Ron Sider: 4 Types of Justice
The phrase “social justice” is often thrown around Christian political conversations. Yet, despite it’s popularity, it seems that precious few individuals can actually define what justice is. Admittedly the term social justice is indeed broad, and since we can be as guilty as anyone of using it without giving it a proper definition, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief definition of justice. In order to do so let us refrence the great Evangelical thinker Ron Sider from a volume he edited entitled, Toward An Evangelical Public Policy: Strategies for the Health of the Nation. Along with the late Diane Knippers, Sider edited this work for the National Association of Evangelicals after the publication of their landmark document, For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility. In the chapter that Sider wrote we find definitions of four distinct types of justice, they are:
1. Commutative Justice: “requires fairness in agreements and exchanges between private parties.” Weights and measures should be the same for everyone. Contracts should be kept.
2. Retributive Justice: defines what is due to persons when they have done wrong. It defines what is appropriate punishment for someone who has broken the law.
3. Procedural Justice: defines the procedures and processes that must be fair if justice is to prevail. Procedural justice requires a transparent legal framework, unbiased courts, the rule of law, freedom of speech, assembly and the vote, honest elections, and so on.
4. Distributive Justice: refers to how the numerous goods of society are divided. What is a just division of money, health care, educational opportunities–in short, all the goods and services in society? Who owes what of all these things to persons and institutions? What role if any does government have in guaranteeing that there is a “fair distribution” of these goods? Is it enough for government to ensure fair procedures (unbiased courts, etc.), or should government seek to promote “fair outcomes”?
Obviously the issue of distributive justice is the most controversial. But as Sider implies, every society has a means of distributive justice already in place. Whether goods are divided based on need, earning potential, or birthright, somehow goods are divided. The task for the believer is to determine how our contribution to our society’s ethos of distribution can be honoring to God. Justice is a very complicated and sticky issue. Hopefully Sider’s four definitions will help clear away some of the fog.