Power and justice (and other things)
One of the central concepts on the Hebrew Scriptures is that even the King is subject to the Law. This is in contrast to most of the “nations around Israel”, where the will of the king was the law- an example is 1 Kings 21:7, where Jezebel (“schooled” into that way of thinking) scorns her husband Ahab for not assuming that, as king, he can do exactly as he wishes. The justice of God should take precedence over power- might is not necessarily right. The question is, can that be put into practice in the modern world?
Other stories in the Bible, however, are less than ‘helpful’- for example 1 Samuel 14:24 to 46, where lots are cast to determine who should be executed for breaking an oath (though in the story a way out of the dilemma is found- verse 45). The Bible is the history of how people struggled to work out what God’s justice could mean in their lives- it includes their mistakes as well as their wisdom. We cannot reject the whole Biblical witness because such stories are also included. In Jewish tradition after the destruction of the Second Temple in CE 70 Rabbis continued to develop Jewish law, abandoning animal sacrifices, but keeping many ‘kosher’ laws. Some have a rational explanation (compare “don’t eat pork when there isn’t an R in the month” when most families did not have a refrigerator). But for ‘orthodox’ believers it is enough that God has spoken- God’s law does not require rational explanation.
How does the idea that justice should determine the way power is used apply to, for example, Egypt today? Was the army (supported by a large section of the population) right or wrong to overthrow a democratically elected President who appeared to be acting unconstitutionally? We often have little understanding of the history of such conflicts, and put blame on stereotypes of ‘national character’. Powerful interests intervene (or fail to intervene) often to serve their own ends (why, for example, has the US given so much financial support to the Egyptian army?)
We question giving to poor countries when wealthy people there do not care about their own poor- but perhaps the poor need support to be better able to challenge the power of wealth in their own societies. Does, for example, Fair Trade really challenge the basic structures of injustice that make people poor? Did the 19th century philanthropists, who built villages for their own workers?
Britain had 200 years when it ‘captured’ the trade and industrial production of the world- and this spread wealth to many people (though it did not eradicate poverty). But Britain’s dominance was challenged- by Germany and the USA in the 19th century, and in the 20th century by eg Japan and now by China. Sending 50% of young people to University in the hope of creating a more highly trained and educated workforce has not solved the problem (besides changing the role of Universities as educators of the elite). Semi- and unskilled jobs are only available if very low paid and insecure (“flexible labour”). The old hope that economic growth will solve poverty has stalled (not least because the increasing use of fossil fuels threatens destructive climate change).
Karl Marx might have been good at diagnosing the problems of industrial society, but his proposed solutions appear to have been disastrous. So what kind of justice do we need today to deal with power (of money or violence) in our society?