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

Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

June 2, 2014

This article is based on remarks given in response to the 2014 Kuyper Lecture “Public Justice – A Matter of Life and Death for the World’s Poor” delivered by Victor Boutros, coauthor of The Locust Effect (2014).

I’m a runner. To look at me you’ll know that’s a bit generous, so let’s say I’m a jogger. I’ve been jogging now for a little over five years. Where I live in Hamilton is nestled right next to an escarpment. My route takes me up “the mountain” – which is a mountain in the same way that I’m “a runner” – and back down again.

About a month ago, I was running in the late afternoon when I got flagged down by another runner. I was startled. As an introvert and an unattractive jogger, I like to keep to myself and to extend the same courtesy to others: namely, to firmly pretend they don’t exist. This runner stopped me, told me that he had seen me running every day for years now – a polite exaggeration I thanked him for – and that I had “inspired him to do the same,” and I had “changed his life.” He shook my hand and ran off, leaving me badly shaken.

I share this story with you because it brought to mind The Locust Effect. In fact, since I read The Locust Effect, I have thought of Victor Boutros every single time I have taken a jog.

Let me first say that The Locust Effect is an incredibly important book. It’s not only a moving and readable account of the indivisibility of public justice, but it is a highly accessible one to diverse audiences, from Foreign Affairs, where a précis of its argument appeared in 2010, to Christianity Today, to Oxford University Press, which published it. The book, its authors, and the International Justice Mission, deserve three cheers. It is an extremely timely intervention at a time when people of faith in America are starting to turn their minds again to what lasting, sustainable change means; not just clarifying When Helping Hurts – as it seems every Christian college campus and youth group in America now knows – but clarifying how to make helping last. Showing us how, in the words of Abraham Kuyper in 1889, “we must courageously and openly acknowledge that the situation calls not only for a physician but most certainly for the architect as well.” Or, in the words of Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, we must redress “the most fundamental and the most broken system” in the developing world: the justice system. 

But at the same time, I think the title of the book misses out on a key Augustinian insight that my jogging friend got. The Locust Effect rightly points out that no justice system can restrain the onslaught of mass disobedience. But it misses a critical clue when it argues that in America, for example, justice flourishes because of the threat of a properly functioning justice system. But is it just the threat? Do I – or we – obey our laws simply because of the coercive power of the state and of our justice institutions? Is it only your sure knowledge of state punishment that keeps you seated politely as we speak, and not vaulting out of your chairs to savage the head table of wallets and keys before going on a crazed bender?

I watch a lot of trashy television, and I’ve seen this story before. It’s Hobbes’s Leviathan, and it’s played out in The Hunger Games, Divergent, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, take your pick. It’s also played out fairly unproblematically in The Locust Effect, which approvingly quotes Thomas Hobbes several times.

But Hobbes is wrong. Or at least, he’s not entirely right. It’s not merely the coercive power of the state that restrains anarchy and “the state of nature”; it is also our formed desire in communities of virtue. I don’t live in special fear of my neighbor robbing or raping me not only because of the working apparatus of peace, order, and good government that we Canadians cherish, but also because I know my neighbor has had his desires formed in such a way that he actually doesn’t want to do that. This is the insight that people like David Naugle or Jamie Smith give us in their popular accounts of Augustine: the key to public justice isn’t for us to “follow our hearts” and the state will restrain us if we get out of hand. The key to public justice is for us to “discipline our hearts,” to be attentive to the formation of our desires. Or, as the Psalmist puts it more pointedly, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By meditating on God’s law, day and night.”

I found this a striking absence in The Locust Effect, and one that undermines the titled metaphor. The high water mark of a functioning public justice system is not merely one with wide resources and great response times, it’s one whose laws play a modest, but at most supportive role, in the formation of communities of virtue. Daniel Philpott, Monica Toft, and Timothy Shah write in God’s Century that resurgent religious communities are probably the essential actors in this century for building social and public goods. I am reminded, in fact, of the 1994 book by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson: Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Twenty years later, it’s still missing.

Public justice depends on virtues that laws cannot make and values that markets cannot sell. This is one of the reasons places like the Institute for Global Engagement make such long arguments for building sustainable environments for religious freedom.

This is something my new runner friend knows. No coercive power put him out on the trails; it was a formed desire, built slowly via ritual repetition, and – yes – a little “neighborhood modeling.” The ordering of our desires is the root of the swarm, and no mere political shield can hold back prolonged disordering of our desires. We in North America would do well to remember that.

At one point on that same running trail, we cross a four-lane highway. It’s a busy one, so the city installed a pedestrian crossing button. This is when I think of Victor Boutros: when I press that button, four lanes of busy traffic come to a halt for colored lights, and I, mere mortal that I am, cross unharmed. That’s Her Majesty’s peace being kept without a police cruiser within a dozen city blocks. And it seems to me, the better answer for why that’s the case is not Thomas Hobbes, but St. Augustine.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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