Truth and Justice

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth—so that I may pardon Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:1)

Superman’s motto was, for many years, “Truth, justice, and the American way.” Millions of American youth, including me, grew up with the notion that, if truth and justice were not the same thing as the American way, at least they were related. Truth and justice were among the things America stood for, and even if we often missed the mark on both counts, these were still two measures of how well or poorly we were living up to our ideals.

Not now, it seems. People in high places today frequently disregard the truth and make claims that are demonstrably false, while routinely denying the consensus of informed opinion on important matters, in favor of whatever bias suits their interests. Even worse—though understandable, given a lack of commitment to truth-telling—some people go so far as to suggest that there really is no such thing as truth. There are only opinions and “alternative facts,” so people are free to believe whatever they want to believe without any troublesome accountability to a truth beyond themselves.

If truth is in trouble, so is justice—not surprisingly, since the two go together. The late Harvard philosopher John Rawls described justice as fairness, and proposed that a situation is fair if any reasonable person would agree that it was fair before that person knew what part he or she would play in the situation. By that measure, slavery, for example, is always unjust, despite strenuous arguments to the contrary by nineteenth century slaveholders, because no one wants to be a slave. No one would call slavery just if he thought he might be a slave, rather than a slaveholder.

Today, many people with all sorts of advantages—e.g., well-paying jobs, health insurance, and freedom from discrimination—aren’t terribly concerned about injustice because they themselves don’t suffer from it. They already know what part they play in the system, and on the whole the system works for them. Questions of social justice may have troubling implications, so to the extent that they think about justice at all, they tend to focus on criminal justice, putting bad guys away, because that’s consistent with their interests.

It turns out, these are recurring problems in human history. Read Jeremiah, the prophet from ancient Israel, and you find the same lament: he has a hard time finding people who act justly and seek the truth. But if anyone is tempted to take comfort in the notion that “it’s always been this way,” as if the pervasiveness of sin somehow made sin all right, remember what happened to Israel. The country was destroyed and the people spent three generations in captivity, as the Bible says, because God was not pleased.

God cares about truth and justice even when human beings don’t. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder who was troubled by slavery, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” A terrible Civil War came a generation after Jefferson, a war that Lincoln saw as, among other things, God’s recompense for injustice.

Every generation neglects truth and justice at its peril. Ours is no exception.

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