Just Grant Justice

A Dutch physician recently admitted to killing a tiny baby girl—at her parents' request. The infant suffered from a brain defect, and the physician says he killed her under Holland's law allowing physician-assisted suicide. A tragic lesson that what some call the right to die can easily turn into the right to kill. The idea of rights is the centerpiece of the modern concept of justice. The right to die, the right to choose, the right to health care—justice is defined as getting our rights. Ironically this is the very opposite of the classical concept of justice. The language of rights focuses on the autonomous individual, advancing his own interests. But the classical definition of justice focuses on relationships: Justice is giving people their due—what we owe them. In the economic sphere this is summed up as "a fair day's wages for a fair day's work." Here justice means giving people what we owe them because they earned it by their labor. In criminal justice, justice means giving people the penalty their actions deserve. But biblically the principle has a much higher meaning. In Romans 13, the chapter on government, Paul defines justice as "giv[ing] everyone what you owe him"—and he makes it clear that this does not apply only to material things, like paying the taxes we owe to the government. Paul goes on to tell us to give respect where it is due and to give honor where it is due. In other words, justice is meeting any legitimate claim people have on us: It means a husband giving his wife the love he owes her; it means a wife giving her husband the respect she owes him. In fact, Paul teaches that we all owe one another an unending debt of love as fellow members of the body of Christ. Clearly, the biblical definition of justice is not about claiming our rights; it's about honoring the claims others have on us. Ultimately justice means acknowledging the claim God Himself has on us—a claim to our total love and obedience. In this sense justice is equivalent to righteousness, for any sin is a failure to give God what we owe Him. When we sin, we are not simply transgressing an abstract precept; we are failing in our obligation to a Supreme Creator. Since the 1960s, justice—especially social justice—has become the favorite slogan of political activists. But social justice is impossible unless we first practice justice before God and in our most intimate relationships. Recall the case in Holland: the tragic killing of a baby girl with a brain disorder. Typically we debate such cases in terms of medical ethics and public policy. But who asked the doctor to kill this tiny baby? Her own parents. When we fail to practice justice in our closest personal relationships, social justice soon crumbles. The clamor for rights and autonomy has become a canker eating away the bonds that connect us to one another. How ironic that the cry for "justice" has become a breeding ground of injustice.


Chuck Colson


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