Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released in 2009 by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds as medical advice suggested that he was dying of cancer.
He had previously been convicted in 2001 of involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103.
The transatlantic reaction was striking: most commentators were horrified and appalled by the release, while almost no mainstream voice in the United Kingdom criticized it. Recent efforts to clear al-Megrahi’s name have resulted in similar reactions.
Europe was convinced that justice meant allowing a man to die at home with his family.
In the U.S., justice required a criminal to remain in prison until his sentence was served or he died.
My instincts on this matter are straightforwardly European. Yet I do not have a developed theory of justice, which demands the release of a prisoner who is dying, just a deep sense of what feels right and just to me.
The U.K. and the U.S. are rather similar cultures, sharing common history, a common language and much cultural interchange at every level.
If there is a difference in the idea of justice between these two cultures, then it will be no surprise that ideas of justice differ enormously across the whole spread of human culture – and across history.
For Anselm, justice required the upholding of God’s personal honor. For John Calvin, it required the implacable application of a universal law.
Their differing views on what Christ accomplished on the cross owe much to these different views of justice.
In some human cultures, justice greatly respects the social status of the two parties.
In medieval European law, to murder an archbishop was a far greater offense than murdering a mere priest. We would see such distinctions as fundamentally unjust.
Tribal societies often see justice primarily in restoring the harmony of the tribe. Hierarchical societies see it in the maintenance of good order. Late modern societies see it in the maximizing of individual liberty.
If human conceptions of justice differ so greatly, what, then, of God’s justice as compared to ours?
We could try to argue that it is the perfection of one or another of our different theories of justice: God really is the perfect lawgiver and judge or the perfect restorer of community or the giver of ultimate freedom.
I don’t find it hard to think of theologies that have been built on each of these proposals, but I think the God who calls us is rather bigger than that.
All of our theories of justice are various groupings toward the perfect justice that is God’s.
Some may be better than others, but we cannot write any of them off, nor can we elevate any of them to a fundamental place.
The Bible discusses justice often. “Justice” in the Pentateuch is something that must not be withheld from the disadvantaged, orphans, the poor and widows. The judges, Samuel and the kings are called to administer justice and criticized when they do not.
Job pleads God’s justice in his cause; the writers of the Proverbs insist that God loves justice; through Isaiah, God demands justice from Israel – and then, after the return from exile, promises to fill them with justice himself.
The references to “justice” in the New Testament are surprisingly sparse. I would find it hard to offer a biblical definition of justice; the Bible seems to assume we know what is meant and then insists that it must be properly applied.
The Bible is certainly concerned with justice reaching those who might be excluded or marginalized by society: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor. We should similarly be concerned that justice is not impeded to these groups.
None of this is a definition of justice, however. It is an account of how justice must be applied impartially to all.
God created all people; God loves all people; God’s concern extends to all people; our justice must reach all people without fear or favor.
We strive to do right, to do well, by all whom we meet. Generally, our laws, our distillations of the best of our wisdom, enable that. Sometimes they inhibit it – the best of our wisdom is very far from perfect.
God’s justice is an ideal, a vision, a standard against which we measure our best efforts and acknowledge our failures.
God’s justice is also, however, a promise: a promise that a kingdom is coming when every tear will be wiped from every eye and when every pain shall cease. A promise that one day we shall awaken in God’s kingdom and experience God’s justice.
I am convinced that on that day we will be astonished by the righteousness of God’s justice and that we will be astonished by the depths of God’s mercy and that we will see all God’s judgments, and not have the slightest regret for any one of them.
Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. His writings can be found on his blog, Shored Fragments, and you can follow him on Twitter @SteveRHolmes.