My latest blog post series made the case that the basis for Christian political engagement should be a love for neighbor. The posts were generally well received with only minor critiques here and there. My goal was to oppose, one the one side, the idea that Christians engage in politics with the purpose of gaining power and, on the other hand, a sort of political retreat that sees engagement in politics as either irrelevant or, worse, dangerous to the gospel. But I want to use this post to do what others haven’t done, offer a serious critique of everything I have just written.
Here’s the problem, the posts leave two major questions basically unanswered and it is on those two questions upon which almost all practical political questions lie. Both question come down to the notion of justice. The result is that people from wildly different sides of the political spectrum can agree with my basic framework. I would expect almost all Christians to agree with my first two points – God is sovereign over the nations and God is sovereign over our political decisions. And even non-Christians would agree my second two points – that human governments have the capacity to bring about limited justice and that citizens should engage in politics with the goal of love for neighbor. Who is going to disagree with such praised ideals such as love and justice?
On the one hand, I am pleased at the positive response I have received from people on both sides of the political spectrum. Christianity ought to break the mold when it comes to party affiliation. It’s probably a good thing if we can recognize that the folks “on the other side” have at least some of the same goals as we do. A little less caricature and a little more understanding would go a long way. On the other hand, it likely means that the framework is woefully inadequate when it comes to making most practical moral political decisions.
The two questions this leaves unanswered are this: First, what is justice? Second, what is the authorized scope of the government in seeking justice and common good?
What is justice? One of the best resources that I have seen on the topic Justice is Michael Sandel’s Justice. In this book he outlines several major categories of conceptions of justice, from Aristotle’s view of virtue (justice promotes virtue), to utilitarianism (the “just” thing is that which does the most good to the most people), to conceptions of personal liberty (justice means upholding personal autonomy). And each of these broad categories has a thousand different variations. Even if we don’t think in those categories, which most people don’t, it is easy to see how conceptions of justice quickly divide American politics.
Consider the topic of the economy. Is economic inequality unjust? Is it “unjust” for one person to have more than another? Is it “unjust” to take money from someone in order to give it to someone who has not worked? Is a flat tax, where everyone pays the same percentage of their income more just or is a progressive tax, where higher earners pay a higher percentage of their income, more fair? Or consider abortion: I would argue that killing the life of a baby is unjust, but people on the other side of the issue would use a completely different criteria for justice – the so-called right of a woman over her pregnancy and her right to privacy, that is, her autonomy of self – to say that it would be unjust to deny a woman that choice. Some would argue that it is unjust to go to war against a foreign nation. Others would argue that it is unjust to allow thousands to innocent people to die when military intervention could spare their lives. Some would argue that it is unjust to deport immigrants. Others would argue that it is unjust to allow American laws to be broken with apparently no impunity. Some would argue that it is unjust to have a society where guns are readily available and make mass killing easy for a perpetrator. Others argue that it is unjust to take away the means of a law abiding citizen to protect themselves simply because criminals use guns for evil.
My point is this. Simply saying that the civil government should seek justice for all answers hardly any questions, at least while we all have such different conceptions of justice.
Second, even if we agree on a particular conception of justice, we might disagree on the role of government should play in seeking that justice. Governments have limits, something I hope all can agree on, but where those limits stand is up for debate.
Again, let’s consider the economy. Let’s say persona A, B, and C agree that the poor being provided for is a question of justice. Person A could say that the role of the government in ensuring this happens is by facilitating economic growth through smart policies and by making it easy for individuals and service organizations to provide for those in need. Person B might argue that the role of government is to redistribute wealth from those well off to those in need. Even if person C agreed with person B that some degree of wealth distribution is “just” they would probably disagree with the extent to which wealth should be distributed, how much, from whom, and under what conditions.
The world is made up of a series of interlocking institutions, each with its own roles and responsibilities, some shared and some not. The government has a role, the Church has a role, the private sector has a role, families have a role, and individuals have a role, etc. Where and how you delineate those roles makes a big difference in your particular political philosophy.
After we answer the question, “what is just?” we must then go on to answer the questions like “what are the responsibilities of the civil government?” and “what are its limits?” and “where should it take action and where should empower its citizenry?” Some of the answers might find their basis in basic philosophies and worldviews and others might just be answers based on wisdom, practicality, and just figuring out “what works.”
So it really doesn’t get you very far to say that we should seek a government which provides justice for its citizens if we can’t go the next step and say “this is justice” and “this is how far the government can go in seeking justice.”
But how do you answer those questions?
I won’t try to answer that question for those who are not believers in Jesus. There are plenty of good philosophical resources out there. For the good of humanity I only beg that you not become a strict Utilitarian! Most importantly, though, I would urge you to become a follower of Jesus.
Both Christians and non-Christians alike should use what might be called “general revelation.” That is, we should make use of the broad body of knowledge – history, psychology, science, economics, etc. – to make decisions based on wisdom.
But if you are a follower of Jesus then I want to offer three distinct sources of knowledge:
First, our conception of justice ought to come from God. And, since God has revealed Himself, our conception of justice should come from God’s revelation, the Bible. Part of placing ourselves under the authority of Christ is placing ourselves under the authority of His Word.
Second, our conception of justice ought to come from the gospel of Jesus. We understand much of Scripture through the lens of the gospel – the life, death, resurrection, and return of King Jesus. We are able to understand our place in the story of history when we first understand the cosmic story of history as revealed in the gospel. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. – Resident Aliens
Third, our conception of justice ought to come from the community of the gospel, the church. This is what I will be focusing on in the coming weeks. I will be arguing that the most important political task of the church is to be the church. The most significant way we can love our neighbors is to live and proclaim the gospel. The best way for us to be a prophetic voice is for us to speak the words of God and live out those words in daily life and in community with one another. But now I’m getting ahead of myself…