The word in the air and on the streets, both actual and virtual, is justice. People are gathering and protesting, chanting and yelling for justice. They demand justice.
The irony is, many of them demand what they refuse to submit to themselves. If “justice” is not delivered to them, they will inflict their own brand of it. If you happen to be in their way, too bad for you. Too bad for your business — it’s gotta get burned down or at least vandalized for “justice.” Too bad for your car, your property, even you. You might have to be sacrificed for “justice.” The mob will decide, and no one gets much warning. They simply bulldoze their way right over you or anyone or anything that tries to slow them down.
I’ve noticed that “justice” is very angry nowadays. It’s furious, in fact. I’m only in my 40’s, so perhaps older folks would tell me that it’s always been this way. But something tells me there’s a new intensity, a much more explosive element in the powder these days. Local crimes don’t stay local any longer. Local tragedies become national faster than you can say tweet.
Facts are not so important as the version of events that will generate the most hatred toward the other side. It’s volatile propaganda in as few characters as possible. Caricatures in soundbites. A photo and a crafty caption with enough Retweets and Shares and Likes, and suddenly, it’s the whole truth and swift action can’t come swift enough.
If you don’t agree; if you question; if you ask for details and for calm and reason, you are “just like them” and must be vilified. How dare you not acknowledge the declared victim? Why should you hesitate to condemn the declared guilty party? Who are you to say the facts don’t add up? What gives you the right to question the narrative?
You want the truth that may lead to genuine understanding? Well, how quaint. We live now only on perceptions, without even a half-hearted effort at discovering what’s really there. Instantaneous information has made us intellectually lazy. We take in whatever advances our own agenda, and reject the rest. Rather than listen to a real leader, if one can be found, we simply look to the most electric and popular spokesperson. We give back our slogans and mottos and not much else. All of it based on only one thing: our own self-styled morality.
And all of our cries for justice go unanswered. The louder we scream, the more silent justice becomes. It seems to me that our cries for justice are wasted breath because we are unwilling not only to do what justice requires, but to be what justice requires.
We ask for what we can’t define and don’t even want to understand. We demand what we cannot hold. We no longer have any concept of justice. We simply hunger for retaliation, revenge, entitlements for us, and punishment for them. These have become justice to us, so justice doesn’t stand a chance.
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one enters suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity.” Isaiah 59:1-4
Who defines justice? Can an unjust people establish justice on their own? Without the framework of a truly righteous code, how can right and wrong be decided? Without a declaration of right and wrong that has our human dignity and flourishing as its sole aim, how can the good be known and the bad be rejected?
From where comes a law that is truly just? There is an answer: not from where, but from Whom.
Only the One Who is just can teach us about justice. And that’s our problem. We’ve “progressed” beyond any need for God, and certainly beyond any patience for Him. We can design our own morality now, and adjust it accordingly to each one’s tastes and mood. When our individual moralities collide and crash into one another, we drive by the destruction in slow-motion, snap a photo, assign it our own subjective declaration of acceptable or unacceptable, and proceed to spread our false gospel.
Justice demands honesty and integrity. Honesty and integrity have no room for self-serving agendas. Justice insists on the truth; it makes no allowance for manipulation and falsehoods.
Justice is interested in the common good, and particularly in the good of the oppressed and powerless. Greed and violence have no place with justice.
Justice requires humility, and that is a virtue we are woefully lacking today. It’s a virtue we have come to despise rather than admire and seek. Without humility, we will never know justice.
“He has showed you, O man, 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
Justice is not merely a thing granted us or a state of being arrived at; it is something we must do. We cannot do justice if we do not understand it.
Justice walks alongside mercy, kindness, humility, and righteousness. Justice flows out of them like a river, and dries up completely in the face of arrogance, oppression, greed, hatred, and violence.
“The way of peace they know not, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked, no one who goes in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we look for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes… Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth has fallen in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:8-10,14
“Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them. Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.” Proverbs 28:4-5
What is the way out of the unjust cesspool our society has sunk to? In a word, wisdom. And again, wisdom comes not from where, but from Whom.
“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his saints.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; discretion will watch over you; understanding will guard you; delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.” Proverbs 2:1-15
“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.” Proverbs 21:2-4
If we ever hope to achieve justice for ourselves or for anyone else, we must put away our need for immediate vengeance and seek understanding instead. It is not a show of weakness to admit the other guy might be right about something, and we just may be wrong about something. Justice will never arrive with pride. We need to be humble enough to admit our own failings, and see what we might learn from someone who has traveled roads we have not. This is only possible when the goal is the real common good.
Justice also goes hand-in-hand with mercy. Yes, mercy. Not excusing fault or failing, but tempering punishment wisely, so that the sentence serves society without quashing the possibility of redemption for the guilty. The common good is not served by punishment for punishment’s sake.
Where and how do we start?
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:16-17
Cease doing evil. Learn to do good. Correct oppression. All oppression.
The heart of our trouble, the root of our unjust weed, is our disregard for human life. We forfeit any right we may have to justice because we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the most vulnerable among us, and sacrifice them – literally – for the sake of our wants and “rights.” We greet the most powerless with brutality and death. That is why justice is far from us.
Unless and until this nation stops killing the child in the womb; unless and until we recognize the inherent dignity of each human person, even the disabled, chronically and terminally ill, the elderly, the homeless, the poor, the marginalized; we will simply never know justice or peace. Justice and peace will run away from us because we choose violence and power, greed, and death instead.
It’s that simple.
Black lives matter. White lives matter. Cops’ lives matter. Mothers’ lives matter. Fathers’ lives matter. The child in the womb matters. All lives matter.
Until that becomes our mantra, justice will be a stranger to us. The just God waits with mercy and blessing for our decision.
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. The Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” Isaiah 30:18
Photography: Emily Byrne