Is Justice an authentic element of the Gospel?

We all know the dangers of a “gospel” that is reduced to Social Justice, but is there a danger that conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, might react too much in the opposite direction, by an eschatologising rejection of the vocation to act for justice in our present world? What is the authentic relationship between the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Love which he embodied and which is proclaimed and enacted in his name, and the goal of justice for all human beings?

I ask these questions in relation to my comments on Pope Benedict’s Lenten Message for 2010, and in light of Past Elder’s attacks on the place of justice in the Christian mission that followed it.

The beginning of Lent follows, in the Roman Lectionary for Year C, two significant passages in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus announces his Messianic ministry:

1) the sermon in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:14-21):

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.

2) and the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26)

“Blessed are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now: you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven. This was the way their ancestors treated the prophets.

‘But alas for you who are rich: you are having your consolation now. Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry. Alas for you who laugh now: you shall mourn and weep. Alas for you when the world speaks well of you! This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets.’

These texts are not simply about charity toward neighbours. They are explicitly about the action of divine justice in the world. They are eschatological promises attached to the coming Kingdom of God, but the fact of Jesus’ incarntion and ministry in the world of historical time make them also present realities.
Pope Benedict repeated his message at the Angelus on Sunday. Pope Benedict said:

The beatitudes are based on the existence of a divine justice which raises up those who have been wrongly humiliated and casts down those who have been exalted…

This justice and this beatitude are realized in the “Kingdom of Heaven,” or the “Kingdom of God,” which will be fulfilled at the end of time but is already present in history. Where the poor are consoled and admitted to the banquet of life, there God’s justice is manifested. This is the task that the Lord’s disciples are called to undertake even now in the present society…

The Gospel of Christ responds positively to the thirst for justice in man, but in an unexpected and surprising way. Jesus does not propose a revolution of a social or political type, but one of love, which he has already realized with his cross and his resurrection. On these are founded the beatitudes, which propose a new horizon of justice, initiated by Easter, by which we can become just and build a better world.

I guess the contentious proposition (at least in Past Elder’s eyes and in the eyes of a number of Lutherans I know who emphasise the division between “the kingdom on the left” and “the kingdom on the right”) is whether divine justice is simply something we have to wait for from God, or whether indeed it is “the task that the Lord’s disciples are called to undertake even now in the present society.” Note too that the Holy Father is not proposing “a revolution of a social or political type, but one of love”.

Anyway. For your comment.

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23 Responses to Is Justice an authentic element of the Gospel?

  1. Son of Trypho says:

    I was thinking about something like this earlier this morning – excuse the confused thoughts!

    I think we need to look to the early Church for an example – the justice, charity, love etc was within the Christian communities themselves – not by agitating for political/social etc changes across the entire community. In that regard they were relatively quietist for a long time. Today, naturally Catholics have an interest in their broader communities and some (misguidedly I believe) think that they can improve the lives of other non-Christians without Christ.

    There is certainly an obligation to reach out and spread the Gospel to non-Christians (in my understanding everyone outside of the Church) but this must be done in a missionizing way, not just non-binding acts of charity.

    The community of the faithful itself was and should be strictly regulated in its activity and love for each other and its interaction with others outside of it – it should also be a genuine community which helps each other and works internally towards improving the lives of its members.

    Sorry for the ramblings!

    • Schütz says:

      Filius, I think that you are on to something here. There is the interesting passage at the end of Galatians – that great testament to faith over works of the law (nb. PE) – in which Paul writes:

      “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

      There is a clear idea here that “doing good” begins with the household of faith, but, like the faith of the priestl nation of Israel, was intended to spread “to all men”. There is a “harvest” in view too.

      • Son of Trypho says:


        The “doing good” part is interesting – I understand that as a call to proselytisation by example and deed and I think that is what St Paul meant here.

        The tiny community he is addressing can only realistically grow through interaction with non-Catholics but that interaction is mandated upon the requirement to spread the Gospel and faith in Jesus and the Divinity.

        It was the communal charity and support provided by Catholics to each other, and their moral and personal conduct which attracted non-Catholics in the primitive/early Church esp. the poor and women – however, these people were gradually incorporated into the community and were themselves required to abide by its communal decisions and code of conduct eventually leading to participation in the sacred mysteries.

        This is why I am concerned about Catholic charities today – they are non-selective and do not require any adherence of members or participants. I’m inclined to thinking that the early Church had it more correct with the charity coming with conditions- to be part of the community and abide by its decisions. I am reluctant to give corporal charity to those outside of the Church because I think it is misguided if it is apart from that intention of the Gospel i.e. conversion.

        I am also concerned about Catholic political positions and speaking out against legislation because those who are using things like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage etc are not of the Church anyway – they are of the world.

        If anything, the Church should present its stance and formally exclude anyone who is in the Church who acts against its instructions on these matters. Those who are outside have to answer for their own actions later – we can merely pray for them and provide an upright stance and example even unto persecution and death if need be.

        Let the social justice activists leave the Church and join HRW and Amnesty if they feel the need to help others without faith.

        • Schütz says:

          I think you construe Paul too narrowly.

          He says that we should use every opportunity to “do good” to “ALL men”. While there is certainly an intention that this “doing good” would be a witness, it is witness and not proselytisation that he has in mind. We must be very careful not to reduce charity to a “carrot” to get people into the Church. Our acts of charity are acts of love witnessesing to the love with which God first loved us. Paul often says that God loves us, and often tells us to love oneanother, but does not tell us to love God. It is as if love is a stream from God through us to the world.

          That charity is not simply about proselytising is clear from his command that we should “especially” love those who are of “the household of faith”. This is because the communion we have with one another in the Church is also a mirror of God’s love.

          In sum, we do good to others and we love others because God is good and God is love. There is no other motive.

          • Son of Trypho says:

            I’m really not sure – I could well be too narrow on my understanding. However, I would ask you, if you could, to give some examples from the early Church where corporal charity was given to non-members. I can’t actually think of any examples to be honest.

            Perhaps my background affects my understanding? I have seen the Divinity as a being which punishes for sin yet has the capacity to forgive all the time with love if people kept faithful to Him.

            I also should clarify – I don’t think that charity should be motivated by the desire to proselytise – but the proselytisation will occur by witness and the charity should be directed to our own Church firstly. Based on the fact that members of our own Church need assistance, there can be little justification to provide to those outside of it at the moment.

            • Schütz says:

              Filius, you are much too narrow in your thinking. If God’s love extends to all his creation, then so much the love of Christians. I really suggest you have a good read of the Pope’s first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

              In paragaph 22, he states:

              “As the years went by and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word. A few references will suffice to demonstrate this. Justin Martyr († c. 155) in speaking of the Christians’ celebration of Sunday, also mentions their charitable activity, linked with the Eucharist as such. Those who are able make offerings in accordance with their means, each as he or she wishes; the Bishop in turn makes use of these to support orphans, widows, the sick and those who for other reasons find themselves in need, such as prisoners and foreigners.[12] The great Christian writer Tertullian († after 220) relates how the pagans were struck by the Christians’ concern for the needy of every sort.[13] And when Ignatius of Antioch († c. 117) described the Church of Rome as “presiding in charity (agape)”,[14] we may assume that with this definition he also intended in some sense to express her concrete charitable activity.”

            • Son of Trypho says:

              I’ll have to read that work that you recommend – I would suggest though that the examples listed all conform to the idea I have in mind – they were examples of corporal charity done within the Church (which is why the pagans were struck by this as similar activity didn’t occur outside of patron-client relationships or associations/clubs in Roman society).

              Those who were provided charity outside of the Church quickly joined the Church because these types of networks and acts didn’t exist ordinarily.

              This might have been one of the motivations of the Emperor Julian in his reorganisation of pagan religions in the 4th C – one of the aims was the deliberate distribution of corporal charity by the pagan religious groups in order to draw converts from Christianity.

              Perhaps my thinking is too narrow on this but I am concerned that perhaps you overemphasise your understanding of the Divinity’s love for creation without considering His anger at sin and His desire that we live according to His faith?

            • Schütz says:

              all conform to the idea I have in mind – they were examples of corporal charity done within the Church

              I don’t know how you construe that, Filius.

              The text speaks of “orphans, widows, the sick and those who for other reasons find themselves in need, such as prisoners and foreigners.” Is there anything here to suggest that these were only those who were already Christian?

              Or this: “the needy of every sort” – ie. not only Christian.

              Julian’s “mimickery” supports this. There was no indication that there was a religious test on the recipients of Julian’s charity.

              you overemphasise your understanding of the Divinity’s love for creation without considering His anger at sin and His desire that we live according to His faith?

              God’s anger at sin is a part of his great love for his creation. He judges it and condemns it and punishes it BECAUSE it offends his love for his creatures.

              And anyway, it is a rule of Christian theology that God’s mercy always trumps his wrath.

            • Son of Trypho says:


              I worry that perhaps you are taking the words of the accounts literally and not placing them within their proper historical context?

              Christians wouldn’t receive charity and/or anything from a pagan temple – hence we have pagan laments about sacrificial meat not being eaten because of Christians or criticisms of them not having anything to do with the temples/traditional religion.

              There was no need to explicitly outline recipients because Julian (a former Christian) knew they wouldn’t use pagan charity.

              Christian concerns about paganism/religion extended historically well beyond the temples – Tertullian criticising Christian participation even in public events at the arena/theatre because of its involvement with pagan religion, Christians were conflicted about military service because of its religious connatations (eg. Synod of Arles requires excommunication of military refusers).

              Christians sought their charity from their own community – that is why Julian mimicked their system and ordered the pagan temples to distribute charity – to pagans – and if possible hoped that the flow on effect would be that it would draw off Christians back into a revived paganism.

              These people in the first part would have almost all have been Christians rather than pagans.

              I’ll give you some historical examples for prisoners off the top of my head:
              (St Perpetua was visited by Christian deacons in prison, Caecilianus was criticised by his opponents for preventing his faithful making visits to prisons – I cannot actually recall any examples of Christians visiting non-Christians in prisons – and besides why would they?)

              The charity was given to people that the Church knew – it would make absolutely no sense for them to have engaged foreigners (who were usually travellers from other Christian areas, not complete strangers) nor the sick, widows or orphans if they didn’t know them.

              If these people were pagans they went to them with the view to bringing them into the Church and faith – this is why the majority of the early Church was made up of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds because the social/charitable networks established enabled them to survive.

              As to the last bit – well I’m not a theologian but I have studied some history so I’ll read up some more of it but it sounds right!

  2. I would suggest that Justice is indeed an element of the Gospel understood in “the wider sense”, as a Lutheran would say, meaning the whole revelation of God’s will to us in scripture. I gather that is how Catholics normally use the term “Gospel”, which usage can be perplexing to Lutherans, who usually understand the word in the “narrow sense” of the message of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.
    If one was to bring a requirement for Justice into the proclamation of the Gospel in the narrow sense, that would be legalism in a Lutheran’s eyes. Thus, a Lutheran gets suspicious when Catholics talk about “Gospel values” and link those values to various social justice programs. Aside from the fact that the question of whether such programs actually deliver justice is often a moot point, the Lutheran strongly suspects that a confusion of Law and Gospel is happening here, or at least, would like to see terms as Gospel defined more carefully in such contexts.

    Properly speaking, Justice belongs under the category of Law, either in its civil sphere (a curb on man’s unrightousness), or its theological sphere (our failure to keep it drives us to Christ). The regenerated Christian, in as much as he is in Christ, wants to act justly towards others both because the other is our neighbour and because it pleases God – that attitude flows only from the Gospel, although the Law may serve as a guide as to what is pleasing to God in the area of our relations with other human beings.

    I agree, Justice can be wholly swallowed up by conservatives into an eschatological hope, which seems to me to be a bit of a cop out. But, on the other hand, we do need to realise (pun intended) that human hopes for justice this side of the Last Day will always come up against the hard reality of sin.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, Mark, there is a difference in language here, and we will be talking at cross purposes if we do not recognise it right from the very beginning. Catholics do not use the “Law/Gospel” distinction beloved by Lutherans. (Neither really does anyone else – a clue maybe that Lutherans may need to rethink their language in terms of the wider Christian community so that they are able to communicate exactly what it is that they are talking about).

      Catholics are able to speak of the “Law of Love” as being of the essence of “the Gospel”. “The Gospel” in this case usually is not narrowly (artificially?)confined to “the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake”, but the entire proclamation of Christ (meaning both the subjective and objective genitive – what Christ proclaimed, and the way we proclaim Christ). In this sense, what we proclaim when we proclaim Christ is the advent of the Kingdom of God here and now in time. This is the “Good News”, the “Gospel” – and quite convincingly, NTWright argues that this is what Paul means too every time he uses the word “Gospel”.

      Thus, insofar as divine justice is an essential element of the coming of the Kingdom of God, it must be a part of the proclamation of the Gospel.

      • Ah, David, but the Law/Gospel _is_ used by others, don’t you know? Going back to the Fathers, in fact; you obviously haven’t visited ‘Lutheran Catholicity’ lately?

        Actually, I could supply you with a list of non-Lutheran Law-Gospel quotes from the pre and post-Reformation church if you give me the time to collate them.

        Maybe we could start with Romans?

        • Schütz says:

          Go for it, Mark. I bet I can show you that you are misinterpreting the Fathers in every case. Not to mention Paul. But of course, you don’t accept the New Perspective, do you? Why not? Because it doesn’t fit your Law/Gospel paradigm. No Lutherans accept the Wright/Dunn thesis. Full stop. The “Law/Gospel” dichotomy paradigm was unknown before Luther, in the senses that the Lutherans put upon it, eg. as the Apology to the Augsburg Confession says so succinctly: “All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises.” (Article 4).

          • Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

            Well as they used to say back in the old days of the Revolution, Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but all he got was Christendom.

            I would say it is ironic indeed when an RC says there isn’t such a thing as later doctrinal clarity and we have to follow a Anglican cleric widely read in the Emerging Church back to what “what Paul REALLY said”. Great Judas falling down the abbey stairs.

            If there is a “clue” about the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, it is that the “wider Christian community” needs to rethink its language in terms of that distinction so it is able to understand more exactly what it is it is talking about instead of offering a cornucopia of heterodoxy.

          • OK, David, start with the Law and Gospel category over at Lutheran Catholicity, and I’ll get some more quotes together to show that the “Law-Gospel” paradigm is not confined to Lutherans.

  3. Paul says:

    I’m no theologian (in fact, I’m an engineer), so I tend to reduce debates like this to practical calculations.
    On the one hand, we have an organisation like the St Vincent de Paul, which (despite uninformed criticism to the contrary), is very careful to give material help without ever asking or even suggesting a committment of faith. Very few men in the Matt Talbot hostel ever attend Mass there.

    On the other hand, in Sydney, we have the spires on St Mary’s Cathedral, which were added to the building a few years ago at a cost of millions of dollars. Sydney-siders are now used to the spires and rarely notice them any more. For the cost of the spires, many of the poor could have been helped, or dozens of youth workers could have been employed.

    Personally, I find both of these cases very unsatisfactory. We certainly can’t build a heaven on earth, but as I understand the Gospels and the recent encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, we should try to make earth a vision of heaven, as far as possible.

  4. matthias says:

    I think that when we see injustices,we need to speak out against it. Not political agitation,as such but where that speaking out is rooted and grounded in the Scriptures. as pastor mark has said we come up against sin,but we should still act.

  5. Terry Maher (Past Elder) says:

    Insofar as it becomes endorsement of this or that economic policy or programme, it no longer becomes “love” but precisely social and political.

    And all the more dangerous for the non-rational discourse it encourages in the political and economic realm. Once a particular piece of economic legislation is baptised as “loving”, all conversation is stopped, because any opposition to it or even questioning of it cannot possibly proceed from someone having a better idea, which in fact might help more people, but can only proceed from being “unloving”.

    • Schütz says:

      You are making quite a narrow point here, PE, but one that I agree with. The Church has no place endorsing the policies of governments – well, not holus bolus anyway. Any endorsement should be with the reservation that no legislation is perfect, and almost all legislation, even the best, will not be without its negative agendas and side effects. Contrawise, the Church has every right to criticise aspects of legislation that are against divine justice (as an aside, perhaps “divine justice” would be a better term than “social justice”?), eg. legislation on abortion and euthanasia, but must attempt to do so in a non-partisan way, ie. so as not to suggest that all those who oppose the legislation do so perfectly or with only perfect motives.

      If this is all you meant in your criticism of the Church’s preoccupation with social justice issues, then, sure, I am with you. But the prophetic mission of the Church, in both word and deed, cannot, despite this caveat, be curtailed. Political social revolution is not the mission of the Church (as Pope Benedict points out), love is. Our means for bringing divine justice into the world (= announcing the Gospel) is active charity in word and deed, not political action.

    • Louise says:

      I am delighted to report that I agree with PE here, for sure.

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