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FIRST-PERSON: John Walker’s proceedings & questions of justice

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–John Walker has now made his initial appearance in a federal court in northern Virginia. Questions of justice played all around him the morning of Jan. 24. What sort of punishment did he deserve? (retributive justice). Was his lawyer right to complain he’d been denied access to his client the night before? (procedural justice). Was it fair that the prison guards who watched him through the night were paid much less than the judge who met him in the morning? (distributive justice). And wasn’t it interesting to see his parents together? When John was 16, his father left his mother for a man. Wonder what sort of settlement she got for that? (compensatory justice).

It would take a Solomon to sort these things out, but we have a Solomon. Indeed, we have Solomon himself in the pages of Scripture. We also have Moses, the prophets, and Paul, each writing under the inspiration and superintendence of God.

Does the Bible provide alimony and salary scales? Does it suggest a lawyer-client visiting schedule? Does it specify punishment for association with Islamic terrorists? No. But it does give us some broad principles, compelling to both mind and heart. (God gave us minds to pick up on his creation order and hearts to resonate with his edicts.)

We know that “acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both” (Proverbs 17:15). In other words, God hates lies and victimization. And that includes victimizing innocents to achieve your “noble” ends, the way of terrorists.

We’ve all heard sermons on the types of love in the Bible — eros, philia, agape. Just as interesting are the categories of justice we find taught and exemplified in Scripture. Ethicists, both biblical and secular, divide and label them in different ways, but here are four popular concepts with biblical links:

1. Retributive justice. Technically, retribution can mean both reward and punishment, but we usually take it in the second sense. Exodus 21:23-25 gives the famous “eye for an eye” formula and Romans 13:4 honors the sword-bearing state as God’s instrument for the punishment of wrongdoers. So we ask, what should John Walker and his friend Osama bin Laden have coming?

2. Distributive justice, the right way to spread out the good things and the burdens. In Joshua 14:13, Joshua gives Caleb the hill country he requested, including Hebron. (Yes, he’d have to take it from the Anakites, but that was doable. And yes, the distribution of that very land is still disputed.) In Matthew 20:1-16, we read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The issue is whether it’s fair for those who come late to get the same as those who got going early.

Under this broad category, we ask whether it’s right for the Justice Department lawyers prosecuting the case in Washington to get more than the army sergeants searching the caves of Afghanistan. Is the relatively free market God’s instrument for the proper distribution of wealth; does it matter what it takes to hire a sergeant as opposed to a lawyer?

3. Compensatory justice. Our tort system rests on this concern. How do you make it up to those you’ve damaged? Exodus 21:18-19 talks about reimbursing an injured man for the time he loses in recuperation. And Zacchaeus was so moved by his encounter with Jesus that he said he’d repay folks he’d cheated in his tax collecting fourfold.

The competing claims for compensation for the families of the victims of Sept. 11 are not always a pretty sight, but a nation which cares about such compensation is a pretty sight.

4. Procedural justice. How do you do justice justly? Both Moses (Deuteronomy 19:15) and Jesus (Matthew 18:16) said that one witness was not enough. This concern for the rights of the accused is at play in the debate over the use of military tribunals.

We’re just scratching the surface here, but it’s good to know that the concerns you see at play in the press are the very concerns God raises in his Word. The moves of particular players may be diabolical, but the struggle itself is biblical. Bible study anyone?
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other reflections by Coppenger can be viewed at www.comeletusreason.com.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger