The Warm Embrace of the Department of Motor Vehicles
Friday, October 5, 2012 at 12:46PM
Eric Teetsel in Role of Government

Well, this is getting interesting!

My fellow contributor Paul Brink offered a fascinating response to my most recent piece on the role of government. While we agree on the idea of differentiated responsibilities for social institutions (church, family, government) Brink argues it's a mistake to claim, as I do, that "bureaucracies can't love."  He writes, "Charity is not the only way we demonstrate love for our neighbors. We also owe our neighbors justice. To love our neighbor is not only to extend him or her charity; it is also to see that justice is done for our neighbor."

To this I say, "amen!" The biblical charges regarding justice are clear. We are to both be just and seek justice for others. There is an individual, relational aspect and a broader, social component. Few verses better articulate the call to justice than the oft-tatted Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

What does it mean to "do justice" on both a personal and social level? To answer this question, we must first understand that ultimately justice is about the application of power. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul reminds us that governing authority "does not bear the sword in vain" (v4). In an act of justice, God allowed His son to be put to death at the hands of the state as a once and for all penance for human sin. Then, in an even bigger act, He demonstrated his power over death.

As individuals, we do justice when we apply our own power for good. We also do justice by striving to influence others to use their power for good. All of this can be done as an act of love, as Brink says, but not necessarily. The lawyer who prosecuted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, the judge who sentenced him to death, and the official who injected the lethal medication in his arm acted justly. Would we call their actions love? 

Brink writes, “Bureaucracies do love those they serve – but they demonstrate that love in ways that are appropriate to state bureaucracies: that is, in the administration of public justice.” This simply doesn't square with reality. Let's take a few steps down from the death penalty. What about parking tickets? It's clear that by distributing tickets to illegal parkers the state is administering justice. Anyone ever mistake the ticket on their windshield for a love letter?

How about poverty? Brink contends that the state has a responsibility to the poor by way of its task to administer justice, and in fulfilling this task the state loves the poor. What this construct assumes is that poverty is either a) the result of injustice, or b) is itself unjust. Let's consider both.

First, poverty is the result of injustice. If true, then yes, the state has a responsibilty to use its' coercive power to make right.  Victims of Bernie Maddoff's finance scheme became poor because of his illegal action. The state prosecuted Mr. Madoff, took control of his assets, and distributed what was available back to the victims. Justice was done.

Sometimes the victims of injustice have a more difficult case to make. American history is marred by the stains of the slave trade and treatment of native people. Today, poverty rates in the African American and Native American communities tend to be higher than the national average. Public policies that aim to bring justice to these groups are well-intended, but have achieved mixed results. Here, justice is complicated, but well worth continuing to strive toward.

Second, poverty itself is unjust. This is a very popular misconception. I've encountered many Christians who believe their duty is to alleviate poverty everywhere they see it. This is a heartfelt impulse, one born of a desire to see each person live as God intends. Unfortunately, it's naive, for poverty is often the result of sin. And, where sin is present, the negative ramifications are just.

Dr. Marvin Olasky found that 60 of 145 verses in the Old Testament that refer to "justice" also include the word "righteous." Psalm 89 says, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne" (v14). The two go hand-in-hand. The righteous will benefit from the administration of justice and the unrighteous can expect to be punished by it.

God is the source of justice and of love. In that sense, the two can be connected. Often, individuals are compelled to seek justice out of love for others. But that is not the motive of the state. The state seeks justice for justice sake, and no more. We may construe poverty programs like SNAP or scholarship opportunities for Native American students as the administration of public justice, as the death penalty and parking tickets are, but none of this is love. 

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