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Justice: The word of 2018

By Ross Reitz

Merriam-Webster chose “justice” to be the 2018 word of the year, noting that people looked up the word “justice” 74 percent more this year than previously. Justice, depending on a person’s point of view, may have different, even opposite, meanings.

For many Christians, we connect the concept of justice with punishment. We quote Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned,” and then relate that God’s justice would be to punish us for that sin. While there is a component of justice that deals with punishment, much of the Bible’s teaching, especially in the Old Testament, deals with setting up laws that create fairness and equality.

So, how does God define justice? Most of God’s laws are about creating an atmosphere that prevents the need for crime. Japan and the Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. While Scandinavian countries are not much like Japan culturally, they do have one thing in common — a small economic gap between the richest and the poorest in the country. Scandinavian countries tend to have high taxes on the rich and programs to help the poor. Japan’s culture tends to focus on keeping executives from making too much and on paying their laborers well. When the gap between rich and poor is small, then the poor know that they can work within the system to improve their lives, and violence and crime decrease.

In the same way, God’s law is set up with a multitude of laws to keep economic inequality controlled. High interest rates rob the poor who have no choice but to put emergency expenses on a credit card or take out a predatory loan. At high interest rates, borrowing a modest sum of $1,000 for an emergency could end up costing the borrower more than $6,000. Just having one emergency, then, can financially ruin a family.

In contrast to this, God commands in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that Israelites are not allowed to charge interest to fellow Israelites. In fact, when the governor Nehemiah (5:1-11) heard that the rich were charging just 1 percent interest, he was incensed, and made all the Israelites promise that they would no longer charge interest at all.

A second part of God’s economic plan is to reduce the amount of debt that can be accrued. Our Father planned that all debts would be forgiven every seven years. Inappropriate lending was the cause of the last, massive recession. Much of the debt focused around the housing market. As house prices climbed, the poor had to take on precarious amounts of debt to afford a stable home. And much of the debt was not a true building cost, but an imaginary number based on how much other people in the neighborhood had spent for their houses. So most of what we paid for in 2008 for a home was actually — nothing.

If we had set up a system of limited debt and debt forgiveness in seven years, we likely would have been able to avoid, or at least greatly mitigate, the last recession.

Instead, we have recently chosen to increase education costs and to emasculate the government agency that protected students from high interest rates. We have allowed the income gap between rich and poor to increase. We have promoted policies that allow the rich to pay a lower percentage of tax, often less than what the middle class pays, and then have offered plans to take away health insurance and retirement pay to minimize our own increasing debt.

None of that sounds like the way God wrote His laws to define justice. None of that sounds like how a Father treats His children.

Ross Reitz has been a Suffolk resident since 2009. Prior to that, he taught the Bible in Africa for two years and spent six years as a teacher at a Christian school in Philadelphia, Pa.