The Puzzling Concept of Justice

Cross-posted from Radical Religion.

“Justice language” is, in my experience, the greatest stumbling block in an otherwise rich and productive dialogue between socially-engaged Christians and Buddhists. It should not be so, but last night’s Presidential announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden shows us precisely why this stumbling block exists. Last night, Obama announced that “justice” had been served. In this case, the clear implication was that the death of Bin Laden was part and parcel of this “justice.” But was it?

I don’t think that Amos had this kind of thing in mind when announcing that God wanted justice to “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). In fact, I don’t think that there’s any language about “justice” in the gospels which would support Obama’s view thereof. The word he was looking for last night is “vengeance,” which I’m pretty sure God has reserved for Godself (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30).

If we think instead of what “justice” should mean in any theosocial context, we can come quickly to the notion expressed in the sermons given on the “Kingdom of God” (or Kin-dom or just basileia). Justice is merciful care for the downtrodden. Justice is a social order in which human bodies are not violated for profit or any selfish intent. Justice looks more like the community described in Acts 2:44-47 in which the community held no private property and distributed any material goods among themselves according to the need of each. No word about revenge is spoken in that description. No word of revenge has any place in justice at all.

If justice then is more about mercy and compassion, it is not only more consistent with Buddhist understandings of human relationship, but it is also precisely the opposite of what’s been pronounced “justice” in this political context.