What Exactly Do You Mean?

The church I attended during Christmas is very active in working in the surrounding community. They have health programs, scholarships, music outreach, a food pantry, and a clothes closet, and other things. Individual members volunteer with a number of local and regional charities and mentorship programs. So I wasn’t surprised when the invocations and prayers asked for “justice to be done” and “for help doing justice” and “help others achieve justice.”

What did the minister mean by “justice?” Who defines justice, or mercy, or goodness, or charity? That’s what always pokes me when I hear someone asking that justice be done, unless the meaning is absolutely clear already. I have a suspicion that a lot of “justice” is a bit different from what the speaker thinks it might be.

Justice is one of those words that get tossed around so often that they turn into the main ingredient in word salad. “It means I get mine.” “It means that the letter of the law is followed in all cases.” “It means that what I want to happen . . . happens.” These tend to be mutually exclusive assumptions. Sort of like the people who demand redress for ancestral wrongs, and then flee when I start asking how many generations back the redress should go. Who was the first to displace whom? Anglos moved this tribal people out, but this tribal people had already driven out that tribal people, who seem to have massacred this other group, who may have beaten up members of an unnamed cultural complex, who moved in after . . . Eastern Europe is pretty clear, when you trace Germanic speakers, Slavic speakers, the Romano-Celts, the pre-Celtic people, then the Indo-Europeans, but once you get to the pre-Proto-Indo-Europeans, things get muddy. And that’s just language, not genetics or “culture doesn’t mean ethnic conquest.” Got a headache yet? What is justice in this case, and for whom?

There’s a really good reason that several religions incline toward praying for individual mercy from the Most High far more often than praying for individual justice. We know what we’ve done, or not done. Depending on your starting theology, mercy might be the only thing saving any man, woman, or child from pure deserved divine wrath. Who wants justice in that case? Not me!

“Justice.” “Equality.” “Fairness.” “Freedom.” What do they mean? There’s always the Oxford English Dictionary (print edition, please) to settle the meaning, yes? No? Who does the defining? It all reminds me of Karl Lueger, the famously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Austria in the early 1900s. When someone pointed out that he had a Jewish individual working for the city, Lueger said, “I define who is a Jew.” Lueger was a politician, so I doubt many people would be surprised by that response, although at the time it was a bit of a shock to some. “A word means what I say it means,” according to Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. So too with “justice.” How the minister defined justice I do not know, but it sounded nice. However, I’m wary of praying for justice until I know what is meant. Mercy I will always ask for.


10 thoughts on “What Exactly Do You Mean?

  1. In recent years, such appeals strongly remind me of Isaiah 5:20-23.

    Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

    Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

    Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink:

    Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!

  2. A prayer for Justice is a terrible thing. It means you cannot find it in your heart to ask for mercy.

  3. ‘Justice’ is the proper response to a wrong.
    Of course, wrongs are subjective. And the proper response to a specific wrong is even more so.
    Therefore, justice is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

  4. Usually meant as a shorthand for “social justice”, meaning “do it my way and you may be in the second wave put against the wall.”

    They could ask King Balshazar what justice means.

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