Before delving into matters of particular justice, let us review the concepts of universal and general justice. Justice in a general sense is giving someone his or her due. That which is due to everyone, at any time, and in any place is universal justice, or righteousness. People expect to be treated with righteousness and honor. (If this is the first post the reader has seen, then it would be best for the reader to at least skim through the previous post before reading the rest of this post.)
Justice as Fairness
What is Just and Fair?
Another sense of the term justice, which Aristotle distinguished, is fairness.14 People have a right to be treated in a just and fair way. People expect fairness in business transactions, judicial decisions, and in the distribution of certain things.
Fairness in Commerce
People expect that which is their fair due in market transactions.15 Each party in a fair economic exchange should gain that which is desired. If any party within an economic exchange does not receive his or her desired due, then the exchange is unjust. If the exchange is not voluntary, it is unjust. If a transaction involves force, fraud, theft, or violation of contract, then the exchange has unjustly benefited one party over another. In other words, if an economic transaction is the result of violence or deceit, then it is an unfair exchange.16 Several passages of Scripture warn against unfair business practices.
Theft violates the eighth commandment.17 Said command forbids one from using violence or stealth to steal the property of another. Although all property belongs to God, He has given property that mankind would be stewards over it. In other words, people have a right to be stewards over property. For someone to steal property is to take away not only one’s things, but one’s right to exercise stewardship over a gift of God. All people have a right to stewardship over creation, whether they acknowledge God or not. To deny said right is to refuse someone that which is that person’s due; therefore, theft is an unfair means of exchange.
Fraud is detestable. The LORD abhors dishonesty in economic transactions.18 Whereas theft involves violence or sneakiness to deprive someone his or her due, fraud uses craftiness and deceit. In other words, not only does fraud violate the command against theft, but also decrees against having a lying tongue.
Violation of contract is wrong.19 Violation of contract may be thought of as theft by refusal to honor an agreement. Laban did not honor his agreement to give his daughter Rachel to Jacob, insisting that he work another seven years for her. Jacob in turn cheated Laban out of his flocks. Jacob and Laban were not given as examples to follow in these instances.20
Commerce and Social Justice
Should the poor receive favorable treatment in commerce for the sake of the modern notion of social justice? Said notion requires preferential treatment to be given to the poor and oppressed. Christians who subscribe to this notion are quick to refer to scriptures that tell the Israelites not to charge interest on loans to the poor.21 Said passages should be interpreted within the context of other passages dealing with loans and interest.
Consider Deut 23:19-20, which tells the Israelites not to charge each other interest. If you were an Israelite, you had a right to interest-free loans from your fellow Israelites. They could charge interest to foreigners; however, God prohibited Israel from mistreating aliens. In addition to aliens, Israel was forbidden from taking economic advantage of widows, orphans, and their fellow Israelites; thus, the poor were to be treated the same as everybody else. With that said, there is a difference between lending to someone who can repay, and someone who is unable to repay a debt with interest. Lending and charging interest to someone who can not repay is unfair. If the loan originator did not know the economic status of the borrower, then it would be unfair to the originator of the loan as well as the borrower. Lending with the knowledge of a borrower’s inability to repay is to defraud the poor of their economic freedom. Such a transaction is a set up for an inevitable violation of contract and debt slavery. Thus, lending and charging interest to the poor is a violation of commercial justice, not social justice.
Should property be redistributed to the poor for the sake of social justice? Christian advocates of such redistribution find support in the Jubilee Year in Lev 25:8-54. According to the social justice interpretation of the Jubilee, land is redistributed, prices on commodities decrease, and slaves are set free through a fifty year cycle. At first glance, this seems like a year of Socialist utopia; however, careful exegesis of the passage shows nothing more than commercial justice with regard to property rights.
That which is bought or sold outside of walled cities is not a permanent exchange. Rather, a better interpretation of the exchange is renting. After all, in the Jubilee Year, the land reverts back to the original owner regardless of whether the owner was rich or poor. Rent prices decrease in proportion to the number of years before the Jubilee. In other words, the buyer was buying a number of years in which to farm the land. Land owners were not to take advantage of people who rented land near the time of the Jubilee. Buyers and sellers of land usage were to treat each other in a fair and just manner. The key verse for such land renting is Lev 25:14, which states, “And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.”
Property sales within walled cities could be redeemed within a year. After that year, the sale was permanent. In other words, even if the Jubilee supported the redistribution of wealth, it did not do so within walled cities. As in the case of lending to the poor, the Jubilee supports commercial justice, not the modern notion of social justice.
In the next ROAR, we will examine fairness in judicial decisions, and the complex issues related to distributive justice.