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Toward Understanding Injustice in Our Age of Outrage

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As political creatures by nature how can Christians socially interact with others in a time of extreme political bitterness? Outrage surrounds us. News cycles fuel it and feed on it. Someone might shame and demonize us for merely asking questions about their views. How do we cope? Some of us never discuss religion and politics publicly to remain polite, but it can appear to be indifference. When politically charged comments fly, I often ignore them. But I might comment in non-inflammatory ways. Proverbs tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.”[1] Sound advice for all discourse. Scripture urges us to be kind, gentle, with self-control.

This challenge runs throughout history, and I suggest a perspective of understanding. Political strife has affected most of history as people pursue justice. Everybody expects justice. When we think justice has not been served, our perceived injustice flash-mobs into anger. Contempt surges, and polarities form. Us and them. We easily detect injustice. Everyone longs to flourish in a “just” society, family, or job — an ever-elusive quest indeed. Tolstoy remarked, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”[2] We should change ourselves first, and Scripture compels to genuinely love our neighbor. Love desires for others to have what we desire for ourselves: fairness and justice.

Everyone longs to flourish in a “just” society, family, or job.

What Is Justice?

To navigate the rocky waters of social discourse, Scripture’s compass guides us, but we must set sail and rudder. In Scripture two synergistic principles of justice emerge. Both observe equality, yet operate differently. First, the principle of justice as unmerited equal distribution directs us to deal with others equally in many situations. At times people should equally receive some good with no regard to their differences. Proverbs states “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord, But a just weight is His delight.”[3] Equitable transactions apply if no legitimate ground exists for allocating something to one person more than another. In such cases, treating everyone equally reflects divine fairness. For example, forgiveness and salvation is equally available for all through Christ’s atonement.[4] We equally allot public education, voting rights and public infrastructure use because there’s no reason for unequal distribution.

The second principle of justice, proportional distribution, orients us to treat people differentially when a legitimate and understood basis exists. Fair-minded evaluation of hard work means that some people should receive more rewards. The parable of the talents illustrates this principle.[5] Here, rewards correspond to efforts, yet all were treated equally because they were impartially appraised. Credit goes where credit is due. In principle, Paul urges us to render to all their due.[6] Matters of eternal consequence will be judged according to merits.[7]

Proportional justice also applies to punishments that correspond to the severity of crime. Scripture voices this as “Eye for an eye” or “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”[8] Often called cruel, this principle applied would majorly advance justice in a time where someone can be shot and killed for stepping on someone’s toes. Just retributions fit the crime. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Thus justice operates in two ways: justice as unmerited equal distribution for situations where no basis of different treatment applies and proportional distribution for allocating rewards or punishments on an understood basis. Given time, we could relate justice to the spiritual virtues of mercy and grace.

What Is Injustice?

What then is injustice, a malice associated with inequality? Confusion of principles creates much injustice, applying the wrong principle at the wrong time. Only great wisdom discerns the difference. Like many evils, injustice is a privation of virtue. A misapplication of proportional distribution on an illegitimate basis (e.g., race, sex, age, beauty, class, etc) incenses us as discrimination. If I reward people proportionally when I should treat all the same, injustice will occur.

However, if I don’t reward someone who always works hard, rewarding her equally as the lazy, then I apply the wrong principle. Laziness persists. Don’t laugh, look around. A good basis for different treatment exists. Students expect grades in direct proportion to merit. Oh, what uproars would erupt if I applied unmerited equality and issued everyone a “C” regardless of their merit.

Suppose I employ many workers who do the same job, and all other things being equal, a few work with unexpected diligence. Others dawdle lazily, making costly mistakes. I have only one reward available this year: raising wages. I could follow unmerited equal distribution, giving all equal raises. Or, I could use proportional distribution, allotting the deserving workers higher wages. What is just? Your answer reveals something about your views of human nature, political sentiment, and how society should distribute its benefits.

Political sentiments center and spin around these two principles of justice. Those leaning left in politics, some more than others, value justice as unmerited equality. Inequality equals injustice. Insofar as possible, society’s entitlements should flow to all people regardless of merit. Why? Merit is a myth, as is the “level playing field” notion of equal opportunity. Nobody merits anything because everyone is the product of their social environment. Everyone walks on the playing field of life embodying great inequalities due to their upbringing, wealth, intelligence, health, personality, beauty, etc. Like being dealt a weak or strong poker hand, nobody earns these traits so nobody should be rewarded for them. The left lost faith in a seemingly haphazard meritocracy. Further to the left, some insist that society’s goods should mostly flow to the unprivileged so that a more equitable outcome occurs.

The right-leaning conservatives value justice as proportional distribution, some more than others. People should receive rewards in proportion to their diligence. Embracing personal freedom and responsibility, conservatives pursue a level playing field society of equal opportunity that allows individuals to freely choose, risk, and bear the consequences. People are not the mere product of their social environment because they can choose to rise above it and outstrip all expectations. Thus, some of society’s goods should accrue to individuals in proportion to earned merit. If the left lost trust in meritocracy, the right lost faith in the entitlements that perpetuate dependency.

People favor a principle of justice buried in their metaphysics of human nature.

Asking the Deeper Questions

Ponder this. Do people possess the freewill to rise above their environment and make responsible choices? Do some enjoy greater freewill than others? In our judgments, can we assume everyone equally possesses freewill? The answers to such questions underpin human nature, ethics, and politics. Without freewill, responsibility and merit remain empty. Without merit, there’s no basis for proportional justice. Political ideas usually reside downstream from the headwaters of a person’s metaphysics of human nature. Want to engage others? Understand that those people around you may have little worldview resources to support the politics of personal responsibility, freewill, and merit. Without such sources, their downstream political sentiment may well overflow with entitlement and unmerited equal distribution.

In conversations, few dive into these depths. Recognize that people favor a principle of justice buried in their metaphysics of human nature. Understand that hot issues hyped by the media (and social media) run deeper into questions of the nature of justice and worldview. Most remain oblivious about their worldview assumptions. If we value the whole justice rooted in God, common ground will exist.

Who’s right? Both principles properly applied yield better justice. Scripture values both. We can’t control systems of human justice. The Gordian knots of social justice will remain a challenge. Do not ignore and misapply the basic principles of justice as a starting point. Pray for divine discernment. When no legitimate ground exists for treating people proportionately, treat all equally. When people show themselves to be unequal, treat them proportionally.[9] Pursue Micah’s dictum: “What does the Lord require of you, But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?”[10]

Dr. Ivan Spencer is the author of the new book, Tweetable Nietzsche: His Essential Ideas Revealed and Explained.

[1] NASB, Pr 15:1. See also Pr 16:11; 20:10;20:23; Mic 6:11.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, “Three Methods of Reform in Some Social Remedies (The Free Age Press, 1900) 29.

[3] NKJV, Pr 11:1.

[4] 1 Jn 2.2.

[5] Matt. 25:14-30.

[6] Romans 13:7-8.

[7] Rev. 20:13; 22:12. See also 1 Cor. 3:8.

[8] NKJV, Gal. 6:7.

[9] Aristotle deserves credit for some insights. See Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5.

[10] NKJV, Mic 6:8.

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Ivan Spencer

Dr. C. Ivan Spencer is Professor of History and Philosophy at The College at Southeastern. He teaches the History of Ideas, Philosophy, and History. Dr Spencer was the creator of the school’s History of Ideas curriculum and has cultivated the study of the greatest thinkers from the past to the present.

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