Which Justice Do We Mean?

What are we talking about when we talk about justice? It is a word that has more than one definition. Here are just a few I’ve encountered:

  • Commutative justice: what is owed between different individuals
  • Contributive justice: what is owed from individuals to society for a greater good
  • Distributive justice: what society owes individuals (e.g. allocating resources well)
  • Legal justice: rights and responsibilities
  • Retributive justice: enforcing punishment on those who commit crime
  • Restorative justice: efforts to restore the dignity of both the harmed and the harming

The first four are definitely useful when talking about social and political theory and how we set up our legal system. When it comes to theological discussion, though, Christians tend to be using one or the other of the latter two.

Photo from Ed Yourdon on Flickr (click for source)

We can also subdivide the question into two: what kind of justice is God primarily interested in? And which kind of justice are we as his followers supposed to be working toward? I think it is useful to separate those questions because not all Christians will answer them the same. Some see God interested primarily in a retributive understanding and think we should do the same. Some see God primarily interested in retributive justice but think that we are restricted from having that role. Some reverse it, thinking God wants restoration but our job is a simpler retributive until that restoration can happen. And some – like me – believe that God desires restoration of the world and calls us to be a part of it.

For the sake of this series, I am presupposing at least that we are called to a restorative vision of justice. Much of the series will end up supporting that idea. At some points I am sure my bias that God’s ultimate desire is for restorative justice will also come through but it isn’t my focus. I’m therefore hoping to provide a combination of biblical studies and more practical discussion of how to get involved with restorative justice efforts within your sphere of influence.

Note: This article was originally written for my work with the Canadian Bible Society and then adapted to post here. Expect more articles coming soon as part of an upcoming justice initiative.

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.