A Biblical View of Justice (4)
“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make restitution.”
Justice, we have said, is a jewel with five facets – at least, according to the Biblical worldview. We are acting justly when we love our neighbors in the same way God loves them. Thus, the first facet of justice is what we may refer to as obligatory justice, and it is a kind of catch-all category for whatever love requires.
The second facet of the jewel of justice is preventive justice. Public policy should provide laws and statutes that can help to ensure that people will keep the interests and wellbeing of their neighbors in mind at all times. People cannot be permitted to undertake endeavors which may endanger their neighbors or their property without taking appropriate precautions. By keeping watch over a fire one has started one may ensure that only what should be burned is burned, thus preventing injustice from occurring against one’s neighbor.
The practice of preventive justice is exemplified in the Law of God in various ways, designed to suggest a variety of situations and circumstances. One must guard against his flocks or cattle grazing in a neighbor’s fields (Deut. 22:1-4). Open pits should be covered (Ex. 21:33, 34). Homes must be built to guard against injury to people (Deut. 22:8). Dangerous animals must be kept in (Ex. 21:35, 36). Inheritances are to be protected (Num. 27:8-11). And so forth. Even animals and the creation itself are protected by the Law from being treated unjustly by human beings (cf. Deut. 25:4; 22:6,7).
These various statutes serve primarily to remind people to consider the interests and wellbeing of their neighbor so as to prevent any injustice arising from negligence or indifference. As with obligatory justice, preventive justice is backed up by other forms of justice. These statutes and precepts are intended to guide people in loving their neighbors so that no unintended harm may come from any of our actions.
In my community we are required by our neighborhood association to remove the snow from our sidewalks as soon as possible. This is to protect the safety and ensure the wellbeing of delivery persons and neighbors who may be out on a stroll. There is no penalty for not removing the snow. However, if we do not remove it, and someone is injured or can show that he has been unduly inconvenienced by our neglect, he may have grounds to collect damages from us. The neighborly thing to do is to keep the sidewalks clean in front of your home and thus bear witness to all who may enter your neighborhood that here we love our neighbors as ourselves.
The community in which our neighborhood is located depends for its water on seven wells. In order to ensure that our water is as good as it can be, local statute prohibits the use of certain kinds of fertilizers or other outdoor chemical treatments. During summer months, signs will appear in the community advising us that the town council has determined that “Voluntary Water Usage Restrictions” are in effect. The policy of our elected officials is to prevent neighbors from committing injustice against one another by failing to exercise appropriate regard for the water supply.
Such policies and statutes reflect the preventive justice facet of God’s Law, and are to be welcomed, not begrudged. They help us to see that the Law of God can and should inform our public policies and our personal practice when it comes to living out the requirements of justice.
Review the Biblical examples of “preventive justice” cited in this article. How many of these have some parallel in the laws we follow today? Meditate on Romans 2:14,15. People may cringe at the idea of obeying God’s Law, but can we – should we – avoid doing so? Why or why not? Share your observations and thoughts with a Christian friend.
This week’s series, A Biblical View of Justice, is available in a free downloadable format, suitable for group study.
For more insight to the practice of temperance, order the book Justice that Restores by Charles Colson, from our online store. You might also read the article, “Social Justice vs. Righteous Justice,” by Marvin Olasky.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.