True Justice

After writing about the death penalty recently, I was reflecting about the real meaning of Justice.  It's tempting to think that Justice refers to the thing which happens (or should have happened) in Law Courts.  And of course we hope that the laws and the "justice system" will work out in a way which is actually just.  However, there is a sense in which the justice system is a million miles away from true Justice, if we define Justice as harmonious reciprocal relationships.

Even if the justice system worked perfectly on its own terms, it would be a mistake to think that this is Justice.  The fact that crimes are committed (or else people are suing each other in civil courts) means that the harmonious relationships in society have already been disrupted.  Our Law Courts are, at best, a means for correcting injustice, and even then they can only do so in limited respects:  judges can restore property and restrain criminals, but they cannot change people's hearts to love each other again.

We call a hospital part of the "health-care system" not because lying in a hospital bed is Health, but because it is something we use to remedy sickness.  The best sort of Health is not needing to go to the hospital in the first place.

Let's see what the Prophet Zechariah has to say about this.  Someone came and asked him a question about what the (religious) law should be:

In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev.  The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat the Lord by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”  (Zechariah 7:1-3, NIV)

Some context is important here.  The Jews had formerly been captured and exiled to Babylon, as a divine punishment for their sins.  Jerusalem and its Temple had been destroyed, and the fast in question commemorated that.

But now the Persians are in charge, and they have authorized the City and Temple to be rebuilt.  So the Bethelites have a natural question.  Do we have to still keep fasting or not?  The fast has become part of their religious practices, and they want to know whether it still applies to them.  What will Zechariah tell them?

Religious people naturally trend into thinking of religion as a certain set of rules which have to be kept, as if it were a secular legal code and they just have to stay on the right side of the law.  They want to know which way God wants things to be—but in fact either Yes or No would be misleading, because God wants a different sort of thing entirely:

Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me:  “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? (7:4-6)

Stop asking whether you should fast or feast—it's the wrong question.  Instead ask why you were fasting, and why you were feasting.  Was it really for God, or was it just to mourn your own sorrows and celebrate yourself?

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’ ” (7:8-10)

The Lord replaces the people's question with a different command—do justice, resuce the oppressed.  THIS is the point of all of the religious rules, not which days are appropriate for fasting.  This is reiterated later:

“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord.  (8:15-17)

There is indeed a role for Law Courts in this notion of Justice.  Zechariah was speaking to a broken society which had lost its bearings, which needed legal stability and fair dealing in order for any reconstruction to occur.  But the requirement of Justice goes deeper than just institutions.  The Just person is not just characterized by legal justice but by honesty and integrity in all of his dealings.

The Law Courts are a means and not an end.  What end it is a means towards may be seen in this beautiful passage:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age.  The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.  (8:4-6)

We have now nearly ascended the treacherous craggy slopes of Mount Justice.  Peering into the misty summit, upon which the Earthly Paradise is located, what do we see?  Children playing games with each other!  And sentimental elders looking on and reminiscing.

We do not see here the perfect restoration of body at the Resurrection, but we see the highest vision of Justice between humans beings which any society here and now can attain.  Doubtless the children sometimes accuse each other of cheating.  But the ideal of neighborliness is there, which is indeed the point of the command to Love your Neighbor.  This is Justice.

There is also a harmonious relation of the entire people to God:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west.  I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”  (8:7-8)

This is Justice too.  The establishment of a truly just earthly society (harmony between human beings) requires also a correct relation to the God who works justice and righteousness in the earth:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “You who now hear these words spoken by the prophets who were there when the foundations were laid for the house of the Lord Almighty, let your hands be strong so that the Temple may be built.  Before that time there were no wages for man or beast.  No one could go about his buisness safely because of his enemy, for I had turned every man against his neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.”  (8:9-12)

God, humans, animals, the environment; all harmoniously related.  This is Justice.

Once the Temple is established (not just as a building but in our hearts) then there is a bond between neighbors which allows children to play safely in the streets.  Humans and animals can be fed for their work, because they are treated fairly.  Commerce is possible because people don't need to be afraid of aggressors (this is why the Law Courts aren't optional).  Responsible cultivation of Nature is possible because the Temple trains us that things which belong to God are sacred.

Only then does the Prophet return to the question of fasting:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.”

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you’.”  (8:18-23)

Real Justice is attractive, and causes celebration and emulation.  It is no longer a question of rules, but of God's promises.  Whether or not you abstain from anything else, abstain from injustice.  Days for producing Justice are always festivals.  Therefore, rejoice always whatever you do.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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