I want to take a moment before I begin to express my gratitude to Brad Littlejohn, Jake Meador, the board of directors, and all those involved in the Davenant Institute for the generous invitation to this wonderful convivium. I first discovered Davenant when my wife and I still lived in Ottawa, Ontario, via one of the rabbit trails on which one often finds one’s self on the internet, and I have to say that it’s been a wonderful resource, a source of thought-provoking arguments, and, frankly, a wonderful teacher. I am born and raised as a Reformed Christian, and Davenant’s work has been, for me, a sort of treasure chest for my personal devotion to Christ, for teaching in my church, and for deepening my understanding of Christian theology throughout the ages. I work for an organization, Cardus, whose mission is to work for the “renewal of North American social architecture from within the tradition of 2000 years of Christian social thought” and Davenant, Ad Fontes, and the like are indispensable for strengthening the bonds of our attachment to the great tradition of Christians through the ages who try to work out their faith with fear and trembling.
So a heartfelt thank you to Brad, Jake, the board, and all of you for this great honour. I’m delighted to be here, and even more delighted to meet those whom I know only from words on pages in the flesh.
It’s always a somewhat disconcerting experience to receive invitations from friends, and to read how those friends describe you. I have to say that reading myself described as “an avid disciple of the Reformed theological tradition, and a paragon of principled irenicism” was a nice change from the way that I am usually described in public debates at Cardus. I much prefer being called a disciple and paragon than “utterly #$@!-ing useless“ which is how one public interlocutor of my work on labour described me last year.
The judgment about which description of me is truer I will leave in your capable hands.
Which leads me, in classic Reformed fashion, to my next point: a confession. I am indeed a disciple of the Reformed tradition, and I make no pretense of being a master of it. I am taking seriously the description of this event as a convivium, and what I’m about to offer to you is speech intended for a dinner table filled with serious, erudite friends whose hearts and souls are light and secure in the knowledge of their salvation, and whose hearts and tongues are made glad by the wine, single malt, or bourbon held in their hands.
Let’s take the fact that it is ten thirty and we are awaiting both dinner and bourbon as an analogy for our desire for that great convivium in which we will take part when the Lord returns, and let’s put our present time to good use.
I was asked to speak about justice. In particular, I have been asked to make the case for social justice for the skeptical within the various confessional churches in North America who, as the invitation for this event puts it, see social justice “as a Trojan horse under which liberal social and ethical agendas will be smuggled into the church, and individual freedoms relinquished to an all-powerful central state.”
So let me begin.
To ignore, downplay, or castigate justice within the living witness of the church is akin to ignoring, downplaying, or castigating substitutionary atonement within the living witness of the church.
You can work very, very hard to downplay the host of scriptural references to justice, and the thread of justice that appears to run from the book of Genesis to Revelation, and which is captured in Reformed and small-c catholic confessions. You can ignore it; you can pretend it’s not there; you can attempt to blunt the sharpness of God’s Word; you can attempt to douse the holy fire that accompanies the execution of justice in Scripture, or to mute the strain and anguish of the voices in Scripture that cry out for justice. But after all of your efforts, justice will still be there in the embrace of peace, ready to be picked up by the downtrodden who read God’s Word; ready to convict the tyrant who is confronted by God’s Word; ready to lull those of us sitting comfortably on our dragon hoard of wealth to obey God’s command; ready to provide us with hope and encouragement.
I have always been struck by how our polarized age leads to a tendency of both sides of a given debate to resemble mirror images of each other. I recall a biblical studies professor of mine from grad school who, discomforted by the attributes of God that he believed accompanied various theories of atonement, squirmed and wriggled to (as I saw it) diminish the sacrifice of the Lamb of God and both the scriptural references to such, as well as the church’s long tradition of teaching such. I see similar squirming and wriggling among those who would deny or downplay the centrality of justice in the life of the church today. Indeed, the commonality between the two is, in some strange way, a discomfort with God’s justice.
But let me ask: If God’s justice—his rod and his staff—comforts the righteous and allows them to face evil without fear, what does it say about those of us who find his rod and staff—his justice—uncomfortable?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism does not say “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, cough cough, goodness, and truth.” He is unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
And if the goal of a Christian is, through the grace of God the Father, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ his Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become like God, then individual Christians and the Christian church—the body of Christ—should strive to have justice be one of the characteristics attributed to her by its members, and by those who see her, pass her by, and interact with her, pagan or otherwise. To love justice is, as Psalm 33:5 tells us, to love what God loves. I want to love what God loves. Don’t you?
Now, the immediate temptation is to riff off of Pontius Pilate, and ask “What is justice?” (Headmaster Brad will lead us in lessons on how to ask that question in Latin when we are drinking aqua vitae.)
This question is at the heart of the whole discussion, and I will explore it a little bit more later in this talk, but for now, I want to continue to speak directly to those to whom I have been asked to speak: those who fear that a church concerned with social justice will lead to churches that sell their evangelical birthright for a mess of political pottage.
The question I have for those who hold this line of thought is: Why are we afraid?
Why is it that we naturally and instinctually believe that to pursue justice is to give up on God, the church, its creeds, its evangelical mission? On what grounds must we hold that to care for the poor and the weak—and to believe that the state has some role to play in that care—is to adopt liberal individualism? Is that line of thinking necessary? Does it necessarily follow? Why is it that rather than critiquing liberalism (theological and political) as a unique artifact of the idol factories that are our hearts (on which more below) we throw the juridical baby out with the ideological bathwater?
Here I would like to ask you to indulge a Canadian to make a cross-border observation about how we see the “why” behind this. It is possible that I am wrong on this, and I am willing to be corrected, and ask for your forgiveness if I am, but I’ll make it anyway, trusting in your grace.
The reason for this, I think, is at least in part because many who profess Christ in America have forgotten that they have been given authority, and have thus turned to other authorities to guard themselves against the suffering that might—will—come when we are faithful to God in a wicked and sinful world.
In short, some have not just suppressed the call for justice in the Scriptures, but have done so because they have neglected to inwardly digest another constant refrain of God to his people in Scripture: “Do not be afraid.”
To be clear: I understand the concerns, and as a Canadian who has seen a slow and steady restriction of the freedoms of conscience and religion in Canada that are headed toward the minimal (and perhaps worse someday), I am under no illusion that a polity in which choice-maximization for individuals is the underlying philosophical framework will be anything but arbitrary and blunt in the long run. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the arbitrary nature of justice that I am witnessing in our courts is an example of how a republic (or constitutional monarchy) understood in terms of a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests ends up looking like “bands of brigands” and our nations as “petty kingdoms,” as Augustine states it.
But when one examines one’s heart, it is hard to read fear of justice in the church as anything other than a variation of the disciples’ midnight cry on the Sea of Galilee.
North American Christians are in a political and social boat “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” And what does our fear of social justice as a Trojan horse say? “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
So to those who see the desire for social justice as a manifestation of cunningness and craftiness, let me speak the word of Jesus: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
A Tranquil Sea and Worship: A Christian Social Justice Manifesto
Some might say that cunning and craftiness, and deceit, is present among those wishing the church to take a more active role in pursuing justice, and no doubt they can point to numerous cases where this has been true. I’m happy to grant that; we all know the churches that, under the guise of justice (and, as we’ll discuss below, I use guise advisedly), have become baptized collectives of a given political party (and yes, absolutely, this goes both ways, but there are plenty of people pointing that out on the other end).
Movements toward one thing or another in church polities have begun to resemble political campaigns more than anything else, up to and including the shysterism, half-truths, fear-mongering, and the like that is the bane to the health of our polities, both state and church.
To resist social justice because it is a tool of some other political program is to allow that political program to set the terms of the debate, and to shape our actions and behaviours. It is to take one’s eyes off the incarnate justice that is Jesus Christ in the midst of a choppy sea.
Both those who consider social justice as more important than the gospel and those who believe that Christians can live lives that are transformed by that gospel without pursuit of justice will sink like stones. Indeed, I’m increasingly convinced that both the justice-without-Jesus people and the Jesus-without-justice people are enacting an instinctive drowning response—grabbing each others’ necks, and pulling each other down into the deeps.
And who knows; perhaps some time in the belly of a fish is what is necessary?
Modes of Speech About Justice
You will no doubt note that, thus far, my talk has been in a distinctly non-academic mode. I speak so intentionally in an attempt to demonstrate the ethos in which I think Christians should pursue justice.
I think there is ample room for those whose vocations are academic—theologians, philosophers, social and political scientists, theorists, and so on—to assist Christians in living out their vocation to do justice (and you’ll note throughout this my deep debt to theorists, theologians, etc.), but the task of doing justice is more than a theoretical exercise.
It is an exercise, rather, of obedience. Or, to put it in slightly less legal terms, the daily chores of the children of God who live in the household of God. Think of the Christian’s task in terms of this from 1 John 3:1: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (NIV).
This isn’t just for John’s immediate historical audience. This is a birth certificate held by all those who have been redeemed by Christ.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18 NIV)
No social justice warrior could offer a more stirring manifesto, could they?
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:19–24 NIV)
Identity, obedience, chores for the disordered world in which Christ the King has come.
The epistle’s mention of the Holy Spirit brings to mind Oliver O’Donovan’s description of Christian action in the public realm. The person who is a child of the living God
criticize[s] existing notions of political good and necessity, not only classical republican notions but imperial and theocratic notions, too, in the light of what God has done for the human race and the human soul. Public norms must be adjusted to the new realities when ordinary members of society may hear the voice of God and speak it in public, even, according to the prophet, men and women slaves. Ideas of what government is must be corrected in the light of that imperious government which the Spirit wields through the conscience of each worshipper.
Speaking of the Christian call to do justice is not, properly speaking, a this-worldly political matter. It is a matter of whom we recognize as worthy of government. And if O’Donovan is right—and I absolutely think he is, insofar as he’s in the footsteps of Augustine and many others in the living tradition of the church—then who is worthy of government is the “imperious” Holy Spirit. The source of authority given to us to do justice is not democratic in the way we understand it—we do not elect our King; on the contrary. We receive “all authority on heaven and earth” from Jesus Christ, ascended (May 30 is Ascension Day) and reigning at the right hand of the Father. And we receive the power to exercise that authority, through his Spirit.
The proper and primary mode of speech in speaking of justice, therefore, is proclamation; and doing justice, properly speaking, is evangelical. Anything else is a miscarriage of what should be our new birth as sons and daughters of Christ.
I wonder if we might not be more convincing to our brothers and sisters who wish to divorce the gospel from justice if we were to speak in this proclaiming mode more often.
And I wonder if those who wish to absorb the gospel in pursuit of this-worldly justice might be more convinced if they were to see the majesty and power of a community whose pursuit of justice was done as an extension of ultimate justice—the worship due to the God whom we confess in the creeds.
Perhaps, perhaps not.
In any case we should insist with Benedict XVI that “being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
It is the new horizons that emerge out of that encounter—most powerfully in worship and prayer—that is the basis for the justice that our SJW friends so deeply desire.
On any account, we should not be put off by the myriad ways—historically and presently—that Christians make a hash of justice, and use God’s name to perpetuate injustice. We cannot see the abuse and conclude that the proper manner of approaching this is to adopt a liberal, neutral, conception of justice. Perhaps in our time and place, with our cultural history, our primary task is “overcoming the pretentiousness of the autonomous political order” premised on the autonomous individual.
I’m not saying that we adopt hubris here—heaven knows we have plenty of it. But we should, as O’Donovan says, “presume neither that the Christ-event never occurred nor that the sovereignty of Christ is now transparent and uncontested.” As we’ll discuss below, the contestation of what is just is absolutely critical to this pursuit, but there justice is never neutral. It’s God’s justice or its injustice.
An encounter with Jesus cannot but be extended. Justice means giving God his due: our love. And our love of God cannot but be extended to the love of our neighbours who bear his image. Encountering God is always made manifest within communal life. And the whole array of those communities—of which the political community is one—is our social life.
And it is here that we encounter a need for a Christian ethic of properly loving our neighbour within that complex array of relationships. How do we understand that task?
I ask this because my hunch is that many who are otherwise skeptical of social justice within the church would, in reality, have no trouble whatsoever in assenting to everything I’ve said above. The trouble comes not when we come to terms with the fact Scripture tells us to do justice, but in how we discuss and define justice, and on what grounds do we call the church to account.
Scripture Is Not Google Maps
Where I think we will go wrong—and where I think we will tend toward the hubris that I worried about above—is if we are to think that Scripture will give us a clear roadmap for constitutional government and a set of pre-cast legal decisions about various issues of the day. Holy Scripture is not the same as a Justice Scalia dissent or majority decision! And it is certainly not Google Maps with the Holy Spirit mechanically telling us in some computerized voice to turn left here or right there.
Scripture does teach us about political authority, and about justice, but not always in the way that we want it to.
To paraphrase from a wonderful little article penned by our friend Brad Littlejohn, we should not “act as if Scripture did not merely contain all things necessary to salvation, but all things necessary in any sense, necessary to answer burning moral, ecclesiastical, or political questions [that trouble us].”
Brad is right to cite Richard Hooker here:
When it comes to the deeds of God, our duty is merely to search out what He has done and to admire it with meekness, rather than to argue about what our reason dictates God should have done. The different ways in which God may do good to His Church are more numerous than we can imagine, and we cannot presume to judge which is best until, having first seen what He has in fact done, we may know it to be the best. If we do otherwise, surely we go too far and forget our place. Our pride must be restrained, and our arguments must be silenced by the words of the blessed apostle: “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom. 11:33–34).
I want to draw your attention in particular to Hooker’s insistence on “the different ways in which God may do good to His Church” and to keep this in the back of your mind: these ways are more numerous than we can imagine. I’ll return to this a little further on.
The properly Christian attention to the “imperious government which the Spirit wields through the conscience of each worshipper,” which influences our approach to justice, entails a community of practice, a tradition. Our presentist sensibilities incline us to think of “tradition” as something past. But it is also the living practice of the people of God, wherever they are found. Social justice for Wang Yi and the Early Rain congregation in Szechuan, China, will be both the same and very different from social justice for the congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and that is true for my church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, too.
In any case, we will not get anywhere in our discernment of how we ought to pursue justice if we imagine ourselves as outside of a tradition, or the discipline of the church of God in particular places. And we will certainly not do so if we ignore the long history and works of the church throughout the ages, in its various parts and places.
The more astute among you will correctly read this as my saying that the church will not get very far unless we attend to such source books as From Irenaeus to Grotius and—yes, this is pandering, and no, I have no regrets—to the work of organizations like the Davenant Institute.
Attend to Your Neighbour
One thing that will arise out of reading the church’s tradition, indeed one thing that arises out of Scripture itself, is the extent to which those who wish to do the work of Christ—to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed—must attend to the lived experience of those near to them. To love your neighbour, you must first know your neighbour; and you must also know your neighbourhood.
I have been deeply influenced by the Christian social teaching of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper and Martin Luther King Jr. And what comes through when you read documents like Rerum Novarum, and Kuyper’s “The Social Question” and “On Manual Labour,” or any of Rev. King’s speeches, is the extent to which they were intimately familiar with not just the struggles of the poor and the oppressed but also the unique pressures that were placed upon them, and the various fulcra that were placing that pressure on them. The “I have a dream” speech is not simply an imagined utopia, but a call to imagine a better society made better by a destruction of the legal and social vices that were crushing African Americans. And they spoke clearly and prophetically about the need for society as a whole to reimagine those who were suffering—to see them as Christ.
And what I find particularly fascinating about how they called the church to respond to these pressures is the degree to which the gospel—for both of them—was a fountain of imagination for the societal relief of those pressures. They saw serious injustices, and evaluated the various responses to those injustices that were on offer in their society. And when they found those responses lacking, what they offered in response to the “new things” were new institutions, new ways of imagining communal life that were more aligned with the demands of the gospel. And they spoke clearly and prophetically about the need for society as a whole to reimagine those who were suffering—to see them as Christ.
In this way, they fall into a long line of Christians. I encourage all of you to read a book by Dr. Susan Holman called The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia, which shows the extent to which the combination of worship, preaching, and pursuit of justice for the poor combined to introduce historically new ways of organizing society, as well as the beginning of institutions such as hospitals that we now consider normal.
Christian responses to matters of social justice should be considered as a new opportunity to make the eternal gospel manifest.
I would also add that this provides what I think is one of the more compelling reasons for the maximization of religious freedom. I’ve noted above that the Canadian scene is one that is seeing a steady shrinking of the space the Christian person of conscience is given to act. And while I actually support the restriction of state-backed Christian privilege, I see the restriction of the freedoms of both conscience and religion as an attempt on behalf of some to abort the social potentialities of seriously religious people. I sometimes wonder if such restrictions occur because of a fear of the truth of the gospel.
I say “attempt” because, if we’re doing it right, these should arise even in the case of persecution if it ever comes; perhaps such persecution might even play the role that forest fires play in the lives of blazing star, wild lupine, and sandplain gerardia. To quote Wang Yi, whom I mentioned earlier, “we must act and speak with the same courage and uprightness” whether we are being persecuted or not. “When we are not being persecuted, we spread the gospel. And when persecution comes, we continue spreading the gospel.”
I would offer that a church pursuing social justice is a way for us, in a society that is not experiencing anything like the persecution that our brothers and sisters in China are experiencing, to pick up our cross, to bear the burdens of others, and in so doing to be a channel for God’s grace to our society.
A Plural Pursuit (Attend to History)
Attending to the various fulcra in the lives of those to whom Christ anointed us to serve assumes the presence of various fixed points within our society. And while we might argue about how “fixed” they actually are, it is nonetheless true that if you are attending to your neighbour and your neighbourhood you will quickly have to attend to the variety of loci of power in those places. This is not a theoretical exercise. On anything—whether it’s housing, food, prisons—there are likely to be a host of organized, and unorganized, communal manifestations of human life using, and abusing, power. And Christians attending to their neighbours will have to think hard about the unique competencies and jurisdictions of various communal manifestations of human life, and our responses to the ways in which they use or abuse power will have to be plural as well.
This is one area where many have turned to the state to fix problems that might better off be left to other institutions. Take, for instance, the minimum wage. Is there a case to be made for state intervention in the contracts between employers and employees? Perhaps. Is there a better case for other institutional arrangements—let’s say, for instance, trade unions—to be preferred in dealing with questions of just wages that better attend to the unique needs of workers and corporations? Absolutely. And sticking with government-mandated wages: Are they the best way to deal with multifaceted problems like poverty? Perhaps, but likely not. A more likely response is a mixed one, in which justice and injustice in marriage, family, education, the criminal justice system, workplaces, churches all contribute to a particular outcome, for good or ill.
So pursuing justice will mean not just living just lives within, say, families (fathers, love your children and do not exasperate them, lay yourselves down for your wives, etc.), but working—in friendships, or mentoring relationships, through programs organized by churches or other organizations—with young fathers or kids who didn’t have dads. But it will also mean examining how our political community governs family lives. As Kevin den Dulk notes: politics matters. Is divorce too easy to get? Does our criminal system’s emphasis on imprisonment disproportionately affect children who are missing their fathers? Do our employment relationships, and the employers that shape them, prevent parents from exercising their duties as parents? All of these are questions of justice, but not all of these questions are questions of public justice that the state is responsible for. The public justice of the political community touches many aspects of our lives, but it is important to remember that political community is neither paramount nor without appropriate limits.
While I may have reservations about the particular understanding of ecclesial and political power present in Pope Gelasius’s statement regarding two swords—“there are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled”—it nonetheless hints at a view of society in which multiple, legitimate powers are at work.
Part of our task as Christians is to not only pursue justice within the respective realms but also to ensure that each area of human life—and the communities that form to support that life—is not absorbed (as Pierpaulo Donati notes) by other institutions. And the flip side is also true: we should explore the ways in which these institutions can support and enable each other to achieve their ends.
A lot of time has been spent on concern about forms of life being absorbed by the state (and I share many of those concerns), but it strikes me that the colonization of family and civil society by the state is as much a matter of a way of seeing the world as it is of actual presence of state apparatchiks in our bedrooms. In each case, the state is attempting to impose—as James C. Scott would describe it—its vision of legibility upon communities that are defined and that thrive on different criteria of perfection. And I would add that, for the church, we might be equally—perhaps more—worried about the vision of legibility that the world of business imposes on everything—including the state.
Part of pursuing social justice today—a social justice guided by the church’s great tradition—will strive for the freedom of these various institutions from absorption (and yes, we want a free state as well), while at the same time exploring the ways in which these institutions can support and enable each other to achieve their ends.
In other words, justice is not just the giving of due within those communities, but the proper ordering of relationships among those communities.
The aware among you will catch hints of Augustine’s definition of peace in this understanding of social justice. Social justice, like the water after Jesus spoke to the storm, is a society marked by peace. And peace, to riff off of another Augustinian insight, is not simply the absence of war, but the tranquility of order
A church marked by the confidence that all of these communities, and all of the people within them, are held in the loving hand of God can approach this work with the tranquility that marks those who have been left with, and given, peace.
I’d like to end with something that I read the other day that, I think, is a living manifestation of this peace, and that, I think, represents the proper posture of Christians working for justice this side of the Lord’s return. It’s written by the trustees of Salem Bible Chapel, the church of Harriet Tubman and the terminus for many journeys on the Underground Railroad. Salem is in St. Catharines, Ontario, just down the road from the Cardus office, and in a way it links our two countries. More than that, I think it is a sign of the solidarity of Christians around the world who know that justice is God’s, and that without proper worship, there is no—there can be—no justice.
I like to think of it as a letter to the secular social justice warrior that acts as an invitation to join us in this great work.
We wish to express our thanks to you for your interest in our most famous member, Harriet Tubman and the African American freedom seekers who built the Salem Chapel and their connection to the legendary Underground Railroad. We too are just as enthusiastic, if not more so, because we are the guardians of their honourable memory and custodians of the church. However, it is important that you know that our first priority is to serve our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, because that is what we believe Sister Tubman and all other past members would want us to do.
We realize that this may be difficult for some of you to understand and that some of you may disagree with us, however, please recognize that this is our position and it is also our prerogative. There will be no argument relating to this matter, because we understand that our forefathers built the church to praise the Lord, not themselves. We also do not believe that they would want us to place them above God.
We believe that the only time Sister Tubman would have missed attending a Sunday Worship Service, whether she was in the US or Canada, is when she was guiding fugitives to freedom or if she was ill. No matter what the Sunday circumstance may have been, we believe that Sister Tubman would have taken the time to give thanks to the Lord as she did on a daily basis.
The Salem Chapel is a functional church and we do hold a public worship service every Sunday, therefore, we operate very differently from a museum, interpretive centre, etc., because our first priority is to serve the Lord.
As we pursue justice, let that be our first priority too.