By Sam Wells
In one of Woody Allen’s stand-up comedy routines from the 1960s, he said, “Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet. I put it in my breast pocket. Two years later, I was walking down Seventh Avenue when a berserk evangelist hurled a Gideon Bible out of a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. The Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn’t for that bullet.”
I remembered that story a few years ago when I interviewed a distinguished American judge. The judge talked about one night when he was mugged on the street. The judge said, “The mugger couldn’t find a wallet on me, but he did steal my most precious possession: a gold-embossed copy of the United States Constitution, which I kept in my breast pocket.” My mind was already back on Woody Allen, but the judge added, “And d’you know what, when I told that story to my colleague on the bench, she reached into her pocket and got out an almost identical gold embossed Constitution, and said, ‘Have it, from me.’”
What stays with me most vividly is the confidence that judge conveyed. He sincerely believed the U.S. Constitution contained the answer to every question a judge might have to face, and if you couldn’t find the answer, you simply hadn’t tried hard enough. That constitutes a particular conception of justice. It sees justice as being about judgment, and about a whole body of laws and precedents that, together with traditions, punishments, and professional standards, constitute a legal system. That judge believed his system had the answer to everything that really mattered.
The trouble is, you can have all those laws and rulings but be a long way from justice. That’s because without the rule of law, good judgments are useless. The rule of law means everyone, including monarchs, lawmakers, and judges, is subject to the law. But it also requires that you have a disciplined and non-corrupt police force, able to apply the law, and a culture of respect for the law among the general public. There’s no point having elaborate laws about breaking and entering if everyone knows the police won’t bother to investigate minor burglaries. It’s no use having careful protections for the right to assembly or freedom of speech if there’s a tyrant in power who can arrest and imprison and disappear people at will. You’ve nowhere to turn when the police are as corrupt as the gangsters.
That’s why many people have come to put their faith in and commit their life to ensuring good order. Good order means a society that doesn’t just have good laws but also has trustworthy law enforcement, robust guarantees like freedom of the press, independent institutions, and a strong ethic of public service, which together create a law-abiding culture. Good order sounds wonderful, but the truth is it still doesn’t constitute justice. The reason is that good order, as the name suggests, concentrates on order, and maintaining order, when that order is itself unjust, isn’t justice. The justice of good order has little will and almost no capacity to redistribute power, and it’s in unequal distribution of power that a great deal of injustice actually lies.
Imagine an immigrant child whose family doesn’t speak good English finds his parents split up. His mother, with whom he lives, is seriously ill, so that he has to become her caregiver. He also has to do a lot of shopping and cooking and cleaning that few children do. As a result, he does poorly at school, has no chance to make the most of his talents, and finds the doors to further education shut to him. No law has been broken, no formal respect for the law has been abrogated: but he’s discovered, very young and very painfully, that good judgments and good order are only part of what justice involves. Likewise, if he grows up and there’s a new government and his residency status changes, he has almost no recourse to legal advocacy, whereas those against him have plenty. Again, no law has been broken. But the law’s proved incapable of delivering justice.
Justice also has to mean some degree of redistribution of power, restoration of what misfortune has taken away, and re-creation of opportunity for those denied it. It’s about giving a first chance to all who’ve grown up in the prison of poverty, disease, and disadvantage, and a second chance to any who’ve made mistakes and are eager to learn from them. Today we additionally have a new version of this kind of justice: it’s doing justice to future generations. Most of the actions that are destroying Earth as a habitat for humans and many other creatures constitute no crime, and the people who will most suffer don’t yet exist; but it’s hard to deny that advancing climate change is profoundly unjust. Yet even this kind of redistributive justice falls short. When a person dies in the midst of life or a child learns that she has a condition that will inhibit the rest of her days, we say it’s monstrously unjust — but no human law has been broken, and no level of restorative action will change those realities. Even the best justice, it seems, can’t deliver universal well-being, and can’t prevent tragedy.
These three definitions broadly describe what justice means today. Those who seek good judgment spend a lot of time trying to make the law work for them. Those who seek good order are busy trying to make society work. Those who seek redistributive justice are trying to set right what justice and order have left unfinished. All three groups are cross with each other’s notion of justice; and all three groups are often disappointed in what their notion is incapable of achieving.
Today’s Old Testament reading is the most concentrated treatment of justice in the whole Bible. It may surprise you to learn that, of the 100 references to justice in the Scriptures, almost all are to be found in the Old Testament. I want to take a moment to see what light Isaiah’s understanding of justice sheds on our three contemporary notions.
In Isaiah 42, God announces that justice is to be done by a servant. Think about what an extraordinary statement that is. No grand name. No hefty wig. No whopping salary. A servant. A servant clothed in the best clothes of all. Listen to these words of love spoken by God to this servant. “I uphold you. You are my chosen one. You delight my soul. I have put my spirit upon you.” It turns out this servant is a person of actions rather than words: no shouting loud cries in the street. And this servant has a compassionate heart: if you are broken or fragile, this servant will look out for you. This servant won’t be subdued by enemies or the greatness of the task, and won’t pause until the whole job is finished, right out to the edges of the land. That’s a colossal and grand agenda.
Why is God sending this servant? To fulfill the purpose for which Israel was originally called. In Genesis 12, God called Abraham and his descendants to be the ones through whom all peoples found a blessing. That’s precisely what this servant is being sent to be. What does that blessing look like? Verse 7 says, “To open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.” That sounds like a comment about disability and about political prisoners. But it isn’t. It’s a stunning statement about exile. This is the first of four so-called Servant Songs in the middle chapters of Isaiah that are saying to Israel, “You’re at your lowest ebb, you’ve lost land, king and temple — but I am choosing you to be at the center of my purposes for all creation. You’ve lost sight of me, but I’m going to open your eyes. You’re languishing in exile, but I’m going to bring you home. The former things have come to pass” — in other words, “I brought you out of slavery in Egypt.” “The new things I now declare” — in other words, “I’m about to bring you back from Babylon.”
Now at this point you may say, what happened to justice? Isaiah’s adding two further dimensions to the three we’ve noted. If you were peeling an onion, the outer layer would be judgments, the next layer order, and the next redistributive justice. But Isaiah gives us the two pieces at the core. The first is right relationship. You may know the expression, “You can’t run an organization by an organizational chart.” It means an organisation isn’t a machine, it’s an organism. It’s all about relationships. Justice is the same. When two parties walk away from a law court, at least one of them is generally bitter as hell. Winning and losing isn’t the best way to ensure respect, dignity, honor, and grace, which is what a healthy set of relationships looks like. Right relationships with God and one another (and today we’d add the planet) are what Isaiah’s about, and what justice is about.
But finally justice, for Isaiah, is about a person; a person who embodies right relationship. God’s servant. And here’s the twist. If you look at the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3, and listen to what God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” you think, “Hello. That sounds familiar.” Look again at verse 1 of Isaiah 42 — “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him.” Matthew is saying, Jesus is the servant of Isaiah 42. And what does Jesus go off and do? He opens people’s eyes and he sets them free of their bondage to sin, illness, debt, exclusion. He enacts justice — or, in Isaiah’s words, “He brings forth justice to the nations.” We have a word for justice: that word is Jesus. Justice is, in the end, a person who models and embodies right relationship with God and one another.
Today we gather to enact that discovery by commissioning two new servants of justice, Hayden and Eliza. It’s absurd to think that two tiny babies can be servants of justice. But it’s not as absurd as God calling Israel to be a servant of justice when Israel was flat on the canvas in Babylon like a boxer taking a count of ten. Hayden and Eliza, listen to what God has to say to you: “I uphold you. You are my chosen one. You delight my soul. I have put my spirit upon you.” That’s the first part. This is the second part: “You will not grow faint or be crushed until you have established justice in the earth.” And this is the last part: “Today I put my Holy Spirit in your breast pocket. I will be your shield and defender, from this time forward and forevermore.”
That’s baptism. You’ve become servants of justice. Like us.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells is vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.