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“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Since time immemorial philosophers and thinkers of every stripe have reflected on the meaning of justice. At around 380 BC, Plato wrote his magnificent treatise, The Republic in which he explores – among other things – the concept of justice. Appalled by the degenerating conditions in his native Athens, and dissatisfied with the prevailing notions of justice, Plato sets out to formulate his own theory that continues to be influential among philosophers today.

Plato develops his idea of justice in relation to both the individual and society. For the individual, justice is that human virtue that is responsible for making him or her self-consistent and good. For the society or community, justice may be described as that social consciousness that integral to its harmony and flourishing. Therefore, according to Plato, justice is the human virtue that not only binds members of a society together but also ensures that it is ordered in a way that is beneficial to all.

At about the same time, the famous Analects attributed to Confucius was compiled, about a century after the sage’s death during what is known as the Warring States period (476 BC – 221BC). Although the formal concept of justice is absent in the Analects, a sense of justice can be clearly discerned, as Confucian scholars like Erin Cline and Yang Xiao have clearly shown.

Important concepts like ‘Virtue’ (de), ‘rightness’ (yi), ‘reciprocity’ (shu) and ‘humaneness’ (Ren) among others collectively form a Confucian vision of the way in which society, in its various stratifications, should be ordered ‘under heaven’. Thus, although justice is not associated with a single concept or word in the Analects, it is found in the way in which the accountability and responsibility of the members of society are understood.

No other concept has arguably received more attention and subjected to more rigorous debate in philosophy in general and political philosophy in particular in modern times than justice.

In the last century, the American political philosopher John Rawls published what many scholars opined to be the most important book on the subject in his highly acclaimed 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Following closely Immanuel Kant’s idea that persons are ‘free and equal’, Rawls attempted to inject life into a languishing social contract theory with his concept of ‘justice as fairness’.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that humankind always had what may be described as a sense of justice throughout its history.

There can be no doubt that the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – places much emphasis on justice, premised of course on the theological insight that the God who brought this world into being is just (Psalm 25:8-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:6).

In the OT, the Hebrew word for ‘just’ and ‘justice’ (mispat) occurs no less than 424 times in 406 verses and is used to refer to conformity to the law, doing the right thing and legal rights. In the NT, the Greek word for ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune) appears 92 times in 86 verses and used to refer chiefly to moral uprightness.

The Biblical conception of justice is profoundly relational, with a special emphasis on equality and impartiality. The Scriptures also profoundly underscore that justice must never exclude the poor and the disadvantaged. Thus, In Leviticus 19:15 we find this remarkable injunction that clearly indicates that showing partiality to the poor is a perversion of justice: ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour’.

However, the Biblical account of justice is characterised by a profound realism that is sometimes absent in philosophical and secular accounts. It is the truth that God alone is just, and that at the end of the age he will establish his justice in the world.

Here, the doctrine of the final judgement of Christ, which we confess in the Nicene Creed, offers an indispensable insight, a kind of ‘reality check’, to earthly justice. It emphasises the sobering fact that both our theories and practices of justice are always inadequate and wanting. Even when no effort is spared to ensure that justice and the rule of law are upheld, injustices and miscarriages of justice continue to occur.

Only God can implement a justice that is impartial and perfect. And he will indeed do this at the close of this age, when his kingdom that has been inaugurated with the incarnation of his Son will be consummated at the Son’s return. On that day of salvation and judgement, every wrong will be put right: he innocent will be vindicated and the wrongdoers will get their just deserts.

On that day, the justice of God will truly ‘roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’. And God’s Shalom – his peace, healing, restoration, order, joy, health and salvation – will fill the new heavens and the new earth.

It is the Shalom of God, which includes his justice and righteousness that ensures the harmony of human beings, in relation to each other and the rest of creation. As Walter Brueggemann explains: ‘Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors that make communal harmony joyous and effective’.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (July 2014).