Every society wants justice. That’s every society throughout the world beginning in prehistory. Take away superficial differences, and it appears that every society has similar views of what justice means. We’ll look at a passage from Exodus that would probably not be controversial anywhere.
Justice is hard to get when thugs take over. See the latest headlines from Syria. But I’ll bet even Assad’s courts have dispensed justice whenever it has not been against the regime’s interests to do so.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take an evil government to pervert justice. Ordinary human nature can do quite nicely at that even with the best of governments.
A stolen mule
Back something more than a hundred years ago, there was a rural district with a few rich people and lots of poor farmers trying to scratch out a living. The poor folks didn’t like the rich folks much, but there was one of them, Mr. Bellows, that even the other rich people didn’t like very much. He was sharp tempered, rude, and demanding.
When someone stole his mule, old man Bellows hit the roof. I mean, back in those days, even a rich man needed his mule. After a while the sheriff arrested Billy John Boy for stealing the mule. They hauled him into court and assembled a jury. The trial didn’t go well for the poor fellow.
Finally, the jury went off to consider the matter. After some deliberation, they came back and the foreman glared over at old man Bellows said, “We find the defendant not guilty, but he has to give back the mule.”
The judge wasn’t very happy. He scolded the jury and said their verdict didn’t make sense. If Billy John Boy had old man Bellows’ mule, why then he was guilty. You can’t call him not guilty and then tell him to give back the mule if he didn’t steal it.
He sent them back to reconsider, and after a while they returned. The foreman glared over at Bellows again and then told the judge, “We find the defendant not guilty. And as far as we’re concerned, he can keep the mule.”
Was justice served? Not according to Exodus 23:1-9.
A Bible study on justice
“You must not spread a false report. Do not join the wicked to be a malicious witness.
“You must not follow a crowd in wrongdoing. Do not testify in a lawsuit and go along with a crowd to pervert justice. Do not show favoritism to a poor person in his lawsuit.
“If you come across your enemy’s stray ox or donkey, you must return it to him.
“If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying helpless under its load, and you want to refrain from helping it, you must help with it.
“You must not deny justice to a poor person among you in his lawsuit. Stay far away from a false accusation. Do not kill the innocent and the just, because I will not justify the guilty. You must not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and corrupts the words of the righteous. You must not oppress a foreign resident; you yourselves know how it feels to be a foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. — Exodus 23:1-9 HCSB
Lots of passages in the Old Testament law are difficult for us today to understand. This one is so easy you’d have to find someone to help you in order to misunderstand it.
But there’s one important thing about this passage that Americans can easily miss if we’re not careful. The primary application of Old Testament law and many other parts of the Bible is not for individuals, but for society as a whole.
There was a song popular several years ago that had the refrain, “I am a rock. I am an island.” That’s not true. John Donne was nearer the mark when he wrote, no man is an island entire to himself.
We live in society, and societies must have certain standards in order thrive. Rather than go through verse by verse, I’d like to gather a few basic social principles together.
Controversies in court
I doubt if there is any society in which one person never has a grievance against someone else. Every one of them has some kind of a system of gathering facts and determining right and wrong in that specific situation. No matter how complex or simple that system is, it can’t work without honesty and integrity. Therefore:
- Witnesses must not testify falsehoods.
- Judges, and juries if any, must not be swayed by whether the plaintiff or defendant is rich or poor, or well liked or not. Bias for or against the poor, for example, is equally wrong.
- Putting any kind of pressure on either witnesses, judges, or members of a jury will wreck the whole system by making something other than truth the basis for the outcome. Pressure includes, but is not limited to, offering or demanding bribes.
- Majority opinion is not always right.
If you are in a minority about an issue and believe the majority is wrong, you have an obligation to explain the facts as you see them and not waver. And the majority has an obligation to listen and consider without any thought of retaliation.
This passage does not say that both sides have obligation to be civil and polite and stick to facts and issues instead of stooping to name calling and character assassination, but then, remember what Jesus said about loving your neighbor as yourself!
Controversies that don’t go to court
Not all disagreements wind up in court. Some folks just plain don’t like each other. And that’s quite all right. Both the Old and New Testaments tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That doesn’t mean we have to like them or tolerate their company. Quite apart from the commandment to love, though, no society can function well unless even sworn enemies follow certain rules.
- They ought to keep their dislike to themselves and not crab and complain to others about it. Gossip and trying to get others to pick sides can tear the whole fabric of society apart.
- Rumor nothing but gossip gone viral. Whoever starts them and whoever passes them along do equal harm to everyone.
- The well-being of any society depends on the well-being of all of its members. Sometimes that means helping someone you just don’t like.
I have rather strained relations with one neighbor, but a couple of times when the wind blew vinyl off my house, he got up on his ladder and nailed it back. I’ve given his dog a ride home from wherever I found him wandering more times than I can count.
If his wife ever can’t get her car started and needs my car battery and jumper cables, I have to help her out, even though she has never greeted me or acknowledged me since the day they moved in.
If our two families won’t do things for each other when the need arises, we both make the neighborhood a less pleasant place for everyone else to live. As I say, these are not just personal responsibilities, but social necessities.
Dealing with outsiders
Whether a society is as large as a great nation or as small as a collection of nearby villages, some people will live there as strangers. Now here’s where our passage doesn’t necessarily apply to any society anywhere or at any time, but God commands his people not to oppress a resident alien.
That was especially important for the ancient Hebrews. Every single one of them who first heard these words had personal memories of Egypt. They were resident aliens there.
They suffered tremendous oppression. And, of course, they didn’t like it at all. For them to turn around and oppress aliens in their midst would have been the height of hypocrisy.
Basic social justice in the US
That commandment has obvious application to American society. Every single person living in the US either immigrated here or has descended from an immigrant.
That goes for the Native Americans. They came over millions of years ago from Asia, and in that time they have spread out all over two continents. No Indian tribe ever settled in a place and then stayed there for the rest of history any more than Europeans or Asians or Africans have.
We have a big problem now with how to deal with illegal immigration. The one unifying theme of all of these verses is pursuing justice and not perverting it. We can’t even agree on what justice is. If we can’t recognize justice when we see it, it’s a safe bet that somehow or another we’re perverting it.
I’ll give you just one example. When a man is here illegally, he deserves to get sent back to where he came from. But if he’s married to an American citizen, has small children, and is the only source of income for his family, deporting him and destroying his family perverts justice.
And all we as a society can seem to do about situations like that is lob angry slogans back and forth and impugn the character of everyone on the other side of the argument.
Of course, political campaign season is upon us. Talk about lobbing empty slogans, character assassination, rumors and innuendos. It takes an obscene amount of money to run for political office these days, and too much of that money pays for clever ad agencies to make up gossip and spread it.
Everyone hates what political campaigns have become in recent decades. Some of the most capable and qualified leaders in our country won’t even run for high office because of their distaste for fundraising and the unavoidable negative campaigning.
And quite apart from law and politics, we have the Internet and social media to spread rumors and gossip. We have so much electronic information available that no one ever has to read anything that they disagree with.
Again I remind you that the principles our passage talks about weren’t primarily intended to govern personal behavior. They describe necessary preconditions for a functioning society.
They are not eve necessarily Christian principles. People of other religions, even atheists, acknowledged them and try to practice them. They always have throughout the world and throughout time.
As Christians loving our neighbors as ourselves, we ought to live up to them better than anyone else. But we don’t, do we?
Mule. Public domain
Jury. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.
Men arguing. Some rights reserved by o5com
Helping a stranger. Some rights reserved by Ed Yourdon