On Tuesday, President Biden called the guilty verdicts against former police officer, Derek Chauvin, a “giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.” Many in our country and around the world are celebrating the results of the George Floyd murder trial as the embodiment of “justice.” But, to paraphrase Pontius Pilate in John 18:18, “What is justice?”
The concept of justice is getting what one deserves. Of course, it is easy to disagree about what someone deserves so we have laws designed to guide our thinking about what punishments actually fit what crimes. The best examples of just laws we have are those given by God to His people, Israel, in the Old Testament. While those laws are no longer binding on us (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19:4), they give foundational principles for deriving just civil laws. While our American laws are far from perfect, many of them derive from biblical principles. For example, the fact that Mr. Chauvin was charged with second degree murder instead of first degree murder reflects a biblical principle that pre-meditation is a significant factor in deciding what the proper punishment for a crime is (Joshua 20:5). So the question of justice in our context is more about whether or not the law is applied fairly and equally to all groups.
So does the Chauvin verdict represent justice? It certainly pleased many people. People were celebrating in the streets. Given the wide-spread sentiment that minorities in our country are not treated fairly by the judicial system, this is seen as a bell-weather decision in the pursuit of equal application of the law (aka, justice). Maybe “murder two” is the just verdict for Mr. Chauvin. Maybe he did intend to kill Mr. Floyd. Maybe he got a fair trial and the law was applied without any prejudice. It’s hard to be sure of course because the judge refused a request to change the venue and refused to sequester the jury during the trial. The trial took place in a context of credible threats that not only Minneapolis but cities all across the country were going to burn if Mr. Chauvin was not found guilty on all counts. Many high profile politicians had weighed in regarding what outcome was the “right” one. Maybe none of these things impacted the jury – we’ll probably never know for sure.
This uncertainty reminds us that, while we do need to advocate for just laws applied fairly, we can never expect true justice in this world. Any system on this earth is a system administered by sinners. It will be imperfect. Some systems will be much better than others, but all will fail at points. This is a reality we have to live with in a fallen world. It is one of the reasons we should long for the return of King Jesus. Psalm 98:9 says about Jesus, “… for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with equity” (NAS). Read the rest of that psalm. It describes the entire created order praising God for this reality – that Christ will come to judge the world with equity. This is the great hope for the world. We will be fully and finally free from bad laws and unequal application of the law. We will never be free from it in this world, but a world is coming in which every verdict will be a perfect example of justice.
The fascinating thing about our Lord, Jesus, is that in order to bring righteousness to the earth, He had to submit to the greatest miscarriage of justice that has ever occurred in the history of the universe. The only, truly innocent person to ever live, He was falsely accused and convicted as a violator of God’s law (John 19:7) and then the death sentence was imposed by the Roman authorities out of pure expediency (Mark 15:15). He died in shame and disgrace, as the lowest of criminals, on the cross. Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week was the great affirmation that He was found "not-guilty" in the court of heaven. His victory over sin and evil and injustice was total. We can give thanks to God when and if a human court gets close to a just verdict. We can lament when the law is not equally applied to all people. But we must always remember that justice will be imperfect at best until the great and perfect Judge returns. He will render justice by punishing appropriately every sin that has ever been committed (that He has not already paid for). If you know and love Jesus, you should long for that day.