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

Seeking Justice in the International Arena: A Christian Vocation?

Steven E. Meyer


August 23, 2013

By Steven E. Meyer

Promoting justice, both domestically and internationally, has always been of paramount importance for the Center for Public Justice and Christians in general.  By justice, we have in mind right (i.e. moral) action; rectitude. However, establishing concrete action that is just has always been a difficult proposition; one person’s justice easily can be another person’s injustice.  Philosopher Simone Weil once said that “there is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime, namely repressive justice.”  

There are as many understandings of justice in the United States as there are currents of political, social, and religious thought. Even Christians, who share a common commitment to basic faith principles, have no consensus about what justice means. In the domestic realm, some people see justice in providing public money for private education; others do not.  Some argue that the principles espoused by the Tea Party movement represent the principles of a just society; others see them exactly the opposite. Some Americans accept capital punishment as the just reward for the most heinous crimes; others think it is state-sanctioned murder.

The same holds true for our definition of justice in today’s international arena where historically, justice has essentially been the purview of the state. While many concepts have swirled through the history of American interaction with the broader world—democracy, republicanism, imperialism, equality, isolationism, engagement, freedom— nothing captures the American international experience more fully than the concept of American “exceptionalism.” By that we mean the idea that the United States is a special nation with a “manifest destiny” bestowed on us by God Himself to bring justice to the rest of the world. As a great power for much of our history, we think of ourselves in the terms of Blaise Pascal’s admonition: “Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful may be just.” 

Has this admonition proven true for us? We must consider the context of time and place to judge. 

During the period between the Civil War and World War I, the United States played the same imperial game played by almost every other great power and we did so very often “to bring Christianity and civilization” to those who were not as blessed as we were. We understood justice in terms of the “white man’s burden.”

When we were fighting Fascism and Communism, the enemies were easily identified and justice clearly defined. The United State’s enormous power during most of the twentieth century also made the geometry so much easier. We were a rising country and no one could match either our strength or our monopoly on justice. From the perspective of power, whether our actions were just or not is irrelevant. Our actions were just simply because we said they were. This began to change almost as soon as the Cold War ended; we saw the need to redefine the world order, but we never have been able to pull it off. This has left us embroiled in deadly and costly missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Since the end of the Cold War, the structure and function of the global map has been changing rapidly and dramatically and with it the question of how we define justice and what instruments we use to pursue justice. The state will be with us for many years to come and, depending on circumstances, it will be crucial to issues of justice. But the state now must share pride of place on the global stage. Non-state actors have become increasingly important, to the point where we must redefine concepts such as sovereignty, power, and legitimacy. No longer can the United States—or any state—sit astride the world and dictate action and outcome. The financial costs alone of world domination are now well beyond our capability, and the rise of other states and non-state actors have significantly reduced our ability to define justice and impose our will.

This actually means that there are greater options for non-state actors, especially the Church, to define and pursue justice. So how does the Church, and other organizations with it, define and agree upon justice in the globalizing world?  Perhaps a way forward is to examine the world’s most pressing problems in light of Scripture. Arguably, issues of peace, poverty, and environmental stewardship are the three most critical issues facing so many people in the world today and Scripture contains literally hundreds of passages dealing with these problems. Is the Church responsible, now more than ever, for dealing with them, perhaps even in concert with the state and other non-state actors? Can—must—the Church lead, even if it is only in a small, measured way?

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of 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.”