What the media call ‘divine’ justice in politics and pandemic usually isn’t

July 3, 2020 11:00 am

President Joe Biden will pitch lawmakers Oct. 28, 2021, on a new $1.75 trillion spending blueprint. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Media have been using, and misusing, the term “divine justice.”

The New York Times cited the term in a report titled, “‘A Bit of Divine Justice’: Trump Vowed to Change Libel Law. But Not Like This.” The president, a libel defendant, lost a decision to victims of sexual misconduct who now can sue when called liars.

First Amendment attorney Susan E. Seager called Trump “a libel bully” receiving “a bit of divine justice.”

An editorial discussed the Tara Reade sexual assault allegation against presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. It blamed Biden for the #MeToo phrase believe women morphing into believe all women. “There would be certain irony, even divine justice … if he now loses the Democratic nomination because of it.”

The Christian Science Monitor defines divine justice as exemplifying God’s goodness, mercy and fairness. We experience it when actions destroy sin, restoring our true nature “as God’s spiritual likeness.”

We often confuse divine justice with other philosophical constructs.

  • Karma is about cause and effect. Your words and deeds on earth may influence your fate in the hereafter.
  • Instant karma immediately corrects a bad action.
  • Schadenfreude rejoices in the misfortune of others.
  • Divine intervention involves God interceding on someone’s behalf, removing an evil threat for a good outcome.

Professor Chris Marshall of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, has researched divine justice. Humans cannot intuit the mind of God because we live mortal, or finite, lives whereas the divine is infinite. That alone separates us. Moreover, Marshall says, our view of justice is filtered through culture and experience.

Nevertheless, journalists as well as scholars believe they can identify divine justice in current affairs, including the pandemic.

The Times of Israel reported how ultra-Orthodox Jews were trying to fathom divine justice and their high rates of COVID-19 infection. Similar questions were being asked in Iran and India.

In a recent talk, Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei stated that divine judgment entails a reward or punishment. “For individual people, the reward or punishment may apply either during their earthly life or in eternity, but for nations, which do not have an eternal life, the reward or punishment can be applied only within the course of history.”

And pandemics, he says, can be counted among those.

The same debates occurred during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Several accounts appear in Patheos, a spirituality website, in “What the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Meant for American Churches.”

A Baptist preacher in San Francisco stated that “churches have become conventional, cowardly and worldly. Not only the people, but the churches must repent their sins, and when they do the plagues will cease.”

A Methodist revivalist in Birmingham, Alabama, had a different take. George R. Stuart believed the 1918 pandemic taught humanity to trust science rather than tempting “God to perform a miracle in the preservation of our health.” He asked believers to practice good hygiene, use care when traveling and accept vaccination. “Any other course is the fruit of ignorance and false teaching.”

When it comes to politics, history is important in understanding the origins of divine justice. Several signers of the Constitution believed America was founded on that principle.

Chief among them was John Jay, first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and president of the American Bible Society.


John Jay was the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo via U.S. Supreme Court)

In addressing a grand jury in 1777, Jay stated, “Will it not appear extraordinary that thirteen colonies …without funds … without disciplined troops, in the face of their enemies, unanimously determine to be free, and, undaunted by the power of Britain, refer their cause to the justice of the Almighty?”

He prophesied remarkable events “by which our wants have been supplied and our enemies repelled” as proofs of “the interposition of Heaven” — so much so, that America would be known for “gratitude and piety which may consume all remains of vice and irreligion.”

In 2020, that is questionable.

Perhaps divine justice should be left to the deity of your choice. Instead, we might focus on four types of human justice over which we have a modicum of control — as participants and voters.

Jay helped establish one of America’s core values that relates to all of the aforementioned types: “Justice is indiscriminately due to all, without regard to numbers, wealth or rank.”

We can use that standard in assessing how elected representatives, rather than deities, have dealt with justice. We can advocate for or pray for justice. But in the end, the onus is on us to realize it.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.