Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Christians and the Problem of Social Justice,” By Bruce Frohnen

“The Good Samaritan,” by
Pelegrín Clavé y Roqué, Royal Catalan Academy of Fine Arts of Saint George, Barcelona

From the very beginning, Christians have had a conflicted attitude toward the injustices of this life. Christ told us that his kingdom is not of this world and even that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Yet the command to love our neighbors as ourselves has very clear social and political consequences. Early Christians responded by forming tight-knit communities so that they could care for one another and by going out and preaching the Gospel, whatever the consequences. The results were not “merely” religious. During the long struggle with paganism, Christianity’s intrinsic preference for the poor—its valuation of poor people as children of God deserving of love and care—won converts and literally transformed the West. It also helped bring the development of human rights, for example through provisions in the canon law recognizing the intrinsic dignity of every person as created in the image and likeness of God.

Heeding the call of conscience bore great fruit. But some have sought to go further. There have been many Christian utopian movements, in which the claim has been made that Christ’s teachings should become the rule for all to live by. They have not turned out very well. Whether in cities and largescale movements during the Middle Ages and Reformation or in scattered communities in the American West, certain areas occasionally have become bastions of “God’s people.” Unfortunately, the results have been rather predictably awful. Sometimes bickering has brought an early end to the experiment. More often, spiritual leaders have become de facto rulers and have claimed special relationships with God, allowing them to concentrate power in their own hands and claim special privileges to material goods, spiritual standing, and indulgences such as predatory “free love.”

The problems with such movements should be relatively clear. Although their sources in chiliastic fervor and social dislocation make them worthy of much study, these movements sadly partake of certain common fallacies and corruptions. Suffice it to say that when someone tells you that God is giving him messages and those messages seem always to tend toward his own temporal benefit, something is amiss. When the special leader seeks specifically political control, there is much to fear.

More problematic is the intrinsic tension between the duty to live by the teachings of Christ and his apostles and the limitations imposed on all of us by the necessity of living in a fallen and complicated world. Humbly accept the failings and injustices of this world? Or join with our fellows to defend the poor and oppressed in the name of God? The choice seems simple to all but the most retiring among us; but it is not, and the reasons why we should choose a moderate response, truly seeking a “third way” between passivity and political activism, too often are lost in our highly politicized era.

One of the few truly philosophical bumper stickers ever to make it to people’s cars is the one repeating Eric Voegelin’s famous admonition, “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton.” Yet this plea to one and all to cease our seemingly constant struggle to bring heaven to earth, to make the totality of Being concrete in this life, has had little impact. Voegelin in his way was restating a central Christian belief—that our hope for beatitude must focus on the next life, with our earthly happiness coming, to the extent it might, on this very hope and on our participation in Christ’s church. But many continue to see the dictates of conscience as requiring laws that turn teachings into literal, enforceable rules.

It will surprise no one to remark that a driving force behind many, if not most, utopian movements is precisely the drive to bring heaven to earth, with whatever caveats may be helpful at the time to those seeking utopia. The call within Christianity to make “social justice” a reality has a strong pull. Social justice is much on the lips of those who seek to bring massive transformation. Justice, they say, demands that all our institutions and indeed our very minds be freed from racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/classist or other unjust elements. Those who take their Christianity more seriously may note problems with some of these drives in terms of their relationship to biblical texts and/or the natural groundings of any reasonable Christian interpretation of moral reality. But the drive remains to sanctify the world through political and legal coercion. And, while many “social justice warriors” today are overtly anti-Christian, many claim not to be; and many professing Christians seem incapable of setting aside utopian hopes and guilty feelings that leave them prey to the calls of radicals, and some even assert a certain prideful demand that we literally make the world anew in a more egalitarian mold “in God’s name.”

The legal, sociological, and economic problems with radicalism have been demonstrated many times. (One might mention, here, the work of Thomas Sowell, especially his The Vision of the Anointed.) But my concern, here, is with the specifically Christian version of utopianism and its fundamentally un-Christian character. Christian utopianism generally does not manifest itself in violent movements. Rather, it has come to be an integral part of various social and political movements, most of them social democratic in character. That is, most Christian utopians would deny the accuracy of that label, seeing themselves as merely seeking to bind up the wounds of this world’s lost and forgotten. The claim generally is that such actions are demanded by social justice and that so long as the institutions set up to institute social justice are gained through more-or-less democratic means (that is, through courts, social movements, or bureaucratic requirements, if not by actual legislation) then there is nothing improper about their program.

The problem, here, is not merely that such programs often end up being utopian in nature. Excuses too often are made, including by Christians, for dictators and violent movements (especially in Latin America) because their socialist ideology supposedly evidences real sympathy for the poor. One need not go so far as the still-powerful Liberation Theology (which, against all the evidence, turns Christ into a kind of poor people’s revolutionary) to fall into the fallacy of Christian utopianism. Social democracy itself, especially within larger countries, generally partakes of the same heretical attitude and leads to the same debilitating reliance on the state as the font of virtue.

This is not to say that “God decrees free markets.” Economic systems, like all systems, are matters for the prudent application of reason to experience. Moreover, the need for societies to respond to the demands of justice—to our inner impetus toward fulfilling the natural duty to love one another—clearly is itself natural and right. But the attempt to make justice itself directly a matter of law in the sense of “doing justice” and forcing society into the specific mold we identity as just is highly problematic from a Christian perspective. It is problematic because it undermines the real call to virtue. Virtue by its nature calls on each of us to change our own conduct and conform our own character to that demanded by God. Meanwhile, calls for political perfectionism—for laws that transform the world according to pre-set criteria—focus our attention on forcing others to change their own behavior at threat of punishment from the state.

Justice in this world must mean vindicating the rational expectations of those involved in a given dispute. Otherwise, justice will not be done, because “pure” justice will depend on the conscience of the judge and will surprise and frighten actual litigants. Social justice must entail political forms that eschew direct action aimed at material goods, instead protecting those associations more capable of pursuing such goods through common action rather than legal coercion. This is not to say that laws cannot or should not coerce. Clearly all laws do this to a significant degree. The question is whether laws should coerce people into developing any specific character—even a virtuous one—or rather must leave off at combatting such clear vices as can be minimized through legal and political action. Murder and theft are examples of sins the state must punish in order to maintain public order. But not all sins can be fought this way. Augustine, for example, advised against outlawing prostitution because during his time (when there was not, for example, any effective police force) to fight it through legal means would do more harm than good. The goal, after all, is not a sinless society but rather a society that has true “social justice” in that it is arranged so as to make it possible for us to pursue virtue; and this can be done only in a society in which the primary associations of family, church, neighborhood, and other local associations are left to do their civilizing work.

As to economic rules and the natural preference for the poor, the question is whether and how this may be pursued through law and politics. It would be too much to claim that no society may pursue the common good of preventing debilitating poverty through common action. Some nations (I think, here, of the tiny, ethnically homogeneous nation of Iceland) can get away with social democratic programs because the people as a whole absolutely demand them and are themselves insistent on enforcing common standards of common effort through (sometimes quite overbearing) customs of shunning. But social democracy in Iceland “works” to the limited extent that it does (the nation is far from wealthy and socialism clearly has undermined the work ethic there) because it is more like a city than a nation. And the forms of social justice by nature are suited less to political units—certainly at the level of most nation-states—than to towns, parishes, or counties. In such local communities, public assistance is part of a wider network of rights and duties enforced by custom and morality, instead of the morally debilitating force of intrusive laws with their bureaucratic means of enforcement.

If we come to see the purpose of the state as guaranteeing public welfare in all its particulars, we undermine the genuine public welfare, which is as much a matter of character as of choice and which must be seen to in local communities. The pursuit of utopia takes us away from God because it allows us to transfer the necessary effort of a Christian life away from ourselves and those with whom we share fraternal affection and the possibility of fraternal correction. It leads us to use the mechanisms of the state to force others to act as we will, in our supposed knowledge of all that is right. Certainly this involves the sin of pride. But many actually seek to hand over their own judgment to state actors out of a false humility or a flight from responsibility. In the end what social democracy—indeed any overuse of the political state—brings is a turning away from development of our own virtue, our own character, our ability to align our own souls with God’s plan and a turning toward ordering others to make the world what we would have it be.


Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.

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