Why Morality Belongs in the Justice Conversation

By Ken Wytsma

“The temptation of this age is to look good without being good.”[1] Brennan Manning

Justice requires more than wanting to change the world, but being willing to change ourselves along with it.

The word “morality” seems to have fallen on hard times these days. It is often taken as synonymous with purity, seen as negative or outdated or pertaining to a certain subset of culture such as the Religious Right.

Morality, however, literally means:

of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong.

It is a broad and ethical category. In fact, the word “ethics” itself traces back to the classical period and simply refers to the study of morals.

Ethical systems throughout history have sought to define how to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of persons. They have sought to work these out within the discipline of philosophy referred to as Moral Philosophy.

There’s another term for the pursuit of the greatest pleasure and least pain for everyone: social justice. Ethics, morality, and moral philosophy are all ways of trying to work out what justice in society should look like and the civic or moral responsibility we all bear in bringing social justice to fruition.

Thus, right from the outset, justice and morality seem intrinsically linked.

Yet this is not how we treat the two in contemporary usage.

Whether its an overreaction to the use of moral language by the Moral Majority and the Religious Right in the 80s and 90s, or whether it’s a modern phenomena of wanting to fight for justice at a distance without recognizing our own moral responsibility, we have uncoupled the two concepts and even tend to set them against one another.

I find this troubling.

Early on in my career as I worked to promote justice language in the church, I had to fight hard to show that morality implied justice—that sin, purity and the like could not be separated from the biblical requirement for justice and sacrificial love for and on behalf of the other.

These days, I feel like I’ve almost been put in the reverse position—that in our talk about justice, we cannot separate it from the biblical requirement for morality.

Just as James 1:27 calls us to a pure religion that looks after orphans and widows in their distress, it also calls us “to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.”

We’re fond of grabbing the first half of that verse in justice circles, but we don’t know what to do with the second half. But there they are, justice and morality informing each other in the same biblical injunction.

When we look back in history we see many examples of justice and moral categories going hand in hand.

I have an old antique copy of Photo Magazine I picked up on eBay. The cover article, from 1955, discusses what we call sex trafficking, but back then was known as white slavery. The lead quote reads, “Europe’s sin merchants have gone into the export trade… selling smuggled female cargo to the world.”[2]

Sin and slavery. Personal profit and exploitation.

Joel 3:3 echoes something similar, “They cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine that they might drink.”

Drink and slavery. Personal pleasure and exploitation.

In Hebrew, the concept of justice is expressed by several words. The primary ones are the two relatively synonymous words tsedek and mishpat. In English, we translate the Hebrew words tsedek and mishpat as either “righteousness” or as “justice,” depending on context. This is because the Hebrew sense of the words tsedek and mishpat linked the personal and communal components of “just” or “righteous” living.

The idea of living uprightly could not be limited to personal ethical conduct or exclusively limited to community reform. Rather, it was the outworking of a deep knowledge of God, which drives one to live uprightly and walk justly.

Dr. Gerry Breshears, a theology professor for more than thirty years at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, explains what the Hebrew word tsedek means: a life in which all relationships—human to human, human to God, and human to creation—are well-ordered and harmonious.

Justice, rightly understood, speaks to the right and equitable relationship with God and with people. Justice is like a mosaic. It’s not only about single pieces – it’s also about all the pieces working together in a stunning whole. Morality is a necessary piece of that mosaic. When we are thinking only about justice as related to specific causes or single aspects we are missing part of the picture or we are looking at the fruit of virtue with no regard to the roots of virtue.

If we don’t include morality in the conversation, or as part of a more holistic view of religion and justice, we run into problems.

A lack of morality, or simply selfishness, robs our motivation for becoming just.

Likewise, the presence of immorality is coupled with and often precedes gross injustice—just as pornography and sexual exploitation sit on the same continuum.

In short, the long-term health of communities and relationships that justice requires are measured every bit as much through the lens of morality as they are the promotion of justice and fairness.

Another way of putting it might be to say, if justice is a Coast Guard ship that sails in order to protect and rescue people, morality is its sea-worthiness or integrity. A sinking ship can do very little to help those who are drowning.

Justice and morality are inseparable. Justice requires righteousness and righteousness demands justice.

It’s important that we think of justice—the systems, structures and policies that disadvantage or oppress people or races—and not personal responsibility alone.  It is also important that we think of morality—my hidden selfishness, my latent racism, my consumerism and individualism—and not just global or structural justice alone.

Justice is a “me” problem as well as a “we” and “them” problem.

In short, we need to be reminded that morality belongs in the justice conversation. For as Tolstoy framed the dichotomy, “Everybody thinks about changing humanity. Nobody thinks about changing himself.”


[1] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel  (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), pg. 122

[2] Hugo Dufy, “White Slavery: Report on Europe’s Missing Women” in Photo Magazine, January 1954.

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Categories: Justice & Culture

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture