Justice is more than simply resolving conflict.


For the week of August 30, 2014 / 4 Elul 5774
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Righteous Judgment

Righteous Judgment image

You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18-19)

I think there is a lot of confusion about justice today. On one hand we hear about it-abuse, wars, poverty-but unless we understand what justice is, then justice will never get done.

God through Moses directed the appointment of judges. They were not simply tasked with resolving problems, which is what people often expect. The other day I heard of a well-known, ten-year-old assault case that was settled out of court. This gives the public and perhaps those directly involved a sense of relief. But was justice done? Were the issues truly resolved or have the parties simply given up?

It's misguided to believe that the essence of our problems with each other, small or large, is that there is conflict. Conflict arises due to differences, which need not be a problem. For example, I might have a difference of opinion with my neighbor as to our property lines. That's a conflict, and one that may result in minor irritations between us from time to time, nothing more. But at some point, our conflict could result in a major incident that is more difficult to resolve. In the process, significant wrongs may happen between us, which may lead to needing the help of a third party to make a righteous judgment on our behalf.

It would not be just for the judge to do nothing but help us stop our quibbling as if we were a couple of little children arguing over who gets the last cookie. Not that there aren't times when adults act like children and need to be reminded to grow up by not making a big deal over nothing. But not every squabble is nothing. Some things are a big deal and justice is called for.

It's also not just to undermine the need for justice by bemoaning the fact that we didn't resolve this sooner. The history of the problem is helpful in understanding the problem and determining possible solutions, but bad decisions in the past shouldn't prevent us from making right decisions in the present.

But if justice is not alleviating conflict, what is it? Justice is the restoration of life to God's standards, or at least that's what righteous justice is. From our passage it appears that judgment is the act of making a legal determination, but not all judgment is righteous. Justice can be perverted by favoring the wrong side of an issue.

Back to my hypothetical property line case: righteous judgment requires a careful investigation of the facts and deciding the case based on what is right. At least one aspect of this should be straightforward, which is establishing where the property line is, based on city records. I am aware that this can be far more complicated, but let's accept that the relevant records exist. Apart from the property line itself, other things may have occurred that might require compensation or other consequences. All these should be done based on righteous principles, not on the whims of judges or public opinion. Righteous principles should include God's stated values of compassion and mercy, but not in such a way as to completely pervert justice.

One of the ways justice is perverted is when we favor the poor for no other reason other than their downtrodden condition. As we read in a parallel passage: "You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor" (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:15; see also Shemot/Exodus 23:3). Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to favor the poor as far as justice is concerned. Note that we are not talking here about the general injustices that contribute to the plight of the poor. Those must be addressed and corrected. But that is a separate issue. The plight of the poor and needy does not automatically justify their misbehavior any more than it does anyone else. Authentic impartiality requires all parties stand equal before God and his standards.

Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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