Dr. Heinrich Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a Swiss Reformed theologian, published his Gifford Lectures in Christianity and Civilisation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1948 & 1949). Chapter VIII in Brunner’s first lecture series (The Foundations) is titled: The Problem of Justice. On May 25th of 2020, George Floyd, an African-American living in Minneapolis, died while lying down handcuffed in a downtown street with a policeman’s knee on his neck. Protests and violence erupted around the world demanding justice. Brunner, while not addressing this specific incident, begins his eighth lecture on this same subject. “It is one of the paradoxes of modern history that in hardly any previous epoch has there been so much discussion of, and so vehement demand for justice as in ours; and that at the same time it is precisely those movements to which this demand for justice has given rise which have led us into a condition that seems to be further off from justice than any other.” (page 106)
Brunner, similar to previous lectures, contrasts the topic of justice between ancient and Christian beliefs. “Justice, then, is a topic where Christian and non-Christian thinking meet, where they have a common ground without being identical.” (page 108) Unfortunately, modern society has detached the Christian concept of justice from societal and political justice. This has led to the rise of totalitarianism, the idea that “justice is equality.” (page 110) The rights of individuals led to chaos. The political route of equality resulted in state totalitarian.
Another route to equality is economic. “The idea of equality can be understood not merely in the formal sense of equal chances, that is, in the sense of unlimited economic freedom; it can also be understood in a material sense, meaning an actual equal share in the economic produce or goods.” (page 114) Marx believed that worker equality would result in worker freedom and individual creativity instead of capitalistic drudgery. It actually resulted in the opposite. “The same epoch which has placed the idea of justice in the center of interest, has also produced that social structure which is the complete negation of all justice, the totalitarian state.” (page 115)
Christianity places justice below love. “Hence, justice, being immanent in this creation-order, is not the highest, not the ultimate principle; the highest ultimate principle is love. For God is Love in Himself, He is not justice in Himself. Love is His own essence; justice, however, is His will as it refers to the order of His created world. That is why, in Christian thought, the idea of justice always takes second and never first place; there is an element of the preliminary in it. Just as the Gospel is higher than law, love is higher than justice. … That is why for the Christian the service of justice and its orders is always a service out of love. The motive of the Christian can never be any other but love, even where the rule of his action has to be justice.” (page 116)
Non-Christians in ancient societies sought justice as the highest and “supreme task.” For Greeks and Romans, God was not above the world: only reason prevailed. “The Christian knows that above the demands of justice are always those of love – that he should not merely treat his neighbor as a member of an order of justice, but also, and above all, as a brother, as a man who, as a person called by God, is more than any order of justice. … Man has no rights over against God, being His creature and property; he lives entirely from God’s grace and mercy. Rights he has only in so far as God gives them” (page 117-118)
Although God created humans in God’s image, God also created humans with individual talents. We have witnessed that humans do not have the same gifts and abilities. Human individuality is God’s will. However, in the completeness of time, human individuality does not matter. “In Christ Jesus all differences, and therefore all individuality, become irrelevant. … This is the eschatological, and therefore the final, point of view. It is within this earthly, preliminary existence that these differences are to be acknowledged and taken seriously. It is here that the preliminary principle of justice is valid. There shall be a time when justice gives way to love, when the law shall be superseded, when all the earthly conditions and limitations shall no longer exist.” (page 118)
For Christians, individuality makes community a necessity. “Because men are different from each other, they are also dependent on each other. … This unlikeness points towards mutual completion and cooperation. … Society is thought of as a community of unlike individuals, who are bound to each other by the necessity of mutual completion and united by mutual respect for their equal dignity.” (pages 119-120)
Brunner believes that Christianity blends individuality and community, leading neither to chaos or totalitarianism, but to a middle way. “By this Christian conception of justice, personal life is the supreme value and is to be defended against all totalitarian collectivist encroachments. On the other hand, this highest evaluation of individual personality does not lead to an individualism which has no understanding of essential social unity.” (page 121)