On Justice


Mouse Book Club

The books in this series address three notions of justice: interpersonal justice, social justice, cosmic justice. The first two notions are in our hands. The third notion is trickier. We might view this list and assume that each notion of justice represents an increase in scale. That may be a delusion.


The Book of Exodus presents justice as the foundational experience of an entire nation. Social justice is revealed as cosmic justice. For the Israelites, those considerations are inseparable. The Mouse edition of Exodus concludes with the revelation of a foundational document of Western culture: The Ten Commandments, the original handbook for interpersonal justice, which again is viewed as the conduit for social and cosmic justice. These instructions for one’s personal life are, of course, really important to God, the arbiter of cosmic and, in Exodus, social justice. I like to ask my students which of the commandments they view as being the most important. This is, as we know, a key question put to Jesus in the Gospels. He has his answer, and so do my students. But there is another less common answer worth considering, too, offered by French philosopher Rene Girard (whose work I will return to in other blogs). For Girard, the most important commandment is the final one. In our translation it reads as follows:


Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.


On first glance this commandment seems more benign than the others. It doesn’t refer to any evil deed, just a bit of a jealous attitude. For Girard, however, envy, jealousy, and covetousness are the keys to the whole game. If you are jealous, you will kill, fornicate, lie, steal, etc. It is the emphasis on the internal life that most fascinates Girard, and me. In the scale of cosmic, social, and interpersonal justice, you have to begin with your thoughts, your attitudes, your priorities. The rest flows from there.


We can see how this consideration can guide our reading of the other books in this series. The public punishment of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter proceeds from the need for communal unity, the internal strife of puritanical morality, which causes all to war against all until they can unite, in a war of all against one. Similarly, the injustice and hypocrisy Ida B. Wells so thoroughly, eloquently, and courageously documents are not only sins of brutality against bodies, but also spiritual brutalities against the truth.    


So perhaps we can add a fourth notion of justice. If we wish to witness the ripple effect of interpersonal, social, and cosmic justice, we must begin with setting our inner house in order. We could call it the justice of selfhood, or, to use an older-fashioned word, integrity - literally integrating the aspects of our selves into something unified, something that is in itself more just, in our communities, societies, and all of creation.

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
September 2018


Mouse Books JUSTICE Series:


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Exodus by Moses


Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells