As a campus pastor at the University of Michigan, I regularly have college students knock on my office door to talk about everything under the sun. Not long ago, I had a student sit in my office, troubled by something. They were filled with questions, most of which we barely addressed in the hour we sat together, but they mostly revolved around one central issue:
Why does it seem like Christians in America are content with the status quo when it comes to matters of justice?
This conversation threw me into a bit of a tailspin. Have we been too silent on matters of justice, and what system should we Christians advocate for?
Ideas into Action
Over 35 years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre discussed justice this way in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality:
We thus inhabit a culture in which an inability to arrive at agreed rationally justifiable conclusions on the nature of justice and practical rationality with appeals by contending social groups to sets of rival and conflicting convictions unsupported by rational justification. Neither the voices of academic philosophy, nor for that matter of any other academic discipline, nor those of the partisan subcultures, have been able to provide for ordinary citizens a way of uniting conviction on such matters with rational justification. (McIntyre 9-10)
Put another way, we live in a world where individuals hold incompatible opinions of what is just, while both appeal to universal reason and logic as the basis of their view. The socialist who believes that a society’s fundamental duty is to provide for the needs of its people believes his view is obvious just as much as the capitalist who believes that personal property is a God-given right and voluntary participation must be protected by any just society. Who is correct and on what basis?
McIntyre goes on, not to argue for a particular vision of justice, but to highlight that every vision of justice is located in a particular tradition. He writes,
So theories of justice and practical rationality confront us as aspects of traditions, allegiance to which requires the living out of some more or less systematically embodied form of human life, each with its own specific modes of social relationship, each with its own canons of interpretation and explanation in respect of the behavior of others, each with its own evaluative practices. (McIntyre 391)
What does this mean? It means that within every view of justice lies countless assumptions about human persons, practices for how relationships should function, and an understanding of human behavior. The systems of justice and economics that are advocated for are simply an expression of these ideas.
Asking the Right Questions
McIntyre’s assessment is particularly relevant for Christians trying to discern how we are called to relate to the political, economic, and justice systems in which we find ourselves. In these systems lie particular visions of what the human person is and how we should relate to one another.
In particular, McIntyre reminds us that to simply ask questions like, “Should Christians be socialist or capitalist?” is to ask the wrong question altogether. Rather, we should be asking ourselves far more fundamental questions like, “What is the view of the human person laid out in Scripture? How has the Church historically understood how God’s revelation calls human beings to relate to one another? How have the Church’s answers to these questions shaped its view of possessions, economics, and the systems of government we find ourselves in (systems we may or may not have any say in depending on the point in history in which we find ourselves)?”
These questions lead to a fuller vision and understanding of the tradition of justice the Church holds. And they remind us that our calling is not to justify our view before any human system but rather to embody and give voice to the vision of flourishing God has invited his people into through the Gospel.
The Image We Bear
So, where do we begin as we try to create a Christian vision of justice? Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Thinkers like the 4th-century church father, Basil of Caesarea, guide us as we explore what the Scriptures teach about justice. Much like we do, Basil occupies a time in Christian history in which belief in Christianity was heavily contested. While Basil was steeped in the world of Greek philosophy, he offers a clear vision of justice for the Christian, drawn from the Scriptures.
He does so by addressing simple questions like, “What does Scripture say about the human person? How are we called to relate to one another? What is the role of money and material possessions within those relationships?”
The creation of human beings in Genesis 1-2 are central to Basil’s understanding of what it means to be a human being. In this account we are told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Reflecting on this Basil writes, “You are a vessel divinely molded, having come into being from God. Glorify your Creator. For you came to be for the sake of no other thing except that you be an instrument fit for the glory of God” (Hexameron 11.4).
It is Scripture, not Basil’s surrounding culture, that uses the language of divine molding: “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7).
Human beings have dignity and worth because we are created by God, and our purpose is to be people who reflect His glory. But this reflection does not take place when humans live life independently of one another. As God’s creatures, divinely molded by Him, we are made both for God and for one another. This time commenting on David’s words in Psalm 14:6, “You would shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge,” Basil says,
Scripture exhorts us to community, mutual charity, and what is proper to our nature. For a human being is a civic and social animal. Because our life is communal and we pass our lives with one another, generosity in improving the lot of those in need is necessary. (First Homily on Psalm 14, 6)
Basil sees Scripture as proclaiming a particular vision of humans carrying dignity as God’s creatures and as made to live in relationship and community with one another. This, Basil says, is proper to our nature and brings glory to God. For Basil, this idea of the human creature shapes the way in which we see money, possessions, and every aspect of material life.
Whatever You Have Been Given
As I think back to the student sitting in my office, troubled by the feeling of the Church’s indifference to matters of poverty, injustice, and human suffering, I can’t help but feel like what Basil draws from the Scriptures offers solidarity to anyone troubled by the circumstances of those in need in our world. In fact, Basil’s words have given me a pastoral response to this discontent that offers both encouragement and challenge.
Basil reminds us of our interconnectedness and pushes back against our individualism. If it is, as Basil says, our nature to live as communal and social creatures, we should advocate for that which promotes the well-being of the communities in which we find ourselves.
Jesus not only teaches this truth; He lives it. For example, Jesus’ response to those who accused Him of violating the Sabbath centers on the life and well-being of others: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). Paul also reminds the Church in Philippians 2:6-7 that Christ did not seek the protection of His own glory. Instead, He “emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant.”
As followers of Jesus’ model and the words of Scripture, the Christian’s concern in such discussions can never be simply “protecting what is mine.” To do so would misunderstand the role of one’s property and possessions. Such things should be used to promote life and the well-being of the community in which we find ourselves.
Both Basil and Jesus repeatedly challenge Christians to see how they can live more justly within the system in which they find themselves. While this may at times mean Christians advocating for particular social and economic policies, justice is not simply something that is out there in the hands of government officials or economic systems.
Justice is something every single person, in particular the Christian, can and must promote. The pursuit of justice begins with using whatever you have been given, no matter how large or small, to serve and promote life among the communities in which you find yourself.