Government: Mandate of Justice, Not Religion

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The signatories to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 affixed their signatures under this solemn oath:

And for the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Penned by Thomas Jefferson, and assisted by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, they produced one of the most important documents that established a philosophy of government. Unlike European nations which founded their states upon state religions, here is a nation that is not built on religion, without being irreligious. As Carolyn Kennedy puts it:

Building upon the ideas of the enlightenment philosopher John Locke, and English and colonial declarations of rights, Jefferson wrote for the world and for the ages. For the first time in history, principles of freedom and equality became the political foundations for a nation.[1]

The supreme mandate of the state government is justice. This must be stated with conviction in the light of the megashift that has happened in political philosophy where the state has been turned primarily into a welfare state from what it is supposed to be – a law state. In a welfare state, the major task of government is seen as provision for the deprived and poor. And there is nothing wrong with this as a noble goal. Individual morality and philanthropy, together with charitable institutions, do good works pertaining to this goal. But the government’s role to secure such provision for the poor is to carry out the mandate of enforcing the law. In brief, the task of the government is to make sure that justice is done for every man. One of the great modern theoreticians of justice, John Rawls, said, “Justice is the first virtue of of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”[2]


That it is clear in the Old Testament may be expected as the covenant community happened to be the nation of Israel. Their covenant laws and rules strictly safeguards the application of justice to all. But there is a special warning against actuations of magistrates who simply follow the popular sentiment that militate against justice.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.

Exodus 23:2

Interestingly, even the easy sentiment of favoring the poor just because they are poor is also cautioned against magistrates.

Nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.

Exodus 23:3

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.

Exodus 23:6

By the same interest of justice, there is also a strong concern that justice be rendered to the poor. In this regard, the prohibition against taking bribe, since it is presumably the rich who is able to give such a bribe, is deemed as prejudicial against the poor.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:17-18

That much of detailed instructions were integrated in the laws of Israel as a nation which is coevally the kingdom of Yahweh. Much more relevant to our situation are New Testament references that pertain to the divinely appointed functions of the government, pagan or secular. And two passages in the New Testament are pertinent to this.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.

– Romans 13:1-6

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

– 1 Peter 2:13, 14

Both passages teach that the institution of government is a divine appointment: “instituted by God,” says Paul; and “sent by him,” says Peter. And this is so even if most of these governments may not acknowledge it to be so. But the Christian believes this divine mandate. And both passages also teach that the purpose of God in appointing government is for justice to be done. For this assertion to be underscored, it is necessary to negate alternatives.

The mandate of government is not religion.

This was the defect of the philosophy of government since the Edict of Milan in 313 when Constantine the Great elevated the Christian church into a recognized religion in the Roman Empire. So much persecution was conducted and wars waged in the interest of the Christian religion, let alone Islam and other religions. Countless number of lives were wasted because government pursued the interest of religion only to compromise the mandate of justice.

The mandate of government is not primarily that of charity or welfare.

The change in the concept of government in the direction of providing welfare shifted after the Second World War. Bob Goudzwaard notes this when he said,

Until the Second World War politicians viewed the state as a law state. The state was seen as the institution necessary for protecting the rights of its citizens… Around World War 2, however, that view enlarged. Material welfare in society as a whole had increased. This gave government the possibility of expanding its legal concern for society toward the financially weak. Government created a system of social guarantees…

Economic growth kept rising, and as it rose so rose the persuasiveness of arguments by people who thought they deserved a bigger piece of the pie. It is important to see that they formulated their demands as rights… Economic rights are naturally different from the rights guaranteed by the law state. Rights of acquisition were added to the earlier rights of protection, and soon they demanded most of the government’s attention.[3]

This is certainly not saying that the government may not intervene where the interest of justice has an economic and material component. This certainly falls within the ambit of justice which government is mandated to watch. But this must not be deemed as the government’s primary vocation. Charity is a matter within the responsibility of individuals, of families, and of communities.

When a matter of charity is elevated to a government obligation, it transforms a voluntary act (charity) to an issue of legal right which government is required to provide. When this happens, it proves disruptive. It distorts the distinction between social privileges and human rights. It distorts the primary responsibility of the family and transfers the same to the government. A case in point for this is the care of the widows which was clearly put as a matter of family responsibility, and not of the church (1 Timothy 5:3ff). The same may be said of the aged and the widows in society. They are not primarily the government’s responsibility, but the family’s.

This distinction is not merely of theoretical interest. It affects the moral mood of society. Acts of charity are received with gratitude for the kindness of the benefactors. But when such acts are seen as a legal right to be provided by the government, gratitude becomes demands, and demands easily erode into complaints against and denunciation of government. And this is exactly what is happening in the moral fiber of the social order.

The government is in place to safeguard justice in society. Justice in society can be understood as two kinds:

Justice of Law

This includes what is called rectoral justice, which pertains to rules and laws for the interest of public order; and penal justice, which pertains to the system of just penalty against offenders of the law. The basic principle upheld to maintain the justice of law is stated in Deuteronomy 16:19,

You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.

– Deuteronomy 16:19

Not to show partiality is lo’ takiyr phâniym which literally means, “do not look on the face of men.” This is consistent with our concept of “blind justice.” The image of Lady Justice who is blindfolded holding forth a balance scale is meant to depict the application of justice equally to everyone without fear or favor with only the evidences to guide decisions.

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.

Deuteronomy 16:20

In criminal justice, the central issue is the infliction of punishment on criminal offenders. It is in this regard that the State is told to not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4). Those who have oversight of this are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. But the purpose of this punishment is stated positively in 1 Timothy 2:2, that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

One can appreciate the essential place of justice of law in society. Where the institutions of justice are deemed defective, victims of crime and wrongdoing lose hope of being vindicated. Such victims may turn to criminal elements to seek such vindication, which is vigilantism, a perversion of justice. The biblical doctrine of human depravity supplies the christian a solid underpinning for his high view of the justice system in society. It is God’s common grace for the restraint of sin, for the punishment of the offender, and the vindication of the victim. John Calvin puts it in the simplest way possible, “Without the sword, laws are dead.”[4]

Justice of Sharing

Also called social justice, this rests on the premise that there are certain commodities that are meant to be shared, and would be injustice if monopolized privately. As the OT Wisdom of Qoheleth puts it, “The profit of the land is for all” (Ecclesiastes 5:9, NKJ). Perhaps, the New Jerusalem Bible captures the sense well, “But what the land yields is for the benefit of all.”

This is certainly not to say that government may forcibly take away private property in the name of common use ~ the flaw of communism. But precisely because, in a sinful community, there will be anomalies in the system, that government intervention is warranted to maintain fairness for honest traders and workers. Wayne Grudem explains this very well:

There is some need for government-supported welfare programs to help cases of urgent need (for example, to provide a ‘safety net’ to keep people from going hungry or without clothing or shelter).

I also think it appropriate for government to provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living. So with regard to some basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, and some education) I think it is right for government to ‘take from everybody else and give to the poor,’ Such assistance can be provided from the general tax revenues.

Those convictions are based on the purpose of government to promote the general well-being of society… That includes enabling every citizen to live adequately in the society. It is not based on any vague instinct that it would be ‘more just’ to reduce the differences between rich and poor.

But apart from those basic requirements for government, I cannot find any justification in Scripture for thinking that government, as a matter of policy, should attempt to take from the rich and give to the poor. I do not think that government has the responsibility or the right to attempt to equalize the differences between rich and poor in society. When it attempts to do so, significant harm is done to the economy and to the society.[5]

What government must do is to perform its main mandate of enforcing the laws so that those who have more wealth will not use the same to oppress those who have less. God has expressed Himself strongly against this form of injustice.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?

Isa 10:1-3

They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.

Amos 5:10-15

It has been asserted by some that God is biased for the poor, and society should follow that model. But I have a different take on this. What is wrong is that human society is so biased against the poor that the very impartiality of God appears to it as a bias for the poor. God is so impartial that He takes into account those who, by virtue of their weakness, are most prone to injustice. What appears as God’s bias is simply justice!

Conclusion

It is good to remember one of the woe’s of Jesus directed at the religious leaders of His day.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Matthew 23:23

This should ring loud to those in our churches who have become complacent in the comfort zone of their worship liturgy, but are callous on issues of justice in society. Certainly, being salt and light of the world must include showing forth justice in our treatment of our fellowmen, and being an influence to let justice roll down like waters (Amos 5:24). The truly righteous man listens to God’s requirement:

What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6:8

An ancient saying in the justice system of the Roman Empire goes, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall! The Christian can put it quite differently, “Heaven has come down upon earth in our Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, let us seek justice for all!


[1] Caroline Kennedy, A Patriot’s Handbook (Hyperion, New York 2003): 192

[2] Quoted from A.C. Grayling, Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century (Phoenix, 2009): 283

[3] Bob Goudzwaard, Idols of our Time: 52f

[4] Calvin’s Commentaries: Synoptic Gospels, Vol. I: 195

[5] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan; 2010): 281-82

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