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

To Do Justice and Love Mercy: Why the Common Good Depends on Sphere Sovereignty and Virtue

Clay Cooke


March 30, 2012

by Clay Cooke

The Old Testament book of Micah pointedly captures the political task set before us: “And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice and love mercy.”  The 19th-20th century Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper, elaborates on Micah’s remarks in his doctrine of sphere sovereignty. This doctrine asserts that creation’s “spheres”—for example art, education, business, politics—are internally ordered to operate “after their own kind.”  Kuyper contends, for instance, that the sphere of politics is organized for the purpose of justice.  So as Christians, whether we are considering policies related to tax rates, immigration or education reform, our ambition is to seek and establish justice. 

Liberalism and democracy, which are foundational principles of the American political system, strive to promote justice as well. Yet, these philosophies inevitably attempt to enact justice in terms of their own ideological assumptions.  In viewing politics through the wide aperture of Scripture, however, a Kuyperian conception of sphere sovereignty sees justice in terms of shalom.  From this standpoint, the goal of the state is to enable individuals, communities and all creational spheres to develop in accordance with their Divinely implanted structures.  

Nevertheless, while sphere sovereignty provides a framework for considering shalom in context, it does not form the dispositions, motives and character traits in us that are essential to discerning and actualizing this shalom.  For unless a person has an adequately formed character, she will be unable to see the richness of the “spheres” correctly.  Abraham Kuyper’s successor, Herman Bavinck, stresses that, in addition to sphere sovereignty, cultivating virtue is vital to the pursuit of public justice. 

In his 1918 article entitled The Imitation of Christ in the Modern World, Bavinck maintains that the way a Christian should “be” is cruci-formed—morally shaped and disposed toward the pattern of the cross. Cruciformity was not merely an abstract principle for Bavinck, who applied the principle to soldiers on the front lines in WWI. Bavinck knew that war could shape soldiers in multifarious ways—toward anxiety, fearful seclusion, numbness, rage, vengeance, etc.  He also knew that these tendencies were threats to establishing peace.  As a result, he concluded that, insofar as war was intimately tied to the preservation of justice, soldiers on the battlefield needed to be cruci-formed in order to rightly perceive of, and then fight, for justice.  It was imperative for Christians, including those on the battlefield,  to imitate Christ by taking up their crosses.

If we relate Bavinck’s message to our 21st century circumstances, we can contend that being cruci-formed remains essential to perceiving and instituting the common good.  An effective way to illustrate this point is to imagine two individuals who attend a symphony.  While the first person possesses no musical training, education or real interest in the symphony, the second has spent her life studying, practicing and sharpening her skills in the art of music.  When the former attends the symphony, her experience will likely lack real depth and nuance.  Yet when the latter attends, she will encounter the music in its full richness and detail.  She will recognize the distinct sounds of the brass, woodwind, string and percussion instruments, as well as how they all work together to make a unified sound; she will pinpoint the harmonies and melodies. In short, because she has been musically trained and thereby formed, her experience of the symphony, while technically the same, will nonetheless be exceedingly different.    

If we take the symphony as a metaphor for our public lives, and the musically trained individual as a metaphor for the cruci-formed Christian, then it becomes evident why cruciformity is indispensable for seeking justice.  For although we inhabit the same world as everyone else, when we imitate Christ our inhabitation of the world becomes exceedingly different.  We see political hot topics such as tax rates, immigration, and educational reform not through the polarized lens of conservative or liberal ideologies, but through the lens of creating space for others in the pursuit of public justice.  Thus, the point of moral formation in the Way of the Cross is ultimately about creating this space for others.  It is about counter-formation away from the dominant ideologies that surround us, and formation toward the cruciform restoration of creation.  As we imagine what this restoration might look like as we go about each day, we can remember Micah’s call to action—do justice and love mercy. 

—Clay Cooke is pursuing a PhD in Ethics at Fuller Seminary, with a minor in Historical Theology.

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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.”