Last Wednesday Scott Cairns published an important reflection on Why I am Against Justice. Scott Cairns is a wonderful writer, professor of English and co-director of a writing program. What he is not is a political theorist.

His general complaint is that calls for justice in the public arena tend to be punitive, uncompassionate, and judgmental. In short, calls for justice from people of faith increasingly demean them. On the spirit of this, I think we can agree. He goes on to say that it is not justice itself he is against, so much as justice understood as the chief virtue in public life. Fair enough: titling op-eds is often a science of calculated hyperbole.

What gets confusing is when Cairns begins conflating the personal debt that Christians owe God with the political debts that citizens and states owe each other. This may seem a straightforward move in an individualistic and moralistic culture, but it is actually a significant theoretical assumption which is at odds with significant luminaries like Aristotle, Aquinas, and much of the Protestant tradition.

Aristotle, for example, carefully distinguishes between concerns of individual and public conduct by writing two separate volumes, his Ethics and his Politics. Kant's theories of politics were distinct from those of his ethical theory. Politics, he thought, was based on principles of public right, not personal virtue. Indeed, international theorist Terry Nardin argues that were we to work with this distinction we might simply call this public ethics subfield "political theory." The task of political theory in these traditions is not to be ethical, but to be just, the corollary being that conflating individual with corporate conduct prefigures an autonomous and individualist philosophy of politics.

Such applied ethics also assumes that we need an external moral code absent from politics itself; that personal Christian ethics can and should be mapped onto political life. Yet even for Jesus this was clearly not the case. In the gospel we are admonished to turn the other cheek, yet in Romans we are warned to respect the lawful authorities who are not given the power of the sword in vain. The state, clearly, does not indefinitely turn the other cheek.

Further, the idea that ethics is something external which must applied to the thing in question, suggests politics is inherently at odds with moral conduct. Ethics in this context becomes a technical subject with priority to philosophers and theologians. Bernard Williams calls this "political moralism"—the idea that we can collapse the concerns of political and moral philosophy. If we think instead, as some thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jonathan Chaplin might, that the state has a task for public justice, then we would object to this amoral caricature of the political. Intrinsic to politics is a direction of the good; its telos. Christians of all kinds call this end justice.

I belabour the point because the conflation of individual ethics with political justice is an honest and significant error in much of North American evangelicalism. It is not to say the state may not practice mercy, but rather that the internal norms which guide the structure of politics are different than the norms which guide economic, family, church, or personal life.

This is the key insight Abraham Kuyper recovered from the catholic tradition: that all of life is lived before the face of God, and that God has ordained each sphere—each square inch of work—with its own hierarchy of goods. No one expects—or wants—a marriage to work like a court system, or a friendly night out to be like a professor's classroom. Justice is the task of the state, and that justice is not without mercy, but neither is it a neat parallel to the personal gratitude we live toward God for his saving grace in Jesus Christ.