Given the widespread consensus in contemporary thought that slavery is wrong, why does the Bible seem strangely ambivalent concerning this institutional horror? In fact, one looks in vain in either the Old or New Testaments for an overt call for the abolition of slavery. Neither does the Bible prophetically thunder against its evils as an institution. In fact, as shocking as this sounds, slavery was widespread and generally accepted by almost everyone in ancient times as a basic and accepted aspect of society.
Having said that, however, the Bible does address the subject of slavery in certain ways that bear highlighting. First, compared to the practices and laws of other nations of that time and place, the Old Testament “softens” a lot of the stipulations surrounding its practice. Masters were not to be harsh toward slaves, provisions were made for their well-being (e.g., Deuteronomy 15-13-14), and they were offered freedom after only seven years of service. Exodus 21 gives examples of the appropriate ways in which the Israelites were to treat slaves.
Part of the reason for this “softening” of slavery was because the Israelites themselves had been slaves in Egypt. This harsh bondage was something for which the Egyptians were punished very harshly by God. Thus, the Israelites were to treat their own slaves kindly (e.g., Deuteronomy 24:17-18) and not be guilty of an offense in kind.
Although the Old Testament undercuts the harshness and length of slavery, it was still widespread and accepted in the ancient Near East. This acceptance of slavery as a normal social institution continued up until the time of the Roman Empire in the first century. In fact, by the time of the New Testament, it is estimated that as many as one-third of the Roman empire consisted of slaves!
Still, slavery at that time (as well as in the ancient Near East) was not directly parallel or comparable to slavery in the modern era. First, slavery was not necessarily based on race. It often resulted from foreign conquest or from being unable to pay a debt. Second, being able to move up and out of slavery was both possible and sometimes even common. Third, many “slaves” were actually quite educated and skilled workers, being paid decent wages which were enough for them to buy personal goods and save for the future.
Nevertheless, as a whole, slavery was still a brutal and exploitative institution, and while the Old and New Testaments do not crusade for its abolishment, there is no doubt that the New Testament especially sows the seeds for the condemnation and abolition of slavery after the time of Christ. See, for example, verses like 1 Corinthians 7:21-23, 12:13, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, and 1 Timothy 1:10. In this regard, the book of Philemon is especially significant. Here Paul tells Philemon to consider his escaped slave, Onesimus, a “beloved brother” and equal in Christ. All these passages and more clearly point toward human equality under the gospel of Christ and away from the degradation and oppression of institutional slavery.
Many feel (and I agree) that in the progress of revelation, this was the moral trajectory God was moving toward with its foundation in the fact that all human beings—male and female—are created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27) and therefore worthy of equal respect and opportunities for flourishing.
Ultimately, the Bible neither overtly condemns nor openly condones slavery. It does, however, strongly mitigate and change the nature of the institution such that its teachings eventually led to an almost universal renunciation and abolition of it in the modern era, something that would have been impossible apart from the biblical view of the equal value and dignity of every human being made in the image of God.
I recently heard a Christian remark, “I agree that the Bible teaches homosexuality is wrong, but why should we make non-Christians conform to our moral standards, especially when our own Christian life is largely unaffected?” While the statement reflects several contemporary ideological and ethical assumptions that give it an appearance of wisdom, it actually conceals several significant moral perils and falsehoods.
To begin, the statement assumes that a Christian view of morality is relevant only to Christians and has no bearing upon the rest of humanity. This is both true and false, depending upon the nature of the ethical behavior under consideration. For example, Christians are often called to higher ethical standards than non-believers with respect to things like love. Christians must not only love God and one another, we must also love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). When forced to go one mile, we ought to go two (Matthew 5:41).
We should not compel non-Christians to live up to such demanding standards of moral excellence. They are specifically Christian responsibilities that God not only expects, but through His Holy Spirit also empowers and enables believers to fulfill. But when it comes to more general ethical standards, these are designed by God to benefit every human being, regardless of religious affiliation. This is true because all humans are made in God’s image.
This assumes and affirms, however, that there is a divine creation order, something directly challenged by contemporary ideologies that claim we are not subject to any transcendent design plan. Many today suggest that we can (really, we must) create our own meaning and define our own identity. But if we are created by God in His image, then we are designed according to His purposes and plans. Our identity and meaning are grounded in our unique status as creatures stamped with this divine image.
Attempting to step away from or outside of that transcendent creation order is a recipe for difficulty and adversity. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine.” Thus, some actions are more destructive than others when it comes to human beings in general, not just for Christians in particular.
Throughout history, the nature and extent of these more universal prohibitions has been debated, but until very recently, most societies considered things like submitting to and honoring parents, preserving innocent and vulnerable life (especially human life), truth-telling, sharing with those in need, as well as sexual modesty and propriety to be good for the overall flourishing of everyone in society, religious or otherwise. The crucial question, then, is this: Is the condemnation and avoidance of homosexual behavior a uniquely Christian sexual standard, or is this standard good for humanity in general, regardless of religious beliefs and commitments?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that human sexuality is inherent to God’s image since He created us, “in His own image . . . male and female,” (Genesis 1:27). In this light, Scripture also affirms that marriage is the union of one male and one female (Genesis 2:24, cf. Matthew 19:4-6). Furthermore, this God-determined creation order is universal, predating our fall into sin. Together, male and female sexuality is divinely designed to reflect and depict God’s nature in the world. By submitting to this gendered and sexual creation order, we actually reveal some of God’s character and nature to each other.
Consequently, homosexual behavior is not merely problematic for Christians in particular, it is destructive and harmful for the long-term well-being and flourishing of every divine image-bearer. It not only distorts a fuller reflection of God’s character as seen through both sexes, it downplays the God-designed unitive and complementary nature of the two sexes, diminishing the procreative sexual mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
Historically, this debate is neither new, nor has it been especially controversial. Even when homosexuality was tolerated, it was seldom considered normal or good for society as a whole. Thus, the West’s current obsession with and widespread promotion and celebration of an ever-growing list of unbridled sexual expressions is uniquely unprecedented and perilously untested.
Returning to the original statement, it further assumes that homosexual behavior is acceptable because it is largely a private activity, having little impact on society in general or the Christian in particular. Of course, most who actively support homosexuality and same-sex marriage don’t believe this. They adamantly argue that everyone should publicly accept and actively promote the fulfillment of homosexual desires as both normal and normative. For these pro-LGBT+ advocates, anyone who disagrees with and opposes their ethical viewpoint is a villain and immoral actor in this cultural conflict. They understand perfectly well that this issue is not a private moral affair. It impacts the basic ethical and societal notions of marriage, family, and human sexuality. Since the family and our understanding of human identity are foundational to society, any fundamental change in our conceptions of them will profoundly alter the society itself. By its nature, human sexuality is decidedly not just a “private affair.” It strikes at the very heart of what it means to be genuinely human.
In a related vein, the statement also ignores the role that legislation plays in the public vision of the common good and overall human flourishing. While making or keeping something illegal will not prevent the breaking of that law, it does, on some significant level, say something very important about the nature of the activity. It helps discourage its pursuit, giving it a decidedly negative moral connotation in the general society. This is precisely why the LGBT+ lobby has worked so hard to legalize homosexuality and same-sex marriage. They clearly understand that this helps not only makes them appear socially permissible but also morally and socially acceptable.
Yet another problem with the statement is that it subtly places human freedom, the power of the will, and the (especially sexual) desires of individuals above tradition, Scripture, and history—not to mention God Himself. There is a failure to comprehend the nature of human choices and how social cohesion and general human flourishing are often contained within a moral vision that sets carefully considered and long-established boundaries around certain arenas of human desires. In short, it has long been understood that not everything we want to do—even urgently and powerfully—is good for ourselves and society.
Of course, same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior are not the only relevant threats to societal flourishing, but they are symptomatic of a bevy of moral and ideological commitments that in the name of “moral progress” and “social justice” are tearing apart the social fabric of strong and healthy communities. God is certainly patient and gracious, but radically departing from the biblical norms of such foundationally formative social aspects like human sexuality, identity, marriage, and the family will inevitably be destructive, both communally and individually.
Just how destructive and how rapidly such harms will manifest themselves is hard to say but departing from the biblical vision of these foundations always, sooner or later, results in widespread social degradation and disintegration. Therefore, Christians must display greater courage and wisdom to graciously but actively discourage the legalization and public celebration of same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior, not because we are “unloving,” “hate gays,” or are “homophobic.” To the contrary, we oppose these precisely because we deeply care about the flourishing of everyone made in God’s image—same-sex attracted people included.
I admit not all Christians agree with this conclusion. Some believe we are better off being political and social separatists. Others claim that God’s love condones or even supports homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I have argued elsewhere against this latter view and for reasons stated here consider the former view unwise and unsustainable.
I am also keenly aware that in today’s moral climate, such claims may seem not only ridiculous, but deeply offensive and even dangerous. I have no illusions about the likelihood that this (until recently widely supported) prohibitory perspective will be reembraced by western society anytime soon. This is not because it’s wrong, but because the (fallacious) contemporary western conceptions of the family, human sexuality, and identity make it seem implausible, unpopular, and perhaps even cruel and psychologically harmful.
Nevertheless, we must not ignore the dangers or even promote the lie that flouting God’s creational purposes and plans will lead to greater human flourishing. It will only do the opposite. Satan made the same false and deceptive promise to Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:1-6), and He continues to make it to us today. As Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”
God, in contrast, offers everyone a life of genuine flourishing through the arduous but infinitely rewarding path of humble submission and joyful obedience to Him, our loving and wise Creator and King. As Deuteronomy 30:19-20 puts it: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, and that you may love the LORD your God, obey Him, and hold fast to Him. For He is your life.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about social justice. Caring about and correcting injustice has suddenly become fashionable and trendyin popular culture. Many in the Church have jumped on board the social justice bandwagon. Who, after all, is more concerned about societal justice than Jesus?
There’s nothing wrong with following a cultural trend that moves society in the right direction, of course. Who can seriously argue against the need to eradicate racism, abolish sex-trafficking, and advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions for the underprivileged? Still, I as argued in previous posts, Christians must avoid being misled by false or inadequate definitions of justice. They also need to discern what are the means and ways used to rectify such wrongs, unmasking and repudiating any use of ungodly and unhelpful methods masquerading as “social justice.”
But what about Jesus? Was He a “social justice warrior,” or has the contemporary movement simply used His name and made Him into a caricature of the biblical portrait? One of the primary passages cited to prove that Jesus was all about social justice is Luke 4:16-21. Used by Jesus to formally inaugurate His earthly ministry, the passage mentions proclaiming “good news to the poor,” providing “liberty for the captives,” “sight for the blind,” and freedom “for those who are oppressed.”
Another popular passage is Matthew 25:31-46, which comes at the end of His earthly ministry. Here Jesus lists the activities and criteria He will use to judge between the righteous and the wicked. He puts it this way to the righteous: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
On the face of it, this looks like a program of social justice at its finest, and it would hardly be appropriate to question the value and importance of Christians caring for people in the situations Jesus mentions. Christians certainly should be actively caring for the poor, needy, and disenfranchised! This is inherent to God’s kingdom work on earth and should not be relegated to some sort of second or third-class concern.
Having said that, however, when Jesus begins His earthly ministry of social care and service, one looks in vain for any significant political activism, commentary, or critique. This is not due to a dearth of potential material, of course. The moral atrocities, slave system, oppressive racism, and socially sectarian Roman policies of Jesus’ time are well-documented. In addition, Jesus’ followers fully expected and hoped for Jesus to be, as Messianic King, an expressly political figure (see, for example, Acts 1:6). Despite many clear opportunities, Jesus unveils no formal political activist program to rectify the systemic evils of His time and place. In fact, it is remarkable how utterly apolitical Jesus’ ministry of social justice actually is.
I highlight this to make a critically important point: Jesus did and does care about those who are oppressed, disadvantaged, and damaged by a sinful system and society. But the solutions He offers, while endowed with supernatural power, are not especially political or external in nature. Instead, they are mainly invitational, educational, and especially spiritual and moral. And while many are manifest in clearly material ways, those solutions point beyond the material toward our need to first and foremost be reconciled to God.
In contrast, many contemporary Christians advocating for social justice tend to couch it almost entirely in political and systemic terms. In their minds, social justice means the political reformation of societal systems and norms so that marginalized people can be empowered, heard, and taken seriously. The unjust social systems are assumed to be the primary (if not sole) reason these people are marginalized. What is often ignored or discounted is the individual problem of sin. In this sense, marginalization is real, but the reasons for it are not merely political and systemic, grounded primarily in the sins of others. There are intensely personal moral and spiritual problems here as well, and the means to providing genuine solutions must also account for our individual need to repent and be reconciled to God as well as to others.
I say this to demonstrate that when talking about Jesus’ brand of social justice and the gospel, the kinds of priorities and programs promoted by those passionate about social justice today often miss the primary problem of personal depravity. If you disagree, consider the book of Acts. Granted, in Acts 2:42-47, they “had all things in common.” The picture presented sounds very socialistic and just, but it was an entirely voluntary kind of sharing and not governmentally mandated or coerced. In addition, the rest of book says virtually nothing about these types of arrangements among Christians. It’s not that they had or didn’t have them. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. That’s beside the point. What’s important to notice is that they prioritized sharing the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples. They pursued virtually no formal program for rectifying the overtly racist and unjust social systems of their time.
Instead, they directly ministered to the spiritually poor and blind as well to those who were materially afflicted in various ways. As Matthew 15:14 and Revelation 3:17 make clear, the problems highlighted by Jesus in Luke 4 were not simply material, they were also deeply spiritual. They had material manifestations, of course, but every physical solution He provides points beyond itself to the spiritual significance of His miracles.
In this way, the need for physical healing ultimately points beyond itself to the need for spiritual help and healing. As Jesus points out in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Beyond a normal doctor, we need the Great Physician to spiritually heal us. Our need for physical sustenance points beyond itself to our spiritual need for heavenly bread. Thus, Jesus is our real physician as well as our “true bread” (John 6:32). While we need healing from physical blindness, our deeper need is for spiritual light and guidance. Thus, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
In light of this, the ministry accounts of Jesus’ early followers show that they were largely disinterested in much of what many today consider “social justice.” Instead, they primarily focused on proclaiming the simple message of the gospel concerning our need to trust in the crucified and gloriously risen Christ for the forgiveness of sin and helping those who believed to grow together in their new-found faith. But again, this does not mean that Jesus and His followers were unconcerned about people’s physical problems and needs. After all, when there was a famine in Jerusalem, many churches took up a collection to help the poor and needy there (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), and Paul speaks about his eagerness to “remember the poor” in Galatians 2:10. Not only this, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 25:31-46 that Christians are supposed to feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, welcome strangers, cloth the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
We cannot and must not ignore our Christian obligations to care for people in need. There is no dichotomy between sharing the good news that Jesus Christ came and died to save sinners and meeting the social and physical needs of people made in God’s image. But the ministry of the early church reveals that their primary mission was concerned about helping people be reconciled to God. They met physical and social and educational and economic needs, but not through political action committees or any educational, economic, and social initiatives enforced by local, state, and federal governments.
Instead, while proclaiming this divine message of healing and hope, they also fed the hungry, gave drinks to the thirsty, healed the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, parented orphans, educated the illiterate, prayed for their leaders, loved their enemies, and cared for one another. And they did all of this at great personal and communal cost, placing no demands or expectations upon the governments of their time to rectify these widespread and on-going social injustices. They understood that before Christ’s second coming, the “kingdom of God” was not, first and foremost, a political and material kingdom, but a spiritually powerful kingdom that in Jesus’ own words was “not of this world” (John 18:36). As a result of this kind of ministry, they radically change the course of history and “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
I close with an acknowledgment and a warning. First, I acknowledge that in democratic societies, Christians still have genuine opportunities to influence and encourage good governance, and they should take full advantage of that. I also agree that political, educational, economic, and social institutions have an important place in helping to bring about a more just society for everyone, so long as they are willing to hear wise counsel and enact genuinely just policies.
My warning, however, is this: When something (like social justice) becomes vogue in the broader culture, the church should be wary of uncritically jumping on board the populist bandwagon. Given many of the openly hostile and anti-biblical assumptions of contemporary culture, it is no accident that some brands of “social justice” openly embrace things like abortion (touted as “women’s healthcare and reproductive rights”) and the LGBT+ lobby (touted as “justice for the marginalized and oppressed”). In this vein, you can no longer be anti-abortion, question the wisdom of sex-change operations, or consider sexual intimacy outside the context of heterosexual marriage immoral and still be “standing on the right side of history” or an advocate for genuine justice.
I am reminded of the dire reprimand in Isaiah 5:20-21: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”
Only when Jesus returns as the conquering King will social injustice and sin be completely eradicated and everything rectified. It is to that eschatological political vision that Christians must continuously look while seeking to bring the healing and hope of Jesus into the midst of a crooked and perverse generation where we are to “shine like stars” in the face of so much moral injustice and spiritual darkness.
In the first part of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice. In part two, we examined the controversial notion of egalitarian justice. In this concluding part, we will consider need justice and then look at the inherently concrete nature of applying justice correctly in any given situation.
For Christians, need justice is illustrated in passages like Ephesians 4:28 which says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
This kind of justice seeks to discern things like to whom and when and how much and what kind of help and for how long should be given to those who are needy. Scripturally speaking, the mere presence of need does not necessarily constitute an obligation (as a matter of justice) for that need to be met by others. This is true because the Bible speaks about at least two basic kinds of poverty: “guiltless” and “guilty.”
With respect to the former, Jeremiah 2:34 says, “Also on your skirts is found
the lifeblood of the guiltless poor.” From the context we can see that these are people who are poor not due to their own sin but because of the exploitative and selfish sins of others.
With respect to those poor who are poor or disadvantaged because of their own sin, Isaiah 9:17 says, “Therefore the Lord does not rejoice over their young men and has no compassion on their fatherless and widows; for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly.” In short, these people may have been “fatherless and widows,” but they were still godless evildoers. As hard as it is to say, some people actually deserve their misfortune because they make foolish and ungodly choices. Part of the reason contemporary people have such a hard time admitting this is that our strongly Rousseau-influenced thinking tends see people as victims of external familial and social structures rather than the recipients of the just consequences their own decisions.
Of course, it’s not a simple either/or distinction. Some of us have come from more damaging and dysfunctional settings than others. That much is a given. But even within those contexts, we can still decide how we will respond to any injustices inflicted upon us. And some of us have come from relatively functional situations and have still chosen to make a mess of things on our own. If Adam and Eve teach us nothing else, we must admit that a perfect environment and a simple and clear prohibition will not prevent human beings from making bad choices if they so desire.
Because we live in a society that tends to see the poor and downtrodden as being almost completely victimized, we seldom have the interest or discernment to see who are needy because of injustice and who are needy due to their own unwise decisions.
Thus, fulfilling need justice has the complex but important task of discerning who is genuinely needy because of injustice and how they can be helped accordingly. We should not ignore those who have “made their own bed and now have to lie in it,” but real justice demands that first priority be given to those who are needy for reasons beyond their own control. And their needs should be met in holistic ways that give them an empowering hand up rather than just a conscience-easing but ultimately dehumanizing hand out.
Once again, the multilayered factors that lead to poverty and need are seldom easy to sort out from a distance, and there is a tendency for large governmental agencies to make things easier in the short-run by making simple designations based on obvious factors like race and socioeconomic incomes. Genuinely understanding the specific reasons why this person or this family or this community is stuck in a cycle of poverty is seldom so straightforward or easily solved. And many of the reasons are not strictly physical and socioeconomic in nature, even if they express themselves as such. In other words, these problems are most often deeply spiritual and require more than educational, material, and political solutions alone. These can help, but they are insufficient to explain and address some of the deepest reasons why people find themselves in significant need.
This is where the Church has a critical role to play in getting our hands messy and finding out the reasons why people in our immediate our vicinities are struggling. We can then provide spiritual and material resources to help get them on their feet and become healthy and contributing members of society.
Having looked very briefly at four aspects of justice—retributive, meritorious, egalitarian, and need justice—let’s conclude by asking one of the most important questions of all: How can we best and most justly apply each of these forms of justice?
Concrete Applications of Justice
There are countless directions this discussion could go, but this statement from Tim Keller’s article, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” is a helpful place to start: “Biblically speaking, every one of these types of justice are applied and condoned in Scripture, but contrary to some theological views, no one aspect is obviously elevated or overwhelms any of the other aspects. In different times and situations, all [four] types—[retributive, meritorious, egalitarian, and need justice]—are observed and identified as reflecting the character and purposes of a good and righteous God.”
In short, the application of justice is multifaceted and intimately connected not only to God’s character but also to the concrete and specific situations in which it is carried out. It requires a significant level of discernment to know what kind of justice best applies, and even if justice (versus mercy, for example) is the best course of action to take in the first place. Unfortunately, in contemporary discussions, there is a strong tendency to take a single form of justice that is appropriately applied in some situations and demand that it is the only legitimate form of justice for all situations. Failing to understand and appreciate the contextual and concrete nature of justice and its different types and applications ends up creating greater, rather than lesser, injustice in society. Thus, elevating one type of justice above all others ironically and ultimately leads to greater social injustice.
In addition, demanding pure justice alone, detached from other crucial values and virtues, especially love and mercy, tends to make justice harsh and unsympathetic. Thus, there are tensions over when it’s best to show mercy and when it’s best to execute justice. In addition, love, properly defined, knows when to allow consequences to befall foolish and ungodly behavior and when to step in to try and prevent (or at least temper) the impact of bad choices. But true love also moves us to care for and alleviate suffering, especially when that suffering is undeserved.
The ideas of love and mercy are easier to see when applied to issues of retributive and punitive justice. This kind of justice must be tempered with love and mercy, or it becomes completely retaliatory and inevitably descends into nothing more than angry calls for payback and revenge. In other words, reprisal detached from redemptive love and merciful forgiveness tend to lead to harsh and destructive retribution.
The deeply ironic result is that pursuing justice without love and mercy results in a punitive state where grace is considered a weakness and an expression of injustice instead of a source of redemptive hope and life transformation. But again, knowing when to be merciful and kind versus merely fair and just takes significant wisdom and discernment, something impersonal governmental programs and authorities far-removed from the concrete realities of those situations are often ill-equipped and ill-suited to determine.
I would love to offer simple solutions to complex social problems, but the reality of life in a fallen world means that these issues are inherently convoluted and require sacrificial love, divine discernment, and spiritual transformations that are not found in the ideologies and resources of mere materialism. This is why we, as the Church in our concrete locations, are so central to providing real and lasting solutions to the problems of injustice in our time. And to succeed in this great endeavor, we must rely upon the Spirit’s strength and wisdom to fulfill our calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). He alone demonstrates the perfect balance of how holiness and justice are coupled with patient mercy and redeeming love through the ministry of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the fellowship of His Holy Spirit.
In part one of this three-part series, we looked briefly at retributive and meritorious justice. In part two, we will consider the increasingly contested notion of egalitarian justice.
Before looking directly at the idea of egalitarian justice, the meaning of the word “equality” must be further elucidated since its very definition has become one of the great controversies of our time.
Traditionally, equality primarily referred to the notion that all are (or at least should be) “equal under the law.” This phrase is inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Thus, laws should be applied fairly from the top to the bottom of society, for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the male and the female, the black and the white, and everyone in between. The statue of Lady Justice holding a scale while wearing a blindfold depicts this kind of egalitarian ideal. To fulfill her responsibilities justly, she must not allow race, nationality, social status, or material wealth (for example) to bias her application of justice to anyone or any group.
More recently, a second aspect of egalitarian justice has come to the fore of social concern, namely the question of equal opportunity. Equal opportunity helps ensure that the playing field of life is as level as possible. There’s no doubt this is a valid and important aspect of promoting justice and equality in society, but for many today, any unequal outcomes in society constitute incontestable evidence of social injustice and inequality. As racism guru Ibram X. Kendi declared, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” The assumption here is that if one (racial) group of people end up better educated, richer, and more powerful than others, there must have been some (racially systemic) unjust advantages and inequalities both at the outset of and throughout their lives producing those unequal outcomes.
The problem with thinking this way is that this (wrongly) assumes all human beings are equally situated, motivated, and talented from the very beginning of life. However, for whatever reasons, God has created everyone unique. Some are better athletes, some are better thinkers, some are better artists, engineers, teachers, singers, musicians, craftsmen, salespersons, etc. Thus, if inequity equals (racial) injustice, then God is unjust because we are not all created equal in terms of our backgrounds, intelligence, capacities, talents, abilities, socio-economic location, etc.
On the contrary, this is not evidence of racism or sin but evidence of uniqueness. And since every human being is made in God’s image, every human being is of eternal worth to God. But that does not mean we are exactly the same. Just as there is distinctness and yet equality within the Godhead, so there is distinctness and equality within the human race. Consequently, different outcomes don’t necessarily mean there is systemic injustice or racial inequality.
Justice in this light does not seek equal outcomes so much as it tries to create systems that are genuinely fair and do not give undue advantages to others. The idea is to level the playing field of life by somehow empowering those who clearly start at a disadvantage, enabling them to better succeed alongside others who begin life and certain endeavors (like education, for example) with greater advantages.
Unfortunately, what these systems should look like and how they can be maintained are very difficult questions to answer. In theory, at least, they are possible to create, implement, and maintain, even when, because of different talents, abilities, motivations, etc., social stratification inevitably occurs over time. Such stratification is not, as it stands, invariably or inherently evil, although in the light of human selfishness and sin, it very often does become a means to express injustice, especially against the weak and marginalized. In short, people with roughly equal abilities and starting points often end up in very different socioeconomic situations.
To be sure, this certainly is sometimes the fault of unjust social structures and systems that wrongly discriminate against others on some sort of illegitimate basis like race or gender. This might manifest itself as a lack of equality under the law and/or inappropriate discriminatory social and cultural attitudes and traditions. But it is also sometimes the result of several other factors like (to name a few) difficult family life, personality, bad luck, laziness, ignorance, trauma, lack of motivation, or even such things like the voluntary decision to live a life of simplicity and poverty.
Too often, as economist Thomas Sowell points out, too few (or even the wrong) factors and not enough concrete nuances are considered when egalitarian concerns are brought to bear on specific real-life situations. For example, the goals of programs like “affirmative action” are clearly directed at rectifying inequities in educational opportunities for certain minorities. The idea is to make it possible for those who started out behind others to make up lost ground.
This is noble and good. But determining exactly who starts out disadvantaged, why, and to what extent, becomes exceptionally difficult to determine without discerning the very specific situations of individuals and groups on a case-by-case basis. It is far easier and more efficient to create clearly delineated groups and classes of people to be the recipients of these leveling programs, especially when large organizations and entities like governments and corporations are involved. You can simply draw a racial and/or economic line and set a standard amount of aid to be given without dealing with the concrete nuances and root issues of people’s lives on the ground.
Admittedly, heroic efforts have been made to create fair and more specific means for deciding these matters, but the greater the distance between the disseminators of these benefits and the recipients, the more likely bureaucratic waste and corruption will arise. But again, on an even more basic level, the assumption that in a properly structured and justly administrated society, all people from every subgroup will have similar life outcomes is fundamentally flawed.
Thomas Sowell says it well in The Quest for Cosmic Justice: “A society that puts equality [at the fore]—in the sense of equality of outcome—will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” In short, the quest for equality without recognition of other crucially important factors of justice will result in an unjust society where coercion is used to bring about equal distribution instead of finding a balance between different and equally valid and important forms of justice. As a result, one vision of egalitarian justice (equal outcomes for all) gets set in opposition to other forms like meritorious justice. The inevitable (and deeply ironic) result is injustice in the name of a justice. In the last century, places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and Russia (to name a few) give ample evidence off the murderous and tragic results of this kind of forced execution of “egalitarian justice” in an attempt to bring about the (not so) “great society.”
The essential confusion here is assuming that equality equals sameness and equal outcomes when in fact God does not advocate sameness as the goal of life. He advocates harmonious integration, interdependence, and mutual appreciation, something that assumes the presence of unique and interwoven parts, but also requires difference as inherent to the very fabric of existence. Romans 15:1-3, 5-7 puts the vision this way: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
To say, however, that all people must be treated equally under the law is very different from saying all people must have the same endowments, possessions, talents, skills, and capacities and in order to achieve the same basic life outcomes. In addition, what you don’t want to end up doing is punishing people for being exceptional and using their gifts and abilities to excel. Yes, they can use those talents and abilities for selfish ends, but they can also use them for the greater benefit of all. The issue is not so much with exceptionalism as it is with how that exceptionalism is used in reference to others. Do I use my gifts, talents, and resources to care for and empower others or do I use them to enrich my own life to the exclusion, detriment, and diminishment of others?
Much more could be said here, but I have said little about the issues surrounding fair distribution of goods and services (a matter of equitable and egalitarian justice) versus fair distribution of overall resources within a society. This aspect, often called “need” justice, pertains to those in society who, for various reasons, find themselves in dire circumstances and need immediate (and often ongoing) assistance to live and survive. It is to this expression of justice we will now turn our attention in the third and concluding part in this series on true justice.
Vice President Kamala Harris recently said “justice” means that everyone gets an equal share of goods and services. If there are any inequities, those inequities must be rectified using a fair method of redistribution. Is this true justice or not? What does justice look like, and how does the Bible help us in understanding, defining, and applying it?
A large part of the problem is that few people today (Christians included) have a clear picture of what justice actually is and involves. As Thomas Sowell reminds us in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, “We are only talking in a circle when we say we advocate justice, unless we specify what conception of justice we have in mind.” And in reaction to some aspects of the social justice movement, there are even those who claim, “Justice needs no modifier.” There is only justice or injustice. Types of justice (like “social” justice, for instance) are really deceptive distractions from the pursuit of “justice” in general.
In contrast to this latter claim, there are several types of justice, and these types pertain to the appropriate application of justice in concrete life settings. Thus, while not a comprehensive list, we can speak of things like “retributive justice,” “meritorious justice,” “egalitarian justice,” and “need justice.” Presumably, Kamala Harris (whether she realizes it or not) is referring to the third and fourth aspects of justice, whereas most opponents of her view seek to promote features primarily related to meritorious justice. What, then, are these types of justice, where are they exhibited in Scripture, and how and when should each type be applied?
In this three-part series we will briefly examine all four types of justice, beginning with “retributive” and “meritorious” justice.
Retributive justice pertains to the system of justice that seeks to fairly “repay” or punish those found guilty of wrongdoing. A biblical passage that illustrates this idea of justice from God’s perspective comes from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9: “The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
In general, as Romans 13:1-7 suggests, besides God, governments and other properly constituted officials (versus individuals and vigilante groups) are the ones best suited to carrying out this kind of justice. In addition, there are other aspects to the retributive justice system like encouraging reformation and rehabilitation of the criminal. But despite their great importance, we will not explore these facets here.
The main biblical principle to be applied in retributive justice is found in passages like Leviticus 24:17-22: “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. . . . You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”
Typically, people speak about this kind of justice as “an eye for an eye” justice. And it’s significant that there should be no difference in the application of this justice between the Israelite and the foreigner (verse 22). This is a good example of what is often called “egalitarian” justice, which we will explore more in part two of this series.
What many people fail to appreciate is that the essence of this principle is “punishment fit for the crime.” That is to say, the kind of punishment should not exceed the nature of the offense committed. It should be fair and commensurate.
Because this principle is easily misunderstood and misapplied, Jesus highlights it in Matthew 5:38-39 when He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” While many pacifists take this to mean that all retributive justice has been abolished by Jesus, it is probably better to see this as a warning against individuals and groups who are not properly authorized to execute this kind of justice by taking the law into their own hands. As I noted above in Romans 13:1-7, properly constituted government authorities are accredited to carry out this kind of justice: “[The governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). Self-motivated and effected “vigilante justice,” on the other hand, is an oxymoron and not God’s intention for fulfilling true retributive justice.
These are controversial matters and much more that could be said, but let’s move on to consider at another aspect of justice that has become increasingly contested in the contemporary context, namely meritorious justice.
Meritorious justice is the kind of justice that fairly rewards those who perform well and fulfill expectations. It also includes accolades and benefits for those who are exceptional and use their gifts for the benefit of others. Finally, it includes praise and appreciation for those who go above and beyond what is required and expected of them. Scripturally-speaking, this kind of justice is evinced in passages like Matthew 25:21 where the servants who have been faithful stewards of the master’s money are accordingly praised and rewarded.
The majority of educational systems are largely grounded in this system of justice where students who meet certain standards and perform well academically receive certain rewards, including good grades, a diploma, certificates of commendation, scholarships, etc. In short, both hard work and well-utilized ability deserve praise and affirmation, and it would be unjust to punish or discourage people simply because they are smart and hard-working.
Like all forms of justice, this type of justice is subject to abuses and showing favoritism where it is not deserved, but if so, it is no longer a form of justice but has become a form of injustice.
In recent years, the idea of merit and reward in institutions like schools has come increasingly under fire for being inherently biased and unfairly titled toward certain races and places. In some places and situations this may well be a problem, but injustice here is not inherently grounded in the idea of giving fair merit and recognition to those who deserve it. Rather, injustice lies in giving unfair advantages and accolades to those who don’t.
What complicates matters is when structures and systems develop (whether unconsciously or intentionally) that give unfair advantages to some while simultaneously disadvantaging others. In addition, and perhaps even more significantly, tensions arise when we are confronted with the fact that while all people as divine image-bearers are equally important and deserve equal treatment under the law (egalitarian justice), people are not equally gifted and, for various reasons, do not always utilize or develop their talents in equal ways.
This highlights that in the midst of applying meritorious justice, other forms of justice must also operate, including what is often referred to as “egalitarian” justice. It is to this type of justice we turn our attention in part two of this series on true justice.