From Plough Quarterly Issue 2: Peter Mommsen conducts an interview with Robert George on June 25, 2014.
Plough: Jesus teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, his righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Today “justice” has become a buzzword in Christianity and beyond. What does Jesus’ justice look like?
Professor George: Jesus is heir to the great tradition of the prophets who cried out for justice. But by justice he does not mean something narrow – claiming my rights, or even defending other people’s rights (although the defense of rights is part of justice considered comprehensively). Instead, justice according to Jesus means establishing the kind of interaction and cooperation with others in which we truly love as Jesus loved: we must will the good of the other for his or her own sake.
What are the problems with talking about justice merely in terms of rights?
In our modern, post-enlightenment discourse we sometimes reduce justice to a very individualistic concept of rights. This has caused some critics of what is called “rights talk” to reject the very idea of rights. Such critics claim that speaking of “rights” amounts to capitulating to the modern cult of the imperial self, and thus encouraging selfishness, self-regard, and self-interest in a sense so narrow that it is incompatible with Christian faith.
But when Jesus and the prophets speak about justice, they are not speaking of a narrowly individualistic rights-based conception of justice. Certainly we must honor the rights of all persons, but we must do far more than that. We must seek to establish a community in which all members can flourish. The goal is the flourishing of each human person in all the diverse aspects of his or her personality and being, including the social, moral, and spiritual.
So when we think of justice in Christian terms, we need to make sure we understand justice in far richer ways than it is typically conceived in contemporary political or academic discourse.
You mentioned the prophets. Let’s look at justice through the eyes of prophets like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, who kept hammering away at a few core themes: idolatry, the oppression of the worker, care of the widow and the orphan. What can we learn from them?
Idolatry is always a temptation; it is not something that Judaism wiped out or that Christianity has cured. We will always be tempted to put something else in the place of God, and then (in effect) to worship it. That need not mean bowing down before a golden calf or a painted totem pole, which nowadays we can avoid easily enough. But do we worship money? Do we worship power, comfort, status, prestige? All of these things, which are not bad in themselves, become soul-imperiling when they are put in the place of God.
No matter how good the goal is – fighting poverty, protecting the environment, even defending people’s fundamental human rights – if approached in the wrong way it can become idolatry. We have to worry not only about the temptation to do bad things, but also the temptation to do good things for bad reasons or in bad ways. A bad way is one that is not in line with the will of God and the dignity of human persons as creatures made in the divine image and likeness.
Jesus made a remarkable observation about the prophets in speaking of his cousin John the Baptist. He asked his listeners: “When you went out into the desert to see John the Baptist, who did you go to see? A prophet?” Then he told them: “I tell you, he is a prophet and more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:7–9). Here’s the point: John was not a political figure; he was not someone working to establish a more just regime of economic or political relations. Instead, he called everyone to repentance: to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. What’s more, he had a very concrete understanding of what sin is. We know this from the circumstances of his martyrdom. John, whom Jesus singles out as the greatest of all prophets, was killed because he railed against the illicit marriage of Herod. He protested the corruption of the institution of marriage by a political leader whose job was to serve the common good.
It would have been very easy and very safe for this great “prophet and more than a prophet” to keep his mouth shut about the king’s private life. Yet John would not censor himself on the subject of sin. Because he understood the importance of the institution of marriage to the flourishing of human beings, and thus to the common good and to the very concept of justice, he fearlessly spoke out. His witness cost him his life.