Christian Conception of Justice

The Christian Conception of Justice.

The Christian conception of Justice arises out of some of the core themes of the New Testament, themes which are summed up in some cases from some pithy verses, and in other cases from certain extended themes.

One is the story in Matthew 25, in which Jesus is tells of how the Son of Man will someday return as King, and judge the world.  And the basis of that judgment will be how people treated him: did they feed him when he was hungry, clothe him when he was naked etc.  When we will have done this, asks everyone.  When you had done these things for “the least of these” answers Jesus, for the poor, for the insignificant ones, for it is in these that we encounter God.  So the first theme in the Christian conception of justice is holiness of every person, especially the least of these.

The second theme comes from Galatians 3:28, a famous statement in which Paul says that there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no freeman, no male, no female; for we are all one person in Christ.  The second theme of the Christian conception of Justice is that all of the social divisions that mean so much in our world, mean nothing to God.  The radical equality of all souls before God. 

The third theme is one that pervades much of Paul’s writings and many of parables, and that liberation from legalistic moral commandments.  One of the accidents of history is that Christianity started out as a subset of Judaism, but soon was filled with Gentiles.  And the early Christian movement went through a very difficult split with Judaism, and one of the issues over which that split was argued was over the obligation of gentile Christians to observe Jewish law. Eventually Christians concluded that they did not.  While there have been many negative effects of the conflict with Judaism in early Christian history, one positive result has been this:  Christianity has always carried a powerful antinomian spirit.  Laws and rules promoted by human beings in the name of God are to suspected and critiqued.  They are never to be to be understood as the path to salvation, since we come into the presence of God through God’s amazing grace through Jesus Christ.  No human being ever holds the key to another’s salvation.  While this principle lay dormant through for over a 1400 years, it re-emerged with the Protestant Reformation.  And remarkably, it became the theological foundation for the emergence of the ultimate and final authority of the individual.  In the end, spiritual salvation, whatever that would mean, would be a matter between each individual human soul and God. 

Together these three themes constitute the main themes of the Christian conception of Justice, which is based in radical (meaning unqualified), universal (meaning pertaining to every single person in the world no matter what), egalitarian (meaning that there is “no least of these” nor “most of these” in God’s eyes) individual liberation. 

This has meant, as it developed, that the Christian conception of justice has turned away from looking toward a human regime that inaugurates a utopian society in which there is universal peace, happiness, equality, and social order.  Instead of vision of the just society, it has focused more on a vision of society that does its work justly.  Procedural justice; the primary test of justice is whether society protects the sacred freedom of each human soul.  The Christian conception of justice has shown itself over the centuries to be quite unconcerned with economic inequality, but on the other hand, quite relentless in identifying persons and groups of persons whose individual human souls are being restricted and limited by human social limitations.  The equality of women, the equality of all ethnic groups, the abolition of slavery, the concept of human rights, political democracy, government by the consent of the governed, religious diversity, the rights of gays and lesbians, the right to own property, the right to join in organizations such as labor unions, all of these are the fruits of the Christian conceptions of the radical universal equality of each individual soul.  

Certainly, I am not making any claim that these principles are unique to Christianity, nor that one or more of them were not made manifest by people who practice other religions in other parts of the world.  And increasingly, in a world in which all of the world religions intermix, intermingle and interpenetrate, it will become more difficult to separate out which idea, which practice, which effort for justice comes from which religious context.  All I am saying is that the concept of justice has the history that I have described in the Christian West. 

And further, I am sure that everyone realizes that I am talking about the Christian conception of Justice and how it developed, and not talking about the actual and real history of Christian practice, which has been filled with many just and unjust actions.  I will say that the anti-institutional bias, toward critiquing institutions from the point of view of how it affects the individual soul, has made Christianity an extraordinarily self-critical regime.

The self-critical tendencies of Christian social theology has often generated revolutionary and radical movements in the West that have aimed at actually creating a perfected society, one in which there is not simply procedural justice, but the substance of justice – economic equality most of all.  The whole Marxist movement was the prime example of this, arising, as it did, out of a 19th century radicalism that frequently invoked the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus.  But very soon, those movements found that their hopes could only be reached by violating and limiting the souls of individuals, by repealing the radical universal egalitarian liberation of each human soul.  They offered the dictatorship of the proleteriate, while the Christian tradition continued to uphold the sanctity of what Pope John Paul 2 called the “irreducible human soul” as the only foundation for any social order.  

There have also been social movements of Christians that have sought to impose on society, some of the moral precepts that have been associated with Christianity in the past.  There is a dangerous Christian fundamentalism which is no friend of the soul and its freedom, however glowing the picture of a virtuous society they present.  Christian fundamentalism will fail when people see the anguish of limited, oppressed, repressed human souls that their social vision requires, but does not acknowledge.  

In conclusion, the Christian conception of justice is based on three precepts: the holiness of each individual, the equality of all souls before God and the distrust of all institutions that claim to speak for God in this world.  It is no longer appropriate to talk about the Kingdom of God, since we now understand that there are no such thing as Kings, so we can talk instead about the republic of heaven as being goal.  The Christian conception of Justice leads directly to what I see as the social program of liberal religion: Pluralist and diverse cultures, secular states, free religious institutions, freedom of conscience, human rights, the equality of women, political democracy, and now, we realize, in that process of continuous uncovering of new dimensions of justice, the full embrace of gays and lesbians as equal members of the human community. 

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