Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day wrote about building “that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good”. While Maurin and Day were very much against statism(PDF) and would probably disagree with a number of the points below, I found their turn of phrase about “easier for people to be good” quite compelling with regards to justice and righteousness.
Thus, I have formulated ten theses below on the subject to discuss. Each of them could be an essay of its own, but I have limited the discussion to a paragraph for each.
1. Human governments are ordained by God to uphold justice and are accountable to God for their actions.
Despite their frequent failures to honor God and his law, human governments are ordained by God for the sake of upholding justice. God will judge all the nations of the Earth and their rulers according to their deeds; the responsibility of the church on Earth is to remind our rulers that their authority has been given for a purpose and they will be held to account for it. When the church proclaims “Jesus is Lord”, politicians ought to inspire fear and self-examination because they are reminded that they are ultimately vassals and stewards of Jesus’ reign.
2. Justice is not merely about rights. The best human society is one in which acting righteously is most accessible to as many people as possible.
Liberal society in the West today primarily thinks of justice in terms of positive or negative rights (usually more of the latter than the former, especially among right-wing classical liberals). However, this is an anemic standard of justice; throughout the Bible we encounter a vision of judgment and justice that certainly includes not depriving others of what they deserve, but more fundamentally envisions a society in which our relationships with God and one another are whole and our actions towards one another and God are righteous. Biblical justice is not merely the absence of rights-violations in a society, but it is the inclusion of all people in that society in a life of righteous behavior and true worship. A just society, then, is one in which the powers that society possesses are used to direct people towards righteous and just behavior rather than merely catching violations of rights after the fact.
3. Justice is not solely the responsibility of the state; all human institutions work together to promote righteous and just behavior.
The state possesses unique powers (mostly of violence and force) to uphold justice in extreme cases, but a culture of righteousness and justice can only exist when different institutions work together for them. Individuals making moral choices exist in families and communities; their available moral choices and the formation that guides those choices is shaped by a variety of institutions from their immediate family to the state and everything in between. Thus, no human institution is exempt from the responsibility to orient the people who participate in it towards righteous living. Conversely, while the state has certain unique responsibilities as an institution that all people participate in, it is not necessarily the primary mediator of justice or righteousness for those people.
4. Humans will act most righteously when they are certain that they will not be deprived of food, water, shelter, and healthcare necessary to sustain life or avert disability.
Human beings have natural needs and natural limitations that must be honored if we are to honor their Creator. Stealing someone’s food, water, shelter, or healthcare necessary to avert preventable death or disability (hereafter referred to as “basic healthcare”) is well-recognized as an unjust and unrighteous action; what is also unrighteous is to allow others to be deprived of these needs. People who are deprived of what their good created nature demands are hindered from fulfilling their inhabited creatureliness and reflecting the image of God; they are also more likely to act unrighteously either out of desperation (in the hopes of obtaining what they need) or despair (because they do not know if righteous behavior will in fact be rewarded).
5. Human bodies should be protected from natural evils like hunger, homelessness, and preventable death or disability.
When their biological, created needs for food, shelter, and healthcare are reliably met people have fewer reasons to act unrighteously. Thus, these needs should not go unmet. (How this could work out for healthcare has been discussed here and here.) Justice is universally recognized as protecting human bodies and property from intentional, violent evil; we should expand our idea of justice include the obligation we have to one another that we protect human beings from natural evils like hunger, exposure, and preventable illness. Freeing people from poverty and want for basic necessities will not eliminate the sinful tendencies found in all people, but it will make it easier for everyone to do good.
6. The Christian obligation to love our neighbor is primarily to other believers and those most proximal to us, but the necessity of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment continually push us to love others generously.
The Bible puts a particular emphasis on the need for Christians to love and care for other Christians in need. Our obligations to family and our local communities are also important because the family is an institution created by God for our mutual care and discipleship. However, Christians are also called to proclaim the Gospel to every nation and to help those in need; Christians who have wealth and power are thus compelled to invest their time, money, and energy — individually and corporately — to meet the needs of the poor and proclaim the Gospel to those who have never heard it. We have the resources as a worldwide community of believers to ensure that other people created in the image of God don’t have to suffer unnecessarily in this life and have the opportunity to hear how they might enjoy the glory of God eternally in the next; neither of these goals are utopian if they are pursued with humility and prudence.
7. The state must at least provide both a backstop to avert natural evils, but it is responsible for creating the structures that other institutions work within.
The Bible does not mandate that state institutions provide all the services necessary for human life. However, given the variance in any individual’s situation, there is no other way to guarantee that no one would die unnecessarily for lack of food, shelter, or basic healthcare without the state at least providing or paying for these things for those too poor to afford them. The state also sets the basic rules for how institutions function, how they are taxed, what sort of infrastructure can be built, and many other things that affect individuals and communities’ choices to do good or evil. Thus, the state has the power and the responsibility to always consider how its action or lack of action in any particular domain will affect its citizens’ capacity to act justly and righteously. If a particular good fundamental to life is persistently inaccessible or a particular evil flourishes unchecked, the state must prudently consider how it may act (in concert with other institutions) in order that justice and righteousness might increase.
8. Work is fundamental to created human life, but not all work is wage labor and not all wage labor is good.
Before man fell into sin, he tended the Garden of Eden. All human beings who are capable of doing so should work, for not doing so is at cross purposes with our created purpose. However, the desire all humans have to work is not always fulfilled righteously. Furthermore, not all good work can or should be remunerated with a wage, for a great deal of the work we do in caring for other people, creating good things, or strengthening the bonds within a community cannot be assigned a dollar value and is simply part of fulfilling our obligations to one another. Thus, the provision of basic goods should not be exclusively tied to one’s participation in the labor market.
9. Too much wealth is spiritually dangerous, but accumulating wealth can also provide for the developments that can be a blessing to others.
The Bible warns many times about the dangers of excess wealth and the love of money. For this reason, Christians should as individuals carefully guard themselves against the temptations that money brings and should not expect that an economic system that expects people to act based on the love of money will promote justice or righteousness. However, Christians should also recognize that beautiful things (or the research necessary to provide greater dominion over the world for the sake of good) are often expensive and should not necessarily pursue strict asceticism.
10. We must pay attention to the particular needs of those who are particularly vulnerable.
The Bible notes that certain classes of people (e.g. widows and orphans) are particularly vulnerable to exploitation or poverty. It also describes many instances where a specific ethnic group or Christians in a particular location were assisted by the rest of the Church because they they had a specific need that was not being met. Our concern for justice and righteousness should take special care to ensure that those easily overlooked (the disabled, the unborn, ethnic minorities, groups with observed disparities) have their needs met.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org