By the time the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – each in its own turn – were judged and destroyed by God for failing to abide by the covenant they made with him on Mount Sinai, the people of each kingdom had vitiated every moral stricture imaginable at one point or another. Adultery, murder, idolatry – they tried it all, and the bible even records that two kings of Judah practiced child sacrifice (Ahaz & Manasseh, 2 Kings 16:3 & 2 Kings 21:6, respectively). The two kingdoms were, in short, as disobedient and evil as it is possible to be. And God punished them for it.
Don’t worry – I’m not on an evangelical America-must-turn-or-burn trip. Israel and Judah had a signed contract with God (you get that’s what was on the stone tablets, right?), the United States of America does not. I find it unlikely we’ll be held to the same standard. Having said that, however, it is instructive to note that for all the ways Judah violated God’s covenant, He held two specific violations to be more egregious than the rest. The first is idolatry, and since we don’t have a treaty with God promising that he will always be the God of the United States of America, I suspect God’s expectations on this count are different for us than they were for Judah (or Israel). The second key violation, however, strikes me as universal in its applicability: sex.
Just kidding! Only a jest! It wasn’t sex, even if evangelicals sometimes act like it was. It was justice. Above all else, God judged Judah and Israel for being idolatrous and unjust.
Many American evangelicals like to argue about what justice is or is not; I have no intention of entering that debate, in part because it pretends that God never spells it out. Read Jeremiah 22:3 (I’ll wait. Do it now.). That’s justice. There are other pertinent passages, to be sure, but none so succinct (not to mention useful as a summary) as Jeremiah 22.
As long as I’m telling you what I don’t plan to argue, let me also add here that I’m not writing about immigration today. Obviously, this passage has some application in that area, but that’s not what I want to point out this time. Instead, permit me to highlight that Jeremiah 22 is not addressed to the masses. It’s relevant to everyone (did I mention it gives a definition for justice from God?), but it’s not directed to the people. It’s directed to the kings of Judah, and this chapter addresses 4 of Judah’s final 5 kings.
The reason for that is obvious: justice on a systemic level was the responsibility of the king in Judah’s monarchy. It was up to the king to make sure that the legal protections in the law were implemented fairly; it was up to the king to ensure that everyone was treated as though they bore the image of God. Consequently, when God wanted to accuse Judah of breaching its written contract with Him by failing to promote justice, God sent a prophet to complain to the king. Think of it as God following the bureaucratic protocol of the day; He registered his complaints with the appropriate department.
So what would be similar for us who live in a republic? Since God can’t complain to a king we don’t have, who is our guarantor of justice and the party answerable to God’s protestations?
It’s a fairly complicated question, actually. On the one hand – this being a republic – we are all responsible. On the other hand, Romans 13 tells us that God raises our leaders to their place and even entrusts them with the power of life or death (unless you think “sword” symbolizes something other than bloodshed, in which case you’re probably both wrong and a pacifist), so presumably a leader is accountable, whether that leader is king, governor, or president. Having said that, however, it’s not as though our society can only be subdivided into presidents and the masses; there are myriad different subgroups that can also be said to hold special responsibility for justice in the United States – police, Justice Department bureaucrats, lawyers, prosecutors, and especially judges.
Ah yes, judges. Zeus-like in their courtrooms, frequently re-elected by a populace who wouldn’t know the judge from a terrorist on the street, and participating in a profession the pinnacle of which entitles one to be addressed as justice personified (like Justice Scalia or Justice Sotomayor). We’re all accountable for justice to one degree or another, but judges make justice their career. For that reason, justice in our country may depend as much upon the integrity and understanding of judges as on everyone else combined, and they are arguably the group most responsible for justice in our republic.
I tried to think of a clear way to illustrate the hazard to justice that injustice by one judge can present, but it will be easier if you just read this article instead (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2339865/Woman-molested-COURTROOM-marshal-orders-arrested-explanation.html). Did you read it? Watch the video even? Good. That vignette is injustice given life, and while there are obviously at least two parties responsible for that injustice, I blame the judge (yes, she’s technically a case master, but that’s functionally the same thing) more because the judge has more power.
Vitally, the judge in this episode kept her job until last week. You’ll notice that the events in the article/video took place almost two years ago (August 2011).
Like me, you probably assume that this was a bizarre and isolated instance of madness; your local judges are just and honorable. The problem, obviously, is that you probably (like me) have no idea. One bad judge could perpetrate hundreds of injustices a year, and if it takes two years for one of those misdeeds to meander into the media, what then? How many lives would be ruined and how much injustice done? God only knows, which is precisely the point.
If we as evangelicals care about the things of God, we have to care about justice, and that means we have to care about judges. I know that we sometimes talk about Supreme Court justices in presidential election years, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the judges who impact my life and yours by ruling on the daily and seemingly trivial matters. Small claims court, divorce proceedings, moving violations, civil trials, and criminal trials too. It’s not that federal judges don’t matter; it’s that the small-time judges – like the judge in the article/video above – handle so many more proceedings that their net impact on justice is arguably larger. They matter more. And we have no idea who most of them are.
If we want to please God by caring about justice, this is one thing we can do. We the evangelical community can choose to ensure that we know enough about our local judges to have opinions on the justice of their conduct. For those judges that are elected, we can organize and vote. After all, how many churches would need to mobilize to swing a judicial election? This is justice within our power (and by “our,” I mean laypeople. There are certain legal problems with pastors campaigning from the pulpits, so this is for you and me to do, not our pastors). And with respect to the case masters or other judges appointed rather than elected, we can ask for more than simple anti-abortion partisans. It’s within our power to make judicial justice an election issue every time. Since we know that God cares immensely about justice, maybe it’s time we start to pay more attention to judges.