He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
The origins of human rights law in western legal tradition is said to have begun in 1215, when King John of England signed the Magna Carta Libertatum treaty that established the first set of rules protecting civil rights and liberties. The Magna Carta was not an immediate success but it became embedded in political discourses over the centuries until 1689 when the English Bill of Rights signed by William III and Mary II officially improved civil rights and enabled access for ordinary people to trials by jury and the ability to petition the King relating to disputes. More importantly it was the beginning of what we know of today as the ‘separation of powers’ between the jurisprudential, executive and legislative branches of governance, where the powers of the monarch became limited to ensure constitutional rights were equitable and where they built a democratic and egalitarian society on the foundations of justice.
The limitation of powers prevented corruption and prejudice so that access to organisational resources could be equally and fairly distributed and allocated to all, establishing frameworks that assigned ethical responsibility from those in power toward those who are vulnerable. Thus the definition of justice emerges as an outcome of injustice where the meaning is not static but rather dependent on the circumstances; injustice contains features that de-value virtue and morality. To achieve justice is to humble inequitable powers and return back to a state of egalitarian righteousness.
The attempt to ameliorate a clear and unambiguous understanding of justice has been central to political and social thought for centuries, from classical thinkers such Plato and Aristotle to contemporary theorists such as John Rawls all who have questioned the nature and forms of justice. The bible itself has helped shape and explain both justice and injustice including individual agency and social responsibility, from the ten commandments that universally codifies moral behaviour to the ongoing examples of social and political injustice such as the bad behaviour of kings and lawmakers. It continuously reiterated and exemplified warnings of the outcome of injustice – which is justice itself – as a consequence and that this judgement will be applied by the sovereignty or authority of God. Like a judge in a courtroom – who both protects the vulnerable from injustice and has the knowledge and understanding of the law to pass judgement – understands and has the power to right the wrong. It explains the necessity of individual and behavioural injunction against bad behaviour toward building the right relationships or being righteous, while also explaining the broader social and political responsibility and solidifying a universal ethic.
Mishpat is the Hebrew word that describes a society ordered by justice and law and that judges the values we should adhere to as we imitate God in the biblical scriptures. The Exodus portrays this divine justice where the Israelites are liberated from slavery by the prophet Moses due to the injustice of the Egyptian authority who abused their power. In contemporary legal systems that apply common law, a precedent can often be used as a means to define ambiguous definitions that enable judges to interpret unique circumstances not clearly defined. We know that the Hebrew God executes judgement but that He is just and righteous, the latter righteousness meaning those that apply and adhere to relationships that are right or morally correct, who seek an egalitarian or plural balance by raising and supporting those who are disadvantaged while humbling the haughty and arrogant who are in power.
It is thus divided by a dichotomy between retributive and restorative justice, that the outcome of injustice by the wicked is retributive and it restores the necessary equality or balance – thus justice – which emerges when judgement is made.
An example of this is found in the Book of Micah in the Old Testament. Micah prophesised the destruction of Jerusalem and accused the leaders of injustice, where division of land and boundaries were drawn by unfair means. The marginalised were mistreated for the purpose of gain and Micah condemns the covetousness of – in particular – the rulers or head’s of Jacob. These leaders both religious and political had claimed that divine covenant grants them as representatives of God the authority and power to judge.
The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the Lord, and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? None evil can come upon us’.
The warning is present both during the time of Micah who prophesised the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Samaria and the fatal outcome of Jerusalem around 722BC, but also applicable for the divided Jerusalem of today where he warns once again to remember the covenant of God. This covenant is to adhere to what is good and that our responsibility or moral compass is illustrated in the historical examples within the scriptures painted in a tryptich between justice, mercy and humbleness. Injustice leads to the retributive, but that given the power or authority we need to be humble before God, who is merciful. We need to show mercy even to our enemies.
Jerusalem is a tiny city located on the Judean hills and is steeped with history, remaining one of the oldest cities in the world. For centuries, this ancient land has been occupied by many cultures and peoples and today has ideologically transcended beyond mere land to become symbolically central to monotheism. Similar to the ancient Israelite kingdom, the capture of Jerusalem and the ongoing tensions with the Palestinian minority preserves this historic picture of exercising injustice. Jerusalem is central to Eretz Israel and the authority of the Jewish people as representatives of the divine covenant with God, but in the 1967 War divided the city and extended the boundaries. Perhaps at that time one could say the war was for just purposes as the Israelis have a right to protect themselves, but now is the time to show mercy and to be humble before God and that does not appear to be occurring.
For instance, in 1980 the Knesset claimed that Jerusalem in its entirety is the capital of Israel despite the occupation following the war when it annexed East Jerusalem. The international community have – until recently – affirmed this to be in violation of international law. When the United States moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem – and by doing so clearly made the statement that they agree Jerusalem to be the unified capital of Israel – protests known as the “Great March of Return” along Gaza became a great tragedy where Palestinian casualties have risen well over 100 and hundreds more wounded. The status of Jerusalem remains at the very heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Micah can educate even today by reminding those with power that as representatives of God, their obligation is for justice.
If the religious and nationalistic narratives are used to voice both Zionism and Arab nationalism, perhaps we can use scriptural stories or prophesies as a means to understand our moral obligation in the contemporary context by envisioning mishpat or justice and how to articulate the wisdom of ordinance and judgment. The status of Jerusalem can drive politically violent discourses and the arrogance stains the fabric of peace that forgets the restorative in justice, that justice itself is an outcome that emerges where we should act with mercy and restore the good or moral well-being as representatives of justice. As representatives of God, it needs to be accepted that justice is not just retributive but that it requires humility and mercy.
Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy.