Who has not known of or experienced unfair treatment? Take the 21 people who served time on death row in the United States and are now free, thanks to the advent of DNA testing. According to the New York–based Innocence Project, these 21 are among more than 375 people in 37 US states who have been liberated in this way after years of wrongful imprisonment.
With such releases we might conclude that justice has finally been done. But has it? What about lack of financial compensation, or years of lost opportunity, or broken marriages and families, or never-to-be-regained reputations? What about overly ambitious lawyers and compromised judges? Is there any legal system that is 100 percent impartial?
“Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.”
Then there is the injustice of the death of the innocent, callously thought of as collateral damage. The Nazi bombing of Britain brought death to tens of thousands of civilians between September 1940 and May 1941—at least half of them in London. The well-known 1945 Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden killed between 16,000 and 25,000 civilians—men, women and children. Later that year the pleas of scientists, including Albert Einstein, to spare innocent Japanese civilians went unheeded, and the United States unleashed two atomic weapons that brought about the deaths of at least 90,000 in Hiroshima and 60,000 in Nagasaki. Of course, these numbers represent but a small fragment of all the innocent deaths of the past century.
Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century is a chronicle of some of the worst injustices of that period. In the publisher’s words, it deals with “the psychology that made possible Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities.” The psychology, of course, is what we cannot easily escape, because it is fundamental to human beings. Still, Glover is not pessimistic or despairing, though he believes that “we need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”
This is certainly the beginning of a way ahead, but can we really do it alone? Do we have the resources within us?
Justice is about fairness, equitable treatment, impartiality, objectivity, rights; the English term is rooted in the Latin justitia from jus, meaning “law” or “right.” Underlying fairness and equity is the moral obligation to do what is right. Judicial systems have tried to develop means of ensuring fair treatment and imposing appropriate penalties on those proven to have done wrong by abusing others. What such systems have never been able to eradicate is human error, corruption or the downward pull of human nature. Despite best intentions, injustice remains possible in all our attempts at fairness.
We all want perfect justice, but who can deliver it continuously everywhere in the world?
A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) listed many areas of critical concern, arranged under three clusters: macro-economic imbalances; illegal economy; and water, food and energy. The gravity of these challenges has not lessened in the past decade.
The report does not make the following point directly, but injustice is a factor within each cluster because of ever-present human nature. At the macro-economic level, fairness is challenged by fiscal crises, where asset price collapse, global imbalances and currency volatility are interconnected components that create a nexus of inseparable issues. Experience teaches that under severe economic pressure, nations act first by taking self-protective measures, despite modern-day efforts to promote international cooperation and the interests of the global community. Just like individuals, national entities are motivated primarily by the instinct of self-preservation.
The illegal economy (aka the shadow economy or black market) is bound up in what is morally wrong, where injustice is a given. Corruption, evidenced by organized crime and illicit trade, is a significant element in the developing world. What should not be glossed over, however, is the role of the developed world. This nexus of activities further contributes to the instability of fragile states, to terrorism and to geopolitical conflict. Some of the categories in the illegal sector include counterfeit pharmaceuticals and electronics, prostitution, human trafficking, illicit drugs, and cybercrime. The growth of the Internet over the past decade has only compounded the problem of illegal economic activity. According to a WEF 2019 report, illicit trade represents nearly 3 percent of the world’s economy, or $2.2 trillion—more than the individual economy of Brazil, Italy or Canada.
“The criminal underworld has become seamlessly joined with the upperworlds of business and politics, blurring distinctions between illegal and legal.”
Injustice is easily triggered in the third cluster of global concerns. Selfish responses to the challenge of climate change impact not only the global environment but also energy price volatility and food and water security. As a result, issues of equity and fairness become apparent in resource wars, commodity price gouging, and irresponsible energy practices, among other outcomes. Another article in this Vision collection focuses on the human security needs of food and water.
The most obvious inequities concern the disparities between developing and developed world: 1 in 9 people (795 million) go hungry every day, and 98 percent of them live in developing countries. In the developed world, more than 30 percent of all food produced for human consumption—that’s to say, about 1.3 billion tons per year, valued at US$1 trillion—is never eaten; it’s lost or wasted. About 40 percent of the world’s population has no immediate access to clean water or, in many cases, must walk a kilometer or more to carry back supplies. For a family of five to acquire 20 liters (just over 5 US gallons) per person—the amount established as a minimum daily norm—would mean carrying 100 kilos (220 lbs) of water every day.
At the other extreme, those with ready access flush 54 liters (14.2 US gallons) down the toilet per person per day, according to an exhaustive study on North America’s residential water use undertaken by the Water Research Foundation in 2016.
Despite some progress in conservation, things are not expected to get that much better. According to the “United Nations World Water Development Report 2015: Water for a Sustainable World,” “by 2030, the world is projected to face a 40 percent global water deficit under the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario.”
The unanimous passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the United Nations was a tribute to the work of a small group of international diplomats, chaired by the late US president’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt. The committee formulated 30 articles by means of philosophical, legal, cultural, moral and spiritual discussion and compromise. The then recently ended global war, with its unspeakable horror and Nazi genocide, hastened the effort to bring to reality a universal code of nondiscrimination and respect for human dignity.
Though a few nations abstained from the vote, the result has become a part of the fabric of the modern world and has been integrated into the constitutions of several nations. It is noteworthy, therefore, that none has yet succeeded in ending injustice.
The full text of the declaration is available through the United Nations website.
Attempts to resolve human rights injustices have also been the focus of the UN and its agencies. Here there has been much progress. As early as 1948, the organization formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has proven to be the blueprint for much success in fighting inequity. More recently, however, globalized economic disruption and the failure of global governance efforts to resolve trade standoffs and environmental concerns have set progress back. Worldwide economic disruption, sparked by greed and unjust business practices, has also slowed efforts to provide adequate water and food to the disadvantaged. Climate talks aimed at creating global norms for environmental care are hampered as nations continue to pursue self-interest. Lack of fairness in dealing with our common environment will punish this and future generations as concerns food, water and energy.
Reluctantly we have to admit that while there has been great improvement in some respects, injustice remains embedded in human life. According to the 2010 annual report of the International Commission of Jurists, “despite the fact that 160 States are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and should therefore have incorporated its provisions into domestic law and provide[d] judicial remedies to individuals alleging a violation of their rights, victims continue to face tremendous difficulties in accessing justice” (emphasis added).
“Because human rights violations are rampant in many countries, human rights treaties must be made more effective in the lives of everyday people.”
“Justice Is Far From Us”
In the first century, the state of the world caused one man to reflect that justice was nowhere to be found and that no one was “righteous.” Writing a letter to the congregations in Rome, the apostle Paul based his conclusion in part on the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s words: “The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths; they have made their roads crooked; no one who treads on them knows peace” (Isaiah 59:8; see also Romans 3:15–17). Paul lived in the Graeco-Roman world; Isaiah lived centuries earlier in the kingdom of Judah. Separated by 700 years, they expressed the same conclusion about humanity. A major theme in Isaiah’s writing is the need for justice to be established.
Early in his book, the prophet describes a corrupt society where people act “to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isaiah 10:2). Around the same period another prophet to Judah, Habbakuk, wrote about the effects of the failure to practice right behavior toward neighbor: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4). This is surely an observation that resonates with anyone who has experienced unjust treatment at the hands of those best equipped to help.
No doubt Paul would have found both these passages accurate descriptions for his time too. One of his contemporaries certainly did. Writing of unjust employers, Jesus’ brother James says, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence” (James 5:4–5).
The social disorder that results from injustice is reflected in Isaiah’s further words (he could be writing of the 21st century): “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. . . . Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:9, 14). The person who recognizes what has happened and holds on to right values puts himself in great danger: “Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey” (verse 15).
Justice and Righteousness
Two aspects of God’s character are linked in several Bible passages. Justice is the outcome of His righteousness. Both will be evident in the new world that God has promised on the earth.
“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6).
“He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5).
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14).
“The Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16).
“A throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness” (Isaiah 16:5).
Societies have such problems because justice and righteousness (right thinking and living) are not natural to the human sphere. But these godly characteristics may be practiced individually now and will ultimately become the basis of all society. Injustice will give way to justice when righteousness becomes the standard for all behavior. Isaiah knew this well. Speaking of a future godly global ruler, he said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:7; see also 16:5).
This is understood to be a reference to the coming of the Messiah. Yet Christ did not fulfill these aspects of His prophesied role when He came in the first century. This is for a future time when universal justice will become reality. As Matthew’s Gospel quotes the Father’s words about Jesus: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles [the nations]” (Matthew 12:18). This, too, is from Isaiah, where the prophet shows that the Messiah will be persistent in his pursuit of fairness and equity for all: “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Isaiah 42:4).
We all want perfect justice, but who can deliver it continuously everywhere in the world on all fronts? This is the only One.