Why I Don’t Believe in Justice, Social or Otherwise

A good friend — no, better, a member of my “family of choice” for whom I would die and for whom I would seek vengeance and kill if needed — asked, after reading my last blog entry, “What about justice?”

I’ve written about justice before on this blog. Mostly long ago, though, and I’ve not stated succinctly anywhere (I don’t think) exactly my thoughts on the subject. At least not recently.

So, here goes.

I am not a social justice Christian. I am not a social justice person. Justice strikes me as an abstraction, and an unachievable one at that. Many of the oft-cited biblical calls for justice (such as Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”) seem to forget the context of God’s judgment upon God’s own people. (“You want justice?” God tells Amos. “Careful, you might get it … and it won’t be in your favor.”)

Justice, as I understand it, demands an exercise of power. It also demands a right ordering of the world. It seeks to keep the use of power accountable through that right use. I see little difference between secular demands for justice — particularly those grounded in a Marxist critique of power and order — and the demand for justice by most progressive Christians and even progressive secularists. (I do not use the term Marxist here to be incendiary.) I also find attempts to “redefine” social justice in a more power-friendly way (such as this) to be equally fraudulent.

I have three problems with the whole notion of justice and social justice.

First, I have no confidence in what God’s justice really looks like. For all the promises of redemption, reconciliation, full tables, and lions lying down with lambs, justice in scripture is also as much a function of God’s righteous and violent judgment of God’s people using things like plagues, snakes, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Roman legions to lay waste, plunder, murder, and destroy. I want a full table for all and to see the predator and the prey live peaceably together, forever and ever, amen. I don’t want the Babylonians coming and besieging my city. But that too is God’s justice, and I don’t necessarily get to choose.

Second, I am completely convinced modern Christians — particularly progressives, but this isn’t limited to them — have confused the promises of modernity (freedom, equality, progress) with the biblical promises of full tables, inclusion of gentiles, and lions lying down with lambs. In this vision, the kingdom of God seems to many to simply be some version of the social democratic welfare state. (Or the revolutionary welfare state.) This makes the kingdom merely a tawdry political accomplishment — a place where life is better and more equal, where there is no racism and the poor are lifted up. These may be fine goals, but what about the Christians in all those times and places who did not or do not live with the hope of rearranging their political and social lives in any meaningful way? What have they to hope for? (Conservatives have a similar problem when their kingdom is some version of America writ large — the people living without hope need the liberation only America can deliver.) No, the kingdom, and the justice it brings, are bigger than our hopes and dreams for a better world.

Finally, there’s a very selfish reason. Whatever justice is, or may be, I clearly don’t get any. Power doesn’t work in behalf, I’m not really allowed to ask it to (I’m not included in any existent justice movement, and none seek justice for me), and I’m a fool to expect it ever will.

What I do believe in is mercy. Mercy, to me, is the withdrawal of power, an acknowledgement that while power could act (in a just way!), power has decided not to. Perhaps this is too limited an understanding. Mercy is God telling Jonah that he will not overthrow Nineveh because it has heeded the warning of its prophet. Mercy is Elisha striking the Assyrian army blind, and leading it directly to the King of Israel, and then telling the king of Israel:

“You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” (2 Kings 6:22 ESV)

Mercy is God incarnate subjecting himself to our fear, our anger, our hatred, our violence, and dying. Willingly. Emptying himself out so that we may be redeemed. Instead of reducing the entire world to ash in his anger — righteous anger — and very just rage.

Mercy is a great deal more powerful than justice. The world also doesn’t understand mercy. Mercy is not popular. Mercy is weakness. It takes someone with real power — real, sovereign power — to hold back. This is why the King of Saudi Arabia can be far more promiscuous with pardons and grace than any American president or state governor. (This is also why democracy is a fundamentally merciless form of government.) There is always a constituency for justice — bloody, brutal, satisfying, final justice. (However it is shaped.) There is almost no constituency for mercy.

I may not have experienced much justice in my life — no one has decided the world or its rules need to be bent or reshaped to accommodate me, much less benefit me — but I have received a lot of mercy. And I’ve needed it.

I am, however, not entirely opposed to justice. But it does have to be concrete and relational, something I came to realize a few years when serving as the interim pastor at Uptown Lutheran Church in Chicago. If justice demanded I agitate for a new bus line for my parishioners, or a different way of policing that allowed the homeless I minister with to hold on to hard-won state ID cards, then I would do it. Because the relationship would demand this. Faithfulness to my calling, and to God, would demand it. As I develop relationships with the kids who are slowly becoming my congregation, I may need to work for justice for them. Whatever that might look like. And I accept that.

But I don’t believe in “justice” in the abstract. I’m generally sympathetic to progressives on matters of race, I just don’t think the problem of race in America can ever be fixed. Attempts to do so are merely rearranging deck chairs on a slowly sinking Titanic. I cannot think of a society where a ruling majority or plurality has ever given up power willingly, and progressives need to consider the likelihood that at least some — perhaps many — white Americans won’t surrender. I also don’t think a multi-ethnic society has even been ideologically constructed the way some want to remake America — mostly they’ve gone kablooey and been reduced to their constituent parts (see: Hapsburg Austria, Romanov Russia/USSR, Ottoman Empire). I won’t argue it can’t be done, only that it is as highly unlikely as the fully contractual and voluntary society some libertarians seek. If humans haven’t organized ourselves in a particular way before, chances are we cannot do it. At least not for very long.

Pluralism, and not multiculturalism, is how people really and most successfully live together. That, however, requires confident elites, majorities, and pluralities — something the world no longer has. The narrative of victimhood now dictates how even the powerful view themselves and their place in the world.

The same is true of the poor and inequality, and I suspect the world is reverting to type after an abnormal period in history in which the those in the middle — as opposed to the very rich — held effective social and economic power. The post-WWII history of broadly shared wealth in the West (and, to a lesser extent, some of the developing world), is an aberration rather than inevitable progress. As humans, we are not capable of sustaining it. Our individual and collective nature doesn’t allow it.

So, I don’t believe in justice largely because I am a deep and abiding pessimist about human nature and the human condition — things that don’t change merely because we seek what we believe to be right, good, and just. Because humans aren’t capable of exercising power without acting unjustly. Even in the pursuit of justice.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe in Justice, Social or Otherwise

  1. Well, Charles, I believe in justice and mercy — which is the reason I support you and pray for you. When justice — God’s justice — is will by God, then God’s will will be done. We can either join with God’s will or do our own thing. I think I’m gonna stick with God myself.

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  2. Re: “The post-WWII history of broadly shared wealth in the West (and, to a lesser extent, some of the developing world), is an aberration rather than inevitable progress. As humans, we are not capable of sustaining it. Our individual and collective nature doesn’t allow it.”

    That’s the interesting question for the next generation or so. I won’t live to see it answered. I’m pretty pessimistic about human nature, too. But I remember the early years of that post-WWII period. It wasn’t fair or just: it wasn’t prosperity for everyone. But it was a very different mentality. A lot of people who were well-off were modest or even embarrassed by it. That really ended in the late 1970’s. I saw a news-magazine article from that time which announced, “Poverty Isn’t Cool Anymore”. The ‘cool’ people had denounced the middle-class prosperity (which was being shared for the first time on such a wide scale) as shallow and obsessed with security; then they thought better of it. Welcome to the 80’s. When college drop-outs became billionaires, then there was a mad rush for the express up-escalators.

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  3. Hi Charles.

    I read a good article at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/12/04/4366460.htm by an Islamic scholar on human rights. He reckons our rights are given by grace through nature (via God), but most societies turn them into an institution thus corrupting them. This ties in with you previous article on modernity corrupting the church by hijacking the concept & administration of justice.

    What of “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven”? Isn’t this a incentive for Christians to work towards justice & leaving any vengeabce to the Lord ?

    Cheers
    Dennis

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  4. Charles,

    You might read the sermon “Justice” by George MacDonald. It’s accessible online.

    Briefly, he doesn’t put “justice” and “mercy” up against one another as if one has to win at the expense of the other.

    It was a game-changer for me.

    Peace.

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