Posted by: HAT | December 3, 2014

Exegetes for Justice

Image of arm and hand, holding knife and identified with a Nazi swastika, stabbing a Bible,

This propaganda machine kills fascists.

Hi, Gang!

As part of my belated attempt to come to terms with the way events in Ferguson, Missouri have revealed a profound but often ignored dimension of my world, I have been re-reading The Little Book of Biblical Justice. Here are a couple of salient comments from that text:

Biblical justice is comprehensively relational. It is not a private attribute that an individual has on his or her own, independent of anyone else. Nor is it a set of abstract norms about balance or equity or fairness. Justice means doing all that is necessary to create and sustain healthy, constant, and life-giving relationships between persons. Justice is to be measured by the extent to which people honor their obligation to live in relationships that uphold the equal dignity and rights of the other. Both elements are important – relationships that are wholesome, and faithfulness to the demands of such relationships by all parties involved. [1]

For this reason, justice

… requires different priorities in different settings. In some circumstances justice requires a disinterested impartiality, a repudiation of all favoritism. In other circumstances it demands an unequivocal partiality, a definite bias towards the interests of certain parties over those of others. Justice is both impartial and partial, biased and unbiased, equal and unequal, depending on the issues at stake.

On the one hand, biblical law considers impartiality to be critically important when dealng with criminal wrongdoing or in arbitrating disputes between litigants. … While impartiality is essential in the Bible to the administration of procedural and retributive justice, a quite different emphasis emerges with respect to social justice (which deals with the way wealth, social resources, and political power are distributed in society). Here a definite partiality is to be exhibited. A special concern or bias is to be shown for the welfare of four groups in particular – widows, orphans, resident aliens (or immigrants), and the poor.” [2]

This partiality is required for two reasons. First, vulnerable people tend to become the victims of injustice, because they are less protected by the social arrangements of their time and place. In Biblical times, those were literally patriarchal. This made widows and orphans particularly vulnerable, because they were without the protection of a patriarch to whom they had personal ties of relationship and mutual obligation, so they were more exposed to abuse and exploitation by other, less paternal, patriarchs. In other times and places, different categories of people will show up as being most vulnerable. Second, abject poverty that erodes human dignity and freedom is an evil in itself, which requires redress. Thus, “God’s bias or ‘preferential option’ for the poor is, ultimately, in the interests of equity.” [3]
[1] Christ Marshall, The Little Book of Biblical Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005) 35-36.
[2] Marshall, ibid., 38-39
[3] Marshall, ibid., 41.


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