On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice

In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.

True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):

Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.

How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.

Next time, I will start a miniseries on Jesus as Savior. From what does Jesus save and how?

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17 thoughts on “On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice

  1. Shirley Svorny

    So Marty posted this. To set the stage, I know nothing about the bible. If you are saying it is not just or good to seek justice for your peers or yourself, my first reaction is that I don’t agree. Is it just semantics as we would both agree that “doing justice” is just and good and can involve seeking justice for your peers or yourself?

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Shirley: I have heard so much about you from Marty! All of it good. Marty says you value reason and facts and that you “tell it like it is.” I like both these qualities. And from what Marty tells me, you and I would agree on most issues of economics. On the subject of this essay, perhaps my reasoning presupposes some familiarity with the biblical material on justice, mercy and love. Not that someone without that knowledge would be shut out. It just might take a little time to get into the vocabulary. I do not define justice in this essay. I did that in the previous essay alluded to. My point is to make some distinctions about the process of enacting justice that much blather about justice simply runs together. Justice is justice, indeed. But when human beings bring their selfishness, pride, and bad habits into the execution of justice it can easily become mixed with other qualities of the act and the actor. That is why I distinguish between the three modes of the enactment of justice. If human beings were justice machines there would be no difference in quality between the different modes: for others, for oneself, and doing justice, that is, the right in relation to God and others regardless of private interest. But we are not objective about ourselves. And seeking justice for oneself is the most likely mode to be perverted with bias toward one’s purely private interests. Seeking justice for others is the next most vulnerable, and doing justice is the least…though still not beyond distortion by private interests.

      No, I am not saying that it is not good to seek justice for yourself or for others. And I too would disagree with anyone who did. I am trying to make people more thoughtful about how really to seek and do justice. I am not cynical but I am skeptical about idealistic human actions. As I said, all human acts are morally ambiguous. We might want to guard against claims of purity of motives for our actions. It is not a simple matter to seek justice for others or for ourselves. As you know from economics, you cannot simply do one thing…everything is connected! The law of unintended consequences comes into play. If we are wise we should expect the unintended!

      Come to think of it, perhaps I am bringing in a biblical way of thinking even more than I think. My understanding of all human acts as morally ambiguous derives from Jesus and Paul. I also find this view verified in my experience of myself and of others.

      Thank you for joining the conversation! Please feel free to continue the dialogue. I don’t find many rigorous thinkers with whom to have a conversation. By the way, did Marty give you a book of mine? Since you are devoted to reason, I thought you might enjoy reading my book, “Christianity–Is it Really True? Reasonable and Responsible Faith in a Post-Christian Culture.” I happen to think holding to Christian faith is a reasonable belief and a responsible decision. This book explains some of the reasons why I think so. Just as you hold the economic positions you do because you believe them to embody truth and fact, I hold to Christian ideas and “theories” because I believe they are true. I would not hold them if there were no reasonable grounds to do so. Happy New Year!

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  2. nokareon

    To continue off the conversation started above, Dr. Highfield:

    My first reaction was to balk at “Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act.” Isn’t seeking justice for yourself still an act of the species “seeking justice”? So the attributes of seeking justice, particularly the attribute of being morally praiseworthy, should apply to this subspecies as well. However, then I noticed you said it was not “noble” or “virtuous.” I took this to mean either that we have no moral duties to seek justice for ourselves or that seeking justice for ourselves is a behaviour universal and common to all so as not to be distinctively virtuous among peers (in the Latin sense of virtus). Your next sentence confirmed both senses.

    The latter is certainly a good point, but I began to reflect about the former–don’t we have a duty of some sort to, for example, keep ourselves fed and well-nourished? But I then realized that this would constitute a biological duty rather than a moral duty. Perhaps to a materialist there would be no distinction, but theists would usually like to keep those two distinct. And what is noble is only determined by fulfilling moral duties, not other kinds.

    These sorts of reflections were brought into stark application in my life recently due to an apartment complex fire that displaced us from our home for close to a month and ended up spurring us to find a new place to live. All of our friends and acquaintances kept asking if “they” would take care of the damages and expenses incurred by the fire. Nobody had anything but vague gestures about who “they” were supposed to be. After all the institutional means that might be called upon had shown themselves to have failed us, it became clear that there was no “they” who would cleanly take care of things. So our only recourse for seeking justice would have been to take legal action against the fellow UT student who started the fire. That’s where the remarks today intersect with our recent story.

    We chose not to pursue legal action.

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    Thomas: your comment hits the same point as Shirley, who commented last evening. First, I am just stating a fact: the Bible does not urge us to seek justice for ourselves. Indeed it invokes a higher moral principle, love. Second, if we had perfect perception of justice it would make “seeking justice for ourselves” more realistic. It is much more likely, however, that we will mistake private interest for justice when dealing with our own interests than when dealing with others or when doing the right thing for others at a cost to ourselves. When I say seeking justice for yourself is not virtuous, I don’t mean it is wrong or bad. I mean it’s not a moral imperative. You must have felt the same way, since you chose not to take legal action against the person who did you harm. Thanks for your good thoughts.

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  4. Sara Hope

    Dr. Highfield,

    I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts over the course of the semester in Christian Faith. After my initial read of this posting I had a few of the same questions posed above, but your responses clarified things for me.

    Something I am still puzzled by, however, is this statement: “It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.” I have heard such a sentiment proclaimed plenty in song lyrics, but I have never heard it stated as “an infallible dialectical rule.” Can you explain this to me? What is the theoretical background of this statement? Is it a warning against hatred? Are their biblical passages that lend support to this maxim? Are we not to hate that which is evil (such as injustice)? “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” (Proverbs 8:13) There is much in the Psalms about hating evil, wrongdoing, falsehood, etc. Is this relating specifically to hatred directed toward people (i.e. the daughter grows up to realize she has become what she most feared becoming–her mother)?

    Thanks for unpacking this for me!

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Sara: I am so looking forward to having you and other bright and thoughtful students in class! Briefly about issue of dialectic. I wrote a longer essay on the subject. I will look for that. First, no statement in words of affirmation or denial of any actual state of affairs or moral principles can speak unambiguously, that is, affirm only truth and deny only falsehood. (Perhaps in logic and mathematics we can do this, but they do not speak about the actual world.)Every statement contains some truth and some false. Second, when we hear someone make a strong and supposedly unambiguous affirmation, our first tendency–correctly in my view–is to notice its weaknesses. However, when we concentrate only on the falsehood contained in our conversation partner’s affirmation or denial–this is where the word dialectical comes in…It means speaking back and forth–our tendency is to negate the WHOLE statement, both in its truth as well as its falsehood. This move pushes us to the opposite extreme from that of our opponent. Instead of affirming a truth too strongly like our opponent, we deny the falsehood in our opponent’s statement too strongly…so strongly that we also deny the truth in their statement. We have become the “dialectical” opposite of our conversation partner! And since we are focused the falsehood, we feel free to become extreme in our feelings about it. After all, falsehood is evil and we hate evil. In moral dialectic, we notice the injustice and extreme nature of an opponent’s view. We hate injustice and hatred of others. Our exclusive focus on our opponent’s badness and hatred creates in us hatred for the hatred of our opponent, which ends up becoming hatred of the person of our opponent. It is both a logical and an emotional process; it arises from a lack of thoughtfulness about the comprehensive truth. There is much more to say about this, but I hope this helps.

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  5. Christopher Chong

    I often heard social justice is not the Gospel. Then I also heard the opposite in which the Gospel is both social justice and a spiritual concept of salvation. Martin Luther King seemed to believe in social justice to supplement his faith. This reminds me of the parable in I think the Gospel of Luke where the widow appeals to the Judge for justice. Are Christians necessarily called to invest their efforts in social justice to glorify God? I know the best love language is dying to self and self sacrifice. I also know we are to give drink and food to those who are thirsty and hungry and also visit those who are in trials. Yet I believe there is so much more we can do as Christians I just do not know how to apply it to action for pleasing God and not myself in pride.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Chris: On this topic, like most other theological topics–and most other topics of any importance to human life–it is not possible to tell the whole truth in a simple affirmation or a simple denial of the gospel nature of “social justice.” Giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name is clearly mandated in Jesus’ teaching, and anyone who would be like Jesus must care about human need and suffering and do what they can to address it. But on the other hand the term “social justice” may be used in a way that contravenes the gospel, for example, to condone violence against the “oppressor.” It would be convenient if we could state all theological truths in simple and perfectly clear language; but we cannot. Perhaps we know more than we can express precisely in words. Two disciples of Jesus may act the same way in a specific situation but not be able to agree on how to articulate a general rule for ethical action that covers that situation.

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  6. falonopsahl

    I loved the way you unpacked the idea that justice can be morally ambiguous and how. It’s such a fine line to toe, and our sinfulness hides so much of our sinfulness from us, even when we think we couldn’t possibly be sinning. Thank you for this!

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  7. ifaqtheology Post author

    I am glad you noticed this. The only escape from moral and spiritual ambiguity is through the grace of Spirit. And even then such “goodness” is not our conscious possession. So, whether in acts of justice or mercy we must cast ourselves on divine mercy and believe in the forgiveness of sins.

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  8. Matt Stinson

    I really enjoyed reading your post, especially its discussion of the necessity to do justice if one wants to seek justice authentically.

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  9. McKayla Rosen

    I appreciated the following idea, as summarized at the end of the post: “Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others.”

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  10. mmccay1982

    I appreciate the clarification in this article between true justice, and a particular group’s social agenda. If justice is about restoring or maintaining a right standing, there is necessarily an overt or implied standard that the justice seeker is restoring towards or maintaining.

    “I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not.” (Highfield)

    I believe that a Christian should seek justice if the standard of that justice is found in the standards that Christ taught, the standards of God. If the “justice” being advocated is demanding the forwarding of some agenda that is not deeply rooted in the will of God as revealed through the life of Christ and his holy word, then the justice seeker seeks not a godly justice, but a worldly agenda.

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