What is true justice? Part One: Retributive and Meritorious Justice

Vice President Kamala Harris recently said “justice” means that everyone gets an equal share of goods and services.  If there are any inequities, those inequities must be rectified using a fair method of redistribution.  Is this true justice or not?  What does justice look like, and how does the Bible help us in understanding, defining, and applying it?

A large part of the problem is that few people today (Christians included) have a clear picture of what justice actually is and involves.  As Thomas Sowell reminds us in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, “We are only talking in a circle when we say we advocate justice, unless we specify what conception of justice we have in mind.”  And in reaction to some aspects of the social justice movement, there are even those who claim, “Justice needs no modifier.”  There is only justice or injustice.  Types of justice (like “social” justice, for instance) are really deceptive distractions from the pursuit of “justice” in general.

In contrast to this latter claim, there are several types of justice, and these types pertain to the appropriate application of justice in concrete life settings.  Thus, while not a comprehensive list, we can speak of things like “retributive justice,” “meritorious justice,” “egalitarian justice,” and “need justice.”  Presumably, Kamala Harris (whether she realizes it or not) is referring to the third and fourth aspects of justice, whereas most opponents of her view seek to promote features primarily related to meritorious justice.  What, then, are these types of justice, where are they exhibited in Scripture, and how and when should each type be applied?

In this three-part series we will briefly examine all four types of justice, beginning with “retributive” and “meritorious” justice.

Retributive Justice

Retributive justice pertains to the system of justice that seeks to fairly “repay” or punish those found guilty of wrongdoing.  A biblical passage that illustrates this idea of justice from God’s perspective comes from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9: “The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

In general, as Romans 13:1-7 suggests, besides God, governments and other properly constituted officials (versus individuals and vigilante groups) are the ones best suited to carrying out this kind of justice.  In addition, there are other aspects to the retributive justice system like encouraging reformation and rehabilitation of the criminal.  But despite their great importance, we will not explore these facets here.

The main biblical principle to be applied in retributive justice is found in passages like Leviticus 24:17-22: “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. . . .  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”

Typically, people speak about this kind of justice as “an eye for an eye” justice.  And it’s significant that there should be no difference in the application of this justice between the Israelite and the foreigner (verse 22).  This is a good example of what is often called “egalitarian” justice, which we will explore more in part two of this series.

What many people fail to appreciate is that the essence of this principle is “punishment fit for the crime.”  That is to say, the kind of punishment should not exceed the nature of the offense committed.  It should be fair and commensurate.

Because this principle is easily misunderstood and misapplied, Jesus highlights it in Matthew 5:38-39 when He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  While many pacifists take this to mean that all retributive justice has been abolished by Jesus, it is probably better to see this as a warning against individuals and groups who are not properly authorized to execute this kind of justice by taking the law into their own hands.  As I noted above in Romans 13:1-7, properly constituted government authorities are accredited to carry out this kind of justice: “[The governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4).  Self-motivated and effected “vigilante justice,” on the other hand, is an oxymoron and not God’s intention for fulfilling true retributive justice.

These are controversial matters and much more that could be said, but let’s move on to consider at another aspect of justice that has become increasingly contested in the contemporary context, namely meritorious justice.

Meritorious Justice

Meritorious justice is the kind of justice that fairly rewards those who perform well and fulfill expectations.  It also includes accolades and benefits for those who are exceptional and use their gifts for the benefit of others.  Finally, it includes praise and appreciation for those who go above and beyond what is required and expected of them.  Scripturally-speaking, this kind of justice is evinced in passages like Matthew 25:21 where the servants who have been faithful stewards of the master’s money are accordingly praised and rewarded.

The majority of educational systems are largely grounded in this system of justice where students who meet certain standards and perform well academically receive certain rewards, including good grades, a diploma, certificates of commendation, scholarships, etc.  In short, both hard work and well-utilized ability deserve praise and affirmation, and it would be unjust to punish or discourage people simply because they are smart and hard-working.

Like all forms of justice, this type of justice is subject to abuses and showing favoritism where it is not deserved, but if so, it is no longer a form of justice but has become a form of injustice.

In recent years, the idea of merit and reward in institutions like schools has come increasingly under fire for being inherently biased and unfairly titled toward certain races and places.  In some places and situations this may well be a problem, but injustice here is not inherently grounded in the idea of giving fair merit and recognition to those who deserve it.  Rather, injustice lies in giving unfair advantages and accolades to those who don’t.

What complicates matters is when structures and systems develop (whether unconsciously or intentionally) that give unfair advantages to some while simultaneously disadvantaging others.  In addition, and perhaps even more significantly, tensions arise when we are confronted with the fact that while all people as divine image-bearers are equally important and deserve equal treatment under the law (egalitarian justice), people are not equally gifted and, for various reasons, do not always utilize or develop their talents in equal ways.

This highlights that in the midst of applying meritorious justice, other forms of justice must also operate, including what is often referred to as “egalitarian” justice.  It is to this type of justice we turn our attention in part two of this series on true justice.


5 thoughts on “What is true justice? Part One: Retributive and Meritorious Justice

    1. lewinkler Post author

      Here’s a twitter she put up during the presidential campaign (https://twitter.com/KamalaHarris/status/1322963321994289154?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1322963321994289154%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fblog.acton.org%2Farchives%2F117526-kamala-harris-equality-vs-equity-video-endorses-injustice-and-discrimination.html), but if you do a google search, there are several places you could go to find similar statements she has made. In other words, I’m not making this up.

      1. trpeverill

        Other than the very last statement about “equitable treatment means that we all end up in the same place” the little animation the Harris posted is a pretty good explanation for the difference between equality and equity. It would have been a better explanation of equity if she had just stopped with we need to give people “the resources and help they need so that everyone can be on equal footing and then compete on equal footing.” Obviously, she does not deny that people need to compete.
        Her unfortunate wording just gives opponents of equity ammunition to deny the necessity for us to work towards equity, which acknowledges the social advantages of some groups of people.

  1. lewinkler Post author

    I agree that Harris’ video would have been better if she left that last statement out, but that last statement is part of the confusion about justice, especially egalitarian justice. And the fact that she did choose to include it makes it problematic.

  2. Pingback: Jesus, Justice, and the Social Gospel | lewinkler

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