Part II – Toward an Evangelical Methodology
Chapter 8 – Justice, Human Rights, and Government: Toward an Evangelical Perspective.
By Ronald J. Sider, professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary; director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy; and president of Evangelicals for Social Action.
This essay is not only one of the most important but also one of the longest in the book. Fortunately, Sider closes his essay with nineteen conclusions. Therefore, I will not give as detailed and a recap as earlier essays but will instead draw you attention to the conclusions.
Sider begins his essay asking, “What is the ultimate source of justice, human rights, and governmental authority?” (163)
Justice and Human Rights
Sider argues that the ultimate foundation for justice and human rights is God. He identifies four types of justice.
- Commutative justice requires fairness in agreements and exchanges between private parties. Weights and measures should be the same for everyone. Contracts should be kept.
- Retributive justice defines what is due to persons when they have done wrong. It defines what is appropriate punishment for someone who has broken the law.
- Procedural justice defines the procedures and processes that must be fair if justice is to prevail. Procedural justice requires a transport legal framework, unbiased courts, the rule of law, freedom of speech, assembly and the vote, honest elections, and so on.
- Distributive justice refers to how the numerous goods of society are divided.
The Biblical Story
Sider centers the foundation of justice and human rights in the creation of humanity in God’s image. He observes that each person is in God’s image and therefore each person has value. However, he also notes that human beings were created for community. Therefore,
Both the radical individualism of contemporary Western liberal democracies and the totalitarian communalism of twentieth-century Fascist and Communist societies are one-sided perversions of a profound biblical balance. … Political and economic systems dare not either sacrifice individuals and personal freedom on the altar of some abstract common good nor absolutize individual freedom of choice without regard to the impact on the well-being of everyone. (167-168)
The Hebrew Words for Justice and Righteousness
Sider does a review of the Hebrew words mishpat (justice) and tsedaqah (righteousness), showing they are central to what God requires of his people. He also concludes that, “Active promotion of economic justice is clearly a central component of the prophets’ understanding of mishpat and tsedaqah.” (170) He also believes that justice is both procedural and distributive. He discusses four aspects of biblical teaching that he believes strengthen this teaching.
Love and justice together. Far from being antithetical, scripture at times uses the terms interchangeably.
Justice’s dynamic, restorative character. “Justice does not merely help victims cope with oppression; it removes it.” (171)
God’s special concern for the poor.
1. “Repeatedly the Bible says that the Sovereign of history works to lift up the poor and oppressed.” (171)
2. “Sometimes, the Lord of history tears down rich and powerful people.” (171)
3. “God identifies with the poor so strongly that caring for them is almost like helping God.” (172)
4. “Finally, God demands that his people share God’s special concern for the poor.” (173)
God does not love the poor any more than the rich. God has an equal concern for the well-being for every single person. Most rich and powerful people, however, are genuinely biased; they care a lot more about themselves than about their poor neighbors. By contrast with the genuine bias of most people, God’s lack of bias makes God appear biased. God cares equally for everyone. (173)
Justice as restoration to community. “Community membership means the ability to share fully within one’s capacity and potential in each essential aspect of community.” (175) In this section, Sider points out that the Law supported the idea of private property but it was not unlimited ownership. “The common good of the community outweighed unrestricted economic freedom.” (176) He goes on to note that the prophets did not “denounce the acquisition of land as illegal. … He [the prophet] appeals to social justice above the technicalities of the law." (176-177)
The Content of Distributive Justice
Justice as adequate access to productive resources. “History shows that full equality of economic results is not compatible with human freedom and responsibility.” (177) Sider begins building his case that everyone should have access to the basic means of production.
Capital in an agricultural society. Looking at Old Testament law, Sider concludes,
…that every family had an equality of economic opportunity up to the point that they had the resources to earn a living that would enable them not only to meet minimal needs of food, clothing, and housing, but also to be respected participants in the community. Possessing their own land enabled them to acquire the necessities for a decent life through responsible work. (178)
The Year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee Code plays a central role in Sider’s economic ethics (and I think rightly so.) Unlike many who are often identified with the Christian left who distort this passage as mandate for 21st Century debt cancellation (e.g., Jim Wallis, Jubilee Research) Sider shows that adherence to the Jubilee code would have prevented destitution and ensured each family group had sufficient land to provide for their needs. God gave the jubilee,
To give people the freedom to participate in shaping history. And to prevent the centralization of power – and the oppression and totalitarianism that almost always accompany centralized ownership of land or capital by either the state or small elites. (179)
The sabbatical year. Continuing from with the Jubilee passages, Sider examines the impact these laws had on limiting debt and slavery. He points out that these specific previsions are not for today. Rather, they teach us that
Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of their communities. (181) (Emphasis is Sider’s)
Generous care for those who cannot care for themselves. Sider goes on to emphasize the observations above. He suggests that the primary assistance to able-bodied people in need was no-interest loans. Provisions that ensured those who could not provide for themselves, like tithes, gleaning, and zero-interest loans were built into the Law.
Sider acknowledges the danger of the “trading freedom for bread” thinking of totalitarian contexts. We need societies that treasure both material and political freedom. Citing Catholic scholar David Hollenbach, Sider notes three emphases:
- The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.
- The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerful.
- The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over the preservation of an order which excludes them. (185)
Society and Government
Sider cautions against the temptation to equate society with the state. “The government is only one of many important institutions.” (185) Sider rejects “social contract theory” and argues that it is God who establishes government. Like Wolterstroff in the previous essay, Sider believes that the state exists not only to prevent evil but to promote good. He makes the case for limited government and protection of other societal institutions as a corrective to the tendency of political power to corrupt. Sider writes,
Emil Brunner is probably correct in suggesting that the more healthy a society; the more nongovernmental institutions will be able to handle problems without government intervention. On the other hand, the greater the moral decay, the more government must act. (191)
- The principles that shape evangelical political thought and engagement should flow from both normative framework rooted in biblical revelation and also careful socioeconomic, historical examination of human experience.
- The ultimate foundation of government, justice, and human rights is the Creator who is just.
- Justice defines what is due persons and institutions. What is due them is based in the order of creation established by God.
- God demands commutative, retributive, procedural, and distributive justice.
- The biblical story tells us many things relevant to political engagement including that: a). persons are created by God to create wealth and shape history. b). all human rights and responsibilities flow from the fact that every person is created in the image of God and treasured immeasurably by the Creator; and c). persons are body-soul unities made for community.
- The biblical words for justice show that justice requires both fair, honest legal systems and also fair economic structures.
- Biblical justice includes a call to correct oppression and restore justice to the needy.
- Precisely because God is not biased and loves the rich and poor equally, God acts in history to lift up those who are oppressed by the powerful or who lack access to the necessities of physical life.
- Hundreds of biblical texts demonstrate that God and God’s faithful people exhibit a special concern to empower the poor.
- The biblical understanding of justice requires that: a). the able-bodied have access to the productive resources so that if the act responsibly, they can earn a decent livelihood and be dignified members of their community; and b). those unable to care for themselves receive a generous sufficiency from society.
- As we integrate biblical norms and careful study of history, we see that God demands that people enjoy certain benefits – both civil/political benefits (e.g., fair courts, freedom of speech, religion) and socioeconomic benefits (e.g., access to food, shelter, health care) – and we dare not sacrifice on to the other, although evangeclicals disagree about whether not only the first but also the second area should be designated “rights” that governments must enforce.
- We recognize a certain tension between different rights and believe that the needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.
- Society is much larger than the state and contains many crucial non-governmental institutions (family, church, business, unions, etc.) that must be largely independent of government.
- Government is ordained by God, derives its authority from God, and is obligated to reflect God’s justice.
- The purpose of government is both to restrain evil and to promote the good.
- Both biblical truths and historical experience demonstrate that good government is limited government.
- Social problems should be solved at as local a level as can handle them properly and effectively.
- Non governmental institutions (e.g., family, church) are often better places to solve social problems than government, and when government right intervenes, it should do so in a way that strengthens, rather than undermines, nongovernmental institutions.
- The biblical understanding of justice and role of government teaches that government rightly plays a role in solving social problems and promoting economic justice, helping the poor gain access to productive resources, and guaranteeing that those unable to care for themselves a generous sufficiency.
I think this is one of the most important chapters in the book. I like Sider's identification of polarities that have to be managed as we consider public policy issues. I agree with almost everything said in this article. The devil is in the detatils. It is often the application of these concepts that leads to difficult judgment calls about which policies are truly beneficial and which ones aren't. It is at this level that I at times find myself in disagreement with the Evangelicals for Social Action community.