This was an important article a few years ago in light of the two historic Supreme Court judgments involving California’s Prop 8 and DOMA. It’s even more important given the acerbity surrounding the recent freedom of religion bills in Indiana and others states, and sweet grandma’s being dragged to court for not materially supporting gay weddings.
Let’s get something straight:
While gay marriage might be a constitutional imperative in a democratic republic, it certainly isn’t a Christian or biblical one.
Over the past several years, several pro-gay Christians have sounded the drum beat, along with the rest of culture, that gay marriage is an issue of justice. Particularly over the past few months as things have heated up in North Carolina and now in the White House, liberal Christians who advocate for same-sex marriage say it is an issue of social justice.
They lump this issue in with a whole host of other social justice issues, claiming, for instance, that the right for gay and lesbians to marry is as much an issue of justice as the right for black people and white people to marry each other was a generation ago.
The problem with this argument is that it has much more to do with Rawlsian social and political theory than anything remotely to do with the historic Christian faith, not to mention God and His Holy Scriptures.
Their understanding of justice is Rawlsian, not Christian.
A few days ago I was reminded of my undergraduate studies of John Rawls, the 20th century American political and social theorist, and his “justice as fairness” slogan—I knew my BA in Political Science would come in handy one of these days! In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that justice should be defined as fairness; justice as fairness is the central idea and aim of a constitutional democracy (TJ, xi) According to Rawls and his definition of justice:
justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled. (TJ, 3-4)
Thus, radical equality and individualism form the foundation to Rawls’ concept of social justice, as well as our own contemporary Western democratic concept of justice.
What is fair is at root in this justice, not what is right(eous).
And therein lies the problem for my liberal Christian friends’ argument:
God’s concept of justice has nothing to do with fairness or equality or individualism. God’s concept of justice has everything to do with righteousness, with the way things are supposed to be, which usually seems absolutely unfair to our 21st century, fallen sensibilities and grates against the hyper-individualism of modern democracies.
Sharply contrasting our modern concepts of justice is the Holy Scriptures definition of justice.
Early Jewish views of the cosmological order are conveyed by the Hebrew word tsedaqah, which is usually translated as “righteousness” or “justice.” The Greek word, dikaiosune , embodies the foundational ground rules that govern the relationship between YHWH and his people, and all humanity.
Biblical justice centers around YHWH’s character and His social ideal, which focuses on the theological and ethical norms established by God Himself. In other words: Justice is the way it’s supposed to be, which flows from God’s righteous character.1
The Torah gives some practical examples of how we are to practice tsedaqah/righteousness.
Such examples include: judging impartially, showing charity, taking care of the orphan and widow (symbols of the oppressed), and avoiding idolatry.2 In other words: Justice is the way things are supposed to be. And God is the one who gets to decide the way things are supposed to be, which flows from His own righteous character and, well, the fact He’s the Creator of the cosmos!
Several Psalms exemplify what we’re talking about here:
Ps 9:8—”He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” (Here the other term for righteousness/justice is used: mishpat, a word that means judgement. So righteousness and judgment are intertwined.)
Ps 45:7—”You love righteousness and hate wickedness;” (YHWH loves the way it’s supposed to be)
Ps 89:14—”Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;” (The very foundation of God’s throne is righteousness and justice—the way things are supposed to be.)
How about some Proverbs:
Prov 14:34—”Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” (Here, the way things are supposed to be is contrasted with the way things aren’t supposed to be—one exalts a nation and the other condemns them. Of course that which exalts and condems a nation is decided by something/Someone outside that nation, not by themselves!)
Prov 21:21—”Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity, and honor.” (So whoever pursues the way things are supposed to be will find life, prosperity, and honor—all three have nothing to do with fairness, but with righteousness.)
And of course biblical justice/righteousness is rooted in the character of God himself.
Isaiah 5 says that “YHWH of hosts will be exalted by His mishpat—justice/judgment, and the Holy God will be proved by his tsedaqah—His righteousness.”
God decides the way things are supposed to be, and judges people accordingly. God’s righteousness is not at all concerned with our own notions of fairness, equality, and justice. Instead, God is entirely concerned with that which conforms to His own holy character, to the way things are supposed to be—of which homosexual practice and the modern social construct of “same-sex marriage” do not conform.
Justice and righteousness are the foundation of God’s throne. Fairness is not.
And YHWH, the Creator of the Universe gets to decide the way things are supposed to be, not John Rawls or Barak Obama or the Supremes.
So, my “progressive” Christian friends who want to advocate for the right of gay and lesbians to marry whom ever they choose to love, please take note: argue all you want for the constitutionality of same-sex marriage and the right for gay people to marry on the grounds of “justice” in the justice-as-fairness Rawlsian sense.
But please do not make this an issue of justice—it isn’t, at least in the biblical sense. Because neither homosexual practice nor gay marriage are righteous—neither are they the way things are supposed to be.
- See Kyong-Jin Lee, “Righteousness/Justice,” Page 1151 in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Ed. John J. Collins and Daniel Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, 1151. [↩]
- Lee, EDEJ, 1151 [↩]