Biblical Justice is not often emphasized within the Christian Church in the United States despite a clear emphasis upon it in both the Old and New Testaments and in American history. Amos, in condemning Israel for its treatment of the righteous, the poor, and the oppressed, calls the Israelites to “…let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24). * When Jesus first speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (58:6) and then tells the congregation that the Scripture has been fulfilled in him (Luke 4:16-21). Finally, the Pledge of Allegiance calls us to be: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Clearly, American Christians are to do justice.
We have used Scripture as our main guide to provide a normative framework for Christians to understand and work for Biblical Justice in ourselves, our community, our public structures, and our culture. We first examine insights into the nature of God and His calling to Christians individually and collectively. Secondly, we discusses Biblical Justice and the practical ramifications of justice and injustice in our country today.
Jesus called us the “Salt of the Earth” and rhetorically asked what would happen if we lost our saltiness. (Matt. 5:13) We at the Oregon Center for Christian Voices (OCCV) believe that American Christians have lost their saltiness and have failed to be a comprehensive light to the world (Matt. 5:14) because of an imbalance in our faith. Both individuals and churches have shifted emphasis away from just actions, just public structures and the public good, and toward individual salvation and piety. Some of this imbalance results from English translations of the Bible that characterize care for the poor as acts of mercy rather than acts of justice, overlooking the fact that righteousness and justice are simply different translations of the single Greek word dikaiosyne, and are therefore synonymous. Further, we believe that the Christian Church in America has conformed more to our culture of individualism and greed than it has sought to conform our culture to God’s Mercy and Justice. It seems that our songs of praise are louder than our cries for justice.
This paper is written to provide a more holistic view of God and His call to us. We hope it will provide a vehicle for internal reflection as well as discussion within our families and churches. Finally, we hope this document will help Christians bring about “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” through caring and advocating.
*All Bible Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
GOD’S NATURE AND OUR CALLING
Because we as humans are made in God’s likeness (Gen. 1:27), God’s Nature, His Character, and His Priorities are to be the normative framework for whom we are called to be and how we are to act. In examining God’s Nature and our calling, we need to think through the diversity of Israel’s experience in the Old Testament (Wright, 2004, p. 246) and Christianity’s experience in the New Testament.
The first sentence in the Bible states: “In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The remainder of Genesis Chapter 1 details the breadth of His creation. God’s role as Creator is reiterated throughout the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Deut. 32:6; Col. 3:10). But God did not just create the world and leave it and us to our own devices. God continues to act– guiding and intervening as needed. He gave Adam and Eve the task of cultivating the garden (a positive directive) and a command to not eat of the tree of good and evil (a negative directive) (Gen. 2:15-17). God shaped, directed, admonished and punished Israel directly and indirectly through the patriarchs, prophets, and kings of Israel, Judah and other nations in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God continued this pattern through the work of Jesus, His Son, and later through the apostles, disciples and others. Today, God acts through His Holy Spirit abiding in and inspiring Christian followers. God’s purview includes all areas of nature and all aspects of human life, including corporate (social) as well as individual and interpersonal interactions. For example, Deuteronomy 32:8 indicates that God gave nations their inheritance when He divided all mankind into their given areas.
Because we are made in the likeness of God (Gen. 1:27), we are called to act consistently with His nature and His blueprint for our lives (shown in His Commandments and Teaching). From the beginning, God expected us to be His partners in His continuing care for His creation and His people. This can be seen in Genesis 2:15 when, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” and in Genesis 6:19-21 when God directed Noah to take animals and food from plants into the Ark. Ephesians 5:1 tells us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
Throughout history God has called people such as Moses, Mary the mother of Jesus, the apostles and His Church to accomplish His purposes and to further His “Kingdom on Earth”. He has given and continues to give instructions, support, and authority to accomplish His will on earth. When we pray “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” we are calling ourselves and the entire Christian Church to action.
In His concern with what is good, the God of the Bible is different from the many “man made gods” throughout history. Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw all that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God was specifically concerned about the good of humans and their relationships when He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Gen. 2:18) Throughout God showed His Goodness by giving Israel good land despite the people’s intransigence (Deut. 8:7, 9:62). As David’s general Joab said: “The Lord will do what is good in His sight” (2 Sam. 10:12). (See also references to holiness and the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 55:5, Acts 5:32, Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 6:19 &12:3 and Revelation 4:8). Jesus emphasizes God’s unique goodness when He says to the rich ruler, “’Why do you call me good? No one is good—but God alone” (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).
Isaiah prophesized that followers of Jesus would be called: “the Holy People, the redeemed of the Lord” (62:12). However, this goodness and holiness is not a static attribute or condition. Rather, the Bible calls man to be good by doing good. In the Old Testament, Israel and its rulers were called to turn from their evil and to do good. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2). Amos calls Israel to “seek good and not evil that you may live” (5:14).
In the New Testament, Jesus emphasizes doing good and not evil when He preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). At the end of the sermon, He raises the standard for goodness and holiness when He calls His followers to “be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). In the Book of Acts, Christian obedience is illustrated in the description of Tabitha as one “who was devoted to good works and acts of charity” (9:36). Hebrews 10:24 calls us to “provoke one another toward love and good deeds”. More pointedly, Paul tells Timothy to “command rich people to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). Peter sums up this expectation of goodness and holiness: “As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15).
Unity and Community
Our Trinitarian God is three persons living as one being. While God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is alluded to in the Old Testament, the New Testament more clearly shows God as Triune. There are more than fifty references to Jesus as God and to the Holy Spirit. Jesus defines Himself as God’s Son when He says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and revealed them to infants” (Luke 10:21). Hebrews 1:3 describes Jesus to be exactly like the Father—the Son is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.” Jesus characterizes their life together as being one and abiding in each other (John 17:11 & 21). This life includes love, honor, singleness of purpose (doing the Father’s will), and sharing of authority. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit when He says: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25).
Christians are called to live in a bond of love with each other and other people. This life together is to be marked with unity and service. The Old Testament says: “The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the officials had commanded by the word of the Lord” (2 Chron. 30:12). The Psalmist says: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (133:1).
In the New Testament Jesus prays that the disciples will be one and indicates that their unity will show God’s love for them (John 17:21-23). In Romans 15:5, Paul prays, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus.” Later, he pleads with the Corinthians to have no divisions and to be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Cor. 1:10). Paul takes this theme a step further when he describes Christians as being formed into one body with each member belonging to all the others (Rom. 12:5).
This unity was to be characterized by servant hood. Jesus clearly calls His disciples to be servants to each other as servant-hood is the mark of greatness in his kingdom (Matt. 20:25-28). This mutual service and life together was to be characterized by humility, gentleness, patience, kindness, compassion and forgiveness (Eph. 4). Luke indicates the early Christians understood this call to live in community and service when he writes: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Finally, James states clearly that living together in community requires action and not just words (2:16).
God’s faithfulness in keeping His covenant of love is mentioned throughout the Old Testament. He is described in Deuteronomy 7:9 as “the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations.” Nehemiah paints a beautiful picture: “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (9:17). (See also Deuteronomy 7:9, 1 Kings 8:23 and 10:9, 2 Chronicles 6:14, Psalm 98:3, Hosea 3:1 & 11).
In the New Testament, God as Love is best described in the writings attributed to John. For example, John states that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) God’s love however is not a static love from on high. Rather, loving actions flow from His very being. Jesus Himself is an action of love: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). In essence all of Jesus’ actions on earth are acts of love. He sums this up in His first address in which He says He came “to bring good news to the poor, to free the prisoners and oppressed and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). A major characteristic of Jesus’ love is servant hood. Jesus tells the disciples: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27) and shows it by washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:5).
Both the Old and New Testament tell us to continue this servant love. In Leviticus we are emphatically called “to love our neighbor rather than to seek revenge or bear grudges” (19:18), and to love people who are aliens (19:34). Joshua admonishes us to “to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to keep His commandments, and to hold fast to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (22:5). Jesus reiterates the commandment from Leviticus 19:18 love your neighbor as yourself (e.g. Matt. 19:19; Mark 12:3l; Luke 10:27). He calls us to a higher standard than loving others as we want to be loved; we are to live up to the standard of servant love that He lived when He became incarnate (Mark 9: 35, Luke 22:26, John 14:17).
God’s mercy flows from His great love for us (Eph. 2:4). God delights to show mercy (Micah 7:18). God is merciful despite Israel’s rebellion against Him (Dan. 9:9). The Psalmist sings many times of God’s mercy (e.g. 6:9; 28:6; 31:22; 116:1).
Jesus’ entire lifetime on earth is a merciful act of a loving God (2 John 1:3). Clearly Jesus’ death on the cross is the supreme act of mercy. People seeking and receiving healing from Jesus often do so by crying for mercy (Matt. 9:27, 17:15, 20:30-34).
We are called to show mercy corporately and individually, just as God did to Israel and Jesus did during His time on earth. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel and its leaders are called to show mercy. God tells Ezekiel to remonstrate with the shepherds of Israel who only took care of themselves and “have not strengthened the weak…healed the sick…bound up the injured…but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:2-4). Micah links justice and mercy: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). Hosea indicates God prefers mercy to sacrifice (6:6).
In the New Testament, Jesus tells His followers to be merciful, as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). He says that those who show mercy will be blessed (Matt. 5:7). James 2:13 tells us our “mercy is to triumph judgment.”
The Old Testament alternates between describing God’s Mercy and His Justice. God is described in Deuteronomy as “the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (32:4). Job tells us, “God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (34:12). The Psalmist sings that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (89:14). Isaiah links God’s gracious compassion to His Justice (30:18) and prophesies of Jesus, God’s chosen, who will bring justice to the nations as well as to individuals (42:1-7).
God’s Justice is reflected in the life and death of Jesus. The cross indicates both God’s Justice and His Mercy. There would be no need for mercy if God’s Justice were temporary or insignificant. As Paul wrote to the Romans: “God put forward [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had passed over the sins committed previously unpunished” (3:25). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that “God is just” (2 Thes. 1:6), and refers to our return to right relationship (justification) with God through grace in his letters to the Romans (e.g. 4:25) and the Galatians (3:8).
The Old Testament calls individuals, leaders and the nation of Israel to justice and just actions. God punishes idolatry, injustice, and indifference to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Hosea sees justice as an integral part of turning back to God when he tells Israel that they are to return to their God and to maintain love and justice (12:6). Continuing to live in the Promised Land was dependent upon pursuing justice (Deut. 16:20) especially toward aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut. 27:19). Other Old Testament references include Leviticus 19:15, Proverbs 29:4 & 7, Isaiah 1:17 &10:2; Jeremiah 21:12, Micah 3:1, and Malachi 3:5.
The expectation that leaders and people will act justly continues in the New Testament. Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders for neglecting justice (Matt. 23:23 & Luke 11:42). John connects doing right with being righteous when he says: “Dear children, let no one deceive you. He who does what is right is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Paul links godly sorrow with readiness to see justice done (2 Cor. 7:11).
JUSTICE AND INJUSTICE
If we are to answer our call to work for Biblical Justice and against injustice we need to have a clear understanding of what constitutes justice and injustice in Scripture. The following sections will seek to provide this understanding.
Two Hebrew words, mishpat and tsedaqah are routinely used to characterize justice in the Bible. In Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen Stassen and David Gushee explain that the word mishpathas to do with judicial activity at every level and judgments made according to the rights of people. Tsedaqah refers to a norm or standard, as in “things as they ought to be,” or “restoring things to righteousness” (Stassen and Gushee, 2003, 345). These words are often used together and they collectively mean to do the right thing individually and communally. Righteousness is defined as living in right relationships with God, other humans, oneself and creation. Thus justice and righteousness exist when all persons, families, communities and nations receive what is due them.
Our actions and laws are to reflect and honor God’s creative intentions of interdependent harmony. For example, “Jesus wept over Jerusalem because its citizens did not know what would bring peace” (Shalom). It should be noted that Shalom—God’s Will for the world—includes more than freedom from negatives such as oppression, exploitation, hunger, fear, shame, inferiority, humiliation, depression, powerlessness, hopelessness, and social isolation brought about by injustice. Shalom, which flows from justice, includes wholeness, harmony, restoration, abundance, joy, peace, love, unity, interdependence, and inclusion as integral aspects of our lives (Aroney-Sine , 2001, 7-11).
Types of Justice
In his article, “Justice, Human Rights, and Government” Ron Sider delineates four types of justice found in the Bible (Sider and Knippers, 2005, 165.) All are aspects of restorative justice (tsedaqah)–restoring right relationships and place in society. An understanding of these various types of justice as well as restorative justice provides a framework for just actions and just laws.
- “Commutative Justice defines fairness in agreements and exchanges.” “You shall have full and honest weights and measures so that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 25:15), implying that violation of honest weights and measures will result in loss of land or possibly being sent into exile.
- “Retributive Justice defines what is due to persons when they have been wronged.” Jesus rejects “an eye for an eye” proportional punishment and requires us to turn the other cheek, and walk twice as far as demanded (Matt. 5:3-6).
- “Procedural Justice refers to justice through public structures such as the courts, legislative bodies, fair elections, and protection of rights such as free speech.” We are told: “You shall not render an unjust judgment. You shall not pervert justice, you shall do not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19-15), following God “who is not partial and takes no bribes” (Deut. 10:17) and ”demands fair courts with no partiality, no corruption and no oppression” (Exodus 23:1 & 3:6-8).
- “Distributive Justice (economic justice) refers to how the goods of society are to be distributed.” In very detailed instructions in the Old Testament, God requires that every person have access to productive resources and fair outcomes as well as fair procedures. God instituted the year of jubilee (every fifty years) when all land was returned to its original owner (Lev. 25:10). Other rules included forgiveness of debt every seven years (Lev. 15:1-3). Jesus announced at the beginning of His ministry that He came to proclaim the year of jubilee (Luke 4:21).
Jesus best practiced restorative justice when He restored our relationship with God that was broken by sin. This restorative work, including freeing prisoners, helping the blind see and the lame to walk, returning the disenfranchised into community life, and the like, is to be continued by His followers today.
RAMIFICATIONS OF ECONOMIC JUSTICE AND INJUSTICE
Injustice is very harmful to unity, community, and relationships between individuals, groups, and nations. Injustice blocks love by creating physical and emotional walls between people. It is hard to love or be loved by those who discount you, denigrate you or act unjustly toward you and vice versa. In his encyclical Peace on Earth, Pope John XXIII wrote that peace “is an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom” (169). Certainly injustice is not conducive to shalom, or the peace on earth promised at Christmas. Both Israel in the Old Testament and our world today show the impact of economic justice and injustice on shalom.
Old Testament Prophecies
Injustice is a major topic of the prophets. Jeremiah describes the injustice in Israel: “From the least to the greatest…everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophets to priests, everyone deals falsely” (6:13). As a consequence, “God will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors.” (8:10) God “expected justice but saw bloodshed” in Israel and Judah (Isaiah 5:7). Isaiah decries amassing estates: “Ah you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.” He continues, “The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing. Surely many houses shall become desolate and large and beautiful houses without inhabitants” (Isaiah 5:8-9). As a result, Israel and Judah will be defeated and exiled (Isaiah 5:13). Amos similarly warns the Israelite people: “You cows of Bashan… who oppress the poor, who crush the needy and says they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (4:1-2). Micah makes a similar prophesy (2:2).
Ron Sider, in his book Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger, notes these prophets lived at the end of two centuries in which land ownership had been centralized; a small, powerful elite controlled the land, a system contrary to God’s gift of a plot of land to each Jewish family by which to earn a living. Modern archeologists have discovered that most houses in the tenth century were similar in size, but by the time of the prophets and Israel’s exile two hundred years later, there were large houses in one area and small houses in another area (Sider 1997, 44-45).
New Testament Teaching
Contrary to our culture’s view that greed is good, greed and the resultant lack of distributive justice is never condoned in the Bible. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and the scribes as being full of greed, self-indulgence, and wickedness (Matt. 23:25; Luke 11:39). 2 Peter denounces false prophets as having “hearts trained in greed” (2:14). Paul calls greed idolatry (Cor. 3:5) and warns against associating with greedy people and other evildoers (1 Cor. 5:11). Furthermore, Paul calls greed a mark of evil people (Rom. 2:29).
Justice in the U.S.
The economic divide among people in US society has been increasing over the past fifty years. From 1992 to 2007, the average Adjusted Gross Income of the richest 400 people in the U.S. grew from $46.8 million to $344.8 million. In his foreword in the book, The Spirit Level Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009, v-viii), former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich shows that CEO incomes have become an ever-increasing multiple of the income of the average worker; it has grown from approximately 25 to 30 times in the 1950s and 1960s, to 40 times in 1980, 100 times in 1990 and 350 times in 2007. It should be noted that the focus on the common good began to lessen and the emphasis upon greed and individualism began to increase in the 1980s. This coincided with the lowering of income tax rates for the wealthy. In the 1970s, the marginal tax rate on those with incomes above $3 million (in today’s dollars) was seventy percent. IRS data indicate the effective income tax rate in 2007 for the 400 richest people in the U.S. was 16.6 percent. Warren Buffett pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than does his assistant.
In contrast, the Finance Minister of Japan said: “I believe we are at a stage where a little bit of egalitarian thinking…should guide our tax policy…our tax reform will be designed with an eye toward restoring its income-redistribution function.” Japan’s current ratio of income between the highest earners and the lowest earners has been reported to be 60 to 1 (Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2010).
Impact on U.S. culture and society
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009 were accompanied by the greatest inequality of income in our country’s history, suggesting that great inequality (distributive injustice) might be the cause of lowered well-being in the United States. The Spirit Level shows the promise of economic justice and the harm of economic injustice. Whereas economic growth improves people’s lives in poorer countries, distributive justice or injustice determines the well-being, health and sense of community of people within richer countries. Their analysis is based upon a study of the relationship of income equality or inequality in twenty-one industrialized countries with nine variables: level of trust; mental illness and addiction; life expectancy and infant mortality; obesity; children’s educational performance; teenage births; homicides; imprisonment rates; and social mobility. They combined the data on each variable into a Health and Social Problems (HSP Index) score. For sake of brevity, this paper will review only their findings on equality and inequality as to the overall HSP Index and the individual variables of trust; mental illness and addiction; life longevity; and incarceration rates.
Effects of Greater Equality and Inequality on the HSP Index
Wilkinson and Pickett found a strong correlation between worse scores on the overall HSP Index in countries with greater income inequality (Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Portugal and the United States). In contrast, countries with less income disparity (Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) had better scores on the HSP Index. (20). The United States had the greatest income inequality and the worst scores on the HSP Index while Japan had the best scores and greatest equality (Figure 2.2).
This same pattern (22) was found within the fifty United States. States with greater income inequality such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama had lower scores on the HSP Index, whereas lower income-inequality states New Hampshire, Utah, Wisconsin, and Iowa had better scores on the HSP Index (Figure 2.4).
Effects on Trust
Equality and inequality similarly affected levels of trust in these industrialized countries (52). While less closely correlated to equality than the HSP Index, trust levels were much lower among people in countries with greater inequality such as Singapore, Portugal and Great Britain and much higher in more egalitarian countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Japan (Figure 4.1). The United States had a less than average score on this measure.
Similarly, states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana had greater income inequality and lower trust levels than did higher equality and trust level states such as New Hampshire and Utah (53). These findings show that income inequality is correlated with lower trust levels. If trust is a key requirement for love and strong community life, lowered trust levels are a major impediment to the love and community life called for in the Bible. These findings are consistent with statements by Christian authors that injustice impedes love and peace (Figure 4.2).
Effects on Mental Illness and Addiction
The United States’ rate of mental illness in the 1960s was believed to be approximately ten percent; the current estimated rate is approximately twenty percent. Wilkinson and Pickett found a significant correlation between income inequality and mental illness and addiction (67). Countries with more-equal incomes such as Japan, Belgium, and Germany had far lower rates of mental illness than less-equal income countries such as the United States, Britain, and Australia (Figure 5.1).
Similarly, there was a strong correlation between illicit drug use and income equality (71). More-equal countries such as Japan, Norway, Finland, and Sweden had lower rates of drug use and less-equal countries such as Australia, United States, and Britain had higher drug use (Figure 5.3).
Effects on Life Longevity
Wilkinson and Pickett also found a strong correlation between life expectancy and equality of income. Life expectancy (82) in more equal income countries such as Japan, Sweden, and Norway was much higher than in less equal income countries such as Singapore, United States, and Portugal (Figure 6.3).
The same pattern (83) occurred among the 50 states. Citizens in greater income- equality states such as Hawaii, Utah, and New Hampshire had longer life expectancies, while citizens in lower income-equality states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had much shorter life expectancies. Similar correlations were found between income equality and measures of infant mortality and obesity in adults and children (Figure 6.5).
Effects on Imprisonment Rates
The correlation between income inequality and imprisonment rates among the studied countries was particularly strong (148). Countries such as the United States and Singapore, with high income inequality, had the highest imprisonment rates, while high income equality countries such as Greece, Japan, Norway, Finland and Sweden had the lowest imprisonment rates (Figure 11.1).
The same pattern, but with a much weaker correlation, was found within the fifty states (149). Wilkinson and Pickett note that the United States focused far more on punishment whereas countries in Europe focused far more on rehabilitation. The authors noted the American approach (155) seemed to be long sentences and imprisonment for crime—a “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude—while other countries sought minimal sentences, probation and transitional re-entry services (151-154). In short, the United States relies on retributive justice while European countries practice restorative justice.
We have seen that God, who created us in His image, designed and called us to reflect Him in our lives, to live in harmony with each other, and to create a society that fosters shalom. We have seen that God is a God of justice, and that justice is central in His Creation. Further, we as creatures made in the image of God are called to seek and work for justice in our lives and in our society. We only need to look at small children playing together and count the number of times they use the word “fair” to see how ingrained justice is in our nature. Empirical evidence confirms Biblical truth that people and nations do far better when there is greater justice. Empirical evidence gives hope for greater peace and shalom if we embrace and promote justice.
We close with these warnings from Jesus to the spiritual, political and economic leaders of His day and from Thomas Jefferson regarding the economic injustice of slavery in his day.
Jesus warns: ” Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cummin, but you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it…. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals un-depraved by such circumstances. And with what execrations should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other…. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed…. Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever” (Peden, 1954: 162:3).
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Hayashi, Yuka and Takashi Nakamichi. “Japanese Minister Seeks Rise in Taxes”: New York, NY: Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2010.
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Peden, William, ed. Notes on the State of Virginia: Chapel Hill, NC:UNC Press, 1954
Pope John XXIII. Pacem in Terris: Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1963.
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Sider, Ron and Dianne Knipper, eds. Toward an Evangelical Public Policy: Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Stassen, Glen and David Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context: Downers Grove, IL:Intervarsity Press, 2003.
Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger: New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Wright, Christopher J. H., Old Testament Ethics for the People of God: Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004.