A follow-up to the 'sin of opinion'
Last week’s post on the ‘sin of opinion’ prompted a thoughtful email from Michael Payne (no relation), asking a good and obvious question. Granted that social media opinionating is often a folly, is there a wise alternative? Michael put it like this:
Surely we are called to seek Justice and Mercy, while walking humbly with our God, and that may lead to expressing opinions to influence those we relate to and our local MPs?
One example is that the PM’s Christianity seems amazingly unresponsive to the asylum seekers, Australian IS wives, however unwise they were, now stranded in Northern Syria with their children, and even the 10,000 Australians in India who are increasingly at risk yet cannot come home. I do hope my concerns are motivated by love for others as a child of God. They reveal themselves in my opinions. How then should I go ahead, with the possible sin of opinion?
Is there a good or wise way to share opinions or influence others? Or in general to contribute in a constructive way to the to-and-fro of our democracy? Or should we just pipe down, and get on with something else more useful?
This is not an easy question to answer, since it involves an understanding of ‘justice’, and of how Christians should be engaged in the political processes of our society. And sketching a theory of justice and political theology, and wise Christian involvement in these, in a breezy 1000 words … not so easy!
Let me try to lay some building blocks, and see how far we get.
A good foundation stone is the famous verse in Micah 6:8 that Michael alludes to. God tells disobedient Israel to stop seeking alternative ways to please him, and to focus on what he has already shown them is good: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.
Interestingly, the verse speaks of doing justice, and this tells us something very important about justice (and about our opinions).
Justice is an action, not a viewpoint. It is something that is done when a legitimate right is honoured—that is, when someone gives or receives what is owed according to some righteous standard or law.
Justice requires a judgement—that is, an assessment of what is ‘just’ (according to a standard or right or law) and a granting of that right to the relevant person.
This can be relatively simple: if I sell a golf club on ebay (to reduce the growing stash of useless implements in the garage), the personal doing of justice requires an accurate description, a fair price, and a smooth exchange of golf club for cash with the buyer.
But doing justice is often complicated. What if there is a dispute between the buyer and me about the sale? The facts of the situation would have to be established—and they are often contestable—and a decision must be made as to which rights or standards are relevant, and how they should be applied.
‘Doing justice’ requires investigation and thinking. It involves ‘judging’. It begins with an interrogation of reality—with the careful establishing of what really happened here. It then requires a deliberation as to which rights or standards are relevant to this particular situation, and what implementing them would involve. And it concludes with a resolution to act, and the subsequent granting of what justice requires.
And to make it even more complicated, justice doesn’t stand alone. It is to be practised, Micah 6 suggests, alongside a loving concern for others (not merely with the abstract interests of ‘right’ and ‘justice’ in mind), and with an ongoing recognition of our lowly status before God (‘to walk humbly’ with him).
So ‘doing justice’ really takes some doing.
Very importantly, it is always done by a particular person or persons—by those who have been given the responsibility or authority to do the ‘judging’ in a situation (the investigating, the deliberating, the resolving, the outcome).
When I’m with the kids in aisle 12 at Woollies and a dispute breaks out, that ‘judge’ is me. And it’s a tough gig. How on earth am I supposed to know who hit whom, who started it, what punishment or restitution is fair, and how to administer it—all while enduring the pitying and judgmental stares of the other shoppers?
But it is my responsibility. I may receive input from the other shoppers in the aisle. One of them may have seen who started it. Another may pipe in with a piece of homely or encouraging advice. But if the shoppers of aisle 12 were to gather in a circle and start a heated debate about what I could do, or should do, or haven’t done, and what these events say about the whole culture of my family—well I think I’d leave all my kids with them, and finish my shopping in peace. (And imagine if one of them filmed the whole thing and instagrammed it. Before long, ‘Aisle 12 Dad’ would be a thing, and half the world would have a view about it, and … see my previous column on the ‘sin of opinion’.)
The point is: I’m the one who has to take responsibility for the ‘judging’ in aisle 12, not only because I actually know the kids and the situation (and can predict with some certainty which one started it), but because it is my responsibility and burden to ‘do justice’, and to live with the consequences.
Doing justice is a difficult and weighty task, and is done by those with the position and authority to do so—whether domestically or communally or within a whole society. With some trepidation, and with a knowledge that they will frequently get it wrong, we set aside people within our society, and grant them authority to administer justice on our behalf—local, state and federal governments, and the various tribunals and courts that they appoint and administer.
The task of judging, or doing justice, is the primary task of political and judicial authority. In fact, as Romans 13:1-7 says, God puts rulers and authorities in place for this very reason.
This is why (to get back to Michael’s letter) Scott Morrison has the responsibility (along with the entire apparatus of government) to make judgements about asylum seekers, IS wives, and repatriating Australians from India. He (with the help of others in government) is the one who has to investigate and understand the various complex factors, deliberate as to which principles of justice and mercy apply, and make a judgement.
Very often, our opinionating about government decisions (‘judgements’) has all the value of the shoppers in aisle 12 debating how I should discipline my kids, or of the instagram crowd piling on with their intensely held views. We are mostly or wholly ignorant of the details of the situation, and of the various complexities in play. We don’t have to consider the conflicting rights and interests of different parties, or the wider or longer-term consequences of different options for the whole society. And we don’t bear the burden of having to resolve upon a course of action, and to bear the consequences.
The responsibility for judging, in other words, is not ours. And yet often we carry on as if it is. Or as if ‘doing justice’ was a simple matter that can be settled by watching a video clip or reading a newspaper article. (A low point in the commentary about the George Floyd trial was this tweet by TV host Chelsea Handler: “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so”.)
We’ve slapped down some rough foundations about the nature of justice, judging and political authority. Justice and judging is something that is done, and to do it requires searching out the truth of what has happened, a thoughtful deliberation of what principles or standards apply, and a resolution to act. It’s a responsibility that we undertake personally and domestically and communally with each other; but at a broader social level we elect or appoint people to fulfil this responsibility—to ‘do justice’, to make judgements. This is the key function of political authority.
But we haven’t yet answered Michael’s questions. What should be our involvement as citizens, and particularly as Christian citizens, in the judgements of the political authorities? Should we express an opinion, or seek to persuade the judge in some way? If so, how? What is our role as Christian citizens within our society?
Many of the answers are in Romans 13, and in next week’s edition I’ll tease out what they are.
But in the meantime (so as not to leave you entirely frustrated), we can certainly say this much: the extent of our appropriate involvement in any particular instance of ‘doing justice’ (to speak to it, to argue about it, to present our case to the judge), should be directly proportional to our ability to interrogate and understand the truth of the situation, and to deliberate about it thoughtfully. The further removed we are, and the less we know, the less we should say.
Which means that, in a great many instances, we should say little or nothing.
This is one of the free public editions of The Payneful Truth, and normally next week’s post would be ‘partner only’. But since it would seem mean (or even unjust!) to leave you free-listers hanging, I’ll make next week’s post a freebie as well.