Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Public Justice and the Security Gap

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

June 9, 2014

On June 2nd, a particularly horrifying case of rape in northern India made headlines in major American newspapers. Two young girls were raped and murdered, their bodies left hanging in a tree. The girls were only the latest victims, not of an epidemic, but of an ingrained practice from which authorities usually look away. When the rapes were discovered, the girls’ families chose to leave their bodies as they found them to try to ensure the visibility of the crimes and the possibility of justice. At this writing, two arrests have been made, with other alleged perpetrators thought to be still at large.

The same day this story broke, another caught my eye. The Anglican archbishop of Egypt, the Right Reverend Mouneer Anis, issued a brief statement in support of the election of Field Marshal Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi as the country’s next president. The archbishop acknowledged the controversial circumstances in which Al-Sisi removed President Mohammed Morsi from power, but described him as risking his life to take “this important decision.” He went on: “I personally think that President Al-Sisi is the right choice at this time because Egypt needs a president who can reestablish the security of the country. Without security, tourism and the economic situation will not improve.”

Achieving public justice requires that we acknowledge its multiple dimensions and bring appropriate strategies and judgments to bear on them. At the Center for Public Justice’s Kuyper Lecture last month, Victor Boutros explained that the world’s poor are denied justice as much through violence as through hunger or other deprivation. The “locust effect” (as he and co-author Gary Haugen title their 2014 book) refers to the way everyday violence in poor communities devours even the meager resources the poor have accumulated. Distinct from the horrors of genocide and civil war, rape, slave labor, extortion, and forced prostitution create an atmosphere of violence and intimidation on a daily basis for the poorest of the poor. The most unusual feature of the recent murders in India is the arrest of suspects. All too often, law enforcement looks away or intimidates the victims’ families.

Haugen and Boutros’s arguments also apply to American society. As economic inequality lurches unevenly into political view, most of the debate focuses on economic policy and the roles of governments and markets. Relatively few analysts have drawn attention to the security gap between rich and poor as basic to the inequality conundrum. Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2012 does this. His conclusion that poor and wealthy communities are separated along the lines of industriousness, marriage, religiosity, and crime rates underscores the need to give each of these its due.

Archbishop Mouneer faces a different dilemma. The military overthrow of a democratically elected leader casts a shadow over the recent elevation of Al-Sisi—its instigator—to the presidency. But the elected leadership did not provide basic security for Egypt’s communities, and the Morsi regime seems to have given at least tacit encouragement to violence against some religious communities. The return of civilian rule is welcome, but no less than the restoration of the measure of security the archbishop rightly commends. But he recognizes that this has come at a high price in political trust, especially among Morsi’s younger supporters. Public justice calls for wisdom and prudence.

It also calls for commonsense psychology. As its demonstration projects have shown, the International Justice Mission (IJM) has found that if the minority of public officials who seek true justice can be incentivized through job retention, promotion, etc., to practice it, then the fence-sitting majority of officials are more likely to emulate them than to fall for the temptations of the willfully and cynically corrupt.

Do Christians think too narrowly about public justice? I think we do. We need to grapple with the scope and limits of government, the dignity of persons, and the responsibilities of civil society. Bringing biblical resources to this task is vital. But we have to move the Christian vision of society from the drawing board to the social, political, and psychological circumstances of the world. Abraham Kuyper understood this. What he presented as the principle of sphere sovereignty should be understood less as a blueprint for society and more as a creed for an obedient stewardship that pleases God.

As we confront the disobedience manifested in rape, murder, and enslavement—the security gap that mocks the dignity of the poor in our world—we should, as IJM does, make full use of public justice’s elemental resource: prayer.

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”