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Justice, Poverty and the Presidential Race

“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. But what is the meaning of justice?

Justice has been variously defined as the quality of being impartial and fair, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. It implies integrity in dealing with others and conforming our lives to facts and to truth.

But for those of the Jewish and Christian faith, there is another, crucial element to justice. According to Timothy J. Keller, author of Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, according to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the justice (or mishpat) of a society is evaluated by how it treats the widow, the orphan, immigrants, and the poor. “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice,” Keller writes. “God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do
justice.’”

I point this out because as Republicans ramp up their case for the presidency, this broader, Biblical understanding of justice shouldn’t be neglected (as it has been, frankly, during the Obama presidency, when the poor have suffered disproportionately). A distinctive and lasting contribution of Judaism and Christianity is caring for the weak, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy,” David writes in the Psalms. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern,” according to Proverbs. “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me,” Jesus says in Matthew.

At its core is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. These are private concerns for sure, but they are public ones as well. Throughout Scripture, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited.

How this view of justice relates to particular areas of life where the powers of government are involved can be complicated and subtle, involving issues of crime and order; education, family, and the unborn; economic growth and prosperity; foreign assistance and global health. The temptation is that in the midst of our weak and slowing economy, with so many economic hardships being visited on virtually every strata of American society, the needs of those on the margins of society are forgotten. They don’t possess a powerful special interest group, and there simply aren’t that many public figures interested in taking up their case and their cause. But this neglects a vital, even ennobling aspect of politics.

I happen to believe conservatism, properly understood, is the political philosophy that does the most to advance a genuine Biblical understanding of justice. But the public won’t know that unless those carrying the banner of conservatism–including presidential candidates–begin to talk about it.



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