Christianity and the practice of justice

By Puck de Raadt
February 11, 2009

Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice, by Nicholas Sagovsky (SPCK 2008) ISBN 978-0-281-06016-0

If history is written from the need to redefine our present sensibilities and identities, then this lucid exposition on the main strands of thought, Christian and secular, concerning justice addresses a need to reflect on current ‘received thinking’, not least in theological terms.

We are currently living with a range of inherited views of justice shaped by Western traditions of faith and secular philosophy, the residue of which is common coinage in the political and civic arena.

Nicholas Sagovsky writes from the conviction that, unexamined, what we are working on is inadequate to accommodate new perspectives on human rights, on plural belief systems and on economic disparities in a globalizing world of rapidly multiplying, changing and diversifying societies.

The idea of justice, as shaped by our Western history, is in need of a fresh consideration, he says: one that readdresses and integrates the role that faith, as well as secular reason and scientific discourse, continue to play in developing both theory and practice.

Dr Sagovsky, an Anglican priest and canon theologian at Westminster Abbey in London, first traces the development of the various historical strands within the idea of justice.

The Greek concept, based on the civic religion of public social practice, is of civic virtue within a constrained view of citizenship, understood as obedience to an immutable social order. Its literature depicts the irreconcilable conflicts arising between individual, instinctive morality and civic duty as is based on a divinely fixed framework of justice.

The Roman Empire continued this kind of absolute view of a fixed social order and justice, its origins based on the assigned power from a pantheon of gods beyond human reason or agency.

Social order in such societies becomes both proof and sign, with the principle of authoritative and sustaining power known through the use of human reason. Roman authors such as Cicero and Aristotle extrapolate a view that ‘[t]he act of justice is to render what is due’ – actus iustitiae est reddere debitum.

In turn this is transmitted to Augustine and Aquinas, who reinterpret it from historical Christian perspectives, incorporating the view of a dynamic and unfolding divine grace and justice, instead of the static Graeco-Roman universe and its ensuing legal order.

To access the complex and nowadays unfamiliar thought of the Christian Scriptures, Sagovsky first outlines their roots in the historical Jewish view of justice as based on the biblical promise of a God faithful to an elect people, an arrangement that expects reciprocal faithfulness and repentance.

Then he goes on to show how Jesus, amplified by Paul, reinterpreted the Hebrew view of God’s omnipotent benevolent justice to apply it to all peoples. Justice becomes both a personal entitlement and a personal duty under the church’s oversight. Each baptized individual is called to be part of the body of Christ that is the Christian community and hence must give and receive justly, individually and collectively.

Both Augustine and Aquinas offer a picture of God’s justice as being accessible via a person’s spiritual transformation, effected through an encounter with Jesus Christ by God’s grace. But in their context to be faithful entails, once again, obedience: this time to the empire’s replacement – the pre-Reformation Church, with its formidable power as sole agent of the practice of justice through trained clergy.

Aquinas’ views add to the pre-existent requirement of assent to law an obligation to provide for human need. This crucially continues to underlie much influential social teaching of the churches, especially in Roman Catholicism.

Not until the Reformation and political diversification into nation-states is the deep-seated belief in a God-given, unchangeable social order overtaken.

Subsequent philosophical and political developments have eroded a unitary understanding of law and justice as serving a common good. Instead, societies became thoroughly ‘uncommon’; fragmented into adversarial groups with deeply conflicting interests, national, religious, ethnic and class.

The author then refashions these histories into four basic strands that lead into post-Reformation, modern views of justice. In his final chapter he asks what can provide the social unity prerequisite for a consensual assent to the law, shattered in modern and postmodern society? He ends up in a spiritual place: with Christian bonds of communion created by baptism and eucharist in its diverse denominational forms.

Of the four strands – freedom, the rule of law, the meeting of needs, and responsible civic action – the first two principles are more readily understood and recognized in present Western understandings of justice, especially through the persuasive influence of Kant. This in turn deeply influences subsequent moral and political philosophy and theology.

Sagovsky takes us with clarity through the Enlightenment, Descartes, Kant, and more recent philosophical traditions on the nature of law, absolute morality, individuality and will. These are juxtaposed for clarification with thought from the English philosophical tradition introducing Utilitarianism – beginning with Hobbes, Hume, Mill and Bentham.

There is also discussion of the communitarian traditions from which Marxism springs, with its secular, a-personal, often a-religious and sometimes anti-Christian disregard for individual persons in favour of an abstract collective good.

The inability of these strands of political philosophy to reconcile individual and collective rights and needs leads to an analysis of Rawls’ work on justice; specifically his 1971 Theory of Justice and his subsequent modification and expansion of it in Political Liberalism (1993).

In the latter book, Rawls explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to the moral, philosophical aspects of theology in relation to an articulation of individual human rights.

Rawls’ later work insists on a pragmatic, a-religious and value-independent ‘neutrality’ in respect of underlying belief systems. He posits ‘justice-as-fairness’ as ‘a precondition of sociality’ in our plural societies, and does so via valuable expositions of the nature of the ‘overlapping social values’ springing from a wide range of divergent personal belief systems.

It is, he argues, this implicit consensus which is required to maintain the fabric of social coherence, and that enables us to give informed assent to laws underlying ‘the practice of justice’.

Sagovsky, drawing on other recent thinkers, among the Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, who are influenced by the more communitarian traditions, goes on to argue that in addition to freedom and the rule of law, the meeting of particular needs is a prerequisite for human flourishing – as is the deployment of human ‘capabilities’ in full participatory citizenship.

From this and from specifically Christian understandings, he extrapolates that ‘responsible action’ is the fourth requisite for a viable system of public justice.

It is in the requirement of the concrete ‘meeting of needs’ that Sagovsky finds resources for more flexible interpretations of law that do justice to Christian concerns about the intrinsic value and distinctiveness of persons, shaped by (and inescapably living within) community.

This is achieved by employing ‘judgment’, an interpersonal discernment and adaptive interpretation of the law, in a way that does better justice to ‘justice’ than mere legalism.

The book concludes with a passionate exposition of the function of the eucharist in creating, maintaining and conveying a particular kind of communion which engenders and sustains a spiritually-based ethic of love capable of guiding us to the (re)creation of full, participatory citizenship.

Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice, by Nicholas Sagovsky, is available through Ekklesia:


© Puck de Raadt coordinates the Bail Circle Churches' Refugee Network of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Keywords:law | Justice | Christianity
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