Justice and Fairness

Sunday 21st August 2011
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist

Since looting broke out on the night of August  6th, we have undergone the curious experience of politicians telling us that we must not jump to conclusions about the causes of these terrible events and the measures needed to prevent similar outrages happening again, while these same politicians have been jumping to conclusions themselves. We are told that the causes are complex and the solutions no less so; and from a sociological and political perspective this is true. The civil powers have to analyse the effects of their policies on citizens and how these might be altered and, as part of that, they are properly entitled to make pronouncements, for example, about the role of social policy, the tax and benefits system and appropriate sentences to be handed down by the criminal courts. These largely depend upon temperament and, related to it, our political outlook so, for example, David Cameron has put heavy emphasis on the failures of individual and collective moral responsibility and the need for punishment, from imprisonment to the withdrawal of benefits, while Ed Miliband has tended to focus more on the failures of social policy and the need to advance fairness in society, whatever that might mean.

The Christian faces issues here which are at once more simple but also much more difficult. So let me deal briefly with two of these, namely, justice and fairness.

On the issue of criminal justice, the Christian, as a Christian, has nothing to say. We are told time and again by Jesus that it is not for us to judge the civil and social conduct of others. As Christians enjoined to be active citizens, we are obliged to take a view of penal policy and the way in which the courts work but such views are not Christian views, they are simply the views of Christian citizens. We cannot say that Christianity necessarily requires harsh punishment for acts of vandalism, nor can we say that it requires leniency. These are matters of calculating, as best we can, the consequences of the actions we take; will individual offenders and society as a whole be better off if we imprison looters or will they and we be better off if we use prison as sparingly as we dare, consistent with protecting society? As I said, this is a matter of calculation.  There is a danger that because we live in a liberal age of thinking that Christianity is necessarily socially liberal or worse, of thinking that Jesus was a liberal.

When we first come to consider fairness, this, too, is a matter of calculation rather than of pure principle: how do we frame our fiscal policy to enable  people to accumulate capital in order to create jobs for those who need them? And how far should we raise taxes in order to make social provisions for those who are judged, on whatever basis, to be deprived?

Having cleared some ground, I now want to go on to specifically Christian territory.

First of all, we are obliged to be honest with the evidence and not read our own prejudices or our own self interest into it. We cannot, for example, oppose higher taxation for the rich simply on the ground that we are rich and would not like to be more heavily taxed; and neither can we take refuge in an abstract theory, like the American Tea Party, largely made  up of Christians, that taxation is intrinsically bad and that the poor must rely on philanthropy; and we certainly cannot rely on this argument when the evidence shows us that, by percentage of disposable income, the richer we are, the less we give. If we accept that there is deprivation amid plenty, holding on to theoretical arguments that fly in the face of the evidence is dishonest. And although it is very difficult to disentangle social factors from individual moral responsibility, it is dishonest, in the face of the evidence of trans generational deprivation, alienation, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction, to say that all social ills result from individual amoral or immoral decisions.

Yet although the arguments about the causes of deprivation are fascinating, they are not decisive for a Christian. If we see a person starving we should not enquire whether this results from fecklessness, misfortune or unfairness, the person must be fed. If we see an addict, our response must be loving not analytical. Questions about the origins of a state of affairs are, again, political and sociological but not relevant to the obligation of the Christian to feed the hungry and house the homeless and, this being so, unless we are going to re-organise society massively on the basis of real,  as opposed to desirable, philanthropy then, in our country at least, it is obvious that seeing that people are well fed and housed is a social obligation exercised through the state; and that means fair taxation.

It is clear enough that, however we might define it, we must be in favour of fair taxation; and in our context that means at the very least defining a rather difficult positive through the negative. In other words, we know unfair taxation when we see it: when people on low and middle incomes pay their taxes but the rich get away with paying little or nothing, we are entitled to say that that is unfair. There is quite a separate argument that society cannot flourish unless it is unfair, that the poor need the rich to flourish in order to flourish themselves but if that is our argument then we must show evidence that the unfairness is ultimately more advantageous to the least well off than stricter rules of fairness. If the rich use their wealth for self indulgence rather than in good works and creating employment, then the argument about the benefits of unfairness do not hold.

Which brings me to a central but rather dangerous piece of ground. Some people say that the conspicuous difference between the rich and the poor in a single society has led to looting; and others say that looting was simply the result of greed and selfishness. Well, I might be near to making a party political point here, which is why the ground is dangerous - and you need to know that I am aware of the danger - but when somebody talks about people wanting something for nothing, they might reflect on the role in our society of inherited wealth, the idle rich and currency speculators. They might also reflect on the idea that certain classes of people, global mercenaries, if you like, work in such sectors as banking purely for what they are paid. I happen to think this is nonsense and that most bankers would do the same work for half or less of what they are paid;  but the point is that if society is prepared to accept  the amoral conduct of bankers because their services are indispensable, then it has to ask why bankers can behave that way but the rest of us have to be moral, taking responsibility for society as a whole. The Christian perspective here is in three parts; that: we should not be greedy;  that we must be generous; and that we are responsible for each other as children of God, not just as moral objects.

Having said all that, we are uneasily aware of how materialist we have become; of how we have come to rank individual choice above solidarity; and of how we have come to take our lifestyle for granted to the extent that we have borrowed to fuel our self indulgence against the interests of our children and grandchildren.

The politicians may be right when they say that the causes of the unrest and their solutions are complex; but we know enough from our Christian teaching to know some of the basic answers and we should use these to inform our own conduct as a first step before we use them to inform the political debate. People were inclined to be just a little sniffy when Bishop Lindsay used to ask "What would Jesus do?" But there is no better starting point; for us first, and then others.