Can justice be saved? The question invites a host of others, each more bracing than the last. Can justice be saved—from whom, or from what? Should we cast a shadow over justice, as the question does by presuming it might be insufficient for the world around us? Is not justice itself the tonic the world needs? And perhaps most difficult of all: which justice? This question is the theme of Plato’s Republic. My encounter with that text many years ago at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute made me a Christian. In his attempt to rescue justice from Thracymachus’ assertion that it is the power of the strong over the weak, Plato discovered that the more fundamental question is whether we can be saved. To this Plato had no real answer: the world would wait some four-hundred years for that.
Justice is still in need of saving here in our decadent, late-modern American society—as it is in every generation. Asking about what we owe to one another takes us to the foundation of our lives together as human beings. The task pursuing such fundamental questions, though, itself presupposes some provisional account of the content and nature of justice. To give the theoretical question of justice its due requires time and attention, neither of which we might be permitted to enjoy as long as our near neighbors are suffering. At the outset of the Second World War, C.S. Lewis acknowledged the urgency of the crisis, but still exhorted students to carry on their studies: “If men had proposed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure,” he wrote, “the search would never have begun.”
We might say the same about our inquiries into justice or any other fundamental question in the midst of a culture war, or among poverty, or when we are surrounded by the vast range of injustices clamoring for our attention. Indeed, such entanglement in the world is indispensable for thinking about our theme in these essays: the question of justice is both motivated and informed by our practical awareness of our neighbors’ needs—or at least our awareness of what their needs seem to be. Learning the truth of the matter is a task for which moral reflection and analysis is required: what we owe to another is not always as transparent as we might like justice to be.
But from whom, or what, might justice need saving? In this essay and those that follow it, I hope to say something substantive about what justice demands. But I hope to do so in a way that illuminates the world around us, and helps us discern our responsibilities as Christians. If the question of what justice demands is abstract and perennial, the contours of any inquiry into it will be bound both by history and the context in which we stand—as it was for Plato’s Socrates and his many interlocutors. Any sketch of those threats to justice in our own time will be tendentious—yet to discern where our responsibilities lie, such a sketch must be made.
In recent years, American society has been gripped by a political urgency that has suffocated the possibility of finding common ground or compromise. Such an atmosphere emanates, I think, from a post-Christian sense of despair that has seized both sides of our culture wars: neither conservatives nor progressives have the patience and long-suffering required to secure a peace wherein all Americans might live as one people. The post-Christian quality of the conservative right is perhaps harder to detect, because it has often cloaked its hopelessness with the name of Jesus Christ. Political “evangelicals” were not the first to use grievance and victimhood for political gain—but they have learned those arts well.
After being marginalized from many of America’s institutions of power—Hollywood, the media, big business, and even the Republican Party—conservative evangelicals embraced a renegade President who would at last defend their interests. Having long given up any hope of persuading the other side, it did not matter that our President’s racial and sexual attitudes seemed to prove political evangelicalism’s critics right. The chance of curtailing abortion rights and the urgency of saving the white working-class from self-destruction meant any social costs were worth the gains: who has time to build consensus when infants are being killed and the white-working class is killing itself?
This despair animates our progressive left, though, as well. The comprehensive vision of “equality” for every social group cannot brook dissent. The movement to liberate marginalized ‘identities’ has been replaced by an effort to coercively extinguish alternate views. Such hostility is founded upon the notion that ideas are not only the root of oppression, but that allowing them to be stated publicly is intrinsically damaging. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written, “Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness.”
Politically, Democrats have reacted to Republicans by radicalizing their commitment to this vision of symbolic and social equality, as they have their defense of abortion. On gay rights, defending the freedom of individuals to marry has transformed into suppressing religiously-based objections to it. Not surprisingly, the arguments against traditional sexual ethics have shifted as well: where critics once argued that such views are false, they now propose that they literally kill people. Who has time for tolerance, when there is blood on Christians’ hands?
Within a political atmosphere dominated by resentment and despair, one might hope to turn to those marked by the Gospel to find an account of justice that could be good news for American society. Yet in that corner we discover a theological challenge to justice, which threatens to imperil it rather than save it. For many conservative evangelicals, allowing the pursuit of justice to be central to or constitutive of the church’s vocation vitiates her unique responsibility to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I understand their worries, such conservative evangelicals think agitating for “social justice” diminishes the centrality of evangelism for social transformation, and downplays the importance of “personal responsibility” in the pursuit of systemic, institutional change. For them, the Christian should act justly: but the church has no obligation to pursue “social justice,” as doing so would violate its divinely-ordained limits. This carries with it the corollary that a just society arises only from the widespread conversion of individuals to Jesus Christ. Justice needs saving, on this account—but it needs saving from being confused with the Gospel. Justice is an implication of the Gospel, rather than central to or constitutive of it.
Besides these theological concerns, conservative evangelical anxieties about “social justice” have empirical and generational dimensions. To speak of social justice, rather than biblical justice, ostensibly means one is aiding and abetting the progressive ethos of despair. “Social justice” can only be understood through the history from which it emerged and through the uses to which it is and has been put. On this understanding, ‘social justice’ demands a symbolic and economic equality, which when deployed by critical race theorists and ‘cultural marxists’ uses the logic of victimhood, identity, and power (through the grammar of ‘intersectionality’) to advance sub- or anti-biblical moral stances.
The term ‘social justice’ has its own content, in other words, and any attempt to infuse it with the Bible’s own moral logic or grammar can only be capitulation to hostile, anti-Christian principalities and powers. Augustine and the early Christians sought to plunder the spoils of Egypt by announcing the good news of Jesus Christ in the political and philosophical vocabulary of their time. But younger ‘woke’ Christians, we are told, cannot be trusted to discern between the spoils of “social justice” and that which will simply spoil us.
What should we make of all this? How might justice be saved? Conservative evangelical critics of ‘social justice’ are right about this much: the question of justice’s scope and content can only be answered when we grasp the significance of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ for the society in which we live. But if we start at this point, it seems as though we must speak of charity—and not justice. Jesus distills the Law and Prophets into the twofold command to love God and our neighbour. The second precept to love our neighbour is “like unto” that to love God.
The two commands are distinct, but inseparable—as the two natures of Christ are distinct, but inseparable. The second command’s content is thus governed by the love of Jesus Christ: “A new commandment I give unto you,” Jesus tells his disciples, that they “love one another even as [He] has loved [them].” Paul also emphasizes the pre-eminence of charity for the moral life: “Owe no man anything,” he writes to the Romans, “save to love one another: for he that loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law.” Even more famously, Paul condenses the Christian moral witness into the three theological virtues: “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love: but the greatest of these is charity.”
Yet the New Testament’s concentrated focus on faith, hope, and love preserves the Old Testament’s interest in the just ordering of society, rather than eradicating it. The fulfillment of the Torah by Christ does not abolish the Law, but transfigures it. The Old Testament knows of faith, hope, and love—but it cannot speak of them with the definitiveness or clarity that comes from the advent of the Messiah.
The New Testament’s crystallization of what God demands of the world includes all that has come before it: “Salvation is from the Jews.” We have heard “from the beginning” that we “should love one another,” 1 John tells us. The twofold command to love God and our neighbour summarizes both the Law and the Prophets, each of which are intensely interested in justice both in Israel and beyond. “God hath shown thee, oh Man, what is good,” Micah announces. His address is not only to Israel, but to the undifferentiated Adam of Genesis 1, the original of humanity. “And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Faith, hope, and love—do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The juxtaposition of Paul and Micah’s triadic formulas might help us learn to speak Christianly about justice. The first names virtues, and the second, practices; the one looks backward to Christ’s atonement, and the other, forward. As there is no Christ without the witness of the two Testaments that surround Him, so there is no justice without faith, no mercy without hope, and no humility without charity. John’s complementary triad of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life names the threats to these virtuous practices, which seek to prevent the Gospel from shining forth in clarity and grace.
Faith and justice must look beyond themselves: they are each necessary, but incomplete. But their unity with the other members of their respective triads means that if we reject one, they all fall: a world without faith can have no hope or love; a world that spurns mercy and humility will soon see justice depart. Only by holding together these triads can justice be saved: in this way, justice must be saved, or it shall be no longer just.
What, then, might faith have to do with justice? In the first place, faith means justice is a matter of rightly responding to God’s redemption, which binds us to God’s good creation and requires us to conform our lives to the order within it. The Lord’s rebuke of Israel in Micah 6:1-8 is instructive in this regard: Injustice has triumphed in Israel because she ungratefully scorned God’s grace in bringing her out of Egypt. Yet when Israel rejects God’s redemption, creation stands in judgment: it is to the mountains that God makes His complaint against His people: “Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against Israel.”
The mountains precede Israel in God’s economy, and so they bear perpetual witness to God’s gracious kindness despite Israel’s transgressions. No wonder God addresses the Adam in naming humanity’s moral responsibilities: The demand for justice is written into creation itself. It extends as far as the east is from the west. If we fail to live as God’s creatures, creation itself will bear witness against our vanity. We need not look long into the New Testament to see that this is so: if the people do not praise God, the stones shall rise up and do so instead. The cosmic groaning of creation is matched by our groaning in prayer, as we order our lives toward what shall finally liberate us both, namely, the redemption of our bodies. There is no faith, and no justice, that does not honour the authority of the Lord Jesus over every inch of His created world. Justice is both responsive and responsible to the content of the Very Good that God uttered when the creation was complete.
Second, faith puts an end to the voracious demand for sacrifice that arises when we attempt to cleanse our sin by our own hands. The kindness of God leads humanity to repentance; it awakens both a godly sorrow for our wrongdoing, and a glad eagerness to set matters right with our neighbour. We are to leave our offerings upon the altar, and make haste in reconciling ourselves to one another (Matthew 5:23).
Yet it is impossible to make full restitution or compensation for wrongs. The provisional peace we have with one another depends upon both parties recognizing this limit. Sin is infinite: the only final and definitive remedy for injustice is the forgiving grace of infinite God. No punishment, no damages, no consolation can rectify the murder of Abel: his blood cries up from the ground in response to Cain’s sin. Sin takes time, both from the sinner and the one they wrong. A person might repay money they have stolen; but they cannot give back the time their victim loses in seeking justice and peace.
The sacrifice of the infinite God is the world’s only hope for real restitution: in the resurrection, the slain Lamb Jesus Christ gives back to us all the time we have lost to sin, and more besides. We shall soon find ourselves sacrificing more innocent blood if we join Lady MacBeth in trying to wash the indelible blood of guilt from our hands. Israel responds to God’s accusation in Micah by offering a litany of sacrifices, each more extreme, until they propose joining with the pagans in slaughtering their firstborns. Where sin unmakes the world, justice demands the mercy of God: any attempt to restore the world on other terms can only breed new wrongs.
Yet if the Gospel saves justice from itself, it also liberates justice to be itself. The imperative to “do justly” follows the two dimensions articulated above: it has something to say about the needs we have by virtue of being creatures in God’s image, and about our guilt or innocence. On the one side, justice demands recognizing the humanity and creatureliness of our neighbour—and bestowing upon them what is necessary for their security and beatitude. We are bound together within the covenant of creation: our recognition of the fellowship we have as humans grounds the mutual obligations we have toward one another.
For one to have resources in abundance and another to starve is a disordered response to the sanctity of our neighbour, whose needs as a creature made in God’s image make a claim upon our action. How rectitude is secured is an important question; but our neighbour is owed what he needs to flourish, even if he opts to use it for vice. On the other side, justice secures a partial and limited judgment upon those who do wrong: it protects the innocent, and takes agency and time from those who would rob them. Yet when the institutions of justice are founded upon the sufficiency and finality of the death of the One Innocent, Jesus Christ, justice issues judgment only upon the wrongdoer. The operations of justice demand an absolute prohibition upon destroying innocent lives within the pursuit of justice itself. The presumption of innocence within our legal system is founded upon this theological principle: the death of the one Innocent for all means that in securing redress for victims, a justice system must not create new ones. The weakening of this presumption in our society is one of the clearest indications we are a post-Christian society that I know of.
Such a sketch of justice’s content makes it, I think, something more than an “implication” of the Gospel. Without the Gospel, justice sanctions injustice; but justice is a necessary condition of how we recognize the Gospel’s truth and power. The Gospel reaches out into the world, altering its character and transforming relations between neighbors. “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and birds perched in its branches.”
The Kingdom is a source of life and beatitude, not only for those inside, but for those beyond. The world really can come to the church and ask for direction, just as the rich young ruler came to Jesus to find out what he must do to be saved. The Church answers this question by looking directly at the Gospel and its content, rather than its implications: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Jesus’ practical directive is simply the good news of His abundant life transposed into an imperatival key. The commands of God are a distinct mode of His grace, and are inseparable from the indicatives that name God’s action. The Christian life is one of grateful conformity to God’s own life: that we may live with God is inseparable from the equally good news that we must live so.
The exhortation to “do justly” is central to the church’s life, then, because the church can only be the church if she follows her Savior in living and dying for the world. Having been set free from our debts and trespasses, we really are free. Yet freedom is not for our comfort and complacency, but for following our Saviour in being poured out as a drink offering for those in need—in the church, yes, but also outside it. Our ministry to the world is not a second sacrifice: it is a glad witness to Christ’s unrepeatable sacrifice. The Church is not of the world: it has its origin and life in Jesus Christ. But as the church lives in Jesus Christ, it lives for the world as Christ does—for its renewal and repentance, and also for its justice and peace. Jesus healed bodies in his earthly ministry, announcing in those works an authority over sin and death that would only become finally transparent on Easter Sunday.
The new creation affirms and restores what is given us in creation. And by living within the dawning of this new time, the church announces the good news of Christ’s triumph over death by participating in His ongoing care for the suffering and destruction of bodies: in loving our neighbour as Christ has loved us, the church points the world toward the renewed covenant of creation that binds us together as humans made in God’s image. By submitting herself to the judgment of God, the Church is granted the limited but very real authority to name injustices and ameliorate the suffering she sees in the world, and to accompany those attempting to do likewise.
What, though, of social justice? Establishing rectitude between individuals is one matter; addressing the lingering effects of wrongdoing is quite another. There is a kind of individualism which is Christianity’s gift to the world. The person who is made in God’s image is radically unique: he can only live his own life, and may not live another. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount to enter into our closet and pray in secret, alone by ourselves before the face of God. The Gospel forgives an individual’s acts, choices, desires, and intentions, all of which they do and which no one else does for them. The individual must be regenerated to enter the Kingdom of God: they really must be born again.
But born again from what? We come from somewhere into the Christian life, and the marks we bear from those places do not quickly leave us. Grace is more comprehensive than sin: which is good news, for sin can structure our attitudes and thoughts even outside or beneath our conscious choices or intentions. Our lives are intertwined with the communities that form us, which means the transgressions of others are in an important way our own. Isaiah is a man of unclean lips, and he lives among a people of unclean lips. The latter confession is necessary for true repentance: the principalities and powers infiltrate our imaginations without us realizing it, where they live on within our hearts until God’s gracious holiness wakes us to them.
When at last we see God face to face, we shall know the one who knows us fully already: and in knowing Him, we shall see at last the hidden and invisible depths of our own hearts. We need not bother ourselves with total depravity at this point: acknowledging our actual depravity is more than enough. We absorb morals the way we do our atmosphere: toxins enter our bloodstream, destroying our life without us being aware of what we’re missing. “A little leaven leavens the whole loaf,” Paul writes to the Corinthians.
Yet there are crucial differences between the moral ecosystems in which we live and the moral choices that we make. The leaven that leavens the whole loaf gets there somehow: bad morals infiltrate our communities when authorities fail to enact appropriate discipline, allowing the leaven to spread. And if failing to expunge an evil is bad, directly and intentionally choosing it is worse: we are more responsible for what we knowingly will than we are for what we unintentionally inflict.
Paradoxically, though, defending the uniqueness of ‘personal responsibility’ this way explains why justice must be social. The corporate, systemic, and even trans-generational quality of justice arises from the astonishing weight and scope of individual choices. Like a note of music that lives on in the atmosphere, an individuals’ moral choice never dies: it abides in their character and within the institution it shapes, until it is named, confessed, and repented of by them and the community that has organized its life around it. Moral choices have a surplus that endures beyond the particular act itself. The Lord visits sins upon the third and fourth generations, because He has to: sin shapes a moral environment at least that long. For this reason Leviticus clearly indicates that we are to confess our own sins, and the sins of our forefathers. (Leviticus 26:40).
The Gospel, then, sets us free from our past, not by liberating us from our communities but by empowering us to act within them and for them—to pursue systemic justice, we might say, by naming and acknowledging our sins as we become alive to them in and through the gracious kindness of God. This way of thinking about justice borrows the imagery the New Testament uses to speak of evangelism, which it depicts as a corporate activity carried out over time by multiple people: one man plants, another man waters, but it is the Lord who gives the increase.
In evangelizing we reap what we did not work for (John 4:35): we gather fruit that grew out of the choices others made. The one who sows, and the one who reaps, rejoice together, because they are both implicated in the person’s conversion. There is a surplus to the concrete action of ‘planting a seed’—its significance can only be known much later. In the same way, individual choices plant the seeds of justice within institutions, allowing later generations to enjoy the fruit that grows. There is no good to be done for the kingdom by an individual as such: we act as persons who are formed by and who represent our communities in acting. The fruit of the Christian life is inherently systematic.
Consider in this light the institution of marriage, which is perhaps the clearest example of how justice must be both social and trans-generational. The marriage vow is the natural training ground for faith in the Gospel. The faith required to live within the covenant of marriage imposes mutual obligations: it trains us to do justly to our nearest neighbour and forges trustworthiness and fidelity within our character. Yet the justice within this covenant is also multi-generational: marriage is, quite literally, the well-spring of new life.
By forging individuals in fidelity and trustworthiness, marriage is an institution that secures justice for children, by ensuring they receive the love they are owed and the resources they need to cultivate their capacities. The state has a responsibility to secure justice for children, invested as it is in protecting innocents from becoming victims of their parents’ irresponsibility and vice. The state’s relationship to marriage is both symbolic and directive: it guides individual actions by incentivizing or disincentivizing particular acts, and by sending corresponding messages about what it values.
Seeing marriage as a multi-generational institution, though, means that it precedes individuals and their moral choices: as children, the moral atmosphere embodied within marriage forms our imaginations in ways that we do not realize. Marriage establishes a feedback loop. A failed marriage becomes self-perpetuating, as it radically disrupts the moral environment in which a child is raised (not to mention the economic and social environment): the effects of divorce can be traced to the third or fourth generation.
Social capital begins at home: there is no social justice if children are not given their due, namely, the loving presence of their mother and father. This feedback loop reaches beyond the choices of individual families, though, as well: the norms a society and its government inscribe about marriage determine what choices individuals can make: a society that disincentivizes marriage socially and economically, for instance, makes it harder for any particular individual to marry, no matter how noble their intentions.
All this is not very good news for us today. The institution of marriage has been eviscerated by our society’s embrace of the “lust of the flesh,” the tyrannical pursuit of pleasure without concern for the future. Not surprisingly given the themes I have developed, the injustices we have embraced in sex and marriage have left only cynicism and mistrust in their wake: the “lust of the flesh” has undermined our faith, and invigorated the post-Christian despair I described above. We do not trust the explicit covenants we make in marriage vows, for some good reason. But then how can we trust the tacit, invisible covenants of humanity that bind us together as people? If we cannot have faith in what we can see, how shall we believe in what we cannot?
The Gospel has something to say, I think, to the injustices being perpetuated within our current understanding of marriage. The grace of God turns the hearts of children toward their fathers, and vice versa: by sweeping the family into the grammar of the church, the Gospel simultaneously relativizes natural family bonds and discloses their true basis and foundation. Laws and policies that fail to conform with this reality—such as those that would sanction no-fault divorce, or same-sex marriage— impair our ability to hear the grace of God in marriage as good news. The fruit of such policies will only be known long after they are implemented: leaven rarely works quickly. But no institution is so morally potent in the formation of a person’s life than this one. If the Gospel awakens a concern for justice, it does so pre-eminently (though not solely) with respect to marriage and family.
Now: it is perhaps uncommon to hear marriage spoken of in the context of the Gospel’s relationship to justice. Yet the manner of reasoning upon which traditional Christians have resisted the decline of America’s marriage culture is entirely consistent with what advocates of “social justice” have sought to defend on matters of economics, race, and the like. If marriage is a trans-generational institution, so is our housing market: setting prices or issuing credit on the basis of race is an injustice that lasts into subsequent generations.
The individuals who make such choices doubtlessly bear the greater responsibility: “But behold, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Speaking about “personal responsibility” without recognizing the ambivalent character of the world we inherit inclines us to be more punitive than we should be, as it ignores that we come into this world from somewhere. The Gospel sets us free from past injustices: but it does so only when we face up to this history, and renounce all of Satan’s works—past and present—in confession. There can be no fundamental conservatism for the Christian: the goods have received from the past are not so unalloyed that they can be trusted indiscriminately. As T.S. Eliot wrote, the “Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things: liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.”
If the Church is to respond to “social justice,” then, it must acknowledge that the people demanding it come from somewhere. Conservative evangelicals are right: the concept of ‘social justice’ has not come to us today direct from heaven: it comes from somewhere, and has its own marks and content. It can only be extricated from that context with great care.
But the social inequalities and arrangements about which there is such grave controversy also come from somewhere, and come from a place that is at best as ambivalent as the context out of which the concept of ‘social justice’ arose. We cannot pretend otherwise: our responsibility to one another is inherently shaped and determined by the places we both came from. If we ignore this history, we risk falling prey to unwittingly perpetuating those unjust arrangements by failing to seek reconciliation.
The cry for justice arises from those who feel alienated from institutions God ordained for their flourishing. But to answer this cry, we must look beyond justice, lest we give ourselves over to the voracious, infinite demand for retribution. When we forgo the justice of God, which has secured forgiveness for those who repent, we shall soon demand the sacrifice of new innocent blood. For justice to be good news, the church must learn to walk with those communities who are scorned and disenfranchised, either in our own time or in the past. For when God’s children cry out in the streets, the Church should be prepared to respond not with stones, but with the bread of humility and of a hope that issues justice for the victim even when offering mercy to the debtor. Justice demands no less, if it is to be saved.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.