The Mace of the Scottish Parliament has four words inscribed on it which are the characteristics which as a society we aspire our politicians to possess. These are Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity. Previously I addressed the characteristic of Wisdom and we now turn to Justice.
The pursuit of justice has been the motivation of some of the most far reaching social changes in our history, including the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, to the extension of votes to women during the early 20th century.
More recently we have seen campaigns for the cancellation of developing country debt and to persuade governments to take measures to address the causes of climate change. Despite the difficulties in achieving justice, it is a concept that we hold precious as a foundational principle of a free and civilised society. Abandoning our commitment to upholding justice would lead to the worst aspects of human nature coming to the fore.
A Christian understanding of justice is one of promoting the wellbeing of every person and the wholeness of society. It has two components. Firstly, it constitutes the fair treatment of every person because they are of inherent value. The second aspect of justice is the holding to account of those who have broken the law or treated others in an unfair manner.
The Bible is clear that God is characterised by justice and will ultimately ensure that it is established on the Earth. In the meantime, He has mandated human governments with the administration of justice. They do so to ensure restitution to those who have been unjustly treated and to promote the common good of society.
All governments are fallible and therefore fall short in the administration of justice. However, the mandate to rule justly remains and so governments must never give up on the pursuit of justice.
To do so, it is essential that they have reference to some objective standard of moral goodness. In practice, this occurs within the criminal justice system by reference to the law.
However, this assumes that the laws passed by politicians are based on objective truth and orientated towards the common good. There is a tendency for politicians to set aside objective truth and legislate instead based on subjective emotion. The temptation is to allow emotion to determine the outcome rather than objective truth and the common good of society.
There are numerous examples of this in Holyrood. Opt-out organ donation is one example. Evidence from Wales suggests that introducing an opt-out system of organ donation will not deliver the desired result of increasing the number of organs available for transplant but may have the opposite effect. The objective truth that people have inherent value and their personhood should not be disrespected by the state is set aside. The Scottish Government is pushing ahead with the introduction of an opt-out system in Scotland despite these concerns.
Similarly, there are continuing calls at Holyrood for the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia. However, evidence from other countries shows that once legalised killing by doctors is allowed by law, many abuses occur.
Deaths increase year by year, depressed people are assisted to die rather than being treated for their mental illness, disabled people are at risk of someone else deciding that their quality of life is insufficient and being euthanised. The commandment “Thou shall not kill” is ignored as doctors abandon the long-standing medical ethical principle of “do no harm”. The adage that “hard cases make bad law” is so often proved to be correct.
Reason and good judgement remain foundational to the pursuit of justice. It is essential, therefore, that those entrusted with political and judicial power seek the right external reference point when crafting laws to shape their deliberations.
As Easter approaches, we are reminded of an encounter in which the pursuit of justice and political expediency are both demonstrated.
Jesus stated at His trial that he came to bear witness to the truth, to which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, responded somewhat cynically “What is truth?”
Truth ultimately is relational and found in God. The death of Christ was the supreme act of justice, mercy and compassion as He bore the punishment for the wrong we have done in order that we could have the opportunity to share in his coming Kingdom.
It bore witness to the truth that one day justice will indeed be established on the Earth when Christ returns.
Dr Gordon Macdonald is parliamentary officer of CARE for Scotland.