Justice Talk…Confusion Everywhere

These days everybody is talking about justice: social justice, racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, environmental justice and so on. Activists organize marches, protests, petitions and boycotts. Some even do violence in the name of justice. And yet, I have never heard an activist explain what they mean by justice.

Do they mean “equality”?

Equality is a clear concept in the abstract. But equality in actuality is impossible, which means its advocates would need to explain what aspects of life they wish to make equal and why. To avoid the appearance of arbitrariness, they would need to appeal to other principles to justify these modifications to the equality principle. It deserves mention that the bare notion of equality possesses no moral force. You can treat people equally whether you treat them well or poorly. People can be equally rich or poor, dead or alive, in prison or not. Hence the concept of equality cannot carry the full weight of the concept of justice, for justice possesses a moral force that equality does not. We are no closer to understanding what the activist means by justice.

Do they mean “fairness”?

What does “fairness” mean? Usually, fairness means that a rule-defined activity—a baseball game, a legal system or a system of economic exchange—is conducted according to rules, equally applied to all participants. Fairness, like equality, is a clear concept. But it has an advantage over equality in that it can be applied in practice. But fairness concerns the equal application of the rules and does not concern itself with the outcome of the activity. Justice understood as fairness means only that the winners and losers, win or lose “fair and square.” Fairness does not address more the fundamental questions: “Are the rules fair?” “Is the game fair?” “Is the system fair?” Surely contemporary justice activists are not marching for simple fairness!

Do justice activists mean to explain justice by the concept of “giving everyone their due”?

Clearly, this definition also needs explaining. How do you determine what is due a particular individual or group? This is clear only if such rights and privileges are specified in statutory law, common law or custom. Apart from appeals to law, claims of being “due” some right or privilege have no more moral force than saying, “I want this thing, and I feel I deserve it.” Even if activists can appeal to statutory law or acknowledged custom to justify a claim, this fit between a claim and the law cannot serve as an adequate definition of justice. Most of us think laws can possess or lack the quality of justice. And justice activists often protest against laws they claim are unjust. Still, they offer no explanation of what justice is or how we can gain knowledge of it. All the definitions of justice given above merely move in a circle and never arrive at a self-evident concept.

Why invoke justice, if they don’t know what it is?

Invoking the concept of justice, if it is to be effective, asks others to submit to an objective and universal norm that trumps all private interests. However, invoking the quasi-sacred and transcendent ideal of justice is no guarantee that activists understand or seek justice. For it is very useful to maintain the appearance of seeking justice even when seeking one’s private interests. One simple test of whether people are serious about universal justice is whether or not they apply it consistently and rigorously to themselves.

Why justice talk goes no where

There’s no such thing as justice. Justice is a relation, not a substance, a thing that exists somewhere. Justice/injustice is a relation between an action and a law that applies to that action. Or more specifically, it is a relation of a human action or law to the moral law intrinsic to the created order. Ultimately, justice is a relation of fit between an action and the eternal divine law. God alone is justice itself. In God alone is justice an actuality, a substance, a thing. Apart from its actual existence in God, justice is merely an endless series of relations of fit between groundless assertions of right and privilege. To seek actual justice is to seek God, and to seek God is to do God’s will and embody God’s character in this world so full of injustice and godlessness.

Note: I have written several essays dealing with justice on this blog. If you are interested in reading more, search the blog using the key word “justice”.

5 thoughts on “Justice Talk…Confusion Everywhere

  1. nokareon

    Well-reasoned and analyzed! The progressive social justice movement that I believe you are describing takes its cue from Critical Theory, which has its roots in Marxism. From my readings in the modern movement and Critical Theory generally, I believe the movement would answer your question “what is justice?” with “freedom of oppressed groups from oppression.” That is the Marxist ideal.

    Where I think the vagueness comes back is a step beyond that—namely, “what constitutes oppression?” Unfortunately, that question is not being addressed with a sufficiently analytical eye within Critical Theory or by its opponents. Books like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” does a good job exploring this phenomenon as it unfolds on campuses nationwide.

    Part of my aim this year has been to work out a strong Biblical foundation for social justice in the present—one that neither leaves its philosophical foundation for social justice and activism vague, nor appeals to a Marxist account of oppression. I believe I have arrived at a satisfactory account (in my estimation) based on God’s character, Israel’s laws, the writings of the Prophets, and Jesus’ Kingdom message.

    P.S. I recently met and talked over lunch with your student, Joshua Altrock. What delightful and insightful conversation we had! He is a kindred spirit with interests in music and theology.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    I’d love to hear your account. I’ve not worked out such an account for myself. In my account I would want to begin with the task of a greater realization of love and justice within the community of disciples and work out from there in concentric circles. I would want to maintain a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and those of the world. I would want to use persuasion rather than coercion, being more willing to suffer persecution than to inflict it. We cannot abandon the Cross for the Sword without abandoning Christ for Caesar.


    1. nokareon

      I too am cautious about cashing out social justice entirely in terms of policy change, though there are undeniably cases where policy change is required (Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement comes readily to mind). However, I am similarly unwilling to confine enacting social justice to what is traditionally called “the church”—is a Christ-following policy-maker not to pursue enacting justice as part of his/her professional vocation for the Kingdom, in addition to mobilizing as part of the general church body to serve?

      I can send a PDF of my presentation notes if you are interested. I am presenting my findings to an adult theology class within a church setting and a graduate discussion group that I lead for Intervarsity within the next week or so.


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    Yes. Send it.

    In answer to your question, Yes. For example, a Christian of influence could argue for prison reform, especially with respect to non-violent offenders. If I were a lawyer or a judge, I would want to make sure the poor and uneducated and otherwise left behind got equal treatment under the law. In general, we should support policies that protect the vulnerable from exploitation by the powerful. But we should be mindful that the government itself can easily become tool of oppression. In my own political philosophy I think power should be distributed downward as far as makes sense practically. Christian political scientists can articulate and highlight the highest ideals of western culture and keep the general public aware of its “better angels.”


  4. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hey there Ron.
    A couple of things popped into my awareness on this one…
    Firstly, many folks used to ask me, ne shout at me (as a law enforcer) ” arrest that person for being angry; they are abusive and threatening to me”. Well most law enforcers will reply ” why on earth?” Do you actually, really know what anger is?
    To be angry, means to be “upset at an injustice”. You can’t talk about justice without injustice !
    And therefore there is a relative aspect to justice itself. This aspect is time… And yes, as you say along with Armenius only God can ” look down the corridors of time” to judge these things properly. It ‘s all about God.
    And secondly, it was drilled into me in theology that ” God does NOT have to be fair (equitable) but He is JUST”. Only God can sum all things to infinity, and thereby work together all things for our good. He loves us so much, and though we argue, and forget this one simple thing, our faith can bring a beautiful trust and dependence that supercedes all of these aspects of confusion.
    Let’s have a ‘real chat’ sometime about the propaganda of organized church and the awful confusion of election and predestination that confuses so many believers? see Romans 8: 26-29.
    There remains an aspect of divine love that is allied to free will, which punctuates “justice”. Petty squabbles about how we each interpret our own existence will result in there being a “law for every act”. Justice on earth must be a phallacy.
    Quoting Kevin Spacey ( if I may , at a difficult time) he played the character ‘Prote’in the film “K-Pax”. And talking to Jeff Bridges (as the psychiatrist) he says of the need for law enforcement, and therefore justice in nis home planet: “we have no need for that ( police) because you will fi d that every sentient being in the universe knows the difference between right and wrong, good and evil”, but it is free will whether we choose to live by that divine tenet or not.
    Justice on this earth, in the realm of the prince of the air?
    Best wishes.



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