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.

Of Shrines and Trials

It was 2003 or 2004, I think, when I came across a news article in a UK newspaper — The Independent, I think, though it may have been The Guardian — detailing how a group of Afghan Sufi Muslims were turning the graves of fallen Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters into ad-hoc shrines. Where they would invoke the power of the fallen mujahedin in their petitions to God.

There was a lot of power in the place where the fallen were buried, one Sufi leader told the newspaper. They struggled in the name of God, they fought in the name of God, and they died in the name of God. They were closer to God than the rest of us. That made the ground where they fell, and the ground where they were buried, sacred ground. Holy ground.

The Sufis were not, however, pining for the days of the Taliban government, and they weren’t fighting for Al Qaeda or even supporting the organization. Indeed, Afghan Sufis had been oppressed — quite viciously — by the dry and brutal legalism of the Taliban. And they were not supporting the Taliban in its fight against the United States, or the Northern Alliance, or the Western allies. And they understood the irony of consecrating ground where their enemies and oppressors fell, and beatifying those now safely dead enemies.

But the Sufis did know holy men, and holy ground, when they saw it. Even when those holy men were their enemies.

That’s the interesting irony behind the desire not to allow whatever place Usama bin Laden might have been buried to become some kind of shrine or monument to the late Al Qaeda leader. Those Muslims most likely to turn his grave into a shrine, to venerate him as a saint, to draw upon his “power” and have it used on their behalf in their petitions to God, are the kinds of Muslims most likely to blown to bits by Al Qaeda types. In Pakistan, Sufis have been frequent targets, along with the Ahmadiyya (who are considered heretical in the way many Sunni consider the Shia) and the country’s small Christian minority, of a sometimes brutal campaign of violence — mostly bombings.

I appreciate that the Saudis did not want Bin Laden’s body. I can even appreciate that the Bin Laden family did not want the body. And I suppose that even in Saudi Arabia, there was the risk of Usama’s grave becoming an informal shrine, a pilgrimage site, a place of prayer. I find that unlikely, given the Saudis — whose official Islam is as dry and legalistic and the English Calvinism that gave birth to the settlements of New England — have done a good job of pulverizing just about every shrine they could find. Centuries old sites, many connected with important figures from the Qur’an and Islamic history, have been demolished. Even that built on the Prophet Muhammad’s grave was demolished. (To be fair, even the kingdom’s modern founder, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, was buried in an unmarked grave — at least that is my understanding.) Saudi Sufis have long complained about this. Very quietly, but they have complained.

So it is unlikely, had Usama Bin Laden’s body been kept around, that it would have become the kind of religious center that, say, Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb has become. (Khomeini himself came from a Shis Sufi tradition, well outside the mainstream of Iran’s Shia clergy.) Because he wouldn’t have had a tomb. But an unmarked grave is somewhere, and even if no one quite knew where, I could see someone deciding, “well, it might as well be here,” and passing a place off as Usama’s tomb. It wouldn’t have been on the Saudi Tourism Ministry’s list of preferred destinations, and visiting the place would have earned you some time in lockup. But someone could have made a nice living “hosting” the grave of the sainted Usama Bin Laden!

But who know what will happen in a century or two or three, when Usama has passed into the realm of myth, when relics of him may be collected. I fully expect that the compound in Abbottabad to become some kind of shrine — probably run by the same kinds of Sufi Muslims who would otherwise find themselves on the receiving end of jihadi violence.

(This is not to say that Sufi Muslims are inherently peaceful. The 19th and 20th centuries saw lots of Sufi-led resistance to colonialism — the Naqshabandi in the Caucasus Mountains and elsewhere, the Sanusids in Libya, the various Mahdists of Africa. While it is likely in the short term that the Revolutionary Islam embraced by Bin Laden will become a criminal enterprise, along the lines of Colombia’s FARC, I can see a day long from now when Al Qaeda could be a Sufi order of some sort, practicing a spiritual discipline rooted in whatever understanding of jihad makes sense at the time. I’m not predicting, I’m just saying…)

Now, someone asked me if Bin Laden should have gotten a trial. No, he should not have. I have come to believe in something I call “rough justice” — that there are people who have acted in such a way that frankly, what they really need and the best they are going get is to be strung up by the mob. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena strike me as relatively good examples of this in action. Manuel Noriega would have been another. I can just as easily argue for mercy in either case, as with Chile’s action in refusing to hand former East German leader Erich Honecker over for trial. I was not terribly excited about the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, foul as he was. Muammar Qaddafiy is a man who strikes me as in need of rough justice. Frankly, so does George W. Bush.

This is a matter of sensibility for me, and not a hard and fast rule. Generally, when it comes to certain kinds of crimes or human acts, such as those committed by heads of states and heads of governments, or by soldiers, or by guerrillas and terrorists, the legal process simply becomes morally inadequate. It spirals to absurdity. I would never vote against the prissy human rights lawyers who prosecute such crimes (they always seem to win)*, but believers in the “rule of law” conveniently tend to forget that laws can rule because men are prepared to do violence. Often times terrible, horrific violence. Which is why I was generally in favor of mercy for Pinochet and Honecker. It was not worth burning down anything to get “justice” for the victims of either. Both were old men, their regimes defunct, and I’m not sure what measure of satisfaction anyone could get from imprisoning unrepentant old men. I have no idea what justice means in instances like these. I’m not sure anyone else does either.

UPDATE 03 MAY: I’d like to clarify something. Typically, a trial is about the establishment of guilt, whether in the English tradition where innocence is first assumed and the state must prove guilt, or in the continental system, where guilt is assumed (on the basis of state charge) and innocence must be proved. (Given prosecutorial power in the U.S., there isn’t much daylight between the two stances anymore.) A trial is, ideally, a tool to establish guilt. Which means that not guilty has to be a realistic, possible outcome. Trials do not exist, at least in theory, to determine how guilty the accused is. However, in most cases I’ve cited above, guilt has already been assumed, and not just by non-state accusers, but also by the “legal process.” The point of a trial is, well, I’m not sure — to confront the accused with the pain and suffering the accused has caused? Public catharsis? If that’s the case, a trial is really just a slow-motion, legalistic lynching anyway. If the point of trying Usama Bin Laden is to find him guilty and punish him — to serve justice as angry and aggrieved human beings understand it — then why bother? A rope and a lamppost or a tall tree will suffice. You say we’re better than that, that’s what we have law for? No we’re not. No one is. Look how the law is being used. And by whom.

Rough justice cannot be taken for others, either. Prissy European human rights lawyers sitting in judgement in the Hague (or wherever such ridiculous people sit) cannot adequately take any kind of real justice for Rwandans, or the people of Sierra Leone, or Liberia, or Sri Lanka, or Libya, or whoever. The only real justice — if such a thing is to be had — they can find is the justice they make for themselves. The Rwandan genocide actually ended the way it needed to be ended, by Rwandans. And not outsiders. This is a matter of human dignity.

So no, the idea of a “trial” for Bin Laden was absurd. Not just from a legal standpoint (given the mess the Bush and Obama regimes have made out of the legal system for terrorism suspects), but morally as well. What justice can there be for anyone who lost anything that day? And what is human justice but vengeance with the occasional possibility of mercy — a possibility already foreclosed upon in the case of Bin Laden? As it is for so many others? I don’t know if justice was done in killing Usama Bin Laden. I suspect, however, that Sunday’s assault on the compound in northern Pakistan is probably as close as we could ever get.

Really, law is the triumph of brute force wrapped up in a neat little package anyway. Justice is the triumph of brute force enveloped in pretty words. Sometimes, for justice to be real, to make sense, it must shed the law and its cloak of pretty words and simply act. Mostly, it will be ugly and bloody. Most human struggles are. And it will rarely satisfy. Most human struggles don’t do that, either.


* That’s only because the prissy human rights lawyers have never taken on anyone truly powerful. In this, they are hypocrites, mostly.

On Justice. And Making Someone Walk an Extra Mile

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a fan of the concept of “justice” as espoused and advocated for in the culture of the liberal-progressive West (both religious and secular, since it’s basically the same claim). Justice is little more, I think, than a form of social vengeance, a combination of “gimme” combined with “it’s not fair” married to laws and guns. Many advocates for “justice” also seem to want to create (or recreate) a world in which there is no need for mercy, and that frightens me no end. A world without God’s mercy is a world in which human beings are left to our own cruel devices, one in which our ideological self-righteousness in the name of “justice” is an excuse for unbending and unyielding cruelty.

Plus, there is also the simple desire to wield power, to lord it over others, to bend people and the world to their will. I think that motivates more “justice” seekers than they care to admit.

An important thing to note is that “justice” is not objective, it is very subjective. Two very thoughtful and faithful people can come to some very different understandings of what is “just” and how “justice” ought to work in the world. Even if they start from the same place. (Our vision of “justice” is rooted in notions of political, social and economic equality — notions almost no one had 200 years ago and notions no one may have 200 years from now.) Thus, all that is left is force of arms, is might, to determine which version of “justice” is “just.”

As an anarchist — as someone who believes quite deeply in the fundamental moral illegitimacy of force and coercion in any form — I do not believe in engaging much in partisan politics. Politics is about controlling the machinery and meaning of the state, and the state is nothing but force and coercion. I don’t so much care about the society (which cannot function without coercion and violence), but I do care about the church (which is called to show the world what a community of non-violence and non-coercion looks like). We as church have no business advocating on behalf of state violence, or taking a stake in state violence, regardless of how just we believe the cause the state is pursuing. That makes us as church complicit in the violence.

The only things we as church should be saying to the state are: “No.” “Don’t.” “Stop.”

I’ve long believed this. I believed this even when I was Muslim, this belief in the non-legitimacy of violence to make changes in the world. (In fact, I came to this belief as a Muslim.) But until recently, I’d never really had solid scripture to hang this upon. But studying the Sermon on the Mount for a song I was writing for the confirmation class, I read this:

[38] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ [39] But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [40] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. [41] And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [42] Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)

Yes, I’ve read that passage a lot. You have too, probably. But as I was working on that song, it occurred to me that when we engage in political activity as Christians, we become the people who slap cheeks, take tunics, beg and borrow, and force people to walk a mile. We become what Christ tells his disciples is clearly evil.

Again, it doesn’t matter that we think we’re pursuing “justice.” We will have to injure someone to get there, and in doing so, we become enamored of our self-righteousness and believe that those injured deserved it. To defend a neighbor with violence means to rob another human being of their status as neighbors. There is no love of neighbor that can ever articulate itself as or in violence against that neighbor. Ever.

(On this point, I realize that I am at great odds with not only the teaching of my Lutheran confession, but also with historic Christendom, which has always given the agents of the state some moral leeway to engage in violence for some ephemeral common good. As much as I appreciate the wisdom of history and of the church, I believe there are some things it got wrong, or at the very least, understood some things — state and society — in a way that gives far too much leeway for violence and compulsion. That is another argument for another essay.)

There is one other point that came to me in reading this passage. We ourselves, as good bourgeois American Protestants (progressive or otherwise) are unwilling to live out the grace we seem to demand others live out when we force it upon them. We compel people to walk the mile on our command, grumble that they should walk the extra mile (because Jesus says so!), but we ourselves are utterly unwilling to walk even the first mile, much less the second. Again, a lot of this stems from the Protestant desire to create a world of perfect “justice,” a world in which the mercy of God (and human beings) is not needed because all of the systems of the world will be arranged “justly.” (This has been an element of Protestant utopianism since the 16th century.) Personally, this articulates itself in a social view that basically says, “If you actually need God’s mercy, you clearly don’t deserve it.”

Mostly, I don’t think Liberal Protestants (particularly their corporate church bodies) really believe in the transformative power of love. They don’t see love as an effective way to engage the world. It doesn’t change the world in the ways they believe the world needs to be changed (or worse, in the ways they believe God wants the world changed). Instead, they have come to believe in “justice,” and have come to invest themselves in the violence and force necessary to be “effective” at “pursuing justice.”

But we are not called to be effective. We are called to be faithful, to love as God loves us. And that is all we are called to do.