Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 12/12 – (14) The Idea of Justice

This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the fourteenth of twenty-six short reflections.

Professor Michael Sandel inside Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, teaching his course on Justice. (Cambridge, MA – September 15, 2008)

Michael Sandel is a political philosopher at Harvard University, and annually teaches an introductory course on justice. In 2007 over 1000 students enrolled in it. It has been filmed and broadcast on public television, and the book version (which I have read but no longer seem to have) has been translated into at least thirteen languages. In both the course and the book he runs through a variety of approaches which have all had their proponents over the ages:

  • Justice is the greatest happiness for the most people. (Utilitarianism)
  • Justice is achieved by the maximum autonomy for the individual with the greatest freedom from interference from the state or any other external agent. (Libertarianism)
  • Justice is best achieved in the free market of ideas, or, actually, in any kind of market, and governments should refrain from limiting free speech and the regulation of the market place for goods and services. (Free Market Economics)
  • Justice is achieved by following carefully considered rules, such as the categorical imperative. (Kantian deontology)
  • Justice as fairness. (John Rawls)
  • Justice as achieved through the acquisition of virtues. (Aristotle & MacIntyre – Virtue Ethics)
  • Justice as being mainly loyal to ones family, friends, clan, and community. (Communal self-interest against outsiders)
  • Justice as a communal value, achieved through the best of virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology modified by circumstances, and managed markets (Sandel’s own approach)

This is not an exhaustive list of approaches by any means. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his studies on the causes of famines, has developed what is known as the “capability approach” to ethics, essentially arguing that most of the approaches listed by Sandel do not mean much to individuals in extreme poverty, as they do not have the capabilities to develop anything other than survival as an approach to life. Thus, justice is that which first addresses the development of capabilities of human beings. This has since been developed by Martha Nussbaum, and I think it is an important corrective on Western political philosophy.

Another approach might be:

  • Justice is whatever God says it is.

Of course, this begs the question that what God says justice is can actually be determined. For some God’s justice means that access to abortion must be limited or made impossible. In other cases it involves genocide. The Catholic Church says that God’s justice demands that capital punishment be abolished. Others argue that God’s justice is about helping the poor and marginalized. Some see justice as something only derivable from scripture, others have a tradition of natural law that complements and orders scriptural injunctions.

The concept of justice has its limits. Certain legal scholars, for example, (some of them sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States) seem to think that justice in terms of legal practice means that one just has to read the text and interpret it the way the original writers thought about it. But that is a hopeless exercise – as if the original writers had a single idea of what the words meant, or as if the meaning was clear in their own minds. Being politicians, they booted many issues down the decades by being deliberately vague or brief. I suppose I am too much of a deconstructionist to believe that words have single, stable meanings; language really does subvert itself.

As well, the values that seem to be contained in any idea of justice are not themselves necessarily commensurable with each other (as Isaiah Berlin pointed out); when push comes to shove, our deeply held values themselves may be in conflict. What is more important, my religious commitment to pacifism, or the value of patriotism? The idea of justice itself may be inherently unstable, something that changes and is renegotiated in each generation, and never quite reaching the ideal we think it ought to be.

John the Divine had a certain idea of justice. He certainly thought that Rome and the Roman Empire was unjust. He thought that God’s wrath would be poured out on it, and correctly so. In chapter 21.8 he states that

the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death

and, further, in 22.15, that

15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

which is a bit grim. John is certainly into divine punishment.

In chapter 18 he condemns all the merchants and those who trade with Rome. He condemns those who are responsible for the deaths of God’s holy people, the saints and the apostles.

But he also condemns people within the church, as can be seen in chapters 2 and 3: he criticises those “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”, “some . . . who hold to the teaching of Balaam,” “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols,” and those who “say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’” I get the feeling that if you were on the wrong side of John he would he quite scathing.

In this he is simply following in the path of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets who spoke truth to power and condemned those leaders who failed to care for the orphans and widows, who compromised the worship of YHWH with idols and other gods, and who sought to enrich themselves and live in luxury.

So what do we do with the judgementalism of John the Divine, which seems to characterise the whole of the book? Well, again, I do several things.

My own approach is to say that we need to be eclectic. The concept of justice as revealed in scripture needs to be in dialogue with our experience and histories of how different societies have understood justice. The ultimate example of justice is to be found in Jesus Christ.

So, first, I read the book in dialogue with other parts of the New Testament, especially the gospels and the picture of Jesus that is described in it. Second, I consider how this passage has been read over the past 1900 years. And, third, I also see it in dialogue with the present day. John lived in a very different age and circumstances from me. History has unfolded in ways inconceivable to him.

So, taking all that into consideration, what are the insights and values that we find meaningful now? I will continue this tomorrow.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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