On Justice and Charity

I think I finally understand what everyone is talking about.

The word “justice” gets used a lot at the seminary where I study. A lot. It is damn near every third word. I have never quite understood what is meant by “justice” — it has always struck me as a “we get what we want” kind of thing, but it’s always been hard for me to tell exactly what’s being talked about.

But now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the confession to which I belong) and the Episcopal Church have provided the world with a handy set of definitions in their study book on global poverty and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, God’s Mission in the World [available as a PDF here]. I wish I could say I was grateful for this, and I suppose I am, but where to start with this miserable document?

The presumptions of God’s Mission are those of liberationist-tinged liberal theology — the Kingdom of God is basically some version of the social democratic welfare state, a thing to be be built with human hands through purposeful human work. As if, somehow, thousands of years of human aspirations for God’s kingdom on earth have only been thwarted by greed and selfishness (and a half-dozen isms which make human life unbearable), and that the eradication of those things lies within our grasp, if only we are rightly guided to right and noble action. This requires a faith in moral and material progress, a faith I do not share because I do not believe human history even remotely suggests that we are “better” or kinder or more moral than our ancestors ever were.

I’m going to focus on the p. 15 discussion of charity and justice. According to the document, charity is “an act that responds to the broken and sinful nature of humanity by helping a person or persons in need,” while justice “is an act that seeks to change the broken and sinful conditions that create human need in the first place.” The document then goes on to say:

Both charity and justice are important, but justice is the most fundamental action because the purpose of justice is to create a world where acts are charity are no longer necessary.

Again, I lament: where to start with my objections?

  • A world without charity is a world without love. It is a world in which acts of love don’t matter, in which they have no value and are utterly without distinction. Assuming we could even create such a world, I’m not sure I’d want to live in one. Only in a world of horror, of pain, of suffering, deprivation, can we even know love. We need to lack of love to know love. A world in which “acts of charity are no longer necessary” is a cold, controlled, painless, loveless, joyless world. It’s not a human place.
  • UPDATE: Related to this, a world in which acts of charity are no longer necessary is a world in which God’s Grace is no longer necessary. It would be a world without God. It would be a world in which human beings assume they are God. It would not be a safe place, a kind of decent place, to be a human being.
  • What on earth leads good Lutherans to believe that anything remotely resembling changing human brokenness and sinfulness can even be accomplished by human effort in any way? Isn’t the whole point of Luther’s theology that human beings are utterly incapable of fixing ourselves, of making ourselves right with God? Yet this document seems to ooze with the liberal theological presumption of steady progress, of human effort expanded to correct and eventually fix the human condition. Or am I missing something here? (It isn’t that trying to change the broken and sinful human condition is a good idea that just can’t be done — it’s a bad idea that almost always leads to the eradication of human beings. No people, no sin.)
  • Are we so bereft of imagination and hope that we can envision no better world than one we could make if we were all good left-leaning, progressive social democrats? Is this really the only Kingdom of God we can possibly imagine?
  • My experience of God, in both scripture and elsewhere, leads me to understand that we are called explicitly to do acts of mercy and charity, to be just. But everything I have seen about “justice” assigns that quality and its creation on earth to God and God alone. We participate in God’s justice, but we do not make it for ourselves. When did justice, to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, become a “human ideal” — one we are wise enough and good enough to enact — rather than “a divine reality?”
  • Or has our idea of an incarnational God made it impossible for us to conceive of God acting outside human action? Do we then mean that God only acts through deliberate and purposeful human action in which the actors share the same stated aims and goals as the God they allegedly act on behalf of? That God truly is present in the deed of the rightly guided, and only the rightly guided?
  • If so, how on earth do we know which squawking gaggle of self-righteous do-gooders is truly rightly guided?
Of course, my greatest objection centers on the state and state violence. If, in fact, the left-progressive social democratic welfare state is the Kingdom of God, it is still a state, it still is based on the monopoly of violence,it still collects taxes and that means the threat of (or actually) shooting people if they do not comply or behave or do not wish to belong. THERE IS NO WAY AROUND THIS. I like the idea of a kind, cooperative society in which everyone has enough and all share with one another (and I hope to live this ideal someday), but I’m under no illusions that you can bully or bludgeon your way to that kind community. In fact, a decent society built on the understanding that violence will — no, must — be done to whoever doesn’t want to play hardly strikes me as decent. It strikes me as the devil’s way of doing business. A way of doing business Jesus rejected.
And there’s a lot of devil in this document, because there’s a lot of appeal to vastly expanded state power, from more compulsory public education (possibly the worst activity the state does) through expanded government aid programs. I have no problem with those well-off aiding or helping those not so well off — after all, we are called to do just that. Nor do I have any problem with education (because God knows I have enough of it; I just hate the public schools). But if these things are such laudable goals, Christians ought to do them for ourselves and by ourselves without recourse to state power or state machinery. We have no business demanding the state (or some amorphous “international community”) compel others — especially non-Christians or Christians who do not share our understanding of our calling — on pain of imprisonment or death to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do.