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Justice as a Moral Ethic

By Mark R. Rushdoony
February 01, 2003

The primary func-tion of the state is the ministry, or administration, of justice. Negatively, this involves prosecution and punishment, the police, courts, and military being aspects of what Paul referred to as being a terror to evildoers (Rom. 13:3). A state's administration of justice which gives criminal activity any advantage over the law-abiding citizen is thus clearly failing in its purpose and is, in fact, itself a revolutionary force. The positive aspect of justice is the state's concern for justice in the social order itself, in promoting an atmosphere conducive to the safety of individuals and their commerce.

A Just Social Order
The positive application of justice is most obvious in the legislative function of government, which seeks to create a system of laws that will encourage a just social order. The executive function is most clearly involved in the negative application of justice, apprehending and prosecuting wrong-doers. Though the positive and negative administration of justice are not unique to the legislative and executive functions respectively, they are most clearly combined in the judicial function of government. The judiciary has the responsibility of examining the positive intent of the law to produce a just social order and applying it, if necessary, in a particular case.

We do not have to look far, however, to see injustice done in the name of justice at any level or branch of government. This is because justice has as its foundation a moral ethic, and laws and their enforcement and interpretation represent an enforced morality. The old line that you cannot legislate morality is only a half-truth. We cannot legislate people into being good, but all laws are an enforced moral code. We legislate that all cars stop at a stop sign because it is wrong to endanger others. Traffic laws are thus, in theory, a law-code based on a positive effort towards a just social order, in this case a just order on roadways. I once experienced the lawlessness of road traffic in Calcutta, India; it was enough to make me believe in the positive application of a system of justice in the area of traffic laws.

Judicial Activism
The moral ethic behind a system of laws may be based on any number of religious or philosophical foundations. Frequently, the law may be a mixture of conflicting moral ethics. If we argue against a law or application based on its bad effect, we may be incorrectly assuming this was unintended. A different faith, with a different moral ethic, may have been behind that law or its interpretation. Most judicial activism is not derived from a "loose construction" of the Constitution but rather its reinterpretation based on an intent other than that of the framers and hence another moral ethic. Judicial activism is about redefining what courts must constitute as right and wrong. Not even Christian law can long survive its interpretation by non-Christians who have another concept of morality.

The state in all of its manifestations will be concerned with justice by some definition. A socialistic ethic distinguishes much modern tax legislation and economic policy. An evolutionary faith controls the moral perspective of much environmental legislation. It is important to understand the ethic behind a system of laws we oppose so that we can offer a consistently argued alternative. As vicious false moral ethics control the state's machinery of justice, there will be increased confusion in the law and increased hostility to, and then war with, other sources of moral ethics. This is why we can see a distinct hostility to Christian ethics in the public sphere. This is why Christians are so frequently accused of being unconcerned with social justice or human need. In terms of the humanistic "justice" of many non-Christian ethical codes, we are on the wrong side of many issues and hence "anti-justice."

It is not difficult to see, both in historical examples and in our own times, the tendency of the state to see itself as the center of the social order rather than as an administrator of justice. When this happens, the state sees its purpose as messianic, saving its citizens from some sinister force, manipulating economic forces, and inevitably restricting liberty in the name of safety and the greater good. When the state wants to be man's savior, it first moves to become his lord.

Man's original sin, of course, was desiring Satan's temptation to be as gods (Gen. 3:5) knowing, or determining independently, good and evil. In order to play god, therefore, man must define his own morality. When such men control the state, the result is statism. Playing god is about acquiring power; increasing its wealth by confiscatory taxation is merely a means to power. Great moral injustices occur when this happens, including the loss of liberty, usurpation of the prerogatives of other social institutions, and the perversion of justice in the name of a new moral ethic dictated by the would-be god.

Because the state's legislative concern for justice is necessarily a moral concern, the Christian must self-consciously promote the Christian moral ethic in public life. The modern idea of justice itself is merely a secularized idea of righteousness. Hence our justification by God is our declaration of righteousness by the (really) Supreme Judge. If God does not distinguish righteousness and justice, what right have we? Can we define justice by a higher moral ethic than God's?

Fulfilling the Law
Christ summarized the law of God by calling men, first, to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. The second greatest command was to love our neighbor as ourself (Mk. 12:29-31). Now we tend to read this command to love in subjective emotional and pietistic terms. Christ said, however, "If a man love me, he will keep my words" (Jn. 14:23) and Paul said, "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is fulfilling the law" (Rom. 13:10). Our love neither to God nor to our fellow man may be a lawless relationship. God's demand is that our relationship with Him and our neighbor be based on His law, His moral ethic. God's demand is that our relationships in society flow from our primary relationship with Him. God's demand for social justice is based on recognition that (as stated in our Lord's preface to the summation of the law) "the Lord our God is one Lord" (Mk. 12:29). There is no moral dichotomy between man's moral duty to God and to his neighbor. The basis for social justice, for loving our neighbor, is righteousness.

In a political system to which we have free access and a voice, Christians can choose to accept a false moral ethic (or a multitude of assorted false systems of morality) or they can work for laws and justice based upon a Christian ethic. It is not necessary for non-believers to accept Christian morality to temporally benefit from it. "Thou shalt not steal" benefits all but the thieves among us. Moreover, non-believers are not somehow exempt from God's law because of their unbelief.

The state as a ministry of justice can not save men. Paul clearly denounced salvation by the works of the law. If salvation is not by works of God's holy law it most certainly will not come from man's law. So why should the believer stand not just on issues but on the Biblical morality underlying the issues of the day? It is because God is true and His Word is true. It is because Christians must stop playing the part of rebels, submit to God, and deal with society (our neighbors) in terms of His righteousness. All men believe in some concept of law and justice. You must ask yourself "In whose law do I believe?" and "On what moral ethic do I base my belief in justice?"


Topics: Justice, Government, Biblical Law, Statism, Culture

Mark R. Rushdoony

Mark R. Rushdoony graduated from Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s College) with a B.A. in history in 1975 and was ordained to the ministry in 1995.

He taught junior and senior high classes in history, Bible, civics and economics at a Christian school in Virginia for three years before joining the staff of Chalcedon in 1978. He was the Director of Chalcedon Christian School for 14 years while teaching full time. He also helped tutor all of his children through high school.

In 1998, he became the President of Chalcedon and Ross House Books, and, more recently another publishing arm, Storehouse Press. Chalcedon and its subsidiaries publish many titles plus CDs, mp3s, and an extensive online archive at www.chalcedon.edu.

He has written scores of articles for Chalcedon’s publications, both the Chalcedon Report and Faith for all of Life. He was a contributing author to The Great Christian Revolution (1991). He has spoken at numerous conferences and churches in the U.S. and abroad.

Mark Rushdoony lives in Vallecito, California, his home of 43 years with his wife of 45 years and his youngest son. He has three married children and nine grandchildren.

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