- On Social Justice (1): The Ambiguity of Social Justice
- On Social Justice (2): Defining (Social) Justice
- On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy
(Note: This post has been slightly revised from it’s original version to remove comments about the 6th commandment establishing a “regulative principle of violence” as I do not believe that is sufficiently nuanced. For more on this, please see my A Note on Reformed Libertarianism.)
In Part 2 we defined justice as giving someone what they are due. We distinguished between God-man justice and man-man justice. We argued that man-man (intra-human) justice is not simply loving each other as God commands. In this post we will look at what intra-human justice is, particularly for the poor & needy.
The 6th commandment limits our use of force. Calvin explains “The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one… [U]nder the word kill [murder] is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression.” Scripture clarifies that self-defense (Ex 22:2) as well as as retribution according to lex talionis (Gen 9:6; Lev 24:17-21; Ex 21:22-25; Deut 19:18-21; Num 35:9-34) are not violations of the 6th commandment.
The 8th commandment establishes the concept of private property. In his Themelios essay, Wayne Grudem notes “[T]he command, ‘You shall not steal,’ assumes private ownership of property.” In contrast, he quotes Marx. “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Mankind is given dominion over the earth and is told to subdue it. Insofar as the earth belongs to the Lord (Ps. 24:1), this dominion is relative, not absolute. We are made stewards of creation. What distinguishes one man’s stewardship from another’s is their work of subduing the earth. Men may then voluntarily trade their stewardship between each other as they see fit. The 8th commandment forbids anyone from taking someone else’s stewardship (property) without their consent.
When theft (8th commandment) is combined with violence (6th commandment), the crime of robbery has been committed.
God has instructed us how to deal with violations of the 6th and 8th commandments. Genesis 9:6 clarifies that retributive justice demands vengeance upon the wrongdoer for crimes between men. If someone is murdered, the murderer is to be put to death. The wrongdoer is “due” the wrong that he did. Lev 24:17-20 elaborates on Gen 9:6 “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.” This is an application on the intra-human level of the same standard of justice that applies between God and men (Obad. 15; Jer. 50:29; Hab. 2:8; Joel 3:4, 7; Rom 1:32; Rev 18:6-7). (The Mosaic Covenant also cursed men with death for violations of God’s law beyond murder. These were instances of God-man justice in the typological holy land of Canaan per Leviticus 18:5.)
Likewise, if someone steals property they must restore the property but justice demands that they are also due what they have done. So they must additionally give the same amount they stole to the victim (Ex. 22:4). Vern Poythress explains “The repayment of the first ox is simple restoration, while the repayment of the second ox is punishment for the criminal intent.” (While I do not agree with every point, Poythress’ book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses is essential reading for anyone interested in biblical justice.) He notes a very important consequence of this understanding of intra-human justice: “[W]e can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured. Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being.”
God has left men with some liberty to determine the best way to administer justice, but the above principle (proportionally rendering what is due) must be followed in every instance. Furthermore, judgment must be impartial (Deut 1:16-17) and honest (Lev. 19:35-36). Sadly, in this fallen world that is often not the case. Some physically strong men resort to outright thuggery by holding people at gunpoint and taking their wallet. They live their life in the shadows as outlaws. But powerful men living life in the limelight often engage in judicial thuggery by relying on their power in the courts to rob and oppress others (essentially by bribing the judges). Franz Oppenheimer referred to this as “the political means” of prosperity.
In defending his innocence, Job cries “[I]f I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.” (Job 31:21-22). Micah denounces “the political means” of fraudulently obtaining land.
Woe to those who devise iniquity,
And work out evil on their beds!
At morning light they practice it,
Because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and take them by violence,
Also houses, and seize them.
So they oppress a man and his house,
A man and his inheritance. (2:1-2)
Isaiah cries against wickedness in Jerusalem.
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (1:23; cf Luke 18:1-5).
Commenting on Prov. 22:22, Gill explains “[W]hen he comes into a court of judicature, which was usually held in the gates of a city, 4:1; and applies for redress of any grievance, do not crush him in the gate, or oppress him in judgment; nor wrest his cause, and do him wrong; but let him have justice done him, though poor.”
Jeremiah chastises the rulers in Jerusalem: “[T]hey have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (5:28). Isaiah prophesies of a coming king: “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (11:4).
The issue here is impartiality before the law. The rights of the poor are constantly violated because wicked judges take bribes that the poor cannot afford.
Employers oppress and exploit day laborers by not paying them what was previously agreed upon for their work. Kevin DeYoung explains
Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work in the fields for the day, and at the end of the day the landowner stiffed them of their wages. This was a serious offense to your neighbor and before God, not least of all because the day’s payment was often literally you daily bread. People depended on this payment to survive.
It was all to[o] easy to cheat workers out of their wages. You could say you didn’t have anything to give. Or you could argue that the work done was shabbily. Or you could simply refuse to pay today, or ever. If the matter was simply one man’s word against another’s, there was little a worker could do to get justice, especially on that day when what the worker needed was to eat, not a legal process.
Amos warns of the coming judgment upon Israel for their wickedness. “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” (2:6). They are willing to give up the rights of the poor for a bribe of silver or even just a pair of sandals.
You who turn justice to wormwood,
And lay righteousness to rest in the earth!…
For I know your manifold transgressions
And your mighty sins:
Afflicting the just and taking bribes;
Diverting the poor from justice at the gate. (5:7, 12)
Amos instructs them to “Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate [the courtroom].” (5:15). Jeremiah likewise declares
Thus says the Lord: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (22:3)
See also Ps. 72:1-4; 82:3; 140:12; Prov. 22:22; Job 29:7-17. Commenting on Ps. 72:4, Calvin said
God is indeed no respecter of persons; but it is not without cause that God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence. Let laws and the administration of justice be taken away, and the consequence will be, that the more powerful a man is, he will be the more able to oppress his poor brethren.
Note that David called himself poor and needy because of the false accusations brought against him by people trying to kill him (Ps. 109:22, 31). E. Calvin Beisner notes that “the many Hebrew words translated ‘poor’ in these contexts often emphasize not material destitution but vulnerability to oppression.” The Bible often mentions the poor particularly as being in need of justice not because their relative lack of wealth is itself an injustice but because they are more often recipients of injustice. The poor are not victims of injustice by virtue of being poor, but in being poor they are more often passed over in societies which fail to employ justice without partiality.
In his Christian Worldview series, R.C. Sproul says
[O]ften the way in which this message [in Amos 5] is described is as a call to social justice… I can’t think of too many concepts that are more misleading in our contemporary culture than this idea of social justice. Social justice in the prophets, social justice in Israel had to do with the rule of law and of righteousness in the culture. It had nothing to do with socialism and since Marx’s understanding of law there’s been a tremendous influence in our culture today that equates social justice with social equality or economic equality – the idea being that you don’t have social justice unless everybody in the society has equal possessions and equal finances and so on. An equal distribution of wealth is considered in socialistic countries as the supreme manifestation of social justice and the complaint is if there are inequalities in a culture where there can be a division between the wealthy and the poor that that would necessarily reveal a structure of social injustice that needs to be rectified. Now again that’s the common way in which you’ll read the concept in the newspaper and in the media today. That’s not the classic understanding of social justice because classically both philosophers and theologians distinguished between equality and equity. Equity meant that everybody received what was their due not that everybody received things in terms of material possessions equally… Everybody was to be treated equally under the law so that the poor man should not have the law tilted against him or the rich man having the law tilted for him so social injustice takes place in the first instance when the rule of the land is not just because it shows favoritism to people not on the basis of righteousness but on the basis of political power.
Keller acknowledges “The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.” (1). Note that, Biblically speaking, equity does not simply mean that once an issue reaches the courtroom, the verdict must be rendered impartially. Equity means equal standing under the law and – very importantly – “the law” here does not just mean “the law of the land.” “The law” means “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal.” No one, no matter how powerful, may murder or steal – even if they manage to pass a law that says they can. Laws themselves can be unjust violations of negative rights (Is. 10:1). Sometimes a powerful individual can keep their crimes out of the courtroom through suppression of the matter. Other times individuals can keep their crimes out of the courtroom by passing laws that legalize their violation of the 6th and 8th commandments (i.e. the legal protection of man-stealing in the slave trade or the Monsanto Protection Act), preventing them from ever having to face a trial in the first place.
Equity is no minor matter. Neither is it just an ancient problem. America has massive equity problems. The entire economy is corrupted by very powerful people using the state to commit acts of injustice. It’s a “pay to play racket” where corporate interests not only understand they have to bribe to survive, but they lie awake at night plotting how to create new regulations to crush competition, how to use eminent domain to steal from the poor, how to use the military might of the American Empire for their own profit, and a long, long list of corporate thuggery. We have no doubt some of these powerful individuals have despised other ethnicities and that a history of abuse of legal authority has had long lasting implications. But we also have no doubt many of these individuals are themselves ethnic minorities who wield their power to crush others. Holding the state and its “private” extensions accountable for violating the negative rights of others, especially the poor under the boot of the American Empire, is a matter of justice. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with others willing to denounce this sin as injustice.
We will not, however, be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who believe justice entails not only the protection of life and property, but also the provision of daily bread, housing, education, a living wage, equal starting points in life, and more.
All of this leads to the understanding of our rights as “negative.” Beisner notes “Properly understood, rights are not guarantees that something will be provided for us but guarantees that what is ours will not be unjustly taken from us. That is, properly speaking, rights are not positive but negative.”
We have a right to not have things taken away from us: our life and our property. If we are left alone then our rights have not been violated. If someone commits violence against us or steals our property, our rights have been violated.
Compare this “negative” formulation to the “positive” one used by proponents of social justice
In a post at TGC, Jonathan Leeman calls Sproul’s understanding of Scripture “autistic.”
Some contemporary political ideologies claim justice requires an equality of fair process, so that the same rules apply to everyone. Others say it requires an equality of outcome or at least opportunity, such that no one’s too poor and no one’s too rich. What does the Bible say?
Certainly Scripture calls for fair processes (Exod. 23:2, 6; Deut. 16:19–20). But justice in Scripture isn’t only concerned with fair process. According to passages like Psalm 140, it’s concerned with “the cause” of the weak and disadvantaged (Ps. 140:12; cf. Deut. 24:17–18; Pss. 10:18; 82:3; Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:1–2; Jer. 5:28; 22:13–16). Psalm 72’s perfect king, for instance, possesses this concern:
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (v. 2)
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! (v. 4)
For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (vv. 12–14)…
The problem with affirming justice merely as fair process is that it views people as isolated units. It depends on a shallow and almost autistic anthropology that’s low on empathy and fails to conceive of humans as relational beings with structurally-formed identities.
By “the cause [misphat],” Leeman means eliminating life disparities between the poor and the rest of society: giving them their daily bread, providing them with a better education, etc. These are known as “positive rights” because if someone leaves you alone they have violated your rights. If you do not have food or shelter and an individual who does have food and shelter does not step in to provide for you, they have violated your rights. In this particular article he specifically has in mind equal starting points in life. There is much wisdom in Leeman’s careful essay, but on this specific point regarding the nature of justice, we believe he errs. If he had left the issue as a matter of love and mercy towards the poor and needy, we would find little to disagree with and a great deal to affirm. As Beisner notes “My right to life means I have a right not to be murdered or assaulted, but it doesn’t mean I have a right to have someone else ensure that all the conditions of my survival are met.”
Note the texts Leeman appeals to are the same ones we discussed above. The difference is he assumes “the cause” (“the rights”) of the poor refers to everything they may want or need in life that those better off than them have. But there is no reason to understand these texts as anything other than insuring that the poor get their day in court and the matter is judged impartially (see Luke 18:3). Leeman largely tracks with Keller on this point and also appeals to Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice.”
In Generous Justice, Keller seeks to defend the concept of positive rights (our term, not his) first of all by appeal to God’s command to care for the poor. However, as we saw in the previous post, the fact that God commands us to love our neighbor does not entail that every act of love towards our neighbor is a matter of justice. Oftentimes it is a matter of mercy (as Jesus says the Good Samaritan’s actions were), which R.C. Sproul explains is a matter of “non-justice.” Again, as we discussed in the previous post, God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the unjust (those who do not deserve God’s rain or sun) as a matter of grace. As we imitate God, we are to graciously give to others who do not earn our gift, especially to those who need it.
Keller appeals to several Mosaic laws to argue that the poor have a right to the property of others.
But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. (1)
Deuteronomy 18 gives two reasons why these provisions are due to the Levites. First, because they did not receive any portion of the promised land that was divided between the other tribes (from which they derived their livelihood). Their legal inheritance was not the land, rather, their legal inheritance was to receive their livelihood from the other tribes for their work as priests. That was entirely unique to Israel’s special relationship to the holy land. Note well this second point: They were being paid for their labor. God said it was due to them because God commanded that they must do this work on behalf of the people. As Jesus said, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7). So it was the priests’ right – what they were due.
Is there any basis to then interpret Proverbs 31:9 as teaching that the poor have a right to the property of others simply because they are poor? No, not at all. Proverbs 31:9 simply refers to the administration of justice to the poor and needy for violations of their negative right to life and property, as we saw above. Keller simply builds upon this foundational misinterpretation throughout the rest of his book.
[I]f you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”… Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. (1-2)
That’s not what the texts say. They say that neglect of fair trial for the poor and needy is a violation of justice. They do not say that failure to provide them with others’ property in order to make their prosperity equal to others is a violation of justice.
Keller appeals to the numerous laws in Deuteronomy 15 to argue the poor and needy had a right to their brothers’ property. Verses 7-11 command that if an Israelite falls in to poverty then his fellow Israelite should lend him what he needs to get out of poverty. Note that this was a loan (8-9). It was not like payment to the Levites. The poor man did not have a legal right, a legal claim to his brothers’ property. Yes, he could cry out to God for his brothers’ disobedience to God if he refused to loan the money (9), but he cannot take him to court. The loan also had to be paid back (until the year of release).
Every 7 years was a year of release wherein Israelites were commanded not to exact a debt from their brother. They were allowed to continue extracting it from any foreigners they had loaned to. Furthermore, they were commanded not to charge interest on loans made to poor Israelites (Ex. 22:25). Likewise, if a fellow Hebrew became their slave, they were to release them after 6 years. These were not matters of justice for the poor of the world, they were commands from a gracious God that had redeemed a people from slavery and established a unique covenant arrangement with them, calling them to imitate his character and care for one another as a family. Keller admits
It is true that the social legislation of the Old Testament is largely about caring for the needy inside the believing [or rather just “covenant”] community. Also most examples of generosity in the New Testament are of care for the poor within the church, such as the support for widows (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Even Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats uses the test of caring for those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers,” probably referring to poor believers. (57-58)
Surveying the texts he calls upon, we see that Keller’s opinion that mishpat means the poor have a right to the property of others, because they are poor, is not derived from Scripture. He strings various texts together to try to weave a quilt of social justice at the cost of properly understanding each passage. He has imported an unbiblical understanding of “justice” into the text. As we have seen in the last 2 posts, Keller is quite open about the fact that he first held to a Neo-Marxist understanding of justice and only later found the same “justice” in Scripture. We believe his prior sympathies have led him to misread Scripture.
The 6th and 8th commandments govern our use of force and our treatment of others’ property. We have a right to the value that accrues from our work in subduing the earth. However, the fall has cursed all of creation (Gen. 3:17-19). There is no guarantee that our sweat will be productive. If we fall into poverty, we do not therefore have the right to the property of others. We must cast ourselves upon the love and mercy of God and the love and mercy of others. If, however, in that vulnerable state someone commits violence against us, defrauds us of our wages, steals our property, or in other creative ways oppresses us by violating our negative rights, we have a just complaint before the judges and the judges have an obligation to hear our case (our cause) and administer justice according to lex talionis. That is justice for the poor and needy and it is needed today just as much as it was in the days of apostate Judah – and at every point in history since the fall.
- Reformed Libertarian Podcast Ep 7. Why Social Justice is Not to be Praised: A Conversation with Dr. Calvin Beisner
- Kevin DeYoung’s series at TGC
- Social Justice and the Poor (1)
- Social Justice and the Poor (2)
- Social Justice and the Poor (3)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (1)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (2)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (3)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (4)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (5)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (6)
- Seven Passages on Social Justice (7)
- A Brief Wrap Up on The Poor and Social Justice
- Kavanaugh, the presumption of innocence, and the danger of selective “Theonomy” (set aside comments about White as they may be distracting and instead focus on the main point about equity)