Defining Social Justice by Michael Novak

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 11-13.

Last year marked the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Hayek, among whose many contributions to the twentieth century was a sustained and animated put–down of most of the usages of the term “social justice.” I have never encountered a writer, religious or philosophical, who directly answers Hayek’s criticisms. In trying to understand social justice in our own time, there is no better place to start than with the man who, in his own intellectual life, exemplified the virtue whose common misuse he so deplored.

The trouble with “social justice” begins with the very meaning of the term. Hayek points out that whole books and treatises have been written about social justice without ever offering a definition of it. It is allowed to float in the air as if everyone will recognize an instance of it when it appears. This vagueness seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, “We need a law against that.” In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.

Hayek points out another defect of twentieth–century theories of social justice. Most authors assert that they use it to designate a virtue (a moral virtue, by their account). But most of the descriptions they attach to it appertain to impersonal states of affairs—“high unemployment” or “inequality of incomes” or “lack of a living wage” are cited as instances of “social injustice.” Hayek goes to the heart of the matter: social justice is either a virtue or it is not. If it is, it can properly be ascribed only to the reflective and deliberate acts of individual persons. Most who use the term, however, ascribe it not to individuals but to social systems. They use “social justice” to denote a regulative principle of order; again, their focus is not virtue but power.

The term “social justice” was first used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, and given prominence by Antonio Rosmini–Serbati in La Costitutione Civile Secondo la Giustizia Sociale in 1848. John Stuart Mill gave this anthropomorphic approach to social questions almost canonical status for modern thinkers thirteen years later in Utilitarianism:

Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge. [Emphasis added.]

Mill imagines that societies can be virtuous in the same way that individuals can be. Perhaps in highly personalized societies of the ancient type, such a usage might make sense—under kings, tyrants, or tribal chiefs, for example, where one person made all the crucial social decisions. Curiously, however, the demand for the term “social justice” did not arise until modern times, in which more complex societies operate by impersonal rules applied with equal force to all under “the rule of law.”

The birth of the concept of social justice coincided with two other shifts in human consciousness: the “death of God” and the rise of the ideal of the command economy. When God “died,” people began to trust a conceit of reason and its inflated ambition to do what even God had not deigned to do: construct a just social order.The divinization of reason found its extension in the command economy;reason (that is, science) would command and humankind would collectively follow. The death of God, the rise of science, and the command economy yielded “scientific socialism.” Where reason would rule, the intellectuals would rule. (Or so some thought. Actually, the lovers of power would rule.)

From this line of reasoning it follows that “social justice” would have its natural end in a command economy in which individuals are told what to do, so that it would always be possible to identify those in charge and to hold them responsible. This notion presupposes that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalized, personal rules of just conduct. It further implies that no individual should be held responsible for his relative position. To assert that he is responsible would be “blaming the victim.” It is the function of “social justice” to blame somebody else, to blame the system, to blame those who (mythically) “control” it. As Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his magisterial history of communism, the fundamental paradigm of Communist ideology is guaranteed to have wide appeal: you suffer; your suffering is caused by powerful others; these oppressors must be destroyed. We need to hold someone accountable, Hayek notes, even when we recognize that such a protest is absurd.

We are not wrong, Hayek concedes, in perceiving that the effects of the individual choices and open processes of a free society are not distributed according to a recognizable principle of justice. The meritorious are sometimes tragically unlucky; the evil prosper; good ideas don’t pan out, and sometimes those who backed them, however noble their vision, lose their shirts. But a system that values both trial–and–error and free choice is in no position to guarantee outcomes in advance. Furthermore, no one individual (and certainly no politburo or congressional committee or political party) can design rules that would treat each person according to his merit or even his need. No one has sufficient knowledge of all relevant personal details, and as Kant writes, no general rule has a grip fine enough to grasp them.

Hayek made a sharp distinction, however, between those failures of justice that involve breaking agreed–upon rules of fairness and those that consist in results that no one designed, foresaw, or commanded. The first sort of failure earned his severe moral condemnation. No one should break the rules; freedom imposes high moral responsibilities. The second, insofar as it springs from no willful or deliberate act, seemed to him not a moral matter but an inescapable feature of all societies and of nature itself. When labeling unfortunate results as “social injustices” leads to an attack upon the free society, with the aim of moving it toward a command society, Hayek strenuously opposes the term. The historical records of the command economies of Nazism and communism justify his revulsion at that way of thinking.

Hayek recognized that at the end of the nineteenth century, when the term “social justice” came to prominence, it was first used as an appeal to the ruling classes to attend to the needs of the new masses of uprooted peasants who had become urban workers. To this he had no objection. What he did object to was careless thinking. Careless thinkers forget that justice is by definition social. Such carelessness becomes positively destructive when the term “social” no longer describes the product of the virtuous actions of many individuals, but rather the utopian goal toward which all institutions and all individuals are “made in the utmost degree to converge” by coercion. In that case, the “social” in “social justice” refers to something that emerges not organically and spontaneously from the rule–abiding behavior of free individuals, but rather from an abstract ideal imposed from above.

Given the strength of Hayek’s argument against the term, it may seem odd to assert that he himself was a practitioner of social justice—even if one adds, as one must, “social justice rightly understood.” Still, Hayek plainly saw in his vocation as a thinker a life of service to his fellow men. Helping others to understand the intellectual keys to a free and creative society is to render them a great benefit. Hayek’s intellectual work was not merely a matter of his own self–interest, narrowly understood, but was aimed at the good of the human city as a whole. It was a work of justice in a social dimension—in other words, a work of virtue. To explain what Hayek did, then, we need a conception of social justice that Hayek never considered.

Social justice rightly understood is a specific habit of justice that is “social” in two senses. First, the skills it requires are those of inspiring, working with, and organizing others to accomplish together a work of justice. These are the elementary skills of civil society, through which free citizens exercise self–government by doing for themselves (that is, without turning to government) what needs to be done. Citizens who take part commonly explain their efforts as attempts to “give back” for all that they have received from the free society, or to meet the obligations of free citizens to think and act for themselves. The fact that this activity is carried out with others is one reason for designating it as a specific type of justice; it requires a broader range of social skills than do acts of individual justice.

The second characteristic of “social justice rightly understood” is that it aims at the good of the city, not at the good of one agent only. Citizens may band together, as in pioneer days, to put up a school or build a bridge. They may get together in the modern city to hold a bake sale for some charitable cause, to repair a playground, to clean up the environment, or for a million other purposes that their social imaginations might lead them to. Hence the second sense in which this habit of justice is “social”: its object, as well as its form, primarily involves the good of others.

One happy characteristic of this definition of the virtue of social justice is that it is ideologically neutral. It is as open to people on the left as on the right or in the center. Its field of activity may be literary, scientific, religious, political, economic, cultural, athletic, and so on, across the whole spectrum of human social activities. The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.

We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice. Neglect of it, Hayek wrote, has moral consequences:

It is one of the greatest weaknesses of our time that we lack the patience and faith to build up voluntary organizations for purposes which we value highly, and immediately ask the government to bring about by coercion (or with means raised by coercion) anything that appears as desirable to large numbers. Yet nothing can have a more deadening effect on real participation by the citizens than if government, instead of merely providing the essential framework of spontaneous growth, becomes monolithic and takes charge of the provision for all needs, which can be provided for only by the common effort of many.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at theUniversityofChicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

Social Justice: Code for Communism by Barry Loberfeld | February 27, 2004

The signature of modern leftist rhetoric is the deployment of terminology that simply cannot fail to command assent. As Orwell himself recognized, even slavery could be sold if labeled “freedom.” In this vein, who could ever conscientiously oppose the pursuit of “social justice,” — i.e., a just society?

To understand “social justice,” we must contrast it with the earlier view of justice against which it was conceived — one that arose as a revolt against political absolutism. With a government (e.g., a monarchy) that is granted absolute power, it is impossible to speak of any injustice on its part. If it can do anything, it can’t do anything “wrong.” Justice as a political/legal term can begin only when limitations are placed upon the sovereign, i.e., when men define what is unjust for government to do. The historical realization traces from the Roman senate to Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution to the 19th century. It was now a matter of “justice” that government not arrest citizens arbitrarily, sanction their bondage by others, persecute them for their religion or speech, seize their property, or prevent their travel.

This culmination of centuries of ideas and struggles became known as liberalism. And it was precisely in opposition to this liberalism — not feudalism or theocracy or the ancien régime, much less 20th century fascism — that Karl Marx formed and detailed the popular concept of “social justice,” (which has become a kind of “new and improved” substitute for a storeful of other terms — Marxism, socialism, collectivism — that, in the wake of Communism’s history and collapse, are now unsellable).

“The history of all existing society,” he and Engels declared, “is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf … oppressor and oppressed, stood in sharp opposition to each other.” They were quite right to note the political castes and resulting clashes of the pre-liberal era. The expositors of liberalism (Spencer, Maine) saw their ethic, by establishing the political equality of all (e.g., the abolition of slavery, serfdom, and inequality of rights), as moving mankind from a “society of status” to a “society of contract.” Alas, Marx the Prophet could not accept that the classless millennium had arrived before he did. Thus, he revealed to a benighted humanity that liberalism was in fact merely another stage of History’s class struggle — “capitalism” — with its own combatants: the “proletariat” and the “bourgeoisie.” The former were manual laborers, the latter professionals and business owners. Marx’s “classes” were not political castes but occupations.

Today the terms have broadened to mean essentially income brackets. If Smith can make a nice living from his writing, he’s a bourgeois; if Jones is reciting poetry for coins in a subway terminal, he’s a proletarian. But the freedoms of speech and enterprise that they share equally are “nothing but lies and falsehoods so long as” their differences in affluence and influence persist (Luxemburg). The unbroken line from The Communist Manifesto to its contemporary adherents is that economic inequality is the monstrous injustice of the capitalist system, which must be replaced by an ideal of “social justice” — a “classless” society created by the elimination of all differences in wealth and “power.”

Give Marx his due: He was absolutely correct in identifying the political freedom of liberalism — the right of each man to do as he wishes with his own resources — as the origin of income disparity under capitalism. If Smith is now earning a fortune while Jones is still stuck in that subway, it’s not because of the “class” into which each was born, to say nothing of royal patronage. They are where they are because of how the common man spends his money. That’s why some writers sell books in the millions, some sell them in the thousands, and still others can’t even get published. It is the choices of the masses (“the market”) that create the inequalities of fortune and fame — and the only way to correct those “injustices” is to control those choices.

Every policy item on the leftist agenda is merely a deduction from this fundamental premise. Private property and the free market of exchange are the most obvious hindrances to the implementation of that agenda, but hardly the only. Also verboten is the choice to emigrate, which removes one and one’s wealth from the pool of resources to be redirected by the demands of “social justice” and its enforcers. And crucial to the justification of a “classless” society  is the undermining of any notion that individuals are responsible for their behavior and its consequences. To maintain the illusion that classes still exist under capitalism, it cannot be conceded that the “haves” are responsible for what they have or that the “have nots” are responsible for what they have not. Therefore, people are what they are because of where they were born into the social order — as if this were early 17th century France.

Men of achievement are pointedly referred to as “the privileged” — as if they were given everything and earned nothing. Their seeming accomplishments are, at best, really nothing more than the results of the sheer luck of a beneficial social environment (or even — in the allowance of one egalitarian, John Rawls — “natural endowment”). Consequently, the “haves” do not deserve what they have. The flip side of this is the insistence that the “have nots” are, in fact, “the underprivileged,” who have been denied their due by an unjust society. If some men wind up behind bars, they are (to borrow from Broadway) depraved only because they are “deprived.” Environmental determinism, once an almost sacred doctrine of official Soviet academie, thrives as the “social constructionist” orthodoxy of today’s anti-capitalist left. The theory of “behavioral scientists” and their boxed rats serviceably parallels the practice of a Central Planning Board and its closed society.

The imperative of economic equality also generates a striking opposition between “social justice” and its liberal rival. The equality of the latter, we’ve noted, is the equality of all individuals in the eyes of the law — the protection of the political rights of each man, irrespective of “class” (or any assigned collective identity, hence the blindfold of Justice personified). However, this political equality, also noted, spawns the difference in “class” between Smith and Jones. All this echoes Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek’s observation that if “we treat them equally [politically], the result must be inequality in their actual [i.e., economic] position.” The irresistible conclusion is that “the only way to place them in an equal [economic] position would be to treat them differently [politically]” — precisely the conclusion that the advocates of “social justice” themselves have always reached.

In the nations that had instituted this resolution throughout their legal systems, “different” political treatment came to subsume the extermination or imprisonment of millions because of their “class” origins. In our own American “mixed economy,” which mixes differing systems of justice as much as economics, “social justice” finds expression in such policies and propositions as progressive taxation and income redistribution; affirmative action and even “reparations,” its logical implication; and selective censorship in the name of “substantive equality,” i.e., economic equality disingenuously reconfigured as a Fourteenth Amendment right and touted as the moral superior to “formal equality,” the equality of political freedom actually guaranteed by the amendment. This last is the project of a growing number of leftist legal theorists that includes Cass Sunstein and Catherine MacKinnon, the latter opining that the “law of [substantive] equality and the law of freedom of expression [for all] are on a collision course in this country.” Interestingly, Hayek had continued, “Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different, but in conflict with each other” — a pronouncement that evidently draws no dissent.

Hayek emphasized another conflict between the two conceptions of justice, one we can begin examining simply by asking who the subject of liberal justice is. The answer: a person — a flesh-and-blood person, who is held accountable for only those actions that constitute specifically defined crimes of violence (robbery, rape, murder) against other citizens. Conversely, who is the subject of “social justice” — society? Indeed yes, but is society really a “who”? When we speak of “social psychology” (the standard example), no one believes that there is a “social psyche” whose thoughts can be analyzed. And yet the very notion of “social justice” presupposes a volitional Society whose actions can (and must) be held accountable. This jarring bit of Platonism traces all the way back to Marx himself, who, “despite all his anti-Idealistic and anti-Hegelian rhetoric, is really an Idealist and Hegelian … asserting, at root, that [Society] precedes and determines the characteristics of those who are [its] members” (R.A. Childs, Jr.). Behold leftism’s alternative to liberalism’s “atomistic individualism”: reifying collectivism, what Hayek called “anthropomorphism or personification.”

Too obviously, it is not liberalism that atomizes an entity (a concrete), but “social justice” that reifies an aggregate (an abstraction). And exactly what injustice is Society responsible for? Of course: the economic inequality between Smith and Jones — and Johnson and Brown and all others. But there is no personified Society who planned and perpetrated this alleged inequity, only a society of persons acting upon the many choices made by their individual minds. Eventually, though, everyone recognizes that this Ideal of Society doesn’t exist in the real world — leaving two options. One is to cease holding society accountable as a legal entity, a moral agent. The other is to conclude that the only practicable way to hold society accountable for “its” actions is to police the every action of every individual.

The apologists for applied “social justice” have always explained away its relationship to totalitarianism as nothing more than what we may call (after Orwell’s Animal Farm) the “Napoleon scenario”: the subversion of earnest revolutions by demented individuals (e.g., Stalin, Mao — to name just two among too many). What can never be admitted is that authoritarian brutality is the not-merely-possible-but-inevitable realization of the nature of “social justice” itself.

What is “social justice”? The theory that implies and justifies the practice of socialism. And what is “socialism”? Domination by the State. What is “socialized” is state-controlled. So what is “totalitarian” socialism other than total socialism, i.e., state control of everything? And what is that but the absence of a free market in anything, be it goods or ideas? Those who contend that a socialist government need not be totalitarian, that it can allow a free market — independent choice, the very source of “inequality”! — in some things (ideas) and not in others (goods — as if, say, books were one or the other), are saying only that the socialist ethic shouldn’t be applied consistently.

This is nothing less than a confession of moral cowardice. It is the explanation for why, from Moscow to Managua, all the rivalries within the different socialist revolutions have been won by, not the “democratic” or “libertarian” socialists, but the totalitarians, i.e., those who don’t qualify their socialism with antonyms. “Totalitarian socialism” is not a variation but a redundancy, which is why half-capitalist hypocrites will always lose out to those who have the courage of their socialist convictions. (Likewise, someone whose idea of “social justice” is a moderate welfare state is someone who’s willing to tolerate far more “social injustice” than he’s willing to eliminate.)

What is “social justice”? The abolition of privacy. Its repudiation of property rights, far from being a fundamental, is merely one derivation of this basic principle. Socialism, declared Marx, advocates “the positive abolition of private property [in order to effect] the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being.” It is the private status of property — meaning: the privacy, not the property — that stands in opposition to the social (i.e., “socialized,” and thus “really human”) nature of man. Observe that the premise holds even when we substitute x for property. If private anything denies man’s social nature, then so does private everything. And it is the negation of anything and everything private — from work to worship to even family life — that has been the social affirmation of the socialist state.

What is “social justice”? The opposite of capitalism. And what is “capitalism”? It is Marx’s coinage (minted by his materialist dispensation) for the Western liberalism that diminished state power from absolutism to limited government; that, from John Locke to the American Founders, held that each individual has an inviolable right to his own life, liberty, and property, which government exists solely to secure. Now what would the reverse of this be but a resurrection of Oriental despotism, the reactionary increase of state power from limited government to absolutism, i.e., “totalitarianism,” the absolute control of absolutely everything? And what is the opposite — the violation — of securing the life, liberty, and property of all men other than mass murder, mass tyranny, and mass plunder? And what is that but the point at which theory ends and history begins?

And yet even before that point — before the 20th century, before publication of the Manifesto itself — there were those who did indeed make the connection between what Marxism inherently meant on paper and what it would inevitably mean in practice. In 1844, Arnold Ruge presented the abstract: “a police and slave state.” And in 1872, Michael Bakunin provided the specifics:

[T]he People’s State of Marx… will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically, as all governments do today. It will also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the State the production and division of wealth, the cultivation of land, the establishment and development of factories, the organization and direction of commerce, and finally the application of capital to production by the only banker — the State. All that will demand an immense knowledge and many heads “overflowing with brains” in this government. It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!

It is precisely this “new class” that reflects the defining contradiction of modern leftist reality: The goal of complete economic equality logically enjoins the means of complete state control, yet this means has never practically achieved that end. Yes, Smith and Jones, once “socialized,” are equally poor and equally oppressed, but now above them looms an oligarchy of not-to-be-equalized equalizers. The inescapable rise of this “new class” — privileged economically as well as politically, never quite ready to “wither away” — forever destroys the possibility of a “classless” society. Here the lesson of socialism teaches what should have been learned from the lesson of pre-liberal despotism — that state coercion is a means to no end but its own. Far from expanding equality from the political to the economic realm, the pursuit of “social justice” serves only to contract it within both. There will never be any kind of equality — or real justice — as long as a socialist elite stands behind the trigger while the rest of us kneel before the barrel.

Further Reading

The contemporary left remains possessed by the spirit of Marx, present even where he’s not, and the best overview of his ideology remains Thomas Sowell’s Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, which is complemented perfectly by the most accessible refutation of that ideology, David Conway’s A Farewell to Marx. Hayek’s majestic The Mirage of Social Justice is a challenging yet rewarding effort, while his The Road to Serfdom provides an unparalleled exposition of how freedom falls to tyranny. Moving from theory to practice, Communism: A History, Richard Pipes’ slim survey, ably says all that is needed.

The Fallacy of Social Justice: All for One and Theft to All

*This article was orginally published on October 6, 2010 by Forcing Change, a ministry of Carl Teichrib. Used by permission of the author. Visit the website at

A boiling, seething emotion rose from my chest into my throat. An avalanche of angry words tumbled from my small mouth. My indignation could not be quenched. A final declaration sounded with thick certainty.

“When I’m older, I’m going to do something about this.”

How old was I? Ten: maybe younger? But I had seen enough to know. Gross injustices had been observed.

I well remember the bitter experience. Me, a sensible farm boy – and my grandparents, owners of a small fabric shop in a sleepy prairie town – had traveled to the claustrophobic city of Winnipeg. The purpose: to visit textile outlets and make purchases of cloth. After two days of warehouses and shop floors, I knew this was the end of the world. Working conditions were deplorable: Too little sunshine, poorly chosen paint colors, smelly old merchantmen.

“Here’s some candy, kid.” It tasted stale.

At one critical point Grandma had to shush me. Didn’t she know? Didn’t anybody care? The lone Pepsi machine we had passed in the darkened hall wore a sign of prophetic importance: “Out of Order.” And I was dying of thirst.

Yes, the textile industry – indeed the entire business world – was out of order. How could anybody work in these depressing places? Boredom alone had to be killing people; it was killing me!

As we loaded up with fabric and left this urban wasteland I caught a glimpse of something else. A brick-lined smokestack was silhouetted against the evening sky; and smoke – or steam, it didn’t matter– was belching forth to choke out nature’s life.

That’s when I lost it. Didn’t those people know what they were doing? Didn’t anybody in the government have a brain? Not only was the city a depressing place and the warehouses terrible for workers, but also the factories were going to kill everything! When I grew-up, I was going to put a stop to this madness. Others would join in this desire to change the world. We would save the worker from his intolerable slavery and rescue the environment from the hands of greedy merchantmen. Justice, or vengeance, would be served: whether at home or abroad.

Grandma soothingly patronized me. Grandpa, lips tights, said nothing. He just drove faster.

Bending Minds

Looking back I marvel. As a young mind I had a keen sense of “social rights” and “justice.” And I was a prime candidate to have swung to the more extreme side of the leftist camp. In fact, my impressionable mind was already moving in that direction. Unaware that I was mimicking a Marxist approach – social revolution through mass action – I was emotionally convinced that radical surgery was the only recourse. Where had this come from?

My parents and grandparents were no-nonsense farmers and business owners. They worked very hard at their respective livelihoods, were quick to help anyone who needed assistance, and contributed to the local community in different ways – including, on my Mother’s part, teaching English to Laotian immigrants (those were the days of the Boat People). Both my parents and grandparents emphasized Christian ethics and values, to stand up for the underdog, and remain independent in the face of peer pressure; “You were born an original, don’t die a copy.”

The church I attended had Mennonite roots, but didn’t cater to leftist ideologies. In fact, it had separated itself from a Mennonite denomination in part because of a growing socialist-slant in the larger body. At heart we were probably the only non-pacifist Mennonite church in the district.

Television? No. At that time TV consisted of Bugs Bunny on Saturday evenings, and Dad trying to watch The Lawrence Welk Show while we kids faithfully re-enacted Wile-E Coyote cliff-falls from the top of the couch. There just wasn’t much time for television.

Public school? This was the late 1970s, and “environmental” curriculum was already in play. In the high school across the street The Environmental Handbook was used as a text – complete with overtly anti-Christian, anti-family, and anti-capitalist rhetoric (See Forcing Change, Volume 3, Issue 2). The Environmental Handbook for all practical purposes was a Marxist/Trotskyite call to radical “green” action – “nothing short of total transformation will do much good.” (The Environmental Handbook, 1970, p.330). Other school texts, such as the Prose of Relevance and Worlds in the Making, shaped minds to accept quantum cultural shifts – including the move towards socialist and technocratic ideals.[4]

Elementary school and Junior High also witnessed a steady stream of transforming curriculum. I remember hearing about the growing problems of over-population and the destruction of the ecosystem caused by human greed and pollution. Injustice was occurring in different parts of the world. Nuclear annihilation was around the corner.

Whether overt or subtle, the message was clear: The old ways of how society functioned could no longer be tolerated. Too much was at stake, and it was up to my generation to fix the world’s problems. Whether the teachers knew it or not, we were being shaped to change the system. Thus, a variety of cultural and social alternatives entered the classroom – including Marxism.

The late 1960’s and early 70’s was a hinge time for Western society. The New Left, with its vanguard techniques, challenged traditional cultural norms. Radicalism clashed with conventionalism, the drug culture blossomed, and Eastern forms of spirituality entered the mainstream. In America the welfare or “servile state” was greatly expanded, including experiments in community housing. All of this was coupled with the Vietnam War, first demoralizing France and then the United States. During this time, “peace” groups parroted Soviet propaganda; Capitalism was equated with “war mongering” while socialism reflected equity and peace.

The liberal-mined West embraced this trend, even though Frederick C. Barghoorn, a Yale professor who had been interned by the Soviet government in 1963, had warned America about the use of “peace” as a method in furthering Marxist ideology. Published one year after his arrest and release, his book Soviet Foreign Propaganda provided an important warning,

“It should be emphasized that all of the Soviet leaders, from Lenin and Trotski through Stalin and Khrushchev, strove in their peace propaganda to appeal both to revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of constitutional democracy and to western businessmen, liberals, pacifists, and the general public whose non-dialectic conception of peace was limited to the simple absence of armed conflict.”[5]

Liberals and pacifists of Western nations were viewed as important players in the cause of international Marxism. Their importance came not from an understanding of the Moscow-Hegelian-Marxist program, but in their ignorance. Convinced of holding the moral high ground and blinded by a sense of enlightenment, these individuals advanced the Communist agenda by acting on the emotion of the ideal. In other words, they were emotionally drawn to a Marxist-oriented “social justice” cause; the “plight of the worker,” economic and social inequalities, the desire for class-based justice, and the “struggle for peace.” These individuals would then become activists, educators, and cultural trendsetters. And they demanded social transformation that would, invariably, have an anti-Capitalist and anti-individualist tone. The boys in Moscow grinned.

The only way of “assuring lasting peace in the world” from the Marxist perspective, explained Barghoon, is the “elimination of capitalism.” [6] Peace, solidarity, and justice throbbed with a Leninist heartbeat throughout this turbulent time period. Capitalism, with its emphasis on private property and a free enterprise, was considered the prime cause of social strife. Socialism, with its emphasis on community and social order, was the path to progress.

This leftist ideology was solidly embedded in Canadian education during the 1970s, and from that point on its fingerprints can be observed in practically all major institutional systems, including churches.

Retna Ghosh and Douglas Ray, in the preface to their 1987-book Social Change and Education in Canada, provide a short outline of social theories that have shaped modern education. This included Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, the conflict theories of Karl Marx, modernization, and the concept of human capital with its emphasis on workforce development. Each impacted the Canadian school system, as has Technocracy and a host of other philosophies. And while the system may see distinctions in these theories, the classroom was far more blurred. Indeed, any of the above – or a mix of all – may have shaped the student’s worldview. But rarely did he or she understand the ideal behind the curriculum.

As Ghosh and Ray explain,

“Social change, whether gradual or revolutionary, is inevitable and brings with it new patterns of social interaction. The place of education in this process is both complex and critical.” (Social Change and Education in Canada, p.vii).

For a young mind in the late 70s bombarded by a host of conflicting educational patterns, the emotional tug attached to exploited social issues seemed the most relevant. No wonder my trip to Winnipeg ended with a Trotskyite call for revolution.

What has any of this to do with “social justice”? Everything.

Catholic Social Justice

In today’s Christian world – and Western culture in general – there’s a myriad of changes taking place, and with it comes new language. “Social Justice” is certainly in the spotlight. Jim Wallis of Sojourners uses this term repeatedly. Brain McLaren’s book Everything Must Change seeks to reframe Christianity in a social justice context. The Christian Reformed Church has a social justice office, as does the Salvation Army; and the Mennonite Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Canada, and an endless list of other denominations and church bodies speak of “social justice.”

But where does this term come from, and what is its dominant history?

“Social justice” appears to have been first employed in the early 1840s by an Italian Catholic theologian and Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio.[7] As Daniel M. Bell points out in his book, Liberation Theology After the End of History, d’Azeglio’s concept was “justice as a general virtue that coordinated all activity with the common good.” [8]

The notion of virtue is important, for it brings a flavor of charity. Taparelli’s vision circled around justice as a system of moral norms that included individual rights and the freedom to associate.The greater whole of the community – the “sum total of individual goods” [9] – would thus benefit. This form of “justice” was also known as economic justice, and looked upon wealth redistribution as a coordination of rights. Direct government administration should be avoided wherever possible, for Taparelli recognized the danger of centralization.[10]

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which dealt with the conditions of the working class, the right to private property, and the workplace relationship. Leo XIII rejected Communism and the greed that arises from an amoral application of Capitalism, instead advocating that worker and employer should come to an honest agreement regarding labor and wages.

Decades later, Pope Pius XI penned his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. In it he denounced Communism and at the same time embraced wealth redistribution – the sharing of benefits – as a function of a social justice (§ 57).

“By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.”

While this idea started to stretch the earlier limits of Catholic social justice, he at least recognized that all sides of the class divide could be negative players: the rich withholding the wages due the worker, and the worker demanding all from the rich. That aside, the free market system wasn’t an acceptable means to build a civilization on social justice.

“Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching… free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.”(§ 88)

In reading through the encyclical an unsettling doublespeak emerges. Communism is chastised, yet the free market is evil. In this dialectic the end result is that “certain kinds of property…ought to be reserved to the State.” The “public authority,” according to Pius XI, should maintain ownership of enterprises that advance the “general welfare.” (§114-115). A slide down the slippery slope had now begun in earnest; “social justice” would become the excuse par-excellence in calling for a global collectivist system.

Speaking of Pius XI’s views on economic justice, Pope John XXIII pointed out that “man’s aim must be to achieve in social justice a national and international juridical order, with its network of public and private institutions, in which all economic activity can be conducted not merely for private gain but also in the interests of the common good.” [11] John XXIII advocated a “universal authority” to ensure this “common good.” [12]

Later in 1965, Pope Paul VI made similar comments while at the United Nations, openly suggesting “the establishment of a world authority.” [13] Why? Because a world authority is needed to establish and maintain an international “common good.” That same year, Paul VI’s document Gaudium et Spes – Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – recognized that the Catholic church has an important role to play in constructing “a peaceful and fraternal community of nations.” (§ 90)

In that vein, he recommended in Section II, titled “Setting Up An International Community,” the creation of a Catholic organ designed to promote “international social justice.” (§ 90). Individualism was upheld in the document, but it must support the greater good. Collectivism in production was considered erroneous, yet a form of social collectivism was deemed necessary.

An excerpt from paragraph 65 demonstrates this social justice relationship,

“Citizens, on the other hand, should remember that it is their right and duty, which is also recognized by the civil authority, to contribute to the true progress of their own community according to their ability… those who hold back their unproductive resources or who deprive their community of the material or spiritual aid that it needs – save the right of migration – gravely endanger the common good.”

Here we see a swing far past the earlier idea of a charitable virtue. The implication is forthright; you will participate. In the context of this particular document, that participation includes the demands of a global community and world civil authority.

Although Pope John Paul II was perceived as more conservative, he too espoused a globally minded social justice agenda. This was evident in his endorsement of the UN Millennium Development Goals, which gravitate around wealth redistribution. [Note: The Millennium Development Goals have admirable targets, but the methods are highly suspect]. The US Catholic Bishops, operating under John Paul’s reign, were open regarding social justice in their 1986 letter, Economic Justice For All.

“The common good may sometimes demand that the right to own be limited by public involvement in the planning or ownership of certain sectors of the economy. Support of private ownership does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth.” (§115)

Interestingly, Catholic commentators from all sides of the political spectrum described the Bishops’ document as “pro-capitalist.” However, a cursory read demonstrates that Economic Justice For All is pro-socialist. Yes, the responsibility of the individual is highlighted and private property is validated. However, it’s the Bishops’ version of justice that displays a different set of cards, with its call for collective, government-directed programs aimed at curing social ills. Individuals, therefore, are obligated to contribute to the common good, In other words, if you can contribute to the common good, then you must contribute. This is reminiscent of the Marxist maxim:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Writing for the Journal of Business Ethics, William E. Murnion gives a straightforward assessment of the Bishop’s text; “…the conception of justice it espouses is… clearly socialist, and communist at that.” Murnion conceded that the Bishops were not “crypto-communists,” just that their “conception of social justice is indeed identical with the communist principle of justice even though the bishops have arrived at it from a route entirely opposed to Marx’s.” [14]

Remember too that the 1980s was the era of Liberation Theology inLatin America, which combined revolutionary forms of Marxism with Catholic social teachings. And although theVaticandenounced certain aspects of Liberation Theology, this Roman Marxism was nevertheless a logical extension of “social justice.”

Finally, from the Catholic perspective, Pope Benedict XVI has amply demonstrated his affinity to social justice through his encyclical Caritas In Veritate (NOTE: Forcing Change published a major review of this document in Volume 3, Issue 8). Here, social justice is recognized as an issue of prime economic and political importance, one that goes beyond the free market approach.

And like a broken record, the market system must be directed “towards the pursuit of the common good.” (§36)

“The political community,” so explained Benedict XVI, “must also take responsibility.” Economic redistribution, according to this encyclical, is justice. The pope also recommended that the United Nations be reformed, along with the global economy, so that that a “true world political authority” would emerge “with teeth.” (§67) Why?

To “seek to establish the common good.” (§67).

Concluding this section: Although some Papal teachings uphold private property and reject Communism, such as Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, the Roman Catholic hierarchy over the past century has increasingly bridged “social justice” with economic and political collectivism.

But another historical movement arose in parallel to the modern Catholic version of social justice, giving active energy to the phrase. And if the Papal idea of social justice found itself on the slippery slope to Collectivism, this parallel movement intentionally aimed for the bottom of the hill.

Marxist Social Justice

For generations there has been an activist side to the idea of wealth redistribution. This popular front, with a web of splinter groups, organizations and fellow travelers, used “social justice” as the rallying cry for cultural transformation. In fact, this movement is very much alive today, and continues to use the term as an effective banner. These social justice flag wavers have been the most vocal preachers of Collectivism; the followers of Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and dozens of other socialist and communist leaders.

Communists and social radicals have been, hands-down, the winners when it comes to employing this term. The Socialist International has always used it, as has Trotskyite organizations, Red factions, and a multitude of socialist political parties. It’s a favorite of the Green Party too, with little difference in meaning from that of its socialist sisters.

The idea of social justice within a more political context goes back a long way. In 1848 the Society of Fraternal Democrats, an international body that rubbed shoulders with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published a veiled threat against the British system;

“Let the privileged classes renounce their unjust usurpations and establish political equality and social justice, andEngland will have nothing to fear against a world in arms.” [15]

Marx and Engels fleshed out their “science of socialism” during the same time frame as Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio’s “social justice.” And The Communist Manifesto was published the same year that the Society of Fraternal Democrats called for social justice. Under Communism, wealth redistribution was to be used for social ends. In this structure, private property for personal gain was viewed as the cornerstone of the class system, and was seen as the cause of social injustices and strife. Wealth redistribution, therefore, was aimed at producing a society where all people were economically equal. Hence, the abolition of bourgeois property (that of the capitalist class) was the key to Communism.

To make this work something else was needed: A framework to give the masses a political voice. Marx and Engels looked to democracy. Once the proletariat (working class) had attained political power, a more just social system could be birthed.

“…the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property…”[16]

This concept of social justice, the raising of an “oppressed” class through the degradation of another class, is a reactionary process based on the arousing of envy. At this base level Communism is directly linked to the French Revolution – an event that had sparked worldwide revolutionary fervor, and one whose shots are still echoing today. Austrian philosopher and defender of freedom, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, provides historical context.

“If one were to take paper and pencil to make an estimate of how many people were murdered or killed in battle because of the ideas of the French Revolution in their various stages, guises, and evolutionary forms, because of the ideas of equality, ethnic or racist identity, a ‘classless society,’ a ‘world safe for democracy,’ a ‘racially pure people,’ ‘true social justice achieved by social engineering’ – one would arrive at simply staggering sums. Even the Jewish holocaust offered by the National Socialists with five or six million dead would seem almost a drop in the bucket.” [17]

Weaving the thread of envy and social change, Kuehnelt-Leddihn reminds us,

“In the last 200 years the exploitation of envy, its mobilization among the masses, coupled with the denigration of individuals, but more frequently of classes, races, nations or religious communities has been the very key to political success. The history of t he Western World since the end of the eighteenth century cannot be written without this fact constantly in mind. All leftist ‘isms’ harp on this theme, i.e., on the privilege of groups, minority groups, to be sure, who are objects of envy and at the same time subjects of intellectual-moral inferiorities. They have no right to their exalted positions. They ought to conform to the rest, become identical with ‘the people,’ renounce their privileges, conform. If they speak another language, they ought to drop it and talk the lingo of the majority. If they are wealthy their riches should be taxed away or confiscated.”[18] (italics in original).

This method of arousing envy, often disguised as virtue – “we’re doing this for the poor and oppressed” – is built upon a sense of moral superiority and indignation, which then ferments into loathing and “social action.” At this point the emotion of the ideal becomes the driver of transformation. Perched on this self-constructed high point, we quickly sanction Socialism (the theft of all for the “greater good”). Or, not content by the slowness of Socialism, we pursue Communism through revolution (the gutting of one class for the “greater good”). Either way we institute Collectivism – the empowerment of those who claim to guide the general good.

In all of this democracy comes to full form, taking on a purification role expressed as “Mob Rule.” Whoever controls the biggest mob through the emotion of the ideal is the one who rules.Social change then occurs either through the ballot box or the barrel of a gun. It doesn’t matter: the Mob has spoken, equality will be enforced, and we can bask in the “warm herd feeling of brotherhood.” [19]

Literary critic and former Marxist, Herbert Read, well understood these connections.

“Communism is an extreme form of democracy, and it is totalitarian: but equally the totalitarian state in the form of fascism is an extreme form of democracy. All forms of socialism, whether state socialism of the Russian kind, or national socialism of the German kind, or democratic socialism of the British kind, are professedly democratic, that is to say, they all obtain popular assent by the manipulation of mass psychology.” [20]

Over the years, Communist and socialist leaders have rallied the masses with the message of inequality (“oppression”) and the social justice solution: economic equality. “Communism was meant to have a universal liberating purpose. It was to bring the end of inequalities and establish real social justice.”[21]

In 1898, Eugene V. Debs – later dubbed “America’s greatest Marxist” – equated a collective society, industrial freedom, and social justice.[22] A few years later, during World War I, he noted that permanent peace based on social justice wouldn’t occur until “national industrial despotism” was replaced by “international industrial democracy.” Economic profit was anathema to peace, and the ending of war could only come with the ending of “profit and plunder among nations.”[23] A new order was needed where one class was striped and replaced by a more progressive, humane, and international apparatus.

V.I. Lenin and his gang “came to power with an ambitious programme of measures designed to ensure social justice and improve the lot of the poor.”[24] Maxim Gorky, a friend of Lenin’s couches this in glowing words of endearment.

“…It would be a difficult task to paint the portrait of Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin. His words were as much a part of his external appearance as scales are of fish. The simplicity and straightforwardness of everything he said were an essential part of his nature. The heroic deeds which he achieved are surrounded by no glittering halo. His was that heroism which Russia knows well – the unassuming, austere life of self-sacrifice of the true Russian revolutionary intellectual who, in his unshakable belief in the possibility of social justice on earth, renounces all the pleasures of life in order to toil for the happiness of mankind.”[25]

The result was disastrous. Mervyn Matthews tells us, “The efforts to banish ‘capitalist exploitation’ had all but destroyed the wealthier classes without benefiting more than a tiny proportion of the poor.”[26]

But it did benefit Lenin and company. Never mind the mountain of corpses; progress always comes with a price.

“Since the French Revolution established a new high mark of political liberty in the world, there has been no other advance in democratic progress and social justice comparable to the Russian Revolution…” (Socialist Party of America news release, August 1918).

By 1922, the Russian Revolution had cost the lives of six to ten million.

Decades later in theAmericas, Castro summed up the Cuban revolution “as an aspiration for social justice.” [27] Che Guevara couched his bloody revolution as an “armed struggle for freedom of rights and social justice.”[28] This crude theme is common to all leftist uprisings, because it rests in the heart of all leftist ideologies. The Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series demonstrates this fact through the symbolism found on its banner: Marxism, world peace, social revolution, feminism, etc.

Celia Hart, an Internationalist, put it this way on December 2003.

“…we must understand that the only road to peace and social justice is socialism. Peaceful coexistence and all its fallacies have tragically lost their opportunity to triumph. With the exploiting classes there will never be social justice; without social justice there will never be peace… Let’s join the people under the banner of the International. Never before has the world needed, as now, to remember November seven [the anniversary of the October Revolution]. Never before must we understand that the banner of Bolshevism never died… And let us shout to our enemies, regardless of whether they call us terrorists, that we will not fight for the imperialist war, or for the miserable peace of injustices; we will fight together for the socialist revolution in permanent combat. Workers of the World, Unite!” [29]

It’s a radical call. Today we see social justice linked to a myriad of radical movements, including environmentalism. Nice sounding, morally-high terms arise from this Marxist-green marriage; “Eco-justice,” “green justice,” and “climate justice.” How does this look?

In 1990, the Manitoba government in partnership with UNESCO, convened the prestigious World Environment Energy and Economic Conference. The theme was provocative: “Sustainable Development Strategies and the New World Order.”

A report was released with the findings, titled Sustainable Development for a New World Agenda. Chapter 2, “Towards A Global Green Constitution,” fleshed out a section with the subtitle “Social Justice.” Population control, green energy regulations and accounting systems that suggested “an official global policy of one child per family,” and the “principle of global economic equality” would be central to the “green government,” the text reported. Human rights would also be at the forefront. Here’s how it would look; keep in mind that the following was deemed a positive state of affairs.

“Popular or not, green governments will oppose any culture if it proves to be prejudicial by reason of gender, age, colour, race, religion, belief, sexual orientation, mental or physical condition, marital status, family composition, source of income, political belief, nationality, language preference, or place of origin.”[30]

“Intolerable attitudes” wouldn’t be tolerated, all in the name of protecting the oppressed. Now, real oppression is evil. Nobody in his or her right mind wants oppression to occur or flourish. But social justice ala Collectivism is the most dangerous form of oppression imaginable. Moreover, the truly downtrodden – like the peasants of the old Soviet Union – rarely have their load lightened under social justice. Instead, with the destruction of the creative capital inherent in a free market, the plight of the poor continues. Life becomes more difficult.

No wonder F.A. Hayek called Marxist-based social justice a “pseudo-ethics.” One that “fails every test which a system of moral rules must satisfy in order to secure a peace and voluntary cooperation of free men.”[31]

Getting Our Terms Right

“My church has a social justice mandate… This is something I support.”

Sounds nice, but can you tell me what you mean? The usual response I get, thankfully, centers on feeding the poor, helping at a homeless shelter or safe house, assisting the elderly, working with troubled teens, or supporting an orphanage.

Sorry, that’s not social justice. The dominant social justice concept for the past 150 years has been centered on the sliding slope of Papal-advocated wealth redistribution, and a Marxist version of Collectivism. Feeding the poor and assisting the helpless, from a Christian perspective, isn’t social justice – its Biblical compassion, a generous act of love. Such acts of compassion engage individual lives, and are based on the Christian call of loving others more than self. This is the heart of compassion: An individual sees a need, and operating out of love, reaches to meet that need. Churches too are to function in a similar manner. A need is evident, and moved by compassion, the congregation works to solve the dilemma. Coercion never enters the picture, nor does a political agenda emerge, nor is a call for economic equality heard.

The Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates true compassion (Luke 10). A Jewish man has been beaten, robbed, and left to die on the road. Various people pass him by, including the religiously pious. However, a Samaritan traveler sees the individual, and although the Samaritan is culturally alienated from the beaten man, he recognizes the desperation and individually takes action – dressing his wounds and providing a place of rest and refuge. And the Samaritan pays for it himself without demanding remuneration or compensation, either from the victim, his family or community, or from the government or ruling class.

However, if the Samaritan were a supporter of the dominant theme in social justice, he would have acted with a different motive for different ends. The Samaritan would have used the occasion to lobby for social transformation.

  1. The robbers were really victims of an unjust economic system, and had acted in response to the oppression of the ruling class.
  2. In order to bring justice to this oppressed class, and to steer them back to a caring community, equitable wealth redistribution should take place. The rich must be taxed to fund necessary social programs. A more equitable society is needed.
  3. Who will pay the victim’s medical bills? The community or the rich.
  4. This tragic event, the Samaritan would tell us, is a graphic reminder of the class struggle. We are all victims of an unjust economic order. Therefore, we must be the “voice of the voiceless” and advocate for radical social change.

In the social justice framework there is another agenda that lurks behind the tragic: A political/economic cause is piggybacked and leveraged – the cause of economic equality through wealth redistribution. This isn’t about truly helping the victim; it’s about using the victim.

Biblical justice, on the other hand, never seeks to dismantle class structures. Evil actions are condemned, but this isn’t specific to a particular social strata. Consider the words of Leviticus 19:15. “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. But in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson helps put things into perspective.

“[Biblical] Justice not only means that nobody is to be picked on because he is poor or favored because he is rich, but that (contrary to the doctrine of ‘social justice’) nobody is to be picked on because he is rich or favored because he is poor.”[32]

Dr. Hendrickson further elaborates,

“The fundamental error of today’s ‘social justice’ practitioners is their hostility to economic inequality, per se. Social justice theory fails to distinguish between economic disparities that result from unjust deeds and those that are part of the natural order of things. All Christians oppose unjust deeds… [But] it isn’t necessarily unjust for some people to be richer than others.

God made us different from each other. We are unequal in aptitude, talent, skill, work ethic, priorities, etc. Inevitably, these differences result in some individuals producing and earning far more wealth than others. To the extent that those in the ‘social justice’ crowd obsess about eliminating economic inequality, they are at war with the nature of the Creator’s creation.

The Bible doesn’t condemn economic inequality. You can’t read Proverbs without seeing that some people are poor due to their own vices. There is nothing unjust about people reaping what they sow, whether wealth or poverty.

Jesus himself didn’t condemn economic inequality. Yes, he repeatedly warned about the snares of material wealth; he exploded the comfortable conventionality of the Pharisaical tendency to regard prosperity as a badge of honor and superiority; he commanded compassion toward the poor and suffering. But he also told his disciples, ‘ya have the poor always with you’ (Matthew 26:11), and in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:24-30) he condemned the failure to productively use one’s God-given talents – whether many or few, exceptional or ordinary – by having a lord take money from the one who had the least and give it to him who had the most, thereby increasing economic inequality.

The Lord’s mission was to redeem us from sin, not to redistribute our property or impose an economic equality on us. In fact, Jesus explicitly declined to undermine property rights or preach economic equality when he told the man who wanted Jesus to tell his brother to share an inheritance with him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you’ (Luke 12:14).”[33]

I must confess that it’s easy to fall into the social justice way of thinking. My childhood rant over what I perceived to be injustices showed me, in retrospect, the power of an emotional ideal. Yet if by some twist I had followed up on my self-righteous outburst, and had become a social justice advocate in the true sense of the phrase, a sad irony would have occurred: In the name of “justice,” I would have promoted socially-sanctioned theft.

Dear Christians, let us act with compassion, be charitable, and pursue true justice; Let us be wise in our actions, clear in our language, and honest in our motives. FC

Carl Teichrib is editor of Forcing Change, a monthly online publication detailing the changes and challenges impacting the Western world.

To learn more about Forcing Change, including membership benefits, go to

Forcing Change

P.O. Box31




1. Celia Hart, The Flag of Coyoacan, edited by Walter Lippmann in August 2004. Reprinted in

2. William E. Murnion, “The Ideology of Social Justice in Economic Justice For All, “ Journal of Business Ethics, p.848, 1989.

3. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse (Arlington House, 1974), p.17.

4. Prose of Relevance, Volume 1 & 2 (Methuen, 1971); Maryjane Dunstan and Patricia W. Garlan, Worlds in the Making: Probes for Students of the Future (Prentice-Hall, 1970).

5. Frederick C. Barghoorn, Soviet Foreign Propaganda (Princeton University Press, 1964), p.93-94.

6. Ibid. p.89.

7. Marvin L. Krier Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movement (Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), p.80-81. See also Daniel M. Bell, Liberation Theology: After the End of History (Routledge, 2001), p.104.

8. Daniel M. Bell, Liberation Theology After the End of History (Routledge, 2001), p.104.

9. Ibid. p.104.

10. Thomas Behr, “Luigi Taparelli and Social Justice: Rediscovering the Origins of a Hollowed Concept,” Social Justice in Context, Volume, 1.

11. Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, paragraph 40.

12. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, see section 4, paragraphs 130 to 141.

13. Pope Paul VI, Talk at the United Nations, October 4, 1965; section 3.

14. William E. Murnion, “The Ideology of Social Justice in Economic Justice For All,” Journal of Business Ethics, see pages 847-857, 1989.

15. The Chartist Movement: The Fraternal Democrats to the Working Classes ofGreat BritainandIreland, January 10, 1848. As republished at

16. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin, 1967), p.104.

17. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse (Arlington House, 1974), p.419.

18. Ibid., p.18.

19. Ibid., p.17.

20. As quoted in Leftism, p.174.

21. Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (Vintage, 2007), p.10.

22. Eugene V. Debs, “The American Movement,” published in Debs: His Life Writings and Speeches, and reprinted at

23. E.V. Debs, “The Prospect for Peace,” American Socialist, 1916, reprinted at

24. Mervyn Matthews, Poverty in the Soviet Union: The Life-styles of the Underprivileged in Recent Years (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.7.

25. Maxim Gorky, “Days With Lenin,” Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 3 (The University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp.517-518.

26. Matthews, Poverty in the Soviet Union, p.7-8.

27. Castro, “When the People Rule,” speech on January 21, 1959,Havana,Cuba.

28. Che Guevara, interview, April 18, 1959. Two Chinese journalists, K’ung Mai and Ping An conducted the interview “on the 108th evening after the victory of the revolution.”

29. Celia Hart, ibid.

30. Jim Bohlen, “Towards A Global Green Constitution,” Sustainable Development for a New World Agenda (Proceeding, October 17-20, 1990), p.11.

31. F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: The Political order of a Free People (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.135.

32. Mark W. Hendrickson, “The ‘Social Justice’ Fallacy? Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” April 7, 2010 (The Center for Vision & Values,Grove CityCollege).

33. Ibid.

Civil Government: An Exposition of Romans 13:1-7 Part 3

Section II

General Considerations Enforcing the Duty of Obedience to Civil Rule.

For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. Verses 1, 2.

Having stated the duty, the apostle now proceeds to show the grounds on which it rests, insisting upon two classes of arguments, and

1. They derive their power from God, or in other words, government is a divine
institution, originating in, and of course, sanctioned by the will of God. For (1.)“There is no power but of God.” This is true, whatever sense we attach to the word “power.” All physical power — all executive energy, in every department of creation, is from God. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28.) In this sense the power of evil beasts and even of the devil, is from God. “By Him all things consist,” (Colossians 1:17). Again, if we understand by“power,” the possession of the reins of government, it is, certainly, through Him that kings are permitted to occupy their thrones and that, whatever the steps by which they may have succeeded to the seat of authority. Pharaoh was “raised up” in the course of that providence which controls all the affairs of men. God“gave the kingdom” to Jeroboam. The same hand “raised up” Cyrus, and our Lord expressly declares to Pilate, the unholy Roman governor, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given to thee from above,” (John 19: 11.) Even the devil has “power,” in this sense, from God. Does Paul mean no more than this? Assuredly he means something far different. This clause assigns a reason for that hearty subjection which the apostle had just enjoined. But,surely, the mere fact that one possesses “power,” can be no reason why his claims should be acknowledged, and his laws conscientiously obeyed. If so, the slave — ay, the slave who has been stolen from his own land and ignominiously held as a chattel — would be required to admit, as from God, the validity of his master’s claims. To throw off his chains, and make his way to his native home as a freeman, would be rebellion against God. No doctrine could be more agreeable than this to tyrants, and to all the panders to unholy power; for, if this be Paul’s meaning, there is no despot, no usurper, no bloody conqueror, but could plead the divine sanction and, more than this, the devil himself could lay the teachings of Paul under contribution to enforce his pre-eminently unholy authority. An interpretation which leads to such monstrous conclusions — that would bind the nations to the footstool of power with iron chains, and utterly crush every free aspiration — that would invest with the sanctions of the divine name the most flagrant usurpation and the most unrelenting despotism — stands self-condemned.

But we go further. Providence is not a rule of action. Sin and evil of all kinds exist in the course of the same providential administration, as that which furnishes a place for governments which contemn God and oppress mankind. And yet who claims for sin a divine sanction? Who denies to the suffering the right to rid themselves of their trials? Carry out this interpretation, and you furnish the bloody government of the Papal States an impregnable defense against the efforts of the liberators of Italy.

The truth is, the apostle has no reference here at all to anything but the
institution of government; [“Power is to be distinguished from persons; for
Paul loved polity and power; but Caligula and Nero he execrated as
monsters in nature, instruments of the devil, and pests of the human race.”
Lectures on Romans by Andrew Melville, Edin., 1850, p. 487.] and
designs to assert, and does assert, that there is no authority properly
exercised over men, but that which God has established. This is true in the largest sense: for man is God’s creature and subject, and he who sets up claims to dominion over him must be prepared to show that he exercises an authority of that sort and of that character which bears the stamp and sanction of divine institution. Had Paul, indeed, said no more, it might have been argued, with great plausibility, that he designed in this passage to give tyrants of the earth, what they have always claimed, the sanction of the Most High in their course of monstrous iniquity. Even then, however, we would have endeavored, and we think successfully, to vindicate the word of God against so abhorrent a conclusion. But Paul did not stop with these general assertions. He proceeds, as will presently appear, to define, with great distinctness and brevity, his own meaning: to designate the sort of “power” to which he alludes: not any and every existing government, but that which answers the end of its institution. In short, the design of this clause: “There is no power but of God,” is merely to assert the general principle that subjection is due to civil government, inasmuch as government is a divine institution. This appears more distinctly from what follows.

(2.) “The powers that be are ordained of God.” The prime fallacy of many commentaries on this entire passage consists in taking for granted that this phrase — this celebrated phrase — “the powers that be” — means all and any existing governments. This cannot be. The considerations already advanced, in setting aside a similar interpretation of the preceding clause, forbid it. Nor are there wanting others, equally conclusive. Of Israel it is said, referring to the establishment of an independent government by the ten tribes under Jeroboam, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew (approved) it not.” (Hosea 8: 4.) And the prophet Daniel, and afterwards the apostle John, expressly and frequently denominate the Roman Empire a “beast.” The former, a “beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it,” (Daniel 7:11.) The latter, a “beast having seven heads and ten horns, and on it horns ten crowns, and on its heads the name of blasphemy,” (Revelation 17:1.) Surely such a description was never given of a government that could lay any solid claim to be “ordained of God;” at least, in any other sense than the pestilence is God’s ordinance, existing in his providence, but to be shunned and banished as soon as possible.5 And, in fact, for this end, among others, the gospel is sent into the world. It is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands,” which is to “smite the great image (Daniel 2) and break it in pieces.” One ordinance of God, smiting, and breaking in pieces, another! The term “powers” here denote, as before, the institution of civil rule. This, with all other kinds of power that may be lawfully exercised among men, is “ordained of God.” In other words, the Most High has made provision for the exercise of civil authority. He has not left mankind to be controlled by no other government than that of parents over their children, of masters over their servants, of church rulers over private Christians. He has, also, provided for the setting up and administering of another kind of power, having its own peculiar ends, its rules, its limits, and its administrators — the power of civil government. God has willed the existence of a national organization and polity; and, in so doing, has fixed its ends, which it must subserve; has given it a supreme law, which it must observe; has bound it by limits which it may not pass over. In short, God has “ordained”civil government as Christ has ordained the ministry of reconciliation, not by merely willing its existence, but by prescribing its duties, its functions, its end, and its limitations.

No other meaning can be affixed to the language of the apostle, consistently with due reverence for Him who is the Holy One and the Just, the rightful and
beneficent moral Governor. Can it be, for a moment, believed, that God has
made man a social being — placed him in society, and thus necessitated, by the very laws of the human constitution, the establishment of civil rule, and that he has, after all, set no bounds to the authority, no hedge about the claims   of civil rulers? That, after all, He has left this whole matter to be lawfully managed, not by law, even His law, not by rule, but merely according to human caprice, or, what is far worse, human ambition, self-seeking, pride, and violence? And, then, as the issue of the matter, that in case a government exist, whatever the ends it aims at, whatever the principles that guide it administration, whether it be just or unjust, God-fearing or infidel, liberal or despotic, it exists, and He acknowledges it as “ordained” by Him, and as entitled to the regard, homage and obedience of its subjects? This cannot be. God is not so indifferent to His own glory, or to the welfare of man, and particularly of the church. He never intended, we may assert, with entire confidence, to sign, if we may so speak, a blank, and then leave man to fill it up according to his pleasure. Every attribute of God forbids this. Paul teaches no such doctrine.

The terms employed by the apostle, and the connection of the clauses, accord precisely with these views. He first asserts “power is not, except from God:”7 God alone is the source of legitimate authority. He is sovereign. Man is His. Power, not derived from God, is ever illegitimate. It is mere usurpation; as, for example, the Pope’s claim to reign in the church, and over the nations. The apostle then adds, in vindication of civil government, “the powers that be” — governmental institutions; “are arranged under God,”8 or if this be preferred, “by God.” There is such a “power” as that of civil rule. It is among the kinds of authority for which the Most High has made provision, and to which he has assigned the requisite laws and functions.

But we rest our interpretation upon no mere verbal criticism. God is the only source of power. And God has in the sense in which we have explained the term, “ordained” civil government. He is the source of power, that power of which Paul speaks, not as he endows with physical strength, or even as He opens the way, in his providence, for its successful employment in subjugating mankind; but as he has authorized the exercise of that particular kind of authority; of course, putting upon it, when measurably conformed to his institution, the impress of his own dignity, and the sanction of his law.9

Is it inquired, where this institution is found? The reply has been, in part, anticipated. In the constitution of man, and in the principles of piety, of equity, of beneficence, originally implanted in the human heart, but now, much more clearly, in the written Scriptures, which abound with instruction, addressed to rulers and people, and furnishing all the light mankind need for the organization and administration of the most salutary political regimen. The passage before us is an example. It is proper, however, to add, that instruction is given in the word of God, not so much in regard to the particular form which the government should assume, as in reference to the ends it should seek, the principles that should guide the administration, and the character of those into whose hands national affairs should be committed.

This is Paul’s first argument enforcing the duty of obedience, and to demonstrate that it is not beneath the dignity of the Christian to be subject to civil government. So far from offending Christ, such subjection honors him — for it is yielded to a divine institution, and for the same reason, it cannot safely be withheld. Hence Paul argues:

2. From the sin and danger of resisting civil authority, and

(1.) The sin. “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” —  Verse 2nd.

The distinction is still kept up between the institution —   “the ordinance” of God, and the magistrate in whose hands the reins of government happen to be found. “Whosoever resisteth the power.” A most important distinction. For, in truth, there are occasions when it is not merely lawful, but a matter of high and imperative duty, to resist authority. The case of the high priest, Azariah, and his brethren, who withstood Uzziah, the king of Judah, in his attempt to pass over the limits of his power and obtrude into the priest’s office, is well-known to every reader of the Bible: “It pertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord; but to the priests, the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary, for thou hast trespassed.” (I Chronicles 26:18) And still more to the purpose are the cases of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, and afterwards Daniel, who all refused compliance with laws enacted by the then supreme authority in Babylon (Daniel 3:6.) To the same effect is the refusal of Peter and John to obey the command of the Jewish magistracy “not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus.” They reply, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye,” (Acts 4:18, 19.) Indeed, until of late, the duty of refusing to obey the commands of the civil power, when they conflict with duty to God was never, so far as we know, denied by any bearing the name of Christian. It is certain that the advocates of the doctrine of “passive obedience and non-resistance” during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, did not go so far as this. The very terms in which they announced their doctrine make this manifest, “passive obedience, non-resistance.” They acknowledge a higher law than the enactments of human, and, of course, fallible, and often impious power. The first prominent enunciation of the principle of unlimited and unquestioning obedience, was reserved for an atheist — Hobbes of Malmesbury. Denying the existence of any fixed standard of right — and, consequently, of any such things as virtue and vice — this speculative philosopher resolved all the laws of morality into one — the will of the legislature. But who were his disciples?

None but the godless, the dissipated, the scorners of all that is sacred. The heart of England was shocked at the daring attempt to dethrone the Almighty. It was reserved for another age and another land to hear and assent to the
blasphemous assertion, that the law of the land overrides all other laws, and
must be obeyed under penalty of resisting the ordinance of God.

But we may go further, and assert that Paul did not intend, by the language
before us, to forbid even the forcible resistance of unjust and tyrannical civil
magistrates, not even when that resistance is made with the avowed design of
displacing offending rulers, or, it may be, the change of the very form of
government itself. There are few in this land, or in any free country, to deny the right of a nation to rid itself of oppressive power — whether foreign or domestic. The right of revolution, for the purpose of throwing off usurping or tyrannical rule, need not, now and here, be defended. That question was settled in England by the Revolution of 1688, when the nation, rising in its might, expelled James II as an enemy to the constitutional rights and liberties of the people. The separate national and independent existence of these United States is the fruit of successful revolution. And where is the American — the American Christian — who does not rejoice in the hope that the principles of liberty will spread and prevail, even though they be ultimately established upon the wreck of thrones demolished or overturned?

Does the Spirit of God here condemn these efforts of the nations to rid themselves of the yoke of despots? Does this passage rivet the chains of the oppressed? Certainly not. God denounces the oppressor. “Woe to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by wrong,” (Jeremiah 22:13.) “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness, which they have prescribed.” (Isaiah 10:1) And, to say nothing of the threatenings — repeated and awful — against the ungodly and oppressing powers, symbolized by the “beast” of Daniel and of the Revelation, we have the striking inquiry of Psalm 94:20: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with the, which frameth iniquity by a law?”

Now is it credible that notwithstanding these denunciations, the Most High does still forbid, under penalty of his high displeasure, all conflicts for liberty? That he so far takes under his patronage ungodly governments which despise his law and his Son — as to regard any opposition to their authority as opposition made to his own holy “ordinance” of magistracy? To persuade us of this, we may first demand the clearest evidence.

It is evident that the proper interpretation of this passage depends upon the
meaning of the phrase, “ordinance of God.” What then is its import? Does it
mean any and every government? Does it mean Phocas, who “waded to the
throne of the Roman Empire through seas of blood?” Does it mean that Joseph
of Austria, with his government, is the “ordinance of God” to Hungary? Does it
mean the government of the Pope and his cardinals, under which the Papal States groan? In short, is this term applied to any government merely from the fact that it exists?

Clearly not; for, then, the powers just mentioned must be also embraced in it — a conclusion equally repulsive to the Christian and to the friend of human liberty. And, besides, if this be its meaning, the very worst government has the very same right to demand unresisting subjection, as the very best, for both alike exist — exist in the same over-ruling and all-controlling providence; and both would be armed with the same high sanction: to “resist” either, would be to make the same assault upon the “ordinance of God!”

What, then, is its import? The reply has been already anticipated.10 It denotes God’s moral ordinance of civil government — it refers to such a government as Paul afterwards describes — a government which is “a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to them that do well” — a government that in due measure answers the ends of the institution of civil rule, a government of law, of equity, possessed of moral attributes, and ruling “under God,” by whom it has been “ordered,” for the execution of high and useful functions.

Who, then, resists? The reply is at hand, and conclusive. He who opposes the rightful exercise of civil rule; he who would attempt the overthrow of just and wholesome authority; he who endeavors to weaken the hands of the “higher powers” in their performance of the trust committed to them: he who rises   against the restraints imposed upon the lawless, the profane: he who willfully disturbs the peace, and interferes with the regular administration of justice: for such, and such alone, assail “the ordinance of God.” Indeed, we may well ask how this can possibly apply to any but those who invade the good order of the commonwealth by opposing wholesome rule? The end for which governments were established is, surely, more important than government itself, and much more important than the particular form, or the mere fact of the possession of power by this individual or that. How, then, can anyone be regarded as chargeable with the sin and crime of resisting God’s “ordinance,” who refuses to obey an unjust enactment, or who even goes so far as to attempt the overthrow of or remodeling of a government that is, by tyranny, or injustice, or ungodliness, working harm to society, and dishonor to God, and so tends to defeat the very ends for which the “ordinance” of civil rule was established? The commands of a maniac or drunken father may be disregarded — the wife or even the children taking the government into their own hands —  much more may institutions and laws be disregarded when these run counter, either in their constitution or administration, to the divine law, and thus tend to the manifest injury of the commonwealth.11

But does not this tend to the enfeebling of the claims of even legitimate authority? By no means. True, all institutions administered by human hands will, necessarily, bear the marks of human imperfection, and it may be difficult, in theory, to draw the line, and say, this much is requisite to constitute a government on which we may inscribe the title “the ordinance of God;” but, in practice, the difficulty will not be often very great — no greater than in many other departments of duty. Surely, we may go so far as to affirm, with confidence, that every “ordinance of God” will acknowledge his claims — the claims of His Son (we speak of governments in enlightened lands,) and the supremacy of His law, and will seek to promote the welfare of all the subjects or citizens.That this doctrine, moreover, is liable to be abused by the lawless, we admit. The opponents of the principle of “passive obedience” encountered the same objection. Says Bishop Hoadly, “The great objection against this, though it be all founded upon the will of God, who sincerely desires the happiness of public societies, is this, that it may give occasion to subjects to disturb and oppose their superiors. But, certainly, a rule is not therefore bad, because men may mistake in the application of it to particular instances; or because evil men may, under the umbrage of it, satisfy their own passions and unreasonable humors; though these latter, as they are disposed to public disturbance, would certainly find out some other pretence for their behavior, if they wanted this. The contrary doctrine to what I have been delivering, we know, by an almost fatal experience, may be very much abused; and yet that is not the reason why it ought to be rejected, but because it is not true. Every man is to give an account for his sins; and the guilt of those who, under any pretence whatsoever, disturb the government of such as act the part of good rulers, is so great, that there cannot be a stronger motive than this against resistance and opposition to such.”12 It may be added that every argument on behalf of civil liberty may also be abused, and equally, the doctrines of grace. And yet, after all, we need not much fear any liability to abuse in the application of this principle, provided it be rightly understood; for its very basis and groundwork is that God has ordained civil society and organization, and that existing institutions are only to be resisted when they fail to answer the ends for which government has been established among divine ordinances, while — and this is the apostle’s argument—  to “resist” a government which is really an “ordinance of God” is a sin of heinous character. This is plainly taught when Paul proceeds to enforce subjection,

(2.) From the danger of resistance. And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation, (              – condemnation,) v.2. From what quarter? from the government, or from God? That the apostle designed no more than to assert the fact that such as impugn the authority of government, or resist its commands, or oppose themselves to its authority, will meet with civil punishment, does not appear probable. This would be to assert a fact too well-known to require so emphatic and solemn an enunciation. Of course, no government will tamely allow its injunctions to be set at naught, so long as it bears the sword. And, moreover, it seems hardly consistent with the high and religious tone of the entire passage, to understand this clause as having no higher reference than to the infliction of civil punishment upon the disorderly and rebellious. What immediately precedes contains a pretty distinct intimation, as has already been remarked, of the fact that “resistance” to legitimate authority is not only a sin, but a sin of a heinous character. Nor are more express declarations to the same effect wanting elsewhere in the Word of God. We may refer to the case of Korah and the princes of Judah, whom God visited with a most signal token of his wrath for this very sin. “They went down alive into the pit.” (Numbers 16) And all remember the sad story of Absalom, who also died in the same sin in an attempt to overturn a lawful power.13

Still, we are not to infer that the sin of resisting civil rule involves necessarily eternal ruin. It deserves “condemnation.” God sees it. It highly offends Him. He will vindicate His own “ordinance.” And why not? If it be, as it certainly is, a most beneficial one — if it promote directly every temporal interest, and, at least, indirectly bears upon the moral and religious welfare of the community — if successful resistance to good government opens the flood gates to violence, irreligion, vice, and misery — if no interest can flourish when good laws are not well administered — can it be regarded as unworthy of the Divine Spirit to attach this emphatic sanction to the institution of civil rule — to assert, in this explicit form, that God will mark with his evident disapprobation every act of resistance to the righteous exercise of magistratical power?

On these high grounds, then, does Paul enforce subjection to the “higher powers.” Government is from God — to resist, is to resist his “ordinance,” and “he that resists receives a righteous ‘condemnation.’”14 


1. That civil government is, as an institution, from God. — National organization is not the mere creature of the voluntary action of the inhabitants of a particular country or district. It is their province, indeed, to establish the particular institutions by which they are to be guided and governed; and in this sense, political arrangements are “the ordinance of man,” (I Peter 2:13.) Still, it is not optional with men whether such an institution as civil government exist at all. God has “ordained” it. And it is important to remark, that government once set up, its rights and prerogatives are not wholly determined by the popular will. To some extent they certainly are; but in others they, as certainly, are not. The Most High has fixed the leading ends of all civil rule;15 and has also defined, to some extent, the means to be employed in effecting these. It is not optional, for example, with any people, whether they shall commit to the magistracy the power of inflicting death upon the murderer — the law of God determines this. It is a subtle question, and one that in some respects possesses a practical importance — whether civil power is, in the aggregate, a collection made up of contributions of rights thrown in by individual members of the commonwealth — each resigning a portion of his own. By no means. No man has a right to take his own life, and yet society has the right to inflict capital punishment, and, moreover, such a notion is entirely inadmissible on another ground. Man was made for society, and, hence, so far is he from being necessarily restricted in his rights in the social state, that it is as a member of society alone, that he can enjoy all the privileges and perform all the duties of manhood.

In short, while the people of a country have in their own hands the setting up of their government, and the choice of rulers — when this is once done, and rightly done—  the authority by which the government is administered is to be regarded as derived from the divine institution of the ordinance of magistracy. Hence,

2. The principle standard by which this institution is to be measured is the Word of God. — This may be inferred directly from the fact that the scriptures treat so fully on the subject. It appears in each Testament, and in every form of instruction. There are didactic passages — such as that before us. Of this character are the teachings and the precepts of the moral law, which contains a complete exhibition of all that relates to the ends, the principles, the methods of civil rule — and much of the detail respecting magistratical duties, and their correlates, the duties of subjects and citizens. The narratives of the Bible largely illustrate its didactic rules and precepts. It abounds with exemplifications both of good and bad governments, and the issues of the one and of the other. Much of prophecy, both of the Old Testament and of the New, is designed to shed light upon the subject of civil polity, and the divine administrations respecting it.

Where else can this be learned? Not from the light of nature merely. True, the
essential principles of social organization, and even of political regimen, are
contained in the moral law, and that law is the same that was inscribed upon the heart of man at his creation. But the “law of nature” — the law as a complete rule of human duty is man’s primitive condition — the light that is now in man is too feeble to discern it in anything like its holiness and perfection. To reject the Word of God in this, as in any other department of duty, is, to use the words of John Brown of Haddington, “an obstinate drawing back to heathenism.”

There is still another reason why we must refer to the scriptures, and make them the supreme standard. There, and there alone, do we ascertain the now essential principle of right civil rule, the Headship of Jesus Christ: for “He is made head over all things to the church,” (Ephesians 1:22.) To Him “all judgment is committed,” (John 5:22.) He is “Prince of the kings of the earth,” (Romans 1:5.) And not merely do we learn this fact, but having ascertained it, we are led at once to the conclusion that to His own Word must we now address ourselves, if we would become acquainted with that institution itself of which He so plainly claims the supremacy.

3. Disorderly and seditious behavior is here most signally rebuked. — The ordinance of magistracy, rightly set up and administered, ranks among the most important: in some respects, it is first of the institutions with which men have to do. And social order is of itself “of great price.” How wrong to disturb it by disorderly and lawless conduct. It is sometimes, indeed, a matter of no little moment to determine were the guilt lies! We would not style any either disorderly or seditious, who are contending in a right spirit against the corruptions of the State, or of the public administration of affairs. Sometimes the rulers themselves are the disturbers of the peace, and upon them falls the threatening of this passage. However, we now speak of the seditious and disorderly, of those who are such in a community where a scriptural magistracy and wholesome rule are in operation. These are to be regarded as chargeable with an offense of no inferior turpitude; as deserving of the most severe reprobation, and as fit subjects for punitive inflictions. And, it may be added, that the spirit of peace and order should, as far as possible, characterize the conduct of those who dissent from unholy and oppressive governments, and attempt their reformation.


5 “So are fevers, plagues, fires, inundations, tempests, and the like. And yet Almighty God not only permits, but requires us to use all prudent methods of resisting and stopping their fury, but is far from expecting that we should lie down, and do nothing to save ourselves from perishing in such calamities. So likewise are robbers and cut-throats God’s judgments, but this doth not prove that you must submit yourselves and families to be ruined at their pleasure. So again are inferior magistrates, if they make use of their power to fall with violence upon their neighbors, and attempt their lives, or the ruin of their families; and yet they may be resisted, and their illegal violence repelled by violence. And so, lastly, are foreign enemies and invaders, always reckoned amongst God’s judgments, and amongst the most remarkable of them; and yet there is no necessity, I hope, from hence, of tamely submitting ourselves to them: and no argument from hence, against the lawfulness or honorableness of resisting them. Either, therefore, let it be shown, that this objection holds good in other of God’s judgments; or, that there is something peculiar in this to exempt it from the common rule; or let it be acknowledged that it signifies nothing in the present case.” Hoadly’s Submission to the Powers that be. London, 1718, p. 85. Hoadly presents this, it will be seen, as an answer to the objection, that bad government are to be submitted to, and not thrown off, because they are judgments of God. It comes in as well here.

6 The marginal translation, “ordered,” is rather better than that of the text.


8 *We here quote from the commentary of Andrew Melville. He says, “The third argument is taken from the order divinely constituted under God — for the glory of God; for so I interpret, &c. Not so much ‘from God’ which has already been said, as ‘powers are arranged under God.’ Which with the article —— he calls— as if he had said, &c., ‘which are truly powers’ and deserve the name. Whence, an impious and unjust tyranny, which is not of God,—-as—-such,—-nor accords with the divine order, he excludes, as illegitimate, from this legitimate obedience.” Comment. p. 497.

9 “And this may serve to explain yet farther in what sense these higher powers are from God; viz., as they act agreeably to his will, which is, that they should promote the happiness and good of human society, which Paul all along supposes them to do. And consequently, when they do the contrary, they cannot be said to be from God, or to act by his authority, any more than an inferior magistrate may be said to act by a prince’s authority, while he acts directly contrary to his will.” Hoadly, p. 5.

10 See page 23.

11 “Now this being the argument of the apostle, all that we can possibly collect from his injunctions in this place is this: That it is the indispensable duty of subjects to submit themselves to such governors as answer the good end of their institution; to such rulers as he here describes; such as are not a terror to good works, but to the evil; such as promote the public good, and are continually attending upon this very thing.” Hoadly, p. 7.

12 Hoadly, pp. 10, 11.

13 Hodge says, “Paul does not refer to the punishment which the civil magistrate may inflict, for he is speaking of disobedience to those in authority as a sin against God, which he will punish.”

14 See Appendix C.

15 The fact, and what these ends are, will be the subject of our next section.