It was pitched as a matter of social justice. “Affordable and accessible health care is a right,” was the line. And it worked.
By shoving the partisan healthcare bill through the straw of “social justice,” Obamacare was passed, if barely, adding to the already ponderous government programs for health and welfare. But what was touted as social justice, as so many things are and have been, is not really justice at all.
Turning justice on its head
Justice is about fair play, giving people what is owed them without bias or favoritism. An employee is owed a fair wage by his employer, an accused criminal is owed a fair trial by the court, a child is owed the protection and care of his parents.
In the classical understanding, justice is about what is owed and by whom it is owed. But shaped by the oracles of liberation theology, that understanding has been turned on its head.
According to liberation theology, the story of Exodus reveals the true nature of God; not as Savior of the world, but as the Liberator of the oppressed. He’s the God who takes the side of the poor and calls us to do the same through social action. And that starts by approaching justice as a matter of corporate compassion, rather than one of fairness. Instead of responsible individuals giving people their just due, justice is about the civitas giving people what they need.
To be sure, God has special concern for those on the margins of society. Scripture is full of warnings about injustices to the poor and disenfranchised. But contrary to the Gospel of Liberation, God’s foremost concern is not emancipating us from political and economic oppression; it is redeeming us from sin.
Caring for the least and last
This is not to diminish the importance of giving people what they need. To the contrary, meeting the needs of others is at the heart of Christian teaching.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples to “give to the one who asks.” Later, he frustrated a man of privilege by advising him to give his wealth to the poor. He used the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach a teacher about true neighborliness. Then, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he warned a group of religious experts about their moral glaucoma. But his sternest words came near the end.
In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus warned his disciples about neglecting the needs of the needy. He then made a stunning disclosure: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” His teachings had their effect.
In the first century, Christians took such comprehensive care of their own that St. Luke remarked, “There were no needy persons among them.” During the plagues in the second and third century, Christians attended the needs of the sick and dying who had been abandoned by their pagan physicians and civil leaders. The Christian community went on to establish the first hospitals and orphanages. By the fourth century, the scope of their compassion attracted both the notice and ire of the Caesars.
Frustrated over the social conditions in the Roman Empire, Flavius Julian called it a scandal that Christians “care not only for their poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
The effectiveness of charity among the early Christians is attributed to something ignored in the modern discussion on social justice.
Division of responsibility
When Jesus taught about charity and compassion, he was not speaking to government officials about their civic duties; he was speaking to individuals about their moral duties. That’s because in the biblical division of responsibility, the Church, not the State, is the instrument of compassion.
As divinely ordained, the duties of the State are limited to restraining evil, executing justice, and securing social order. The State fulfills that high calling by protecting the rights of its citizens: first and foremost, their “natural rights,” which include the freedoms of speech, thought, and religion; and secondarily, their legal rights, such as the right to vote and drive a car.
Natural rights are the birthright of all human beings, regardless of race, class, sex, ethnicity, stage of development, or stage of decline. They are conferred transcendentally, making them immutable and non-negotiable. Importantly, they are not entitlements to the services of others, but protections of life and liberty.
Legal rights, on the other hand, are conferred by the State and, as such, are subject to revision, emendation, and revocation. In addition to protections, legal rights include permissions and, in some cases, entitlements, like the right to legal counsel and trial by jury.
But here’s the point: When someone stands up and proclaims that universal health care or same-sex “marriage” is a right, they are trying to elevate their special interest to a status it doesn’t have. Neither is a natural right nor, currently, a legal right. But proclaim it loudly enough and often enough and, before long, the proclamation will shape public opinion.
The aim of social justice, as liberally constructed, is an egalitarian society in which citizens enjoy equal opportunities and equal outcomes, as well. Yet every step toward that goal has led to more, or created a different type of, injustice.
Roe v. Wade, which putatively leveled the playing field for women in sexual freedom, became law by denying the unborn their natural right to life. Progressive taxes and income redistribution that are intended to lift people out of poverty, instead created a subculture of dependence, fatherless homes, and gang-infested neighborhoods.
In the last presidential campaign, then candidate Barack Obama told a concerned citizen that his proposed tax hikes for the “wealthy” were a matter of “neighborliness.” I think “spreading the wealth” is how he put it to another person.
Spreading the wealth is neighborly, if done voluntarily. But when done by coercion, either by Tony Soprano or Congress, it’s robbery.
Achieving social justice
To achieve real social justice, the State must decrease and the Church increase in the area of compassion. Is that a realistic expectation? Many folks would say, no.
But just think: With Christians making up over 80 percent of the tax base, the Church could take over the compassion business, and effectively, with only a fraction of what Christians pay in taxes to support state-run programs, given the bloated bureaucracies and costly inefficiencies of the government welfare system.
I have no misgivings. Such a sea change in culture would be neither easy nor quick. Even with the political will of the electorate and the moral will of the Church, it would take years, if not decades, to de-fund and shrink government and prepare the Church (individual Christians, churches, and faith-based organizations) to become the sole provider of compassion services.
Yet difficulty is never justification for the status quo. No one knew that better than British humanitarian and statesman William Wilberforce.
As a young parliamentarian, Wilberforce became convicted of the evil of slavery. Although Britain was the world leader in the slave trade at the time, Wilberforce made it his “Great Object” to put an end to the brutal and unjust practice.
It was a fool’s cause. Not only was the British conscience unbothered by slavery, but slave trade was considered essential to the economy and national security.
Nevertheless, against a sustained maelstrom of public and political opposition, Wilberforce lobbied year after year for abolition in the halls of Parliament. He also took unpopular and politically ill-advised positions on child labor, prison reforms, factory safety, and humane animal treatment. And, in keeping with the distinct roles of Church and State, he helped start up dozens of faith-based charities aimed at bettering the condition of the poor.
Although it took five long decades, Britain’s dark chapter of slavery ended in 1833. It was an accomplishment that fifty years earlier nobody but William Wilberforce and a small group of like-minded friends thought possible. On a parallel track, Wilberforce’s work outside of Parliament raised the moral vision of British society and helped make compassion fashionable in a culture that had long turned a blind eye to want and need.
William Wilberforce was a champion of real social justice. And if he were alive today, I suspect he would tell those who wonder whether the Church could really meet the compassion needs of the country, "Yes, it could... and with excellence!"
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.