How Do You Define "Justice"?

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Starting the Conversation

Recently, my kindergarten-aged son came home from school with a packet of papers about Martin Luther King, Jr. He and his classmates had learned a few things about Dr. King, and my six-year-old (who absolutely loves anything having to do with history) excitedly relayed to me as much as he could remember about King's life and speeches.

I noticed the word "Justice" on one of the papers, and saw an opportunity to engage my son about the meaning of justice, how it related to civil rights during King's life, and how important a proper understanding of justice is today. I see such engagement as critical in helping my three young children develop a proper understanding of Biblical justice, so I was genuinely excited to be given this obvious opportunity for discussion.

I gestured to one of the papers and asked, "What big thing did Martin Luther King want for people?"

"Umm...I don't know. Lots of things," responded my son.

What Is Equality?

It's not an easy discussion for a six-year-old to jump into, so I offered a hint. I pointed to one of the words printed in big, bold letters on the paper: EQUALITY. 

"What's this word?" I asked.

"Equality," my son read.

"Good! So Martin Luther King wanted everybody to be equal?" I followed up.

"Yeah, I think so," offered my son, a bit hesitantly.

"Did he want everybody to be the same height? Or for everybody to be just as good at sports as everybody else? Or every single person in the world to have the same type of house or job?" I asked, a bit playfully.

"No," my son said with a big grin. "Not equal like that."

"But," I pressed, "that would make everybody equal, right? If everybody had the same amount of money, and the same amount of school, and healthiness, and everything else, then we would all be equal, right? Isn't that what Martin Luther King meant when talking about equality?"

My son remained firm, despite my attempt. "I don't think so," he said.

"Then equal how?" I asked again. My son didn't know. But then again, he's six years old, so he has a logical reason for not knowing. He needs to be taught. In truth, many grown-ups also have a hard time defining ideas like "equality" and "justice." They are words whose meanings have become very skewed lately.

So I honed in a little more. I asked my son, "Have you ever heard of political equality?" He shrugged his shoulders, his eyes perking up a bit, as they always do when he encounters a new word or idea, feeding his insatiably curious appetite. I went on. "Political equality is equality under the law. It means we don't have different laws for different people. Everybody has to follow the same rules. And those rules actually aren't made up by people, they're based on the rules God gives to us."

Driving Home the Point

I always like to give examples that my kids can understand. "What if we were out driving and there was a stop sign. And I blow right through it without stopping. That's called breaking the law. So a police officer pulls me over. But instead of giving me a ticket, he lets me go because he likes the way I look. Would that be right?"

My six year old was moderately indignant. "No!" he declared.

"Why not? Why can't the policeman just ignore me breaking the law, if he likes me?"

Thinking. Thinking. I can see the wheels turning in my son's head. I push on. "Do police officers have to follow the law too?" I ask him.

"Yeah, they do!"

"Good!" I encourage him. "True equality, the kind of equality Martin Luther King was talking about, means the rules apply equally to everybody. So if I break the law by blowing through a stop sign, I deserve to get a ticket, right?"

"Yup," concludes my son, confidently.

Now we've arrived at what has been my goal all along: helping him understand what Justice is.

"When we get what we deserve, that's called 'Justice'," I explain. Lest he think justice is only one-sided, negative results, I continued with my driving example. "Now, what if instead of blowing through the stop sign, we followed all the rules. We stopped when we were supposed to, and we drove the speed limit. Do we deserve to get a ticket from the police then?"

"No," he says with a big smile, as if I've said something so ridiculous that it's funny.

"You're right.  Of course we don't deserve a ticket if we follow the rules. Instead, we would deserve to get where we're going quickly and safely, without any tickets. That's justice too.  Really, justice is getting what you deserve, whether good or bad. If you break the rules, bad things happen, and that's justice. And if you follow the rules, good things happen, and that's justice too." At that point, my six year old was on to some other bit of news from his day at school. That was fine; I had planted the seed.

Justice = Whatever We Want It To Be?

I share this story with you because, over the last few years, the term "Justice" has become far to ill-defined and confused with other virtues and ideas. Words mean things, and if we play fast and loose with their meanings, we inhibit our ability to communicate, diagnose problems, and identify the best solutions.

For example, I've heard justice defined subjectively and nebulously as "making things right." What things? Right according to whom? Making them how? Or the barely better "systemic change to align with God's design for creation." God's original design does not include sin; yet justice in our world today must deal with a sinful reality. Where do the consequences of our choices fit into that definition? Can systems really be unjust, or is it the people acting within the system that make it just or unjust?

Subjective definitions such as these might as well be "Justice is whatever I personally think is good, and injustice is whatever I personally think is bad."

I challenge you to honestly ponder a better definition, presented here: "Justice is people getting what they deserve, whether good or bad, and whether we personally like the outcome or not." Because without an honest definition of justice, we won't achieve it.

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Great comment Trevor.  :-)

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