Rethinking Relational Justice

By Michael Schluter 07 Sep 2006


Robert left Anne and his three children – to go and live with his new girlfriend in a flat nearby. The relationship with Anne had not always been easy, and he had fallen in love with a secretary at work. They had grown close over time and he finally decided he would rather make his life with her than continue to cope with Anne and the kids. So he moved out.

On the face of it as Christians I expect we would agree this was wrong. Robert committed adultery and was unfaithful to his wife and children. But was Robert ‘unfair' to Anne and his children? Was it a case of ‘injustice'?

A Narrow Vision Of Justice

I would like to suggest that the language of justice is generally used too narrowly today. When we talk about justice we often have primarily economic issues in mind. We readily recognise injustice in trading arrangements where producers in low-income countries get a tiny fraction of the final value of their produce in Western markets. Hence the popularity of the Fairtrade movement. Or suppose Anne and her children were considered a low-income household on a housing estate and ended up malnourished and poorly clothed. We might feel there was injustice in the way society failed to provide sufficient income support to enable her to care for them adequately.

Of course, the trading and financial examples I have just used are in fact issues of relationship as well. The price paid by Western companies and consumers to Third World producers is an expression of a relationship between them. So, too, the level of income support provided by a government to low-income families. In both cases we might want to say that there was no justice in the relationships involved.

The other area we readily associate with the word justice is the criminal justice system. At our sister charity, the Relationships Foundation, we developed the idea of ‘relational justice' to help us reflect on the effectiveness of our process of justice. Like restorative justice, this has included issues such as the form of a trial, the type of sentence handed down and punishment experienced by the offender. These are all important.

But can the terminology of justice and injustice apply when neither economic relationships nor relationships in the criminal justice system are part of the equation?

Justice As Right Relationships

What, after all, is our definition of justice? What does it have to do with relationships generally? If one person hurts another person knowingly and wilfully, physically or emotionally, is it right for us as Christians to talk about injustice? Under what conditions might it be appropriate to invoke that category? This takes us way beyond economics or the criminal justice system to look at life as a whole.

I would like to suggest that in biblical language justice is defined by whatever constitutes a right relationship between the parties involved. There is injustice whenever one party, who is usually the stronger of the two, fails to fulfil the specific obligations of the relationship without good reason, or apology. [1] So if a parent fails to provide for the emotional needs of his or her child, physically abuses his wife (which should involve the criminal justice system), or walks out as Robert did; if a school fails to address the special needs of individual children; if a large company fails to fulfil its obligations to a small company on time; just as if (to return to economics) a rich country fails to pay a proper or fair price for produce to a low-income country, the issue is one of injustice. In each case, a relationship has been violated, an injustice needs to be put right.

Relational Justice For Children

Take relationships with children as an example. Issues of relational injustice with respect to children are often mentioned in the Bible. God is concerned for the welfare of the fatherless, for example. [2] Later in Israelite history, the nation is under threat of judgement if fathers continue to ignore their children. [3] At certain points in Israel's history some even sacrificed their children to idols. Are we any better today as we sacrifice the welfare of our children in the pursuit of profit and higher living standards?

So does Britain need a new campaign on the theme ‘Justice for Children' – concerned primarily not with levels of child support or housing quality, although such issues should be included, but with the issue, for example, of parental time ? A recent study by the National Centre for Social Research for our sister charity, the Relationships Foundation, found that mothers working atypical hours (i.e. outside 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) on average spent eight hours less per week with their child than other mothers; the difference was over 10 hours for dads. [4] For many low-income families it is employers who make it impossible for parents to give the time they would like to their children – to meet the obligations of that relationship. In other cases, children are tragically neglected by over-busy parents who consider time for their children a relatively low priority. In all our relationships with children we need a renewed commitment to justice.

[1] See Jubilee Manifesto , IVP, 2005, pp.109–110.

[2] Deut. 10:18.

[3] Mal. 4:6—7.

[4] For full details of the findings of the report, see


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