The question “what is justice?” has probably consumed mankind as much as any question ever asked, producing thousands of books, filling lives from Biblical and Confucian times to now. Yet if you read it all, you might come to the same conclusion that life, if we listen, teaches.
And what is that? Well, take a short journey with me. Early as the Old Testament, we are told God imbued in us a sense of justice, and expectation we will listen, do it. What does that mean?
While citations are only citations, there are many. Psalm 82 says: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute,” that is – be alert, empathetic, kind, yearn to do good, make it a purpose.
Isaiah is more explicit. “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, please the widow’s cause.” In other words, by focusing on others you are true to you.
This is not “procedural” justice, although that too is important – becomes due process in our Constitution. This is not exactly Socratic justice, what Plato called “superior character and intelligence,” although it approaches those.
It certainly is not the Marxist idea that whatever belongs to one should be given to others in the name of the misguided notion that “redistributive” justice corrects the world by coercion. Of course, what Marx misses, even Greeks and Romans undervalue, is heart, the conscience, the uniqueness of each individual and sovereignty of one soul to act – not in groups, not factions.
In another sense, justice is often described as “retributive,” punishments for wrongdoing, not the same as doing good. Justice can be “eye for an eye,” or can be “the Good Samaritan.”
Even Confucius wrote, “return good for good; return evil with justice.” Christ – God’s word on Earth – amended that, expanded the idea, asked more of us than retribution, asked forgiveness.
Shakespeare in Othello talks of our human, very real, unchanging good and bad sides, the good informed by our “better angels.” Lincoln, who read the Bible and Shakespeare, thus likely Othello, lifted and amplified notions found in Psalms, spoken by Christ, and in Shakespeare.
In Lincoln’s First Inaugural, he urged peace not war, empathy not judgment, perspective not myopia. He asked we hear our “better angels,” a plea adopted in time by Ronald Reagan.
There is in Lincoln’s words – and in Reagan’s – a flavor of justice, an appeal to something bigger, something to be plumbed by each of us in the deep, found in our own human depths.
In Lincoln’s words – spoken March 1861, a month before onset of a war that threatened to kill the Republic and all that bound us to each other – we hear echoes of the Bible and Shakespeare.
Spoke Lincoln: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Is Lincoln appealing for something specific, thinking he can stop the war, or did he know it was inevitable? Was he appealing instead to what makes us different – to Americans as self-governing individuals?
Was he saying, stop and remember – in all times – that justice, which includes love and forgiveness, empathy and principle – matters? It does for the Republic and for each individually?
Today, we hear the term “justice” bandied as if another word, worse a political signal for left or right activism – environmental, social gender justice, pick-your-favorite-cause justice. But that is not it.
Justice in the end is something real, much bigger, rooted deep, going way back in time, worth pondering over coffee, maybe reading about and writing on.
If you consulted modern writers, liberals like John Rawls and conservatives like Michael Novak, the idea of social justice looms large, and yet is elusive, subject to countless interpretations.
What really matters – and maybe this is what really binds all to all – is that beyond procedural, retributive, and redistributive justice, beyond all the pages written on justice, something glows.
Justice “rightly conceived” is being fair, respectful, right-minded, hearing your conscience, caring to act on it. For some it gets lofty, engraved writing over Corinthian pillars. For some, it is about lawfulness, fair processes, equal treatment. For some, it includes love and forgiveness.
But in the end, is a republican society means to survive, especially a republic such as ours, we must all stop and care about what justice means. More, in this Republic once led by Lincoln and Reagan, animated by Christian values, we must listen for our “better angles,” and then act on what we hear. Above all, “we must not be enemies.”
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.