What is Justice?


Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it… So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:10-13 ESV).

“Each man kills the thing he loves… yet each man does not die” – Oscar Wilde1


Everybody wants justice, or says they do, whether they have in mind primarily the punishment of the guilty or the redress of the victim. But seldom do we think through what holistically seeking justice might involve. Both the ancient Scripture and the Victorian poem express a central truth of the Christian Faith: by the standard of absolute justice, we all deserve death. St. James speaks to an audience familiar with the Mosaic law of the Old Testament, and explains that the standard of holiness before God is absolute perfection. Any failure to keep the law in all its fullness is an infinite falling-short of the glory of God. He celebrates the fact that what we, as Christians, receive from God is not the vengeance we deserve, but mercy. Therefore showing mercy towards sinners also ought to characterize the Christian life. Wilde writes from the perspective of a convict witnessing another be hanged. The whole haunting poem stems from the narrator’s consciousness of the irony that he should live while another man dies. While not himself a murderer, the narrator knows that in his heart he too has trampled on all that is good. Wilde’s convict onlooker thus stands in for those of us who might be inclined to describe ourselves smugly as “good people,” not seeing how arbitrary it is that we should be spared punishment.

This tension that James articulates and Wilde evokes between holiness and mercy, between the law and grace—arises because Christian history does not itself offer a definition of justice in the abstract. Our history offers first and foremost an image: The image of a frail body, beaten, mocked, stretched out grotesquely and pinned to the rough wood of the Roman cross. This was a juridical execution, and Christian liturgies the world over commemorate in the Nicene Creed—with the line “crucified under Pontius Pilate”—the petty Roman official who authorized it. In its immediate context, this is the archetypical miscarriage of justice, the condemnation of an innocent, the cynical triumph of political power over principle. Yet it is also, understood in light of Jesus’ resurrection, and of the witness of the New Testament, the supreme expression of God’s justice. The self-sacrifice of Christ, the pure, holy, divine victim, obtains mercy for all those who will place their faith in Him. The cross of Christ is a holy God’s condemnation of sin and vindication of righteousness, and this kind of self-sacrificing “love is the fulfilling of the law.” [2]

How much does that knowledge tell us about how to conceive of justice in the realm of this-worldly politics? One of the classic philosophical statements on justice comes from Plato’s The Republic. Socrates elicits two definitions of justice from his fellow Athenians, beginning with Cephalus’, “It is just to give to each what is owed to him.” [3] In this paradigm, justice is like balancing your checkbook. It is possible to fully know and to answer the claims of justice. Thrasymachus next answers, “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” [4] This formulation has a kind of appealing simplicity about it, speaking to our sense that laws are often little but the assertion of the will of those in power. It implies legal positivism—that there is no standard apart from the current regime by which to evaluate the laws on the books.  Socrates finds both definitions too simple, too disconnected from the attempt to discover what we ought to want, and proceeds to work his way to a vision of justice in the individual as analog to justice in the polity. “Isn’t to produce justice to establish the parts of the soul in a natural relation of control”, with each fulfilling its individual role? [5] Plato sees justice as first and foremost concerned with a flourishing individual life in which both the physical and spiritual desires are rationally  ordered. There can be no societal or juridical justice without addressing the personal, moral level. And justice in the polity is not merely a matter of equality before the law—Plato aims for the higher standard of harmony.

If Jesus’ loving death on the cross becomes the Christian archetype of justice, our vision has more in common with Socrates’ than with Thrasymachus’ or Cephalus’. Jesus’ self-surrender violates the zero-sum game of power, and God’s cosmic debt-forgiveness frees us from vengeful grasping. Believers of our generation therefore rightly yearn to work for justice for our neighbors, especially as it comes to redressing centuries-old racial wrongs. And we rightly want to set the bar higher than Thrasymachus’s positivism, and even than Cephalus’ tit-for-tat-ism. We have a sense that mere equal treatment of Americans of different skin colors by the law does not adequately reflect the circumstances, opportunities and temptations that have accumulated over generations. The white Yale Law School graduate who cheats on his taxes and the black Baltimore high school dropout who shoplifts for the same amount have not committed a moral transgression of equal magnitude. Even the growing recognition of the role of “implicit bias” in racial judgments reflects an inchoate concern for justice’s penetration from the external world of perceptible actions into the individual soul.

St. Augustine in The City of God concurs that most of the time, Thrasymachus seems right that the will of the stronger dictates laws. Man before the Fall had “a fellowship of equality under God” [6], in which no one lorded it over everyone else. But because of human fallenness, in which we are often at war with ourselves, with our own desires at odds, it is a great and fragile achievement when human laws obtain a measure of peace. This-worldly attempts at justice, which are coercive, can only evaluate external actions, and are notoriously bad at reading the heart and discerning spiritual states. Justice, for Augustine, is another and more difficult matter altogether:

Justice is found where…the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination…the association, or people, of  righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbor as himself. [7]

Even Socrates’ justice is lacking without the loving submission of the mind to God, which the gift of grace at the Cross makes possible.  The Christian tradition on justice, then, contains a profound ambivalence. The law is sacred, and even the worst human laws have a catechetical purpose, teaching us to respect peace and order. But because the impersonal apparatus of the state cannot love us, we should be wary of assigning human laws the task of renewing our souls and leading us to divine love and the love of neighbor. It is through Spirit-filled witnessing to God’s love in civil society that we can remind our cultures to yearn for the perfection of justice that Jesus’ reign will inaugurate.


1 Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

2 Romans 13:10; 3 Plato, The Republic, 331e;

4 Plato, The Republic, 338c

5 Plato, The Republic, 444d

6 Augustine, The City of God, Bk. XIX, Ch. 12

7 Augustine, The City of God, Bk. XIX, Ch. 23


Luke Foster is the Director of the Elm Institute.

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