Hand, Meet Glove: Why We Need Both Justice and Morality

May 4, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


JusticeIt was George Washington who, in his farewell address, explained, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[1] It was John Adams who, in a letter to Zabdiel Adams, said, “It is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”[2] It was Benjamin Franklin who, in a letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud, wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”[3] The founding fathers of this country saw a rich and deep connection between morality and freedom. And rightly so. As Os Guinness points out:

Sustainable freedom depends on the character of the rulers and the ruled alike, and on the vital trust between them – both of which are far more than a matter of law. The Constitution, which is the foundational law of the land, should be supported and sustained by the faith, character and virtue of the entire citizenry, which comprises its moral constitution, or habits of the heart.[4]

A freedom that lacks morality is not a freedom that will last long. It will hemorrhage to death by the hand of its own hedonism. The founding fathers knew this.

Sadly, for all the concern that many of our founding fathers devoted to morality, ethics, and virtue, their concern did not always translate into active efforts toward justice. The failure to fight the institution of slavery and the racism behind it is just one of the many blights on this country’s history. In such instances, morality needed a push from democracy to blossom into justice, which is a sad twist of irony, considering this nation’s very charter has in its preamble its intention to “establish justice.”

The tragic reality is that our treatment of morality and justice has been and continues to be deeply schizophrenic. We persistently seek to separate one from the other. The philosophical and, for that matter, theological reality, however, is that morality and justice are inextricable concomitants of each other. This is why, in Scripture, we are treated both to warnings against those who “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4) and to warnings against those who “devise injustice, and … mete out violence on the earth” (Psalm 58:2). Morality and justice go together.

Currently, I am concerned that, just as in the earlier days of our nation many preached a morality without justice, we have now moved into a time where many are preach justice while eschewing any steadying moral tiller. For instance, the sexual revolution, culminating in the legalization of abortion in 1973, was hailed by proponents as part of an inexorable march of justice toward freedom. No longer could people be told what to do in their bedrooms or with their bodies! The dragon of old-fashioned, constrictive sexual morality and its connection to marriage had finally been slain and severed. What happened? Those in economically depressed areas of this country found themselves economically oppressed by a new set of sexual freedoms as they had lots of children born outside of old-fashioned, constrictive marriages and, it turns out, born outside of the economic stability these old-fashioned, constrictive marriages afforded. Not even legalized abortion could stem the tide of out-of-wedlock births. It seems as though sexual justice, when ripped from its moorings of sexual morality, only boomeranged back to further perpetuate another kind of injustice – that of economic injustice.

Before we clamor for justice, we should always ask, “Is this justice moral?” And before we pontificate on morality, we should always ask, “Am I willing to turn my moral words into just actions?” Both are needed. Both are Scriptural. But neither are easy. And in a socio-political system where we all too often look for easy, or at least broadly palatable, answers to our society’s most difficult challenges, I’m afraid the hard hurdle of both justice and morality is one few are willing to try to jump.

___________________________________

[1] George Washington, Farewell Address (1796).

[2] John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams (6.21.1776).

[3] Benjamin Franklin, Letter to the Abbés Chalut and Arnaud (4.17.1787).

[4] Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 99.

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