Justice and the Christian: Agree to disagree?

Smith Hopkins | January 19, 2018

This series of posts is drawn from a teaching series at Oliver Creek on Wednesdays in Winter 2018. In the last post I shared part of my journey towards justice, namely, that as my awareness of grace deepened, my conviction for living a life of gracious, generous justice deepened as well. Before I dive into the biblical portrait of justice, I think it's critical to acknowledge that we often disagree about it. In this post I want to explore some of what makes justice so difficult to discuss and why I think it's still worth discussing.

Have you noticed how often and how easy it is to disagree about matters of justice? Which is odd. After all, we all agree that there should be justice, and we all agree that there are many great injustices in the world. We simply disagree on what justice is and what injustice is. Simple, right?

On second thought, maybe that's not so simple. In fact, we often disagree so sharply about it that we are unable to articulate why we even disagree. When it comes to matters of justice, especially in the public sphere, most of us are content to disengage. Perhaps it's better to agree to disagree.

Michael Sandel, a bestselling author and prominent professor at Harvard, makes the case that our disagreements over justice can be boiled down to disagreements over just a few areas: freedom and welfare. He illustrates the point with a case study in price-gouging in his book Justice. In the wake of a 2004 hurricane, many Floridians were trying to survive and found themselves paying exorbitant rates for basic needs. Ice, lodging, fuel, and many other necessities were double, triple, or more their normal rates. In the renewal efforts renovations and repairs were far more expensive than normal. In the months after the issue was debated in the press by a number of thinkers and politicians on the left and the right. In their debates two primary values surfaced as the heart of the disagreement, freedom and welfare.

Sandel cites Thomas Sewell, a free-market economist, who argued that price gouging is “emotionally powerful” but “meaningless.” Prices are determined by markets, he argued, sellers are free and buyers are free. Plus, high prices motivate manufacturers and sellers to offer more, thus lowering the price and creating, in the end, “far more good than harm” for the public welfare. Sewell said, “Demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery. Letting them go about their business will.” Arguing against price gouging was (then) Attorney General, Charlie Crist. He argued that there is not true freedom in these cases—buying is forced, not free. Plus there is damage done to the common good, the welfare of people. To make matters worse, the wealthy can stomach the high prices; it is the poor who are disproportionately affected by the “vultures.” For these two, the heart of the matter was a disagreement in the weight given to freedom and common welfare.

How should we value the common welfare and good of a society over against the individual rights, choices, and freedoms of the individual? Most matters of justice come down to those two areas. But, Sandel points out, there is a third view which emerges throughout the conversation—virtue. We see it in the price gouging rhetoric as well. Sewell says not to villainize and demonize the vendors. Crist says that it takes a “greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.” Many are reluctant to "legislate morality," as the saying goes, but we are still quick to condemn it when we see it.

Which is the true foundation of justice—virtue, individual freedom, or the common welfare? Following the trajectory of Aristotle, many appeal primarily to virtue. For a society to be just, it must cultivate the good life in its citizens by its laws (For what it’s worth, Florida did have laws against price-gouging.). Following the trajectory of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, many appeal primarily to individual freedom. For a society to be just, the individual choices of each person must be respected. Following the trajectory of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, many appeal primarily to the common welfare. For a society to be just, it must seek the greatest pleasure with the least pain for the most people. On any given issue, thoughtful people today will go round and round because they value and weight these three concepts differently.

And so these three strands form the backbone of our conceptions of justice. They are also the backbone of most of our disagreements. To make matters worse, we are very often inconsistent in how we weight their values on a given subject. On one issue we will value freedom; on another issue we will value common welfare; and another we will value virtue the most. To illustrate the point, I could simply name the top three justice divides in our day, and you probably give a different weight to freedom, welfare, and virtue in each one. So which is it? Which is the true backbone of justice?

Our disagreements with one another and our inconsistency within ourselves may point us to the real problem. What if none of these actually has the durability to be the foundation of justice? Here's where the Christian view of justice offers a sound alternative.

From a Christian perspective, the foundation of justice is not in the individual's freedom. The foundation of justice is not in the right equation for a society's maximum pleasure. The foundation of justice is not even in our laws. The foundation of justice is God himself. The Christian concept of justice is based on who God is, his nature and character as revealed in his Word. Timothy Keller makes the point well in Generous Justice, “Each of the theories that Sandel outlines makes one of these factors—virtue, rights, or the common good—into a “bottom line” that trumps the other two. However, the Biblical understanding of justice is not rooted in any one of these, but in the character and being of God himself.” Do you see the signifiance? A Christian's view of justice points to God, not the self, not the society, not the system of justice. That means, as Keller also points out, that true justice is not contained in any one single theory, nor in any single political framework, and not in any one person. By pointing to God, however, we actually find a true foundation for the dignity of the self, the welfare of a society, and the laws and justice system. As Christians, we want to say, "Yes," to each of these not because of their value in themselves, but because of the value assigned to them by God.

the Biblical understanding of justice is not rooted in any one of these [virtue, rights, or the common good], but in the character and being of God himself.
— Timothy Keller, Generous Justice

I've felt that pull toward disengagement, toward agreeing to disagree. Here's what I've noticed: when I drop justice from my conversations, I can easily settle into a perspective that is too limited, too small, and too shaped around me. More than that, when I disengage in the pursuit of justice in principle, it becomes easier to disengage from the pursuit of justice in practice.

Biblical justice will constantly challenge any one isolated vision of justice. If we will allow it, the Biblical portrait of God's justice will challenge our conceptions of justice for this very reason. Our theories and frameworks are not big enough to capture the full scope of justice. But God is. Together we more clearly see him. Whereas we live in a scarcity mentality, limited by our own perspectives, God is the source of abundance and life. It is God who is the foundation of justice who calls on his people to do justice. If we are to do justice well, then we actually need other perspectives to add to ours.

We have a calling to "do justice" (Mic 6:8, emphasis mine), and if we are to keep it we must first figure out what that is, then proceed to how best to do it. That's the focus of this series. Stick around for the next post where I'll begin looking at a biblical definition of justice.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
— Micah 6:8