Words Matter: Justice
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Thucydides describes how the Athenians sought hegemony through war in his account of The History of the Peloponnesian War. One striking episode is when they reach the island of Melos. The Athenian generals threatened to tear down the walls and destroy the city if the government did not agree to pay tribute to Athens. It is a striking example of the maxim that “might makes right.” The military superiority of Athens was the only claim that they had to the island, which stood in a strategic place to control the Aegean Sea.
Words matter. Today’s Psalm features the word “justice.” This word is thrown around casually and carelessly in our society. It is important to understand its true meaning and use it correctly.
Too often in public discourse, the word “justice” is misused to justify the strategic of one group over another or the protection of an individual’s interests, even when they do not align with the Common Good. Part of the Christmas mystery is that Christ came to establish peace on earth. There can be no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness. (cf. Pope John Paul II, XXV World Day of Peace, January 1, 2002)
Those coming to the river Jordan to be baptized and repent recognize the injustice that they have perpetrated in their own lives. They do not come to call out for justice, but rather to accuse themselves of injustice. This is essentially what happens each time we come to avail ourselves of the sacrament of confession. We accuse ourselves of acting unjustly and ask God for forgiveness.
“Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others. Loving God requires an interior freedom from all possessions and all material goods: the love of God is revealed in responsibility for other.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 28) This is part of the fascination we have with the figure of John the Baptist, who appears in today’s Gospel. Justice implies a rejection of materialism, by which we place our security in material goods, rather than recognizing the higher gifts that come from living an upright life.
Interest in justice implies a respect for truth. Too often in the public debate, the discussions of justice lack any reference to objective truth. “Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 38) Without truth, the word “justice” becomes empty and a simple tool of manipulation and self-justification. There is no way forward to peace when justice is manhandled.
Pope Paul VI noted that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking”. He was making an observation, but also expressing a wish: a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 53)
We have to learn to think well if we are going to defend the truth in the modern world. We have to learn what justice is and stand up for it at every opportunity. This is one way of “producing good fruit.” John the Baptist rails against the Pharisees as a brood of vipers. They are concerned only for their own well-being, not the salvation of the Jewish people to whom they were ministering. Who are the modern-day Pharisees? We are like the Pharisees when we are so concerned about our own well-being and comfort that we forget to take care of the less fortunate. We are not called to cry out against the rich and powerful, so much as to help those who are less fortunate than us. Pope Benedict reflected on the important relationship between charity and justice.
If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it, an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 7)
The words of the rulers of Melos begging for mercy did nothing to deter the impending violence of the Athenians. Justice lost out to self-interest and lust for power. Before we worry about the great structures of the world, let us look inside at our own hearts and see if we do not also take advantage of others, looking for our own benefit. Before crying out for justice, let us make sure that we are acting in love and charity.