Liberty and Justice for All
Posted on: Jan 1, 2021
Many folks are looking at the first few weeks of 2021 wondering what additional wreckage will be wrought in our political culture before January 20th. Many others anticipate that unspeakable horrors will be inflicted on them after January 20th.
The worst case scenarios are unlikely in either case. What we can reasonably anticipate, however, is that a lot of noise will come from both ends of the political/cultural spectrum, and that many who call themselves Christians will be strongly present in both extremities.
Accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Barry Goldwater made a statement that has been often quoted: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
One wonders what Goldwater would have to say about how the far right of American culture leans heavily on the first part of that statement: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no virtue”—while today’s far left politics would likely adhere to the second part: “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Of course, the meaning of these statements depends on how we define “liberty” and “justice.”
We don’t like to be reminded how our nation has been built on a very exclusivist use of those terms. At the very start—liberty and justice were only for white, male property owners. Civil Rights, Women’s Right and Indigenous Rights movements have been challenging the original usage of those terms ever since.
But from a faith perspective, what do liberty and justice mean?
We see a key aspect of justice for the Hebrews in Leviticus 19:18: “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against of your people; instead you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” This contrasts sharply with the prosecutorial justice that characterizes much of America’s legal system and that for most focuses on punishment and vengeance.
In contrast, Duke University Professor of Religious Studies David Pleins points out how “. . . many laws of the Torah, or books of Moses, are laws that govern how to treat the landless poor and those who lack basic necessities of life. Laws of gleaning, for example, set aside crops on the margins of fields for those who don’t own their own land or have suitable food stores . . .. Other laws in the Torah regulate the treatment of debt slaves, individuals who were forced by their poverty to pay off their debts by laboring for a set number of years before earning their freedom.”
Such expectations are part of distributive justice, which emphasizes justice as fairness. This was fundamental to the ancient Hebrews. It is a concept that many today still consider essential to a just society.
20th century philosopher John Rawls asserts that justice as fairness consists of three components:
- the equality of people in rights and liberties;
- the quality of opportunities for all; and
- an arrangement of economic inequalities that focuses on maximizing benefits for those who are least advantaged.
The gospel writers link “love your neighbors as yourself” with Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” Scholars tell us we should understand “love” in this verse as “obedience.” God’s covenant with the ancients required that they put aside allegiances to any other gods in the world around them—gods that in today’s world include political and economic ideologies; me, myself and I values; social and cultural privilege. Obedience to Yahweh was paramount.
Yahweh wasn’t anyone or anything the ancients could see or touch. Thus, the nature of Israel’s God was to be reflected in all aspects of their socio-economic, political, legal and domestic life.
In the biblical context of justice, liberty is not an unfettered freedom for individuals to do what they want. Rather, when we truly trust God, we will always find our liberty, or freedom, in how we are obedient to God.
In biblical faith, liberty and justice are always aspects of living in community with others. They are not slogans for the tribal psychoses that spout from the fringes of our political culture.
Jesus, being a good Jew, brought all this together in the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29-31): “The most important is Israel, listen! Our God is the one lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
“. . . With liberty and justice for all.” Christians have a distinctive way to talk about these words. We need to do so.