This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.
I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.
To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.
The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.
Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.
The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)
In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.
This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.
This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic