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.