw everything He created and stated, ‘it (meaning all creation) is very good.”
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Because we are created in God’s image, we carry some of his attributes. To put it another way, we have artifacts of God’s character woven into the fiber of who we are as humans. Every human life has intrinsic value and essential worth. Either this is objectively true or it is not. If it is true, then all humans have value on an individual basis no matter what and deserve dignity, protection and justice. If it is not true, then human value is arbitrary based on what those in power deem valuable – certain human-beings become expendable based on utilitarian values (usefulness). In the last instance, there can be no objective shared characteristic of justice – it evaporates in a mist of arbitrary relativism. We need a unmovable point of reference.
We can’t say something is wrong unless we have some innate knowledge of what is right.
C.S. Lewis said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
Genesis 1 tells us about the ‘straight line’ or goodness, rightness or correctness. However, we need to head to Genesis 3 to better understand ‘a crooked line’ or wrongness. When we juxtapose the two, we have a clearer picture of justice. Now we can reframe the dictionary definitions of justice with deeper dimension and meaning from an objective source.
In Genesis 3, the Bible tells the story of how humanity chose to reject truth, reject God and reject His goodness. This is called ‘The Fall’. Prior to this point, all things were ‘good’ and ‘just’ in the created order. When man rebelled, sin and brokenness entered the ‘very good’ created order. Disorder and injustice followed. Since that moment in time, we humans have had a sense that things are not as they should be in the world.
There is an “oughtness” that we innately know about how life should be. Because of this, we know all is not lost. Artifacts and reflections of God’s original intent – goodness and justice remain innately rooted in our being. We just know a moral law exists that informs us on the difference between good and evil – straight and crooked lines.
Where does the ‘Justice Impulse’ come from?
We’ve all experienced some form of injustice in life or at least witnessed it. Something from deep within cries out, “That is wrong!” At the same time, from deep within we have this innate desire to make wrong things right. But, where does this feeling or impulse come from?
Some sociologists contend that it is learned behavior that is socially conditioned by our surrounding culture. I think that is partly true. Our culture can shape our conception of justice. But that does not explain the fact that even little children from various cultures have an innate knowledge of fairness and fundamental idea of justice and injustice, even if it is very elementary. When you hear a 3 year old yell “That’s not fair!”, you are hearing an impulse of justice. People have this innate sense of “thats wrong” coupled with a desire to see things made right.
You can go to any cultural setting on earth ask people if it is good to molest and murder a child. The overwhelming response will be ‘no’. Any exception will be seen as an outlier to what is normative across cultures. Everyone can agree that harming a child is wrong. To do so is unjust and evil.
When we were robbed twice, I felt pain, hurt, anger, frustration and fear. I knew what happened was wrong. At the same time, I wanted to see things made right. Justice was never served in those instances.
However, when I was on a jury that put a monster who did irreparable harm to a little girl behind bars, something was different. At the beginning of the case, I felt much the same way I did when we were robbed. By the conclusion of sentencing, I felt peace and a sense of rightness, even goodness about the situation. Given, none of my feelings change the trauma for that little girl. But, we did deliver justice to the best of our ability.
When I see a man pleading for his life, gasping for air under the knee of another man sworn to protect life and uphold justice, an impulse emerges from deep within. I see an image-bearer in agony under the boot of an image-bearer under oath to serve and protect. Both men are created in the image of God and worthy of dignity. Both are marred by brokenness and sin in the context of a fallen world. However, when the dignity of one man is discarded by another, we witness injustice. In other words, when image-bearers see fellow image-bearers attacked, we innately know that human dignity and value are being attacked. Those “artifacts” of God’s character that are woven into who we are emerge in the form of a justice impulse. That impulse can take many forms in its expression.
We could be silent, we could lash out in anger, we could protest, we could destroy, we could try to help, etc.
I have concluded that silence in the face of injustice may be the worst response. Silence basically seconds the motion. It allows, or dare I say, promotes evil. As misguided, wrong and evil as riots and destruction are in the face of injustice, silence carries with it a mixture of contempt and selfishness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I put forth the following regarding the justice impulse we all sense.
First, the justice impulse that we feel when we see or experience something wrong is good. We need to affirm that our sense of justice is indeed, good.
Second, justice needs space to be heard, cultivated and modeled within our homes, communities, businesses and our government. We all need to be free to rightly point out injustice when we see it. We need to allow truth to shape our concept of justice and love be the root of our response.
Third, we need to realize that in this broken world, injustice and evil exist. We will not completely rid ourselves of this reality. The human heart is deceitful. However, as image-bearers we can respond to injustice and evil with justice and goodness. We stop injustice by understanding that we all have dignity and value. You are sacred, I am sacred, your ethnicity and mine are sacred. We did not choose to whom, where or when we would be born. However, together, we can stand against evil even when we disagree on other things. And remember, evil begets evil. Disfunction begets disfunction. But, perfect love casts out evil, as light casts out darkness.
Fourth, we can restore the brokenness caused by injustice by promoting goodness and protecting the dignity of all human-beings – particularly the vulnerable and disenfranchised. We restore by bringing peace into a situation and ensure justice is served.
How do we as people who love justice respond to our justice impulse?
1. Pray. When events out of our control occur that cause emotional response, we must pray and ask for God’s wisdom to discern whether our impulses are just and good. If so, what is the right action to take?
2. Listen for understanding. Bear witness to someone else’s pain and suffering without judging. Be present in someone’s pain.
3. Learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. Sensible people faced with a complex situation do not need to be relegated to a tribe (or side). The “only two sides – pick one” dichotomy is elementary and childish. Remember, humans have dignity and a general sense of justice even when opinions differ on particulars.
4. Speak up in the face of injustice, even if it is unpopular. William Wilberforce is a perfect example.
5. Serve. I’ve learned the best way to restore a semblance of justice and goodness is to serve those in need. For instance, when we serve those experiencing homelessness, we are bringing goodness and restoration into their lives through relationships. We are acknowledging an individual’s dignity and value. We are saying, “I see you.” People have value not because of their socio-economic status or ethnicity but because their imagery. All are made in the image of God. When I serve an image-bearer, I am serving the image-maker. When I lovingly raise my voice for the voiceless, I am doing justice, loving my neighbor and showing God’s mercy.
Finally, for the Christian, we must understand that all of these responses must be rooted in truth and love. We accomplish all things by grace through faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ who suffered the most significant injustice in history to justify those who trust Him. God sees injustice and will not remain silent. God’s people see injustice and we should not remain silent either.
Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
“He (God) has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
PS. I keep my juror badge (pictured above) taped in the back of my Bible to help me remember that I must work to stop evil and do justice.
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