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Justice is incidental to Law and Order – J. Edgar Hoover
I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line – Isaiah
Law and Order has been a hot topic of conversation recently. It has also been a consistent part of the political conversation over the past several years as the present administration has often touted the virtues of law and order. In addition, notions of law and order are not just confined to questions of governance and law enforcement. Many Christians in my life support notions of law and order as it is framed by the current administration, and even understand their support of it to be in direct relation to their Christian faith. Thus law and order has embedded in it something that Christians (and folks of other faiths) understand to be compatible with the tenets and practice of their faith. As I am interested in Christian theology, I want to try to ever so briefly tackle this overlap between law and order and the Christian faith and ask the question whether there exists some compatibility between the two. Should Christians support and advocate for law and order? I want to be up front and note that I will be arguing that I believe Christians should embrace notions of law and order, however they should not be embracing, condoning or advocating for any notion of law and order that is not firmly rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom. I argue this because as I understand it, shalom represents the notion of law and order as it is framed by God in the Old and New Testaments.
In order to make my case for this I am going to have to lay out what I mean by shalom. I think theologian Cornelius Platinga has articulated my favorite definition of shalom. He describes shalom as, “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight... In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” To demonstrate this, let me provide a few examples of how the Hebrew word shalom is employed in the Old Testatment. I want to acknowledge first however that I have very little utility in ancient Hebrew, and I am far from a Hebrew scholar. However, I believe this is an important scriptural concept to grasp in our current cultural and political environment, so I will do my best in spite of my limitations.
Shalom of course is generally translated as the word “peace” in the English language, however it is far more than that. In scripture, shalom is framed often as a gift from God (see Isaiah 66.12 and Jeremiah 33.6-8, I Kings 2.33, Psalm 29.11). It is identified as the fruit of righteousness or justice (see Isaiah 32.16-20). Shalom, of course is associated with the absence of conflict (see Deuteronomy 20.10), but it is also the presence of justice and even material prosperity (see Psalm 72.1-7). In fact shalom is consistently associated with notions of righteousness (rightness) and justice (see Psalm 85.10-13), which are consistently and strongly associated with one another in the Old Testament. In fact there are times where the notions of righteousness and justice are interchangeable. In addition, Isaiah 9 frames the coming Messiah as one who establishes this type of just and righteous flourishing (see Isiah 9.6,7)
So if we were to make a collage of these scriptural passages we would have an image of a type of thriving and prosperity, gifted by God, that results from the establishment of just and righteous practices, and perhaps even institutions that administer those practices and that justice. I argue that you see just this type of establishment in the practices associated with provision for widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor articulated in the books of the Hebrew Law (See Exodus 22.21,22, Leviticus 23.22, Deuteronomy 10. 18-19). Carrying this forward to the New Testament, we see the Apostle Paul describing the notion of the Kingdom of God to include just these characterizations as well. He writes in Romans 14.17 that, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Kingdom of God here includes the establishment of justice and shalom (righteousness and peace). This is important because this means that the Kingdom of God and notions of peace are not relegated to one’s internalized experience of God, but, because of the inclusion of notions of justice and shalom, embody active practices necessary to make the Kingdom and thus make shalom a visible, material reality. So what does all this have to do with law and order? I am glad you asked.
If as Platinga articulates it, humans are fundamentally created to be webbed together with their Creator, each other and the creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight, then this image should be the plumb line against which Christians shape their understanding both of order and the laws established to govern that order. Those laws and the practices of enforcement associated with those laws should promote rightness and justice. In the book of Deuteronomy (16.18ff) God instructs Israel through Moses to, “appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes…and they shall render just decisions for the people.” The Hebrew here literally reads, “that they shall judge the people with just/righteous judgements.” Moses goes on, “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” This justice is to be measured against the priorities of the God who values every created person, and who ascribes particular value to those on the social margins of human cultures because humans do a poor job of appropriately valuing them. In the case of Hebrew culture those on the social margins were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners (the ethnic and cultural other), women and the poor. Because of the human tendency to abuse these classes of their brothers and sisters for the benefit of both themselves as individuals and for their group, family or nation, God institutionalizes their protection in the form of the law. In doing so God articulates and institutionalizes God’s priorities which, I argue, are rooted in justice, love, grace and mercy. If as Christians we are to embrace law and order, I argue the law and order we embrace must enact and institutionalize these same principles and reflect our valuation of the people on the margins in the same way God values them.
The founder and long time director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover is credited with saying that, “Justice is incidental to Law and Order.” In other words, justice is to be measured by order, not the other way around. Here, order is the sole evidence that justice has been enacted under the law. I argue that this construct is the exact opposite of the notion of justice articulated in scripture. I am afraid that Hoover's description of justice, law and order describes the notions of law and order as they are articulated by this administration. I am even more concerned by my perception that many Christians may reflexively go along with these sentiments. I am concerned because these sentiments miss the Divine heart at the center of justice, and the miss the Divine measure of justice as something rooted in the very character of God. They miss the justice, fulfillment, flourishing and delight for which humans have been created. They miss the Divine concern for the flourishing of those on the social and economic margins, and they miss the Divine concern for righteous justice, mercy, grace and love. So yes, Christians should support law and order, so long as it is this law and order that in the words of the prophet Micah does justice, loves kindness and walks humbly with God. Christians should be holding every other iteration of law and order up to this standard, and insisting law and order reflect these priorities. Christians should be dissatisfied with anything other than shalom.