justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.


The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.


Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.

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