Why Justice is a Bad Idea (-OR- What the Justice of God Really Is)

One of the many controversial things Stanley Hauerwas has said and written is “justice is a bad idea.” It’s a statement I have emphatically agreed with ever since I first read it, especially as a critique of progressive protestantism. In War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Hauerwas does the best job of explaining very simply what he means by the above statement and more importantly, what he thinks God’s justice actually looks like:

[M]y suggestion that justice is a bad idea was meant to call into question abstract accounts of justice often associated with liberal political theory, which assumes a just social order is possible without the people who constitute that order being just. My worry about appeals to justice in advanced capitalist societies has been that such appeals can blind us to the ways our lives may be implicated in fundamental forms of injustice. 

However, my deeper worry about appeals to justice has been theological. Reinhold Niebuhr, in the interest of making Christianity politically responsible, argued that in matters of politics Jesus must be left behind, because the political work necessary for the achievement of justice requires coercion and even violence. For Niebuhr, “justice” names the arrangements necessary to secure more equitable forms of life when we cannot love all neighbors equally. Good Barthian that I am, I worry that justice so understood becomes more important that the justice of God found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (p. 100)

Hauerwas then draws heavily from Dan Bell’s essay “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice,” noting that if Jesus is the Justice of God, then Christians cannot help be be passionate for justice because “we are in agreement that God does justice and so should we.” However:

… [Bell] thinks such agreement is part of the problem, just to the extent that the Christian enthusiasm for justice distorts our reading of Scripture. He is particularly critical of an approach he characterizes as “social justice advocacy” for how its adherents approach Scripture. For according to Bell, advocates of social justice read scripture for values and principles they think crucial to motivate Christians, in Bell’s words, “to get off their pews, leave the stained glass bliss of the congregation and its liturgy behind, and go out into the world to do justice.” 

Such an approach, Bell notes, presents justice as an external standard to which Christianity is accountable. Indeed, it is assumed, and therefore it is also assumed that justice can be understood apart from Christian theologian convictions and practices. Human rights, for example, are defended in a manner that renders irrelevant what Christians believe or do not believe about God. Such a view of justice, as well as the approach to Scripture associated with justice so conceived, Bell argues, is determined by the modern political context. 

That context, moreover, is one in which the church is assumed to be apolitical and, therefore, not relevant for determining how to know as well as do justice. Such a view of justice thus reinforces the politics of modernity, in which “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state.” Desperate to show the social relevance of the church, Christians ironically underwrite in the name of justice an account of social relations that presumes a privatized account of Christian convictions and the church. (p. 101-102)

Hauwerwas is also very critical of how Jesus is used in the “social justice advocacy” approach:

Jesus is relegated to being a motivator to encourage Christians to get involved in struggles for justice. Even if Jesus is thought to have practiced justice in his ministry, he is appealed to as a symbol or example. What really matters is not Jesus, but justice. This understanding of justice not only displaced Jesus, but also displaces the Jews as crucial for determining what we mean by justice. Social justice advocates often direct attention to the call for justice made by the prophets, but the justice for which the prophets called is often assumed to be universal in a manner that has no particular or intrinsic relation to the Jewish people. (p. 102)

This does a fairly good job of summing things up. The problem he — and I — have with justice talk is threefold:

  1. Justice is an abstract idea unmoored from the concrete practices of liturgy and daily living.
  2. The calls for justice in scripture are abstract an universal — God is speaking to all humanity — rather than God speaking to a very particular people in a very particular place in very particular circumstances.
  3. Justice as understood is heavily reliant on the exercise of state power and state violence (or at least appeals to state action) to reorder the world in a more”just” way.

Hauerwas spends a couple of paragraphs dealing with the more theologically conservative approach that Bell calls “justice as justification,” which centers God’s saving act on the individual who either accepts or rejects God’s saving work in Christ. But his strongest critique is of liberal or progressive Christianity.

I will not spend much time detailing Hauerwas’ critique of rights language, especially the language of human rights. In his Gifford lectures, Hauerwas destroyed my libertarianism by describing the rise of individual rights not as resistance to the state, but as emanating from the expanding power of the state. Every right is actually a claim, and when the nation-state has a monopoly on force, coercion and violence, every claim empowers the state to act as the agent of the claim. More individual rights means more state power! (I’ve read the argument elsewhere, and I agree with it.) Hauerwas notes that human rights as constructed are not significantly grounded in either scripture or canon law (despite constant attempts to plant them there) and in any case, are universalized in a way to make the secularly intelligible in a way that makes the story of God encounter with God’s people in scripture irrelevant.

So what is justice for Hauerwas? Does he even have a vision of justice? He does. Jesus is the justice of God. Citing Bell again, Hauerwas states clearly:

[A] text like Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a universal or secular vision of justice. Rather, they summon us to participate in God’s redemption by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. Such is the way, Bell suggests, that we learn what it means for Jesus to be the justice of God. (p. 115)

We who are church, as the body of Christ in the world, are God’s justice, insofar as we are joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. We are called not just to do, but to be God’s justice. In the debate over national health care and the insurance mandate, for example, rather than lobby for state policies, it would have been better for the church — if the church were honestly concerned about healing the sick — to actually care for the sick, rather than demand the reorienting of society in ways we believe to be more “just” (including demands for the exercise of state power, which always includes the possibility of state violence).

For Hauerwas, the best example he can find for how justice is actually done is in Hans Reinder’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics:

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability rights for creating new opportunities, as well as institutional space, for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us, and they want us to share our lives with them. In short, they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (p. 115)

God has not created, or even called for a theory of justice, Hauerwas writes. Rather, “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” We are God’s justice when we cross boundaries, when we meet strangers and make them friends, when we share our lives with people and welcome them into our lives. That, and not abstract ideals or a partisan political program, is justice. And we’re not called to make others do the work when we are unwilling. Or to rewrite the rules of society so it will somehow be “easier” to do this. We are called to do this very hard work ourselves. And without any regard to the rules or structure or order of the society in which we live.