Remedying Structural Evil

The Bible offers several principles of how a good community operates as love for our neighbor works its way into our role as citizens. Here are just a few examples:

We are responsible to look out for one another’s interests. Exodus 21:33–34 says, “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.” This law established relationships between neighbors. This principle has been enshrined into laws about negligence—what the legal system calls tort law (from the Latin word torquere, which refers to laws governing what happens when things get twisted out of shape).

As a neighbor, I must think of how my actions (or inaction) affects those around me. I must not do things that I could reasonably foresee would bring injury to others. If I see injustice occurring, I make it known by collecting evidence and presenting it to authorities, appealing to them to act justly. At no point is injustice to be repaid with injustice. If I act in a way that hurts another person or damages their interests, a biblical worldview would call for me to restore what was lost. It isn’t about punishment—it’s about restitution.

Robert Woodson, a former civil rights activist who now heads up Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, DC, provides an effective example of how the call to love our neighbor can actually cut down on crime. Woodson established a Violence Free Zones program that crafts peace agreements between warring youth factions and creates life skills programs, job training, and job placement services. The program looks for young people who are leaders, but using their influence negatively, helping them transform it for the good.1

Reexamining justice also calls for a national conversation about crime and punishment. In the last several decades, the United States has moved away from a justice system focused on restoration to a justice system focused on retribution. Now, approximately 20 million Americans have a felony criminal record and thus face significant obstacles when it comes to getting a job or even volunteering in church.2 And the prison system has led to massive government expansion, costing states $50 billion a year.3 At the same time, victims of crime seldom gain a hearing for how they’ve lost loved ones in senseless acts of violence or had their property or livelihood destroyed by crime. Various criminal justice reform initiatives have been made in the last few years, with wide bipartisan support. Time will tell whether these initiatives improve the situation.

Meanwhile, here are three principles from the Bible that focus on remedying structural evil:

We must insist that government is honest. Judges in the Old Testament were appointed to decide disagreements between people according to God’s laws and teachings (e.g., Exodus 18:13–16; Deuteronomy 1:16–17; 19:15–21). These judges were commanded to be honest and not take bribes or show favoritism (Exodus 23:1–8). Looking at how God instructed the ancient nation of Israel to operate, it’s clear that he wants the process of justice to be equitable. Each person has the right to be judged by the same standard. Deuteronomy 1:17 (NIV) says, “Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike.”

If government shows favoritism toward certain races or classes of people—whether white or black or rich or poor—its leaders must be held accountable.

We must protect the dignity of the accused. The Mosaic law treated those accused of a crime with dignity, avoiding hasty condemnation. Simon Greenleaf explains:

The importance of extreme care in ascertaining the truth of every criminal charge, especially where life is involved, may be regarded as a rule of law. It … does not inflict the penalty of death until the crime “be told thee” (viz., in a formal accusation), “and thou hast heard of it” (upon a legal trial), “and inquired diligently, and behold it be true” (satisfactorily proved), “and the thing certain” (beyond all reasonable doubt).4

Due to our fallen nature, our reason and will are corrupted. Human error is likely, not just possible. God instructed the Israelites to err in favor of the defendant rather than punish an innocent person. By this standard, George Floyd was clearly a victim of injustice. He was hastily condemned to death for the petty crimes of which he was suspected. Similarly, though, if Floyd’s killer were to be injured or killed by a mob action, that would also be unjust. When we’re angry, we expect revenge right now. Psalm 37:8 says, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”

Justice takes time. Being a good citizen means being patient while still being persistent. As Edmund Burke said, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”5

We must protect the dignity of the victim. The Old Testament law focused on restitution. If someone stole an animal, he was to repay four or five times the value (Exodus 22:1). If a person lied on a contract or profited by deceiving his neighbor, he was to repay what was taken and add a fifth to it to compensate for the victim’s inability to use in a profitable way what was stolen (Lev. 6:2–5). In Luke 19, Jesus befriended a tax collector who was known as a cheater. This man, named Zacchaeus, repented of his sins, offered half of his possessions to the poor, and committed to repay four times what he had taken. In this, Zacchaeus was showing his willingness to obey the Old Testament law as part of his repentance. Jesus affirmed this, saying, “Today salvation has come to this house” (v. 9).

Rioters and looters have caused billions of dollars of damage in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Thousands have been arrested. If a biblical sense of justice were to be applied, these individuals would be made to personally meet those who were harmed, listen to their grievances, and cooperate with authorities to restore what was lost—whether through work or financial payment.