Justice and Authority
Justice and Authority: The Political Power of the Gospel
The idea that Christianity, and religion in general, is necessarily antithetical to the practice of political authority has enshrined itself as a commonplace in the much-cited “wall of separation” between church and state, which functions as an accepted cornerstone of our constitutional order. In liberal political theory, religion may have its own set of goods which it seeks within its own sphere, but the goods of political life belong wholly to the secular sphere which cannot allow judgment based upon religious principles not accepted by the political community as a whole. This separation is based upon the idea that political authority is a neutral arbiter of individually-held natural rights, which judges claims of right and wrong without recourse to any particular vision of political life that would privilege one person or group above another.
I do not wish to argue for or against the merits of this particular theory, but I do want to call attention to some issues that it raises, particularly with respect to our ideas of justice. Justice has long been recognized as a proper goal of political life, needed to ensure social harmony and the fulfillment of basic human needs. The definition of justice has been a point of contention for as long as humans have been theorizing about politics, but through all the debates, there has been agreement at least on the idea that justice is a political necessity. Whether justice is a virtue concerned with the proper ordering of natural goods (Aristotle), an artificial virtue originating in society for the protection and distribution of property (Hume), or just a basic principle of fairness in a free and equal society (Rawls), it always satisfies a need for social cohesion and has the good of society as its end.
But according to Christian doctrine, justice is much more than a political necessity that maintains acceptable social order. Justice is an attribute of God in his dealings with mankind, and is a fundamental aspect of his character as revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to do justice according to God’s command, and this is where we run into problems with modern conceptions of political authority. For if justice is properly a political good which belongs in the secular political realm, then whatever we as Christians have to say about it may be good for us individually, but cannot be allowed to achieve social transformation in a pluralistic society. This has fostered the idea that political authority is necessarily opposed to divine authority, and that the former is the only sound basis upon which justice can be achieved in our political community. But I will argue that Christianity can overcome the surface-level conflict between political and divine authority by appealing to the Gospel proclaimed through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Justice in Ancient Israel
To begin with, it will be helpful to note that this problem is not unique to 21st century American society. In Christianity, this tension goes all the way back to the time of Jesus, when 1st century Palestine was subject to Roman rule and when the question of how one could obey God’s authority as a Roman citizen was very much relevant. Jesus’ ministry took place in this context, and it is unsurprising that the issue came up on occasion, most prominently when the Pharisees questioned Jesus on whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar according to Jewish law (Mark 12:14). In his answer, Jesus avoided the condemnation which would have fallen on him for both denying Caesar’s authority and for denying the authority of God’s Law, and he at least suggested that the two could coexist in some way.
This coexistence must be understood in the context of the contemporary Jewish understanding of justice. In the Jewish political community, there could be no separation between worldly and divine authority, for God acted as the supreme Lawgiver and King. The understanding of justice which arose from this situation is evident in Micah, where the prophet condemns the unjust rulers who have abused God’s people and perverted justice. In an oracle against the rulers of Israel, the prophet asks “Is it not for you to know justice- you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people?” (Micah 3:2-3). The understanding is that justice cannot be defined by the rulers, but is something which they must uphold in response to a proper understanding of what is good. The authority which God has given them has been distorted, turning the good which God revealed to them into evil, and causing the people of Israel to suffer as a result.
The authority God gave to the rulers was purely conditional, so upon their failure to do justice, he pronounced his judgment upon them: “Therefore, it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them.” (Micah 3:6). The failure to do justice is not just a political problem, but it is a spiritual failure of the community to uphold God’s law and do what is good for the nation as a whole. There can be no separation of political and divine authority, for the former is only held in accordance with God’s will, and once it departs from the good that God has ordained, the community and its rulers are held responsible for their failure.
This understanding of authority may have held for ancient Israel in the time of Micah’s prophesy, but clearly that state of affairs did not last forever, and the question of how political authority relates to the authority of God had to be answered not only by Jews, but also by the early Christians living in the Roman Empire. The question must now be asked, how can this conception of justice as revealed by God and entrusted to the rulers of his people be applied in a situation where earthly political authorities claim the right to define and carry out justice themselves? The answer to this question depends upon a proper understanding of the nature of both divine and political authority. We are mistaken if we take the two as equal competitors in a neutral political realm, and that the triumph of one must come at the expense of the other. For since both political and divine authority have entirely different sources and ends, a proper understanding of these should hopefully clear up some of the confusion surrounding the role of Christianity in securing justice for the political community.
Political authority begins and ends in a particular society, and relies upon the preexisting material of a social community to achieve justice as defined in a certain way. This means that political authority is both limited and contingent upon circumstances which allow it to compel citizens to act in a way that supposedly advances the good of society. Christian ethicist and political theologian Oliver O’Donovan argues in The Ways of Judgment that it “…arises where power, the execution of right, and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one coordinated agency.” The authority of any political arrangement thus arises not out of a neutral, rational apprehension of how to achieve what is just, but only out of a set of contingent circumstances which exist in a particular society at a certain time.
Furthermore, the justice which such authority pursues can only be achieved by judgment according to certain shared presuppositions of what it means to be a just society. But this idea of justice is just as dependent upon social circumstances as the authority which claims the right to execute it. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, conceptions of justice always arise out of “one particular type of practice-based community”, and serve as a reflection of debates and practices internal to that society. Political authority then arises out of such a historically-conditioned society for the purpose of serving ends which are formed out of that same social order. This exposes the false pretenses upon which political authority claims power today. Rather than being a neutral arbiter which decides upon competing claims of justice, it is instead built upon the presuppositions which belong to the society in which it exists, and which necessarily privileges one theory of justice over another.
Just as we must rid ourselves of misconceptions of the neutrality of political authority, we must also be careful in how we define what exactly divine authority means in Christianity. Contrary to common belief, it is not simply based on adherence to an alternate, divinely ordained set of laws. That may have been the case for ancient Israel, but it takes a completely different form following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of the gospels emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ authority, whether in teaching (Luke 4:32), forgiveness of sins (Matthew 9:6), casting out demons (Luke 4:36), or in healing a number of illnesses and disabilities. The authority Jesus claimed was not based upon any earthly political power, and throughout his ministry he proved reluctant to claim titles of political authority for himself (John 6:15).
Instead, the main expression of Jesus’ authority was actually in his crucifixion and resurrection, a point which is made especially clear in John’s gospel. In the Good Shepherd discourse of John 10, Jesus says, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:18) Even as Pilate told Jesus that he had the power to set him free or crucify him, Jesus answered by appealing to this same authority over death: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11)
In this particular act of voluntarily laying down his life, Jesus made a final judgment upon the sinfulness of humanity, but did so with the purpose of redeeming mankind. This follows the prophet’s proclamation in Micah 3, where God’s judgment came with the promise of redemption, envisioned in Micah 4 as a future where all nations would come to Zion to hear the word of the Lord. In Christ’s resurrection, redemption is not only a remote future for a particular community, but it is a present reality which brings forgiveness of sins and fulfills God’s covenant promise to bring all nations to him. The truth of the Gospel is authoritative in that it demands a response from us and enables us to act within a consistent moral framework which makes our actions intelligible. This is what political authority may aim to do, but can only partially succeed at. It is the death and resurrection of Christ which allows the Apostle Paul to write in Romans 13:1 that “there is no authority except from God”, for the Gospel provides the one authoritative Word which commands action by its very nature, and is not contingent upon the accidental circumstances which underlie all political authorities.
So where does this leave us in determining the proper relationship between political and divine authority in outlining a path to justice in society? It should at least be clear that the relationship is not as simple as the caricatures of religion in public life which we are treated to as a staple of American politics. The Gospel does not work with the given materials of political life, but it transforms the very framework in which justice is sought after and achieved. For in Christ’s death and resurrection, all particular political arrangements are superseded by the authority of the Gospel, which places a demand upon the believer to do justice and walk in the ways of the Lord. Justice then cannot be sought as only a political good, but must be put within the larger narrative of God’s work of salvation in history, in which the redemption promised to Israel finds its completion in the boundless Kingdom of God.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Aristotle, crucifixion, Hume, John Rawls, justice, law, Oliver O’Donovan, politics, religion, resurrection