Herefore thus saith the Lord God,
Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone,
a precious corner stone, a sure foundation:
he that believeth shall not make haste.
Judgment also will I lay to the line,
and righteousness to the plummet:
and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters shall overflow the hiding place.

(Isaiah 28 16-17, KJV)

Madonna of Justice, Bernardo Strozzi

In the image above, Mary, holding a lively Infant Christ, points to an angel below, who holds a book inscribed with the words, Suprema Lex Esto, a contraction of Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, The Health of the People Should Be the Supreme Law, a phrase first coined by Cicero. Well, fancy that. The Salus Populi Romani was the image processed into Saint Peter’s Square at the Pope’s Vigil of Prayer for Peace on 7 September 2013.

According to the Louvre, where the Madonna of Justice is kept, other symbols of justice are shown – a sword, a sceptre and a crown; on the right of the angel holding the book, a bundle of weapons (er, the fasces, I think, in the non-fascist sense), on the left, a mason’s level. On the last, it’s not that clear that it is a mason’s level rather than a plumb line and level.  I am guessing that this symbolism refers to the line from Isaiah quoted above – in a more modern version, as follows: “And I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the mason’s level. Hail will sweep away the false refuge,  and water will flood your hiding place.” (HCSB)

The other day, I wrote about Our Lady as the ‘Mirror of Justice’. Today, I heard a short BBC Radio 4 piece about the history of the concept of justice. Whilst it moved swiftly across centuries and cultures, the key points I took from it were the constantly evolving process of justice and the universality of the concept.

The Greek word  δίκη or dikē (justice) derives from the Indo-European root-word dex, meaning finger, from which derive index and digit. Justice in early human societies was a matter of ‘pointing out’ the truth – which we still do, for good or ill, on an everyday basis. As societies and philosophical and religious systems developed, so did both the concepts and processes of justice.

This statement makes an important distinction, however, between ancient and modern notions of justice: Instead, the Ancient Greek word dikē means something like behaving in accordance with nature, or how your group normally behaves. The word does not have moral implications — it does not speak of how things should be or act, but rather how they normally are and how they usually act.[…] The Scottish scholar W. K. C. Guthrie describes this as “‘minding your own business’, doing the thing, or following the way, which is properly your own, and not mixing yourself up in the ways of other people and trying to do their jobs for them”

A reminder that the word ‘normal’ does not mean ‘boring’ or ‘repressed’! A New Testament concordance, however, interpets dikē as follows:

Gloss: punishment, with a focus that the penalty is justly deserved and right; this can also refer to a pagan Greek goddess, Justice (Ac 28:4), who would seek out the guilty and punish the wrongdoer

Definition:  right, justice;, in NT judicial punishment, vengeance, 2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7;sentence of punishment, judgment, Acts 25:15; personified, the goddess of justice or vengeance, Nemesis, Paena, Acts 28:4

Another scholar agues that ‘justice’ should be used in place of ‘righteousness’ in many places the New Testament, in the sense of the upholding of the moral law derived from the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Law. In contrast to the communities with whom devout Jews came into contact, Jewish Law, as Jesus preached it, was revolutionary by virtue of its emphasis on justice in contrast to he prevailing moral codes.  To defend the widows and the orphans was in accordance with the Law (widows are protected and supported throughout the Old Testament as well as the New) but not the main concern of the more corrupt and selfish culture of the Eastern Mediterranean. Justice and right behaviour (the ‘normal’ way of doing things), however, were to be tempered with mercy, as they still must be. And in a marvellously condensed piece of writing, the Apostle James says:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1 22-27)

Elijah Raises the Son of the Widow of Zarephath - Gustave Dore

The radio piece noted the Code of Hammurabi, the ideas of Plato, the Code of Justinian and the Magna Carta (naturally!) as key points in the development of justice. Whether one agrees or not with this view of history, what was striking was the observation that it is some way embedded in human societies to maintain justice, whether as, in very early human groups, to ensure the fair distribution of food and resources, or to ‘mind one’s own business’, or, in more ‘advanced’ societies, to ensure that might does not triumph over right. A continuing process, I fear.

What was also interesting was that the two concepts of fairness and equality were not conflated. In the English judicial history, all ‘men’ were found equal before the law – as King Charles I found out. ‘Fairness’ is about the outcome of the process and is a natural human predilection; the cry of the child, ‘It’s not fair’ shows something about us (as does the usual reaction of the exasperated parent…). But notions of fairness can be subjective – which is why we have developed systems of law: also moral codes and systems of manners. And always the debate about justice and fairness continues. This is a good thing.

In another piece on the radio today, reference was made to a dispute between Greenpeace and Russia, to be referred, ultimately to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Often, as we know, might still trumps right in international organisations. But the fact that we have a Law of the Sea and an International Tribunal says something about us puny humans – from ‘pointing the finger’ to making the world somehow governable, somehow safe. And let us not forget jus in bello and jus ad bello – first developed by Aquinas and currently being debated ‘again and again and again and again’.

What does the Catholic Church say about justice? Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

1807 Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbour. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour.”68 “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”69

The Catechism treats justice as arising from the natural law in accordance with the will and being of God. It enjoins against theft and calumny, for example, as injustices against the dignity of the human person and thus against the law of God. It treats with ideas of social justice, including fair wages, and with injustice against the natural world.  There is, therefore, something for everyone here, it would appear.  Yet the Catechism also enjoins respect for the proper authorities, insofar as they contribute to the common good and as long as they operate within the moral order.

We may disagree on what constitutes the common good, or how to achieve it. A historian might say that that the modern ‘moral law’ and its application in modern states is a result of the development of ideas of justice in part derived from our earliest ancestors, the Babylonians, the ancient Hebrews, the Romans and the Greeks, Charlemagne, the English barons and a host of others.   The Catechism, enshrining the moral law links the law of God to the dignity of the human person and thus to the governance of the world.

And Jesus Christ, of course, talked constantly of justice, in both his dealings with ordinary people, in his teachings, and in his role as judge and as just ruler:

John 8:15-16:  15 Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. 16 And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me (KJV)

Oh, and government means the art of ‘steering’, as a captain steers a ship. Not tyranny. 

But let us not forget who is the ultimate Judge:

The Last Judgment  - Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari – The Last Judgment

This entry was posted in Art, Catechism, Catholic, New Testament, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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