Whoever suffers from the malady of being unable to endure any injustice, must never look out of the window, but stay in his room with the door shut. He would also do well, perhaps, to throw away his mirror.
—Johann Gottfried Seume1
The very term “social justice” is experienced as a phrase of legitimacy among some Left-leaning Christians and, correspondingly, as a certain clue of apostasy by some on the Right. There is much that we could and should argue about here, but what’s entirely indisputable is this: Christians do undertake good works to right wrongs. This conversation seems to get hotter and less luminous, however, when the question arises about what constitutes specifically a positive or a negative contribution to the ethical. I will not be attempting to add to the heat with my muddling judgment on this question, but neither are my two starting points to shape the scope of this article without controversy. They are, namely: (1) that to be a citizen of both God’s empire and of the United States of America implies being a moral being; and (2) since justice is a matter of morality, it must derive from the one who is the transcendent source and summit of justice.2
What I will attempt to demonstrate is that because of the pervasiveness and perverseness of evil, the best approach to address injustice is grounded in God’s preemptive mercy—what I term “contributive justice.”
Battlegrounds Where Grace Abounds
Since sin abounds, any Spirit-led responses to God’s gracious bestowal of righteousness through Jesus Christ should inevitably include, like good fruit growing from a good tree (Matt. 7:17), the pursuit of justice. Despite Western overconfidence in its false religion of radical individualism, being Christian is never a solo performance. Even in their personal actions, Christians work—knowingly or not—in conjunction with a body of fellow believers (Rom. 12:4–5). Their hopes, when they dream of a better world, are entwined with dreamers, martyrs, saints, and prophets of times other than their own and from places near and far. Likewise, the issues they tackle include both the unjust structures in society and the unjust actions of individuals. Yet there’s no room for sanctimonious delusion: working to address the consequences of sin is itself tainted by sin. We comprehend the former more easily than the latter—namely, it’s easier to see the consequences of sin in others than it is to discern that stain in ourselves.
Since no human action—including the pursuit of social justice—is unimpacted by sin, even the most purely motivated deeds will produce unintended consequences, collateral repercussions, and unforeseen negative results. Therefore, any form of activism—whether progressively advancing a cause or traditionally protecting a freedom—requires limits. I will argue for contributive justice as a preferred approach because (1) it affirms the human dignity and capacity of communities taking responsible action for themselves; (2) it proposes realistic restraints on efforts to correct or defend against societal ills, so that the corrective action doesn’t cause more ailment than what it’s aiming to cure; and (3) it entails an approach that is more pragmatic than theoretical, more useful than ideological.
When I worked for Lutheran World Relief, headquartered in the Inner Harbor section of downtown Baltimore, I’d frequently walk the two miles from my loft apartment to the job. Every day that involved this good exercise, my route took me past a woman living a crushed existence—a street lady, you might call her. She resided among cardboard boxes and tattered bags filled with odds and ends. This woman, whose name none of us knew, was a talker. “You’re really just like me!” she shouted out one day to those hurrying by, their eyes averted, to their jobs. “You’re just one step away from death, and there but by the grace of God you could be in my shoes!” The daily damnations she experienced in being seen by most as a menace to society, with no fixed address, prepared her to be an outdoor prophetess. As Martin Luther once noted, “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying and by being damned.”3
More than once during my pedestrian commute, while I could avoid her gaze, I could not ignore her piercing insights. With a crackling, staccato voice, she spun clever truisms about the universality of trouble and troublemakers. Through blue sighs of lyrical despair, she articulated what so many of us knew to be true, but in our plastic pride couldn’t bear to admit. One of the classic phrases she intoned that seemed to come from an authority superior to us all was, “God don’t like ugly, and he ain’t too impressed with pretty.”
Her theological worldview was on target: Since God is just, God stands on the side of justice. This is good news for sufferers. But for those who cause suffering, God’s law lances their stubborn pride and sees piercingly through their hypocrisies. In retrospect, my conscience heard her calling, or God’s calling through her, for us to turn from our unreflective investment in a materialist-scientific technocratic world of social media fakery, and to return to the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is a vocation toward justice. This is the motivation for justice. This is God’s call.
Since justice is a concept that cannot be untied from morality, which is itself necessarily embedded in a theological worldview, the implications of justice cannot be contained in any single sociological category, political domain, or historical era. Justice relates across epochs and cultures to judgments of what is fair and right. Further, as a transcendent ideal, justice is related to natural law. There exists a judicious temperament written on every human soul,4 whether legible or illegible. Therefore, there tends to be a common judgment with which people ordinarily and instinctively agree. There is little new here for those who adhere to classic Christianity: “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15).
A Blind Spot
Not only is justice a category that permits us to arbitrate right and wrong, but the one who writes it on our consciences also moves individuals and societies, ordering their lives together to then act accordingly. That is what is at work particularly in the civic experiment known as the United States of America. Here, the bold claim is to know from natural law that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” This derivative ingenuity of the Western natural rights perspective—tied inextricably, I believe, to the Judeo-Christian tradition—consists in this notion: that every human person possesses inherent dignity, value, and worth, and every life, from conception to natural death, carries meaning and purpose. It concerns me that this core and foundational Western achievement is at risk.
Reinhard Hütter describes a blind spot in Western secularism, a consequence of the erosion of authority in the West, leaving the residual of a culture that breathes in “the aroma of an empty bottle”—der Duft einer leeren Flasche. We abide with habits and customs that derive from the fruit of faith without fully realizing that we have forsaken the root of faith—our religious tradition. Since this is the case, how long can it be before life itself loses the essence of truth and meaning, as well as the effervescence of goodness and authenticity? These components of the life that Jesus Christ came to bring (John 10:10) align with Aristotelian notions of eudaimonia or human flourishing. Most damagingly, a disconnection from the source of the good, the true, and the beautiful makes it increasingly difficult to locate frameworks for moral decision-making, including the implementation of justice. In other words, our pursuits of liberation, our pining for unfettered freedoms, and our yearning for disentanglement from tradition conceivably lead to less, not more, justice. The recovery effort of Christians to address this drift should emerge from the grass roots, employing contributive justice.
Justice for More than Just Us
There are at least three ways of thinking about justice, over against which I’d like to posit this notion of contributive justice. I am oversimplifying to economize words:
In contrast to these, I propose contributive justice, which I define as follows:
Set free by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we act within our vocations and locations in order to promote sustainably full human flourishing among our families, our neighborhoods, and our global neighbors.
We ourselves take what we have to work where we are. We don’t wait for external intervention; we take action.
In so doing, contributive justice affirms the fundamental agency and capacity owned by human persons as created in the image of God. They bloom where they are planted. They start by responding to the needs of others within the concentric circles where life is lived—self, family, community, and the world. While it is much easier to love the abstract neighbor who resides, say, in some perniciously impoverished nation overseas, it is much more effective and productive to get one’s hands dirty in a down-to-earth, face-to-face love of the neighbor who is your “near-dweller,” the etymological meaning of neigh-bor.
Confessional Lutherans and biblical evangelicals have historically tended to thematize justice not as social action but primarily as conjugated within that saving act delivered by God in Jesus Christ. In this view, justice relates to that doctrine on which “the church stands and falls”: justification. While in both the Hebrew and Greek biblical antecedent languages, there is a linguistic relationship between justice and words related to God’s justifying work in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, the question remaining before us is this: What also do those who are justified have to contribute to a world of evil, falsehood, baseness, and ugliness?
As someone who works in Christian higher education (and also resides on a college campus), I have observed many younger members within these faith traditions be attracted to a range of activism—from marching in pro-life events to kneeling in Black Lives Matter protests. They do not begrudge assertions of doctrine or verbal apologetics, but their raised sense of global responsibility hears theology as a prompt for action. Perhaps their consciences are accused (Rom. 2:15) due to the ease of transportation that enables them to see more. Perhaps it’s due to increased access to communication technology and social media. Whatever the factors, their awareness of the plight of those who suffer and the possibilities for making a difference is raised. Theirs is a push toward a martyria that aims to make meaningful, tangible contributions to God’s world precisely because they know themselves to be God’s.
Drenched for Just This
Contributive justice is rooted in the gifts all Christians are given in their baptisms: the justifying justice of God in Jesus Christ flowing through the threefold name at the font, fueling through the word the daily actions of those who do justice. “A Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”5 The ripple effect of rising daily to a new life in Christ produces a wave of righteousness that drowns the enemies of God’s justice with Spirit-led actions, which are both aware of sin, including the sin of self-justifying behavior, at the same time that compassion is enacted. Just as water cannot be contained, neither can God’s love in Christ Jesus.
Since contributive justice is not an ideology or a social justice platform, but a process rooted in realism about the human condition, it is not as prone to the sort of pride or absolutism that “deflects attention from the extrinsic righteousness of Christ to one’s own spiritual and moral efforts.”6
John Arthur Nunes (PhD, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) is the president of Concordia College New York. He also holds a BA from Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an MDiv from Concordia Seminary, St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada. He is the author of numerous books and articles, recently coauthoring Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation from the Margins (Eerdmans, 2017) with Alberto García.
. . . is not a duty embedded deontologically in ideas of ethical obligation or even noblesse oblige, but a responsibility in the sense of responsiveness to God’s mercy;
. . . is not based on what others deserve, embedded in human rights or even primarily for Christians in the inalienable rights of people living in poverty and marginalization, but is a signature of the baptized as they lavishly splash God’s love on all life, all lives, and all things living; it is real action for real people, complex and concrete;
. . . takes sin seriously—both in society and in individuals, both among those who perpetuate injustice and among those who work to remediate it;
. . . is built on the groundwork that everyone, including the suffering and the aggrieved, as well as the activist and the responder, possesses the potential to be part of the problem and part of the solution—everyone contributes;
. . . begins by assessing, affirming, mapping, and cultivating the assets, gifts, resources, networks, and knowledge that are already available;
. . . identifies the root cause of socioeconomic poverty and disparity as due primarily to a lack of access to networks or education, technology, training, support—not first as the result of moral failure (as some social conservatives claim) or of structural oppression (as is claimed by progressives);
. . . aligns with the Reformers’ (Luther’s and Calvin’s) positive approach to Christian ethics as not only the avoidance of evil, but as the intentional pursuit of its obverse, the good, which correlates to that which is the opposite of the specific evil. For example, to commit murder is not only to kill but not to defend life. As one catechism puts it, Christians are guilty “not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good . . . but fail to do so.”7