Early Christianity and Social Justice

“The Apprehended Thief” by: Benjamin Vautier, 1879

Amartya Sen produced a well-known and interesting parable of the current debate in justice. He explains the argument we face today as the question of how to distribute a single flute between three children. One child claims a right to the flute on the basis of being able to play it. Another child claims the flute since he has no other toys, and the third lays claim based on having created it. Sen sees the utilitarians ‘distributing’ the flute to the first, since by the flute player playing the maximum people can derive pleasure; the egalitarians like Rawls assigning ownership to the second child; and the libertarians, the third child. 

However, Sen’s explanation of the ‘problem’ of justice would have made no sense in the respective ages of Augustine or Aquinas or Luther. Justice is what is owed, and the poor can never claim the rich ‘owe’ them. Take Augustine:

I have admonished the rich; now hear, ye poor. Ye rich, lay out your money; ye poor, refrain from plundering…bridle your desires… Seek only for a sufficiency, seek for what is enough, and do not wish for more.

Augustine held that God can command the rich to give to the poor. The poor can never demand from the rich; generosity is never owed. To withhold money, a rich man commits a theological injustice, but not a political injustice. What is more, Augustine did not see poverty itself as an injustice. No man is morally responsible for the outcome of his actions—such as poverty or economic inequality—so long as he fulfills all his moral responsibilities. Inequality and poverty flow naturally, even when all parties are morally upright. Take another example, John Chrysostom:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

Christianity has always placed a primacy on the heart and mind, not just in matters of theology, but justice as well. Paganism, however, rejects the heart and mind. 

Justice in the Western context has a long history. At its very core, it has held to what scholars call, actus reus and mens rea, or, a guilty action and a guilty mind. The Latin, ‘mens rea’ comes from a sermon by St. Augustine, in fact. The Christian emphasis on guilt and sin led to a change in the way justice was perceived. The Christian influence on the world created a newfound importance on the intention of the heart. If I do not intend to steal, then my taking your book was not theft but an accident. If I did intend to steal, then my action was, in fact, a theft. Our intentions determine our actions.

What some scholars today call “barbaric” and “primitive,” is a theory of justice that does not take the heart and mind into account. Strict liability blames the person regardless of ill will. On this account of justice, there is no difference between manslaughter and murder. Presently, if I kill a man but did not intend to, I am less guilty than if I kill a man but did intend to.

Strict liability says my intent has no bearing on justice. Only the outcomes.

Social justice says that inequality is inherently unjust—even though it has been shown that inequality is the inevitable outcome of freedom; even though it is the inevitable outcome of individual personality; even though it invariably flows forth regardless of whether there is ill intent.

But if material disparity is no fault of any man, how can injustice exist? The concept of social justice is incoherent. It is predicated on the rejection of the idea that justice is always tied to actions, and actions are always determined by intentions.

As Augustine correctly observed, “The act is not guilty if the mind is not guilty,” even if the action leads to inequality.

For Further Discussion:

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