Posts tagged with: justice

I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.

Here’s an example. Last week I asked, “Whither justice?” and noted some of Luther’s words on the subject. Here’s Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, virtually echoing Luther:

What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Just how zealous for justice ought Christians be? I admit that I’m always just a bit put off when folks describe the prime mission of Christians as pursuing justice in the world. Let’s not forget that the foundational Christian reality is forgiving love on the basis of the divine justice manifested on the cross.

Or as Luther puts it in his commentary on Romans (emphasis added),

This is the reason (if I may speak of myself) why even hearing the word “justice” nauseates me to the point that if someone robbed me, he would not bring me such grief. And yet the word is always sounding in the mouths of the lawyers. There is no race of men upon the earth who are more ignorant about this matter than the lawyers and the good-intentioners and the intellectuals. For I in myself and with many others have had the experience that when we were righteous, God laughed at us in our righteousness. And yet I have heard men who dared to say: “I know that I have righteousness, but God does not notice it.” That is true, but it is a righteousness only in one particular; but for this God cares nothing. Therefore the only complete righteousness is humility, which subjects everyone to everyone else and thus gives everything to everyone, as Christ says to John: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Thus in Dan. 3 Azariah confesses that he and his friends are at one and the same time suffering justly and yet are afflicted with evil, namely, at the hands of the wicked king. For even though he who acts does so unjustly, yet he does not do so to the person who suffers; for that person suffers justly. For by what legal right does the devil possess men? Or by what legal right does an evil hangman hang a thief? Certainly not in his own right, but by that of the judge. Thus men who glory in their own righteousness are unwilling to listen to the supreme Judge, but only to their own judgment, and because in respect to their victim they are innocent, they think that they really are innocent in every way.

Therefore since before God no one is righteous, absolutely no injustice can be done to a person by any other creature, even though he may have justice on his side. Thus all cause for contention is taken away from men. Therefore, to whomsoever an injury is done or an evil comes in return for his good actions, let him turn away his eyes from this evil and remember how great his own evil is in other respects, and then he will see how good the will of God is even in this evil which has come upon him; for this is what it means to be renewed in one’s mind and to be changed into another state of mind and to be wise in the things of God. Thus it is definite that Peter would not have glorified God if he had girded himself and gone where he wanted to go, even though he would not have walked a wicked path, but the highest road of righteousness. But after this road of his own righteousness was prohibited and he went where he did not want to go but where another wanted, then he glorified God. So also we cannot glorify God unless we do what we do not wish, even in the case of our own works of righteousness, indeed, particularly in the case of our own righteousness, our own counsels, or our own strength. And thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be His disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that the ethical norm in social ethics is “justice.” But out of sheer humility let’s not be too zealous for justice, at least not without consciously, intentionally, and systematically connecting it to divine love.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, October 1, 2008

“The struggle for justice always stands or falls on the battlefield of hope.” This is but one of a passel of pithy expressions found throughout Gary Haugen’s new book, Just Courage. Haugen is the president of International Justice Mission, a Washington D.C.-based organization doing outstanding work throughout the world, freeing people bonded in illegal labor arrangements, including forced prostitution.

Haugen’s is a practical rather than a theoretical treatise. He admits that a commonly agreed-to definition of justice remains elusive, but he can point to the way God and God’s people act justly in the scriptures, and that gives us enough direction. The book is a sometimes moving account of and reflection on Haugen’s experiences assisting some of the most powerless people on our planet.

He argues stridently against Christian apathy, insisting that it is possible for us to achieve progress even against some of the most severe of the world’s problems. This is why hope is pivotal. Those who are merely dismayed in the face of evil will not make the effort to fight it.

At the same time, Haugen is realistic, as anyone who encounters human slavery on a regular basis is bound to be. He understands the distinction between naivete and utopianism on one hand, and genuine Christian hope on the other.

This realism, at an even deeper level, links justice and hope. I suspect that Haugen would agree with another writer on these themes, Pope Benedict XVI:

I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing. (Spe Salvi, n. 43)

With this invocation of the pope, it might be appropriate to note that Just Courage seems intended primarily for non-Catholic Christians. Its modes of expression and descriptions of Christian life manifest an evangelical sensibility. Exhortations to think about the message of the gospel as social rather than merely individual will appear redundant to adherents of historical churches with long traditions of social instititution sponsorship.

Yet all Christians need to hear this message reiterated. Catholics and others, however much they recognize a vague obligation to social justice, will benefit from Haugen’s particular insistence that every one of us risk our personal comfort at the behest of “rescuing” someone in need. Haugen comes perhaps too near at times to underappreciating the ways in which most Christians will live the call to justice: handling the day-to-day tasks of family life; toiling away at a trade or business; volunteering at local soup kitchens or crisis pregnancy centers. Still, Haugen’s vision of more spectacular achievements in the cause of justice—such as liberating girls from the shackles of the sex trade—is invigorating and necessary.

IJM and its allies are the abolitionists of our age and they deserve our support and admiration. Some who read the book will be called to such work. Those who are not must find ways to be courageously just in our own lives.


The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.

A recent NBER paper, “Distributional Effects of Globalization in Developing Countries,” by Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg and Nina Pavcnik examines some effects of trade liberalization on low-skill workers.

Les Picker summarizes the findings, “Not surprisingly, the entry of many developing countries into the world market in the last three decades coincides with changes in various measures of inequality in these countries. What is more surprising is that the distributional changes went in the opposite direction from what the conventional wisdom suggests: while trade liberalization was expected to help the less skilled, who are presumed to be the relatively abundant factor in developing countries, there is overwhelming evidence that they are generally not made better off relative to workers with higher skill or education levels.”

There’s a lot more here to digest and the article has some predictably necessary nuances and caveats, not least of which concerns the problematic elements of trying to find a causal link between temporally related phenomena: “The authors’ findings suggest a contemporaneous increase in various measures of globalization and inequality in most developing countries, although establishing a causal link between these two trends has proven more challenging. However, the evidence has provided little support for the conventional wisdom that trade openness in developing countries would favor the less fortunate.”

It’s one thing to say that globalization proportionally rewards more highly educated and skilled workers relative to less educated and skilled workers. This by itself is not obviously unjust, and indeed, it seems to pass a basic sense of justice that jobs that require more skills and training ought to command a higher wage. Maybe a system that distributes more unevenly according to a measure of merit such as education or skill-level is more just than another system which is more equitable in purely distributive terms.

That said, it’s quite another thing to say that low-skilled workers are not made better off in absolute terms by globalization. I’m inclined to think that we shouldn’t be so concerned about relative disparities as we are by comparing in absolute terms the state of the working poor under systems of liberal versus illiberal trade.

If the working poor are better off under a liberal trade regime than an illiberal one, and higher educated workers are paid relatively more, there is a simultaneous increase in the poor’s immediate economic prospects as well as a relative increase in the economic incentive to improve their skills.

But his latter point only is effective in a situation where labor mobility is a real option, and as the NBER paper points out, “the strict labor market regulation that many developing countries had in place prior to the recent reforms is a potential source of labor market rigidities.”

So, for the promise of globalization to be realized, trade not only needs to be liberalized, but so does labor. Workers need to be free to move between sectors, both within and without national boundaries. As I’ve argued before in another context, we need both free trade and free labor.

For more on international labor mobility among low-skill workers, see this NYT piece, “Short on Labor, Farmers in U.S. Shift to Mexico.” See also, “New UN Report Underscores Ties between Poverty and Productivity.”

I’m reading David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice, which is very ably reviewed (although not by me) in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (10.1). I just read a striking passage, which discusses the merits of a principle of property rights that respects first possession rather than equal shares.

An overlooked virtue of first possession: It lets us live together without having to view newcomers as a threat. If we were to regard newcomers as having a claim to an equal share of our holdings, the arrival of newcomers would be inherently threatening. Imagine a town with one hundred people. Each has a one hundred foot wide lot. If someone new shows up, we redraw property lines. Each lot shrinks by one foot, to make room for the new person’s equal share (and so on as more people arrive). Question: How friendly will that town be? Even now, in our world, people who see the world in zero-sum terms tend to despise immigrants. They see immigrants as taking jobs rather than as making products, as bidding up rents rather than as stimulating new construction, and so on. The point is not that xenophobia has moral weight, but that xenophobia is real, a variable we want to minimize if we can. Rules of first possession help. What would not help is telling people that newly arriving immigrants have a right to an equal share (155).

It seems that the latter is exactly what many political liberals in America are doing by guaranteeing various kinds of entitlements to immigrants, whether legal or illegal. In that sense, a statist ideology that emphasizes government provision of various social entitlements seems to promote and foment rather than minimize xenophobia. And so ironically, the liberals who champion a freer and more lenient immigration policy are effectively undermining their own efforts.

This also shows just how dominant a statist (or zero-sum) mentality is in today’s United States when political conservatives are the ones who are most vociferiusly depicting immigrants as economic and social drains rather than positive producers.

The reality is that immigration generally tends to be a net economic benefit. While there are some localized pockets of negative economic effects, the national economic trend is positive. This has been articulated in one of Acton’s policy publications, “The Stranger who Sojourns with You: Toward a Moral Immigration Policy,” and was recently underscored by a White House report.

These realities bear serious reflection. Last Wednesday was World Refugee Day. We should be asking whether our society’s decisions about the government provision of social welfare entitlements has concurrently made our nation more attractive as a destination as well as more unfriendly to newcomers.

Could an elimination or reduction of entitlements make our country even more attractive while at the same time removing some of the economic incentives for xenophobia? Perhaps so.

A new initiative pioneered by Sojourners/Call to Renewal is called “Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Included in the platform are “calls for bills that would push for border enforcement while improving guest worker programs and offering chances for illegal immigrants to obtain legal status,” according to the NYT.

The NYT piece points out the potential for this to be a unifying issue for evangelicals, even though few if any prominent politically conservative evangelicals are overtly associated with Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. “The concerns of the coalition mirror those of many evangelical leaders who have often staked out conservative positions on other social issues or who have avoided politics entirely,” writes Neela Banerjee as she points to the cases of Dr. Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Rev. Joel Osteen.

The signatories to the group’s open letter include the executive director of my denomination, Rev. Jerry Dykstra of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Some of the language in the letter is a bit mealy-mouthed, as might be expected, but I think the statement does capture the spirit of some of the most relevant scriptural principles.

Perhaps the section that some conservatives will find most problematic is the fourth principle: “We believe in the rule of law, but we also believe that we are to oppose unjust laws and systems that harm and oppress people made in God’s image, especially the vulnerable (Isaiah 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:1-7, Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7).”

Many argue that the rule of law regarding illegal immigration needs to be reinforced and respected first, before any of the proposed guest worker or amnesty programs can be effective, no ifs, ands, or buts. And it might also be debatable precisely how a shared “set of common moral and theological principles” ought to be translated into public policy. This raises the question of what is the intent or purpose of law.

The letter says that immigration reform must be “fair and compassionate.” Is the end of the law justice? Love? Mercy? Peace? All of the above? I’ve been trained to understand the normative principle for social ethics, and the behavior of supra-personal entities or institutions, to be justice, as distinguished from (although not opposed to) love. It seems to me that Christians working out of a shared and common sense of obligation to love our neighbors can have legitimate and valid disagreements over precisely these sorts of questions.

With all that said, I think the letter gets it mostly right, at least on this point:

“The current U.S. immigration system is broken and now is the time for a fair and compassionate solution. We think it is entirely possible to protect our borders while establishing a viable, humane, and realistic immigration system, one that is consistent with our American values and increases national security while protecting the livelihood of Americans.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 19, 2007

One of my favorite industries to criticize is the state-run lottery business.

Philosopher William F. Vallicella writes the following: “Your chances of a significant win are next-to-nil. But suppose you win, and suppose you manage to not have your life destroyed by your ‘good fortune.’ The winnings are arguably ill-gotten gains. The money was extracted via false advertising from ignorant rubes and is being transferred via a chance mechanism to someone who has done nothing to deserve it” (HT: the evangelical outpost).

One could of course argue that the winner did take the superficially meritorious action of risking a small amount of money for the potential for a huge reward. Lottery players do at least have to “opt-in.” Perhaps that’s the action that accrues some semblance of desert.

But then again, if Vallicella is right about the nature of the system and its state-sponsored advertising, in the larger sense participation in such a corrupt industry might overshadow any meritorious action.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that in modern life characterized by the lack of meaning,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Add to those effects government sponsorship and promotion, and you have a pretty foul mix.

The John Locke Foundation recently published a report linking lotteries to high poverty and high unemployment in North Carolina counties. See the case of Jack Whittaker for someone whose ruin was occasioned by the influx of great wealth.

Even so, philosopher David Schmidtz expresses a way in which the “merit” of lotteries shouldn’t be accrued to the actions leading up to the windfall, but rather following it. Speaking of what he calls transitive reciprocity in his recent book, Elements of Justice, Schmidtz writes,

Having received an unearned windfall, we are in debt. The moral scales are out of balance. The canonical way to restore a measure of balance is to return the favor to our benefactor, as per symmetrical reciprocity. However, the canonical way is not the only way. Another way is to pass the favor on, as per transitive reciprocity. Transitive reciprocity is less about returning a favor and more about honoring it – doing justice to it. Passing the favor on may not repay an original benefactor, but it can be a way of giving thanks (83).

Schmidtz leaves us with a picture of the lottery winner as one who has inherited a responsibility to act in an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude, passing the favor on to others.

I like that.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One of ABC’s new dramas, Brothers & Sisters, features Calista Flockhart as a hard-hitting conservative pundit named Kitty Walker.

Despite its title, the show is not all that family friendly (although it has not yet been rated by the Parents Television Council). But for this post, I won’t be focusing on the questionable social and sexual mores of the show. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of the show’s portrayal of politics.

“Politics is about the privilege and the honor of taking care of people.”

In the most recent episode, “Sexual Politics,” Kitty has taken a job as a political adviser to Sen. Robert McCallister, played by Rob Lowe. McCallister is a young and handsome political star from California and is styled as “a John McCain-style Republican.”

Here’s a speech he gives to a group of ladies and donors (My comments are in brackets. The full episode is available for viewing at ABC.com here by clicking on the Brothers & Sisters graphic and selecting the episode marked 1/14/07. McCallister’s speech begins at approximately the 01:22 mark of the show):

I barely left the house most Sundays [not even to go to church?!]. My mom would cook elaborate dinners for neighbors, friends, and sometimes people we barely knew. By ten I could whip up a perfect meringue, to glaze a pan, dress chicken [these last two may be terms for particular dishes and I probably have not gotten them right].

But by the time puberty rolled around I’d had enough. Football, friends seemed more important. So I told her I was done. I was a guy, I didn’t want to spend Sundays in the kitchen with my mom. And you know what she said? She told me that someday I would realize that taking care of people is not masculine or feminine. It’s a privilege and it’s an honor. And she was right.

And one day I realized that politics is about the privilege and the honor of taking care of people, of making certain that the weak are protected, the poor are sheltered, and the hungry fed. My mother passed away six years ago, but I work every day to honor her memory in politics and in my kitchen. Thank you very much.

This captures pretty well the spirit of big government conservatism, as represented in real life by some other California Republicans. In such a view, it is the task of government to “take care of people,” periphrasis for a nanny State if I ever heard one. Indeed, politics are about sheltering the poor and feeding the hungry, taking care of people who obviously can’t take care of themselves. It’s not about empowerment but about infantilization.

Contrast this with a rather different view of politics, as portrayed in the words of Lord Acton, one that doesn’t arrogate politicking to the status of the highest possible human endeavor:

There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.

In Acton’s view, the highest purpose for the government is to promote and protect liberty, which is itself only a precondition for virtuous living.

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce.”

This leaves room for a vibrant civil society, represented in McCallister’s speech by the kitchen image. But do you see how in McCallister’s speech the role of the kitchen was subsumed, or rather consumed, by politics? Politics is the nanny, but the kitchen is the mommy.

I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Pledge of Allegiance, and would find it highly difficult to square such a pledge with Christian doctrine if the qualifier “under God” were removed.

But the concluding words of the pledge do get one thing right and that is the necessary relationship between liberty and justice. You can’t have one without the other, for justice grows from the foundation of liberty. And indeed the ideal of this nation is the realization of “liberty and justice for all.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 15, 2007

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, and rightly so.

Here’s a bit from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality.

When I was in elementary, middle, and high school in Virginia, the government celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day. Res ipsa loquitur.