Saturday, December 29, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Justice in Religion and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Merriam-Webster word of the year is justice.  It’s a word that has different meanings for different people, especially in religion and politics.  Justice is defined as the quality of being righteous, or rectitude.  In a religious context, justice is the province of God.  In politics, justice is man-made, and includes social, economic, racial and criminal justice.

Justice is based on our standards of legitimacy, and we have different standards for us and them.  In religion, we expect God’s mercy on us, but God’s justice on them.  In politics, we have differing standards of justice for us and them advocated by competing identity groups that have polarized partisan politics and ignored compromise that provides for the common good.     
Concepts of God’s justice vary among religions.  Man’s justice is secular, but its laws are derived from religious standards of legitimacy.  In the Hebrew Bible, God’s justice is based on Mosaic Law, while Jesus taught God’s love over law.  But there’s no place for love or mercy in determining guilt or innocence in the courtroom, since equal justice under the law requires that justice is blind.

A case in point is Reginald Denny.  He was almost killed during the 1992 California riots, and at the trial of his attackers he told the jury he had forgiven them and asked them to show mercy on his attackers and acquit them.  But crimes are offenses against the state as well as the victims, and to show mercy at the request of one victim would deny equal justice under law to others.

God’s mercy is different.  It’s based on God’s forgiveness of sin, and sin is not a crime punished in any worldly court.  The prophet Micah once juxtaposed God’s justice and mercy: And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)  Unfortunately, God’s merciful justice will not work in a secular courtroom.
Jesus put God’s love over law and debunked Jewish laws that prohibited picking grain and healing on the Sabbath, as well as ritualistic dietary laws (Mark 2:27-28; 3:4; 7:17-23).  And Jesus condemned hypocritical religious leaders who promoted religious laws and “...neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)

Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. applied the rationale of love over law when he challenged the injustice of Jim Crow separate but equal laws in the U.S.  His nonviolent civil disobedience emphasized the moral supremacy of God’s law over immoral secular law, while he respected the supremacy of the secular rule of law; and his protests ultimately changed the law.

In matters of racial, social, and economic justice American politics are now polarized by a two party duopoly split along radical right and leftist political ideologies that are based on identity politics.  Both parties lack a centrist component that promotes a politics of reconciliation, so that critical issues like immigration reform have gone unresolved.

There has been an erosion of those altruistic values at the foundation of the American civil religion, and that has created serious deficiencies in justice.  A healthy democracy requires that individual wants and rights are balanced with providing for the common good. Restoring that balance will require a moral revolution to revive altruism in American religion and politics.

Altruism is a moral imperative expressed in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions.  It’s a common word of faith and politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that if followed could restore equal justice under law in American religion and politics.


Radical right populist politics with religious support are corrupting concepts of justice around the world by favoring one race, religion or nationality over others, making it impossible to provide equal justice under law.  In the U.S. the populist movement is represented by Donald Trump and his Republican minions who have the support of white evangelical Christians. Overseas Stephen Bannon and his acolyte Benjamin Harwell are currently converting a monastery near Rome into “a gladiator school for culture warriors.” See

There are indications that political leaders are looking beyond narrow identity politics.  E. J. Dionne, Jr. has noted “On the left, the word ‘intersectionality’ has gained popularity as it deals with the cross-cutting effects of race, gender and class, and there is no doubt that progressive politics will, of necessity, be intersectional. But beyond buzz words, progressives must find a politics that links ...racial and gender justice with social justice more broadly. In the 2018 elections, Democrats found that an emphasis on health care, access to education and higher wages worked across many constituencies. A war on corruption targeting the power of monied elites holds similar promise.  ...In grappling with the tensions entailed in identity politics, we can do worse than to remember Rabbi Hillel’s celebrated observation: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?’ Hillel was not a political consultant, but his balanced approach remains sound, electorally as well as morally.”
In Christianity and Islam, religious exclusivity is the primary obstacle to justice.  Pope Francis has challenged Christian exclusivism with the universalist assertion that “We are all brothers and sisters.”  See

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(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
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