There is an excellent new article by Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, on justice as applied to benefit claimants and the introduction of Universal Credit.
Liverpool, like every British city but perhaps more than most, is full of stories of families left with no money because of benefit cuts, sanctions and the Bedroom Tax. Bayes writes:
I am distressed and angered at the level of devastation I hear about from priests and congregations around our Diocese, because the managing of the system leaves the vulnerable still more exposed to increasing debt, uncertainly and fear.
One problem leads to another:
Delays in benefits payments of beyond six weeks instantly threaten social housing and private tenants with eviction, piling on the stress. A frankly Kafkaesque bureaucracy is making it expensively impossible to get the information you need, with reports of claimants paying out pounds and pounds in premium phone charges as they wait for answers from an overloaded staff…
This is not just. This is not right… Let’s pause the Universal Credit rollout until these problems can be overcome.
What’s it got to do with his job as bishop?
I believe in a God whose reign is full of justice and mercy; who prefers and cares for the poor, and for the poorest most of all…
As a person of faith I believe that this is not how God ordered society and wants us to be… As a Christian bishop I want the Church in my area to be making a bigger difference, bringing more justice to the world. In this case justice must surely mean a system for benefit payment that is a true safety net working efficiently for the vulnerable in society.
What follows is my analysis of the Christian concept of justice to which he is appealing.
There are two main theories of justice. We can think of them as top-down and bottom-up. The technical terms are retributive and distributive justice.
Top-down (retributive) justice is about making sure the rules are obeyed. When they are obeyed, justice reigns. When they are disobeyed the offenders must be punished. Administering due punishment restores justice.
This theory is not interested in the practical effects. If, as a result of enforcing the rules, people starve or die, the rules are still to be enforced. An extreme example, from 1600 years ago, is Augustine’s claim that the world is perfect because all sins get punished by God. A more contemporary version is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Nozick argues that contracts must be freely agreed and upheld. So long as they are, justice is done. The practical effects are another matter altogether.
This theory of justice is ‘top-down’ because the rules have to come from somewhere. In any one society, the rules are imposed by the governing classes – who could, if they wanted, change them.
Bottom-up (distributive) justice works the other way round. It begins with a vision of a desirable outcome, and defines justice as what would bring it about. Typically, it expects a just state of affairs as one where everybody’s needs are met. There are still rules, but the rules are the means to the desirable objective. The practical effects, far from being irrelevant, show whether the rules are the right rules.
The difference between the two plays a large part in Jewish and Christian ethics because many of the Bible’s authors were victims of top-down justice. In their day the difference could be spelt out brutally.
Characteristically, the national theologies of ancient Mesopotamia were top-down. The king ruled on behalf of the supreme god. The king’s laws had divine sanction. Anyone who disobeyed the king was disobeying the god, and was to be punished. In Babylon and Assyria the main word to characterise gods was puluhtu, which basically means fear.
Obviously, the poor and oppressed prefer bottom-up justice. This is expressed in the Bible by appeals to a very different kind of God: one who creates a rich world to provide for everyone. So justice is when everyone is provided for. When some are not, God’s intentions are not being carried out.
In a modern secular society the difference is less clear. Society denies that it can derive a theory of justice from any kind of transcendent god. Instead, any account of justice must come from society itself. ‘We’ decide what is to count as justice.
So does the ever-increasing number of penniless people reflect the justice that ‘we’ have decided on?
I doubt it. I don’t hear many people saying it’s right and proper to have all those thousands of people dependent on food banks. Most of us either don’t know about it or regret it.
As a secular society, denying that there is any transcendent truth about justice, we imagine instead that society decides for itself what to count as justice. This leaves us footloose, lacking any sure commitments. In this way we leave the door wide open for others to come and manipulate us.
So what is to count as justice gets decided by the owners of newspapers and social media, the controllers of big business, television channels and government ministers. These people are well paid. They do not know what it is like to depend on food banks or gifts from passers-by on the pavement. Most of them have learned to excuse their inflated incomes by blaming the poor for their poverty. So what they give us is the top-down rules that offer no mercy to the poor and homeless.
It isn’t just bishops, or Christians, who are shocked by the deteriorating conditions. Many people share our concern, our conviction that something is deeply wrong with a society that allows this to happen.
We need to learn, all over again, how to talk about justice as though there really is such a thing. As though it is not just a fiction invented by the powerful to control the rest of us. We need to do it publicly: not just the Christians in one corner and the atheists in another, but together, sharing our beliefs and hopes and working together for a better future.