Word of the Year

Holy Name Day, 2019

The publisher Merriam-Webster announced last month that it had selected “justice” as the 2018 “word of the year.” The announcement said:

The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.

I agree that the question of what we mean by “justice” is relevant. I’m not sure I agree, however, that it’s always, or even usually, part of the discussion. All too often our discussions about justice are unproductive because we are talking about different things, without realizing it, in the same way that residents of Green Bay and Manchester could have a very confusing conversation about “football,” or Georgians and Texans expect very different things when they go to a “barbecue” shack.

The general theme of this blog will be law and equity: the relationship between the requirements of justice in a strictly legal sense, and how those requirements conflict with personal or communal notions of mercy, fairness, or equity. I think of this as the “Micah paradox.” In Micah 6:8, God, through the prophet Micah, tells Israel that he expects his people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Unless justice and mercy are synonyms here (and I don’t think they are) then God has given us some very challenging advice: to be at once just and merciful, attitudes that often seem to conflict.

When Micah tells us to both “do” justice and “love” mercy, is he repeating himself, or contradicting himself, or something altogether different? If by “justice” he means strict legal justice, such as criminal justice, then maybe Micah contradicts himself. Criminal justice is, after all, about making malfeasors pay for their crimes, and civil justice aims at enforcing contracts and collecting debts. On the other hand, if he means economic or social justice, what is sometimes called “primary” justice, (and the book of Micah is all about economic justice), then you might think that this is an example of the “synonymous parallelism” so prominent in the Bible, and that Micah just repeats himself for emphasis.

I believe that it is neither of those. I think that we are expected to both respect the law and the legal system, and to strive for a higher form of justice that incorporates mercy and forgiveness. As paradoxical as that may seem (and the Judeo-Christian tradition is full of paradoxes) that’s exactly what Micah calls for. Humility, which over history has been regarded as a vice as often as a virtue, is the only way in which flawed humans (that would be all of us) can even attempt to balance the demands of justice and mercy. God’s justice is perfect, as is his mercy, so this is not a problem for God. For us, however, perfect justice in combination with perfect mercy are not only impossible, but well-nigh incomprehensible. We can only begin to comprehend it if we fall out of love a bit with our own capacities, opinions, conclusions, and remember that our own judgments and the ability of institutions to correct social ills is limited and imperfect. (Humility will be a recurring theme in this space.)

Yet we must try. The great moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan reminds us that when we are charged, as the Episcopal baptismal covenant says, to “respect the dignity of every human being”, we are not being asked simply for a change of heart. We act out that respect in places like courtrooms, and legislative chambers, and city council halls. Our duty is in fact to reach that place where, as Nicholas Wolterstorff (another of our greatest moral theologians) titled his Kuyper Lectures, “justice and peace embrace.” But because our powers are limited, we must always remember that striving is all we can do. For the time being, trying will have to do.

Perhaps, then, on the day we celebrate the naming of He who gave humility a good name, a proper New Year’s resolution for all of us would be to work towards making “humility” the word of the year for 2019.

One thought on “Word of the Year

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About Daniel

I have practiced law in Texas for 35 years. I am also an amateur theologian, with a Master of Letters in theology from the University of St. Andrews. My dissertation and my continued research continues the conflicts between strict enforcement of law and Christian demands of mercy and equity as they impact the daily practice of law.