What is Justice, Anyway?

“No one is against justice,” my colleague, a gifted professor of law and philosophy, contemplated. He has a way of cutting through complexities to clarify the heart of a debate. “The difficulty,” he continued, “comes in agreeing on what constitutes justice.”

In many of the Christian circles I know best, we speak of justice readily, trumpeting the biblical call to this bedrock religious value. We recall the prophets’ exhortations to love justice as our Lord does and to pursue it with devotion. We craft compelling theological arguments and elegant homiletic reflections, guiding listeners on the path toward justice. We pray for justice and, if we are especially moved, we endeavor to do the work of justice in the world.

But what do we mean, specifically, when we invoke the solemn and sacred term “justice”? What are we actually talking about?

Our Need for Clarity

Perhaps, unconsciously, we neglect to define justice because this feels safer for us. This enables us to maintain a circle of consensus—at least on certain issues—and avoid the fraught debates that might crop up if we were to scrutinize the meaning of our cherished ideal more carefully.

The downside, however, is that if we are not clear about what we mean by “justice,” it will be difficult for us to know if we are marching bravely toward it or scrambling backward in retreat.

If justice, as the Scripture tells us, is a hallmark of the coming Kingdom of God that Jesus preached (Luke 4:16-21), it deserves to have some content.

Perhaps, in a good many instances, our moral intuition will suffice, or Scripture will yield a clear answer. But given the distance between biblical times and our own, and given our human propensity to sin and self-delusion, it is risky to trust ourselves simply to know justice (or injustice) when we see it.

Even for the most thoughtful, learned, or virtuous, assessing justice on a case-by-case basis will eventually confound us. We may do just fine on easy cases, but hard cases, the ones surrounded by debate and divisiveness, will elude us. And let’s not forget that what seems an “easy” case in our day—enslavement or colonial domination, for example—was, alas, not always treated as such.

To be as thoughtful as we should about pursuing justice, we need a true north, a methodical framework for what justice means. We need to be clear about what we are seeking.

A Christian Theory of Justice

In Christian philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs, we are offered a profound and compelling Christian understanding of the meaning of justice: Justice means respect for inherent human rights. It means respect for what human worth, bestowed by divine love, requires.

Consider first what “human rights” are. A right, put simply, is a legitimate claim to be treated (or not treated) a certain way by fellow human beings. A “human right,” according to Wolterstorff, is a right for which “the only status one needs in order to possess the right, the only credential required, is that of being a human being.” In other words, “Being a human being gives one the right.”

Wolterstorff is concerned primarily with moral rather than legal rights. He is most interested in “natural human rights,” meaning rights that are inherent in human beings, rights that are not conferred by any human action, such as lawmaking.

Such a moral perspective is essential. It provides us with a foundation for recognizing inherent, inviolable human rights. It inspires us to acknowledge and enshrine such rights in our systems of law, both national and international. It gives us a standpoint from which to critique and refine these systems.

Note, however—and this may sound like splitting hairs, but it is worth understanding—that when Wolterstorff speaks of “human rights,” he is referring to any right that belongs to all human beings. That which is termed simply a “human right” may, therefore, be a creation of human law. A “natural human right,” by contrast, is inherent; it precedes any laws that are created to recognize it.

If your eyes glazed over that last paragraph, take heart, dear reader, because we can now transcend those careful distinctions. To deprive a person of any human right—whether that right be inherent or socially conferred—is to wrong that person, on Wolterstorff’s theory. Violating an individual’s human rights is equivalent to wronging her; it is equivalent to disrespecting her God-given human worth.

Justice as Human Rights

Returning to the question of what we are seeking when we “seek justice,” Wolterstorff argues that justice is ultimately based on respect for inherent human rights.

A society is just to the degree that human rights are respected—the degree to which people enjoy the treatment to which they are entitled, treatment befitting their human worth as people dearly loved by God.

The logic is undeniable. If we treat each neighbor as a person dearly loved by God, a person whose inviolable human worth flows from the love she is offered by God, we treat each one justly. A community in which all are treated with such respect is a just one.

For this justice seeker, it was solace to discover what firm theological ground the concept of human rights rests on. After all, humanity’s best collective efforts to ensure a more just world, a world in which the vulnerable are secure against violent oppression, are framed in terms of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights symbolizes a watershed moment when diverse nations of the world agreed on the primacy of human rights in the struggle for justice, an understanding Wolterstorff elucidates from the perspective of the Christian tradition.

So what it is we should actually be doing if we are to “do justice,” as the Prophet Micah instructed? We should be defending human rights.

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