Types of Justice

A theme that I have revisited a lot in the past couple of months, on this blog, in my small group this summer, and in my personal meditations, is that of the idea of justice. Justice is an interesting word, because we’re (mostly) all in favour of it, but we might have different conceptions of what exactly justice is. Christians also unanimously agree that God is just, but again we might have different conceptions of what kind(s) of just God is. To me the heart of the debate is between retributive and restorative, but here’s a more complete list I came across in my readings about a week ago:

  1.  commutative justice, which refers to that which is owed between individuals, e.g., in conducting business transactions;
  2. contributive justice, which refers to what individuals owe to society for the common good;
  3. distributive justice, which refers to what society owes to its individual members, i.e., the just allocation of resources;
  4. legal justice, which refers to rights and responsibilities of citizens to obey and respect the rights of all and the laws devised to protect peace and social order; and, consequent on this,
  5. retributive justice, which is concerned with the enforcement of appropriate punishment on those who have broken the law. To this we may add the concept of
  6. restorative justice, which has gained currency in recent thought on both sides of the Atlantic, and indicates the idea that criminal sanctions should not just punish, but serve the repair of the injury done, and in this way compensate for the wrong. One of the advantages of this latter concept is that it retains some sense of the importance and needs of the victim.

I’m not sure I think that their definition of restorative is complete enough. I think a big thing missing, which to their credit they do mention later in their discussion of justice, is that restorative justice also aims to restore the perpetrator, not just the victim. The goal is healing, whereas in retributive justice the goal at best is scaring people into avoiding more crime and thus preserving social order or at worst is simply the concept of “just deserts” – you get punishments for doing bad things and you get rewards for doing good things. This is different from consequences which is usually pretty important to restorative justice. This is talking about arbitrary penalties.

So the debate is which kind of just is God, and which kind of just are we supposed to be. Many Christians say that God is retributively just but that Christians should be restoratively just. As I argued in my post God and the Death Penalty, I think that inherently creates a tension and even those who really try hard end up feeling like they should be punishing the wicked because that is after all what God is like and God is perfect. More importantly, the character of Jesus challenges the assumption that God is retributive anyway. Some say that God is retributive and we should be, too. I think this flies in the face not just of the biblical images of God particularly in Jesus, but also against the commands for us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, be peaceful, etc. I personally take the third option – I believe that the Bible portrays a God of restorative justice and calls us to be the same.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.