'Social Justice' Versus Biblical Justice

Published 03 September 2010  |  
The concept of justice has filled thousands of volumes over the centuries. It is foolish of me to attempt to do it justice in a short article (pun not intended), but perhaps a few introductory remarks can at least be attempted. Indeed, this may be the first of a number of articles on a rather detailed and complex discussion.

Let me begin by saying that traditionally there have been several main views of justice. Let me concentrate on just two: retributive justice and distributive justice. The former goes back at least to Aristotle and means simply, "to each man his due". It has to do with giving people what they deserve. Thus we speak about 'just deserts' and so on.

The latter term is a more recent concept, and has to do with equality of outcome, and redistributing certain goods, including wealth, to ostensibly help out the less fortunate. It is what is often meant when the left – both secular and religious – speak about social justice.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, it seems that the notion of retributive justice is more closely aligned with biblical notions of justice, while distributive justice is further afield from Scriptural principles. But this can hardly be defended adequately in a brief article, even in a most superficial fashion.

We would need to closely examine biblical terms such as justice, righteousness and the like. We would need to look at contemporary economic options as well. And we would need to study the historical record to see whether wealth redistribution has in fact worked, and really helped the poor. But let me tease things out just a bit more here.

Equality of opportunity is one thing, but equality of outcome is quite another. To enforce equality of outcome, you have to treat unequals equally, which is neither fair nor just. Given that we are all different (not equal in talents, giftings, motivations, etc), you have to use unequal treatment to get equal results. Many have written on this obvious point. Dr Mark Cooray is as good as anyone here.

In 1988 the Australian law professor wrote an important book entitled, The Australian Achievement: From Bondage To Freedom. While the entire volume is quite helpful, I draw your attention to ch. 20: "Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Outcome".

Says Cooray, "Equality of opportunity is best expressed in the phrase – career open to talents. No arbitrary obstacles should prevent people from achieving those public positions which their talents fit and which their values lead them to seek. Neither birth, nationality, colour, religion, sex nor any other equivalent characteristic should determine the public opportunities that are open to a person – only talent and achievement.

"Thus, equality of opportunity simply spells out the concept of equality before the law. And it has meaning and importance precisely because people are different in their genetic and cultural characteristics, and hence both want to and can pursue different careers. It is important to note that such equality of opportunity does not present any conflict with freedom. Quite the opposite. Equality of opportunity and freedom are two facets of the same basic concept."

He continues, "Equality of outcome is a radically different concept. Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time. To slightly change what the Dodo said in Alice in Wonderland, 'Everybody must win and all must have prizes'. That is the goal of radical socialism. Everyone must be a winner, everyone must be equal. Socialists do not really point towards absolute equality but they point to vague ideas of fairness and justness."

Such policies decrease equality and stymie economic growth: "This is not merely because they directly attack equality of opportunity in the sense of freedom to pursue an interest or vocation, but because by destroying incentive they inhibit that individual initiative which has been responsible for modern economic progress, growth and development. Modern economic development has systematically raised the lot of the ordinary man to a level of prosperity undreamed of in past ages, when such prosperity was confined to a few.

"This development was the direct result of individual initiative and endeavour within a system which allowed individual incentive and free activity. By directly impinging upon individual incentive and free activity, egalitarian policies and programmes actually inhibit the process of economic growth and development, thus inhibiting the only mechanism in history by which inequality has been systematically, successfully and continuously ameliorated on a large scale."

Jewish commentator Michael Medved has just penned a piece on similar themes. He begins this way: "For more than a hundred years liberals and conservatives have been arguing over the true meaning of justice. The left emphasizes just outcomes – seeking smaller gaps between rich and poor, and a comparably dignified standard of living for all members of society.

"The right stresses just procedures – making sure that individuals keep the fruits of their own labors and remain secure in their property, without seizure by their neighbors or by government. Liberals accept unequal, potentially unfair treatment by government in order to achieve fair results; conservatives accept unequal, potentially unfair results so long as every citizen receives fair and comparable treatment by government.

"These arguments have raged for generations without definitive resolution, but that doesn't mean that both sides are right, or that the questions that divide them offer no final answers. In fact, key Biblical passages provide a strong indication that conservative concepts of economic justice comport far more closely to the religious and philosophical foundations of western civilization."

He explores various biblical texts, and draws upon some commentary by Jewish thinkers: "For instance, a key passage in the Book of Leviticus (19:15) declares: 'You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness (Tzedek) shall you judge your fellow.' Amazingly, the Bible warns us not to 'favor the poor' even before we're instructed 'not to honor the great,' because partiality for the unfortunate counts as an even stronger human temptation.

"And what about all the Biblical demands, in both Old and New Testaments, to show compassion to widows, orphans and the poor? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the 11th century giant who became the most influential of all Torah expositors, explains that the verse in Leviticus draws an all-important, eternal distinction between charity and justice: 'Do not say that since the wealthy man is obligated to help the poor one, it is proper for a judge to rule in favor of the poor litigant so that he will be supported in dignity. The Torah insists that justice be rendered honestly; charity may not interfere with it.'

"In other words, assistance for the destitute remains an individual obligation on God-fearing individuals, but should not bring a tilt to the law to favor the less fortunate. It is no coincidence, surely, that this crucial verse in Leviticus appears just two sentences away from the most famous declaration in all the Bible: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18). This famous line makes clear that the same God who wants us to deal kindly with our fellow human beings, also requires that we respect and honor ourselves.

"You don't demean or damage yourself for the sake of your fellow; the Bible consistently backs the conservative supposition that we help others best when we help ourselves. If such Biblical passages strongly support the conservative conception of justice, then why are so many churches, synagogues and divinity schools filled with outspokenly liberal clergy?"

As mentioned, far more needs to be said about this difficult subject. But this may help to clear up some muddled thinking, and help us to be clearer on what biblical justice is all about. It is at least far more than the usual notions of social justice being peddled today. And it certainly is more than just state-enforced wealth redistribution.


Adapted from Bill Muehlenberg's weblog at www.billmuehlenberg.com.

Bill Muehlenberg lectures in apologetics, ethics and theology at several Melbourne theological colleges. Bill used to work with the Australian Family Association, Focus on the Family, and other pro-family and pro-faith organisations.


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