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From the Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

The Egalitarian Roots of Biblical Justice

The significant social change that biblical justice can achieve is due to a crucial characteristic. In the powerful statements of justice in the Bible there is an understanding that something has gone seriously wrong in the society. People have been mistreated and deprived. A change in society is needed.

This change orientation of biblical justice can be appreciated when contrasted with the classical Greek view of justice, such as was expressed by the great philosopher Aristotle. Here justice functioned to preserve society as it had been. What was just for a particular person or group was understood in terms of their differing positions in community. Rank, merit, rank, level of wealth, and personal ability were all considerations in what had to be done. Since they were not equal before, they would not receive equal shares in the benefits awarded by justice. Marginal people remained marginal.

Biblical justice, however, starts with a different assumption about human beings. As creatures of God and, in the New Testament, as those also for whom Christ has died, the equal worth of every person in the community is affirmed. Since justice lies in continuity with love, justice is concerned with the basic needs of each person. Justice includes overcoming social practices and institutions which deprive those needs and obstruct that basic equality. Biblical justice brings something new.

Biblical justice continues on where Aristotelian justice ends. Because of the different assumptions about people in society, there is also a different assumption about what is to be the normal situation of society. Biblical justice remains dissatisfied with conditions which deny the ability to participate fully in the life of society. For this reason, biblical writers speak of justice as action on behalf of the deprived.

One can best understand the First Testament and the Gospels by thinking of their society as basically composed of peasant farmers. The ideal Hebrew community had a relatively egalitarian nature. It was to be a society of vinedressers and herders who had similar resources in orchards, pastures, and habitations. Central was the provision in the Law that each family unit possessed its own patrimony in the land, the precious means of production. This inherited property was to be held in perpetuity and was ultimately unsaleable. The result was to be an egalitarian society of independent peasants.

In Numbers 26, God dictates that the original distribution of the land was to be divided in relatively equal portions among the basic family units (vv. 54-56; cf. 33:54). The prophets understand this patrimony as a sacred right from Yahweh. Micah condemns those who in seizing fields oppress a man and his house, a man and his landed inheritance (Mic. 2:2). Applying the terminology of political equality to property, Albrecht Alt states that the prophets view was that according to the ancient and holy regulation of Yahweh, the property system was to be and to remain in unconditional recognition of one man one house one allotment of land (Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel, III, 374).

By Micahs time in the eighth century B.C., as frequently later in biblical history, many of the small holdings of peasants were being absorbed into large estates of the wealthy. Through mortgage forclosings and oppressive sharecropping arrangements, this heritage from the Lord as their productive property was being lost, and with it their economic and social position. They were disappearing as an independent class, many even passing into slavery (Isa. 3:14-15; 5:7-8; Amos 5:11, 8:4-6).

This is the context in which the prophetic call to justice is to be heard, as with Amos, Micah, and Isaiah in this period. The task of justice was not to maintain fairness within the rising inequality. The task of creative, intervening justice was to restore the poor to their position of equivalent economic and social power in the community. This is the stamp of biblical justice.

From the Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

Justice As Inclusion in Community

The good life that God wants for every human being, in addition to a relationship with God, is not an isolated existence but membership in a healthy community. The concern for justice arises when a person is in danger of exclusion from community life in some way. Leviticus 25:35 addresses the situation where a person becomes poor and his power slips [literally] with you. The person has become weakened in ones relationship with the community: slips with you. The concern is for each member of the community to be strong enough to maintain his or her position in relation to other members of the community. The injunction in v. 35 is you shall make him strong. One way to do this (v. 36) is not to charge interest so that they may live with you.

There are many aspects of this restoration to community. One dimension is of course is having the essentials for physical existence, food, clothing, shelter (e.g. Deut. 10:18; Isa. 58:7). One also is to be included fully in the political aspects of community in the due process of law (Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8), independence from subjugation (Lev. 25:39, 42; Deut. 23:15-16; 1 Sam. 8:11-17), and participation in legal decisions.

Moreover, full inclusion means not living in dependence. Land is included. In this agricultural society restoration to land was an important part of the redress of justice in bringing people back to a normal level of advantage in the community. This includes the capacity to earn a living and to have a reasonably happy life. The Year of Jubilees, recorded earlier in Leviticus 25, is the best known of these provisions for being strong in community through access to land. These concerns related to land are also reflected in other ways in the Law and in the wisdom literature, as well as the prophets.

The provisions of the Year of Jubilee exemplify biblical justice. Among its stipulations is that after every fifty years all land, whether sold or foreclosed, is to be returned to the family whose heritage it was (Lev. 25:25-28). The effect of this arrangement was to institutionalize the relative equality of all persons in the landed means of production. It was a strong egalitarian measure and a far-reaching means of redress.

The Book of Ezekiel, written in the context of the exile and the destruction of the old society, spells out what should be done when the people were given the opportunity to begin again. The prophet sets forth a new distribution of the land which would correspond to the first: And you shall divide it equally; I swore to give it to your ancestor, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance (Ezek. 41:14, NRSV). As G. Ch. Macholz puts it, the provision of land for free and independent peasants is understood as normative, in contrast to previous injustice (Vetus Testamentum 19 [1969], 330-341). The oppressive forces which removed it from them were to cease. “My princes shall no longer oppress my people . . . . Put away violence and oppression. Cease your evictions of my people . . . so that none of my people shall be dispossessed of their holding (Ezek. 45:8-9; 46:18, NRSV).

The prophet Micah warns the economically powerful that there will be a social reversal. Those who had taken the land will lose it (2:1-5). Families who went into debt slavery would regain property, the division of which would be as equitable as possible. Micah looks forward to a time when, with equal and secure access to the means of production, all would again sit under their own vines and their own fig trees (4:4; cf. Zech 3:10).

In different economies, the means will vary, but the goal of justice will be the same: inclusion in community through full participation in the political and economic systems.

From the Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

The Partiality of Biblical Justice

Partiality is a characteristic of Biblical justice. In contrast, some forms of justice demand impartiality. We are familiar with the goddess of justice standing blindfolded while she holds the scales of justice.

Whether justice is considered as partial or impartial makes a tremendous difference in the politics which carries it out. The politics of impartiality is freedom oriented. The same procedures of political freedom are to be secured equally for all. The politics of partiality, on the other hand, include economic benefits, which cannot be provided without giving more to the needy and taking from the strong.

The task of justice to which the Bible calls us, as exemplified by the prophets, is to restore the marginal, such as the poor, to participation in all the essential aspects of community. Biblical justice accordingly has a bias toward the weak. If security of life and well-being are to be sought for all, some individuals will need more care than others. In passage after passage the group to whom justice is applied are those on the edge of the community - the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the wage earner, the poor. We can understand such special treatment in the case of a threat of violence made on some citizens life. That person then justly receives special police protection to bring his or her security level to that of others. The Bible recognizes hunger or the loss of productive property as also threats demanding special treatment.

The unequal treatment that the person under the threat of violence received ensures equal distribution of the right to security. The equal provision of basic rights, including economic rights, requires unequal response to unequal needs. Justice must be partial in order to be impartial. It is not that God loves the poor person more than the rich person, but the poor person requires special attention to receive the good that God wants for all.

Such biblical justice is dominated by the principle of redress. Inequalities in the provisions of life necessary for the standards of well-being must be corrected. God is the source such redress. All my bones shall say, Oh Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them (Psalm 35:10, NRSV). The Lord, the mighty creator, is the one who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. This justice reaches out to the prisoners, the blind, those who are bowed down, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Psalm 146:7, 9).

Normally, such justice by God is implemented by means of human justice. The ideal ruler receives justice from God (v. 1) and is to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor (Psalm 72:4). The ideal individual is one who in justice (v. 14) championed the cause of the stranger but broke the fangs of the unrighteous (Job 29:16-17).

As these passages indicate, the redress often will not be to the advantage of everyone in the community. The wealthy who have profited from the distress of the needy will have to suffer loss (1 Sam. 2:4-10). Their luxury is as much out of line as is the affliction of the poor on which it is based (Isaiah 3:14-26).

This partiality for the sake of redressing economic deprivation is affirmed in the Economic Community portion of our Social Principles. To alleviate poverty, policies are supported that provide such benefits as adequate income maintenance, decent housing, adequate medical care, and humanization and radical revisions of welfare programs. On the other hand, measures are advocated that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. This approach is partial, but from the biblical perspective it is just.

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