04 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 2 & 3: Imago Dei and Justice

Here are the second and third series of affirmations and denials:

We affirm that God created every person equally in his own image. As divine image-bearers, all people have inestimable value and dignity before God and deserve honor, respect and protection. Everyone has been created by God and for God.

We deny that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual’s worth as an image-bearer of God.

This is wholly correct, as I see it. The only thing I would add is that the image of God entails a grant of authority—an authority that is dispersed over a variety of settings and manifests itself in the different offices to which we are called. God has called us to be fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, teachers, students, employers, employees, citizens, political leaders, members of a gathered church institution, elders, deacons, ministers, sellers, buyers, and so forth. None of these exhausts who we are as persons created in God's image. Therefore we might better speak of our callings, in the plural, as we seek to fulfil these simultaneously.in the many spheres of life, including family, marriage, state, school and church.

We affirm that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.

We deny that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.

This is obviously right. The call to do justice is unquestionably biblical and is perhaps best summed up by the prophet Micah: "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In the first lectures I would hold in my introductory political science courses, I would walk the students through several biblical passages voicing the call to do justice. No Christian can rightly elude this call.

However, we begin to run into trouble with the denials. The view of Scripture reflected here seems curiously disconnected from the ordinances by which God upholds his creation. When we come to the Bible, we appear to do so as a blank slate on which nothing of the nature of justice is yet written. We are entirely in the dark and must read the Bible to learn what justice is. Yet this is not how human beings function in the real world. Sin has indeed darkened our minds and hearts, but on a cloudy day we still see light, even if we cannot quite make out the sun. In other words, despite our sinful nature, we nevertheless have an innate, if fallible, sense of justice. Every human society develops rules to govern the relationships among members, and for the most part these grow out of ancient usage and custom. While the legal codes of Hammurabi, Justinian and Napoleon represent one way that law has come into being—by a sovereign legislator—one might as easily argue that the legislator simply codified usages already in existence rather than creating new laws ex nihilo to impose on subjects.

Immersion in the biblical story will immeasurably enhance our understanding of justice, but the concrete parameters of justice necessarily grow out of lived experience in community. The principles of, say, the English Common Law undoubtedly grew in an environment influenced by this story, but the principles themselves were not derived from the text as such. Because each community is different, the rules governing it inevitably develop differently. Furthermore, as the community changes over time, its rules will change too. There is nothing amiss in this, and it certainly does not imply the acceptance of relativism or historicism. The statement's denials run the risk of floating above the real world of communal life, which is constantly in flux. Generations come and go, and traditions develop over time.

As for this phrase: "standards of justice that are merely socially constructed," it is surprising to see the authors use this expression, as it yields considerable ground to postmodern  historicism. Those speaking of social construction typically reduce institutions and institutional standards to arbitrary whims intended to support the power over others of a particular group of people defined by a shared characteristic, such as gender (or sex), class or race. To be sure, even the ancient Greeks and Romans understood that oligarchy, i.e., self-interested rule by a small group of people, is an ever-present danger in a polity based on unmitigated aristocratic principles. Nevertheless, due to God's common grace, no standard of justice, however it develops, is without some underlying raison d'être. Standards of justice are not socially constructed; they grow over time in the bosom of a particular community to meet its needs. These standards may not get the balance between mine and thine perfectly correct, as is true of every human undertaking. Yet if you are living in a polity under the rule of law, then the principles on which the law is based are definitely authoritative. If they egregiously violate God's law, then civil disobedience may become necessary, as Dr. Martin Luther King argued in his now classic Letter from Birmingham Jail. Yet for the most part we obey the law because it is "meet and right so to do." Civil disobedience is always the exception rather than the rule, as implied in Romans 13.

On the other hand, if the statement's authors merely intend to assert that society's norms are subordinate to the authority of God's Word, then I can agree fully. But, as I wrote on Monday, we are embedded in a context in which multiple authorities legitimately function. Even if all of these acknowledged their dependence on God, they would still be required to flesh out the biblical demands for justice in ways that would differ according to time and place.

Next: God's Law and Sin

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