The editorial from the T4CG Newsletter, Michaelmas 2023. To view full version click here
If you shut your ears to the cry of the poor, you too will cry out and not be answered – Proverbs 21:13
Hardship and inequality are growing and poor communities are suffering. Faced with this, most Christians, wanting to see an end to injustice, tend to campaign for higher government benefits, or try to donate more to charity. But is this really how justice is achieved?
In political philosophy, there are three main visions of justice: maximising human welfare, maximising human freedom, and maximising human virtues. They focus, respectively, on economic utility, liberty and rights, and human flourishing and the common good.
This third, ethical tradition is becoming increasingly unfashionable in policy circles, but it corresponds most closely with the biblical vision of justice. Jesus, who lived in Galilee under Roman occupation, resisted the dehumanising effects of that unjust arrangement by introducing people to God’s kingdom, and through his special love for the poor. Like the prophets, Christ advocates justice in Jewish terms – that is, through righteousness, or tsedeq, which leads us, as bearers of God’s image, to live in right relationship with each other, and through mishpat, the actions we each take to treat people equitably.
But the dominant contemporary vision of justice is quite unlike this. Our neoliberal politics is not founded on righteousness, virtue, or relationships. Instead its low wage economy is conjoined with a utilitarian approach to mitigate the poverty it creates.
This is the welfarist strategy. It is not only defeatist and inefficient. Not only a system requiring vast sums of public subsidy to prop up wages too low for people to live on, it is also inherently dysfunctional and therefore unstable. By going along with this, Christians inadvertently help to perpetuate a state of affairs that is fundamentally unjust. Raising benefits to meet essential needs may be imperative in the short term. But in the long term, campaigns to end poverty through welfarism repress and marginalise prophetic justice.
In contrast, the common good tradition of justice does not tinker at the edges but demands fundamental economic reform. Churches which reject that tradition, which remain unable to challenge the neoliberal-utilitarian approach, can only alienate the “marginalised” communities they say they want to reach.
What does “the cry of the poor” actually sound like? It can be heard in the justifiable anger that lies beneath the rise of so-called populism. It is the cry of intense frustration with a political class which has, for over four decades, allowed an unjust system to carry on.
This rage is justified. Many communities with proud civic histories have been utterly abandoned and humiliated. The majority of churches thus far have voiced no serious critique of the system that led to this civic degradation.
There was a time when the church could be relied upon to offer resistance to injustice. But currently, those communities feel as abandoned by the church as they do by the political class. The estrangement may seem hopeless. However, if the church can bring itself to recognise the legitimacy of that rage, then hope can be found. If there is solidarity between the church and poor communities, then hope for both can be found.
When we think about apparent church decline, we might consider whether God could be humbling the church so that in its poverty it can realise its need for others, especially the poor. As Pope Francis has said, the church needs to be re-evangelised by the poor.
The vision of justice within Catholic social thought has always included a just economy. In fact, as a virtue-based framework, its stated purpose is more ambitious: to build a civilisation of love. This is to be achieved by spiritual as well as social, political and economic means – and should be integral to our understanding of evangelisation. It begins with righteousness, fidelity to God, who has told His children repeatedly how He wants them to live. The principles of the CST framework are rooted in the gospel.
The preferential option for the poor, modelled by Christ himself, requires us all to take responsibility and support the flourishing of family, community and place, and to do so personally through relationship, not just to outsource that support to the state.
The dignity of work requires measures such as incentives for job creation, place-based investment, and vocational training. The aim is to cultivate thriving communities, because it is in local relationships that the human person finds belonging, meaning and purpose.
Subsidiarity is meant to keep the state from distorting from above the organic life of community from below. Subsidiarity insists that decisions are taken as close as possible to those they affect and that a central authority should only do tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.
In this time of unravelling, and as governments become increasingly centralised, it is vital that Christians recognise the different traditions of justice at work. The poet and essayist T.S. Eliot flagged the danger of the utilitarian temptation, and warned of “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one needs to be good.”
The biblical interpretation of justice is to foster right relationships, resist domination and uphold the integrity of the human being. As Christians, our vision of justice must derive from a philosophy consistent with our faith, which reflects the truth of our identity: we are the image bearers of God.
This common good vision of justice is non-partisan. It requires power to be distributed and calls us to be suspicious of overly centralised power. But too often the contemporary churches fail to offer any resistance to the principalities and powers. Either faith is placed in the narrow logic of a false freedom, or in the state as the primary port of call for social problems. Both are a temptation and forms of idolatry.
The churches are called to the kind of justice that builds right relationships. We are to encourage, and participate in, forms of association that privilege the poor in local communities. Like Jesus, we are to live an incarnational theology that tangibly weaves itself into all aspects of our daily experience, that walks with neighbours, navigating together the risks and pains of mortal life.
In this edition, I’m delighted to share with you a seminal piece by William Cavanaugh exploring why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. I’m also bringing you an exceptional talk by Jon Cruddas MP on the dignity of work and traditions of justice – the sixth in our lecture series with Lincoln Cathedral – and you can book now for the seventh lecture by Alison Milbank on integral ecology, exploring the balance between people and planet.
Links to the first episodes from our new podcast, Leaving Egypt are below, where I and my co-host Alan Roxburgh explore with wonderful guests what it means to be God’s people in an age of unravelling. Further, you’ll find below a talk by me for TheAscent young people’s discipleship programme on the relationship between Catholic social thought and our calling, and Jo Stow our Common Good Schools project leader reflects on the impact of the “me” culture on young people’s engagement in volunteering and social action. You’ll also find our latest signs of the times selection of articles and our latest recommended books.
Founder and Director, Together for the Common Good
Like what you are reading? More inspirational content from Jenny Sinclair can be found here: https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/news-views/from-jenny-sinclair
This is just the editorial from the T4CG Newsletter for Michaelmas 2023. To read the full content, click here
Header image: Mosaic of Saint Michael on the facade of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Trieste. Credit: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons