A Just and Fair Society

As every reader of my website knows by now, since I never tire of saying it, in one way or another, the premise that underlies my Respectful Conversation project since its inception about eight years ago is that providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then talking respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.

I generally add that this is much easier said than done. I recently read the following words of truth, which are also easy to say but extremely difficult to live by.

In a just and fair society, the healthy should care for the sick; the rich should care for the poor; the mighty should care for the weak; and the prosecutor should care about the prisoner.

These words were written by Preet Bharara in his insightful and compelling book Doing Justice (pp. 303-304), published about eighteen months after President Trump fired him from his position as U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Let me share why I find both this book and this particular quotation so compelling.

This book is compelling because it reveals the many ways in which the difficult work of a criminal prosecutor in trying to maintain the rule of law can be deeply informed by values such as the quest for truth, the desire to do what is just and restorative for both the perpetrator and the victim, the commitment to resolve disagreements by means of reason and an appeal to evidence rather than taunts and character assassination, and the humble admission that criminal cases are generally so complex that the prosecutor, who is only human, can sometimes get it all wrong.

Although I know that Mr. Bharara’s father was Sikh and his mother was Hindu, I don’t know anything about his own religious or secular worldview commitments. But I do know that these values that suffuse his narrative about his work at the SDNY comport beautifully with my commitment to the Christian values of love, humility, courage, respect, truth, justice, patience and hope.

But what about “extraordinary” values such as “mercy, redemption and forgiveness?” Bharara points out that  such extraordinary values transcend the “legal concepts” in “formal notions of criminal justice” (p. 323; noting especially that “The law is not in the business of forgiveness or redemption” (p. 327); at the same time telling the story of  how a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh not only forgave a man who brutally attacked him and killed two others but also “began a campaign [which was unsuccessful] to spare the attacker from the death penalty” (p. 325). Although the extraordinary value of forgiveness goes beyond what the law dictates, it is what Jesus calls his followers to, and Bharara closes his book with the recognition that it is possible for “brave and strong and extraordinary people” (p. 327).

In addition to these ways in which I resonate, as a Christian, with Bharara’s entire book, I also find particularly compelling his view on what it takes to foster a “just and fair society,” quoted above. His perspective comports beautifully with the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 25, about who will enter the Kingdom of God.

Come , you that are blessed by my Father [God], inherit the kingdom prepared for you  from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick and in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (vs. 34-40).

So, what do I conclude from the above reflections? 

First, there is a striking synergy between Bharara’s view of a “just and fair society” and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 that Christians should care for the “least of these in society”: the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and those who are strangers and in prison.

Equally striking is the sharp contrast between the hyper-individualism and self-centeredness that pervades our society and this call to give of yourself in caring for others, particularly the marginalized in our midst (for those readers interested in reading more about this sharp contrast, I highly recommend David Brook’s recent book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life).

My observation, with deep regret, is that many who claim to be followers of Jesus have happily embraced the hyper-individualism and self-centeredness that is rampant in American society; choosing an “other-worldly” view of the Christian faith (God will eventually rescue us from this broken world) rather than embracing the call from Jesus to “partner with God” by fostering God’s redemptive purposes here on earth (see the Lord’s prayer that God’s will may be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as well as the following books: Written to be Heard: Recovering the Messages of the Gospel by Paul Borgman and Kelly James Clark and Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright). 

I am particularly grieved that many who claim to be “evangelical” Christians, as I do, have jumped on board this cultural hyper-individualistic bandwagon that violates the centrality of “community values” that pervade the teachings of the Bible (For the interested reader, I have proposed an alternative “evangelical vision” in my book A Future for American Evangelicalism that embraces and holds in tension the values of “commitment, openness, and conversation”).

Where does all of this leave me? It leads me to conclude that Christians who wish to take seriously the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 need to rethink who their “collaborators” may be in seeking to heal our broken world in accordance with God’s redemptive purposes. It is the likes of Preet Bharara and David Brooks, whatever their religious or secular worldview commitments, who are more in tune with the teachings of Jesus than many who claim to be followers of Jesus. Those Christians who embrace the teachings of Matthew 25 should be willing to work together with those whose visions for the future of America comport with the teachings of Matthew 25, even if we do not share all aspects of our respective worldviews.