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Justice has been on the Christian agenda since the 4th century. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church accepted justice as the principle that makes civilization possible. It was thought to be reflected in nature and it was formulated as natural law. With the help of Aristotle, medieval philosophers and theologians made distinctions between punitive, attributive, and distributative justice.

At the same time, the Christian church upheld what it considered an even higher principle, namely love. Love (agape) was thought to be grounded in eternity, reflecting God's nature and will as revealed in Jesus Christ. Love was seen to be non-resistant, uncalculating, non-prudential, infinitely forgiving and completely self-giving.

Throughout Christian history, the Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations upheld both love and justice. While refusing to confuse them as if they were identical, the church accepted both in a complementary but dialectical manner. Theoretical and practical relationships between love and justice became a perennial issue of Christian ethics.

The Anabaptist attitude toward justice was unique in the history of Christendom though it may have been typical of the New Testament church. It is sometimes referred to as the "sectarian" view.

The Anabaptists agreed with their contemporaries that justice is grounded in the will of God and is reflected in nature. But they refused to accept justice as a category of Christian ethics. Love alone is Christian. Justice is essential to civilization but the establishment and maintenance of civilization is the responsibility of the world. By contrast the task of Christians is to create a new community structured by love alone.

The root of the problem lay in the use of force and in preferential decision-making in multilateral situations. For justice by its very nature defines "rights," makes love preferential, and may allow reasonable defenses of the self and the neighbor against untoward demands of others. The Anabaptists were so taken by the Sermon on the Mount and their perception of Jesus as a non-resistant suffering servant that they saw the struggle for justice with its restraints on love and its imposition of power as compromise.

The initial attitude of the Anabaptists toward justice appeared in the Schleitheim articles (1527) in connection with the magistracy. The Anabaptists rejected the magistracy, declaring that that office and presumably the world which it represented lie "outside the perfection of Christ." Even the rational definition and orderly dispensation of justice through law was rejected since conflict between claimants presupposes selfishness. "Christ did not wish to decide or pass judgment between brother and brother in the case of the inheritance, but refused to do so. Therefore we should do likewise." For most of Mennonite history, Mennonite ethics with respect to justice reflected the Schleitheim articles.

Of course if one were to follow Mennonite life since Schleitheim, one would find few groups that practice love alone even within the church. For when love is structured it takes the form of justice. Mennonites in their most withdrawn circumstances incorporated both love and justice in their own communities. Even the Hutterites in their attempt to set up a system of "love communism" (i.e., a structure of love), incorporated, however unconsciously, the principle of justice as they up-held what is fair, honest, and right. One may be sure that Mennonite merchants in Amsterdam used correct weights, paid just wages, and joined fair competition. Within Mennonite life the principle of justice was taken for granted, at least in its distributive forms. Although justice was practiced and injustice was suffered, Mennonites did not provide a theological basis for those dimensions of life. In the spirit of Gelassenheit (yieldedness) they would not insist upon justice for their own sakes but they would practice it quite unconsciously in ordinary life.

In the writings of Guy F. Hershberger, justice comes off poorly. To be sure, Hershberger is conscious of the need for justice in human relations. But as with Schleitheim, he contrasts justice and the means by which it is achieved with love as "Biblical nonresistance." Since Christians should not resist evil, they may not pursue justice in the manner in which it is sought even by Christian "pacifists" and nonviolent reformers such as Gandhi: by insisting upon rights, by competition, by political pressures, by organized nonviolent resistance, by sit-ins and political demonstrations (sociopolitical activism).

In War, Peace and Non-resistance (1944) and in The Way of the Cross in Human Relations (1958), Hershberger upheld "doing justice." However, he uncompromisingly rejected the pursuit of justice by the use of nonviolent resistance. In his critique of labor unions he wrote "The relentless pursuit of justice for oneself or one's own group is always inimical to the way of Christian love and it is difficult to see how the right to strike ... can be reconciled with the way of the cross, however effective it may be as a way of bringing about a more just social order" (Way of the Cross, 269). It is probable that Hershberger began to think more positively about justice following the nonviolent racial revolution in America led by Martin Luther King.

Although Mennonites traditionally have refused to accept responsibility for society as a whole, they have responded from time to time to unjust conditions. For example, in 1688 the Mennonite congregation of Germantown, PA, formulated what some would consider the first written protest by a church against slavery in American history.

Also Canadian Mennonites have been known to protest unjust treatment of Indians. Furthermore conscientious objectors in Civilian Public Service during World War II called for reform of mental health hospitals.

Significant differences in attitudes toward justice began to appear, however, in the 1970s and 1980s. Mennonites began to speak about both love and justice as Christian ideals. Love and justice were frequently uttered in tandem. In written form they were hyphenated, as if to signal that they are somehow different but compatible.

Reasons for the entry of justice into Mennonite vocabulary are diverse but interrelated. For one thing, as noted above, certain Mennonite leaders were attracted to Martin Luther King and challenged by the evil of racial segregation. Martin Luther King's nonviolent approach to social change was admired and, the ring of his prophetic voice, his pulpit eloquence, and his piety appealed to many Mennonite theologians. Some Mennonites even participated in sit-ins and at least one Mennonite professor was jailed in 1963 for direct nonviolent action. Some Mennonites expressed their preference for nonviolence over nonresistance since by comparison nonresistance seemed entirely too passive for the times.

Furthermore liberation theology, in which salvation was described as deliverance from injustice, emerged in the 1970s. Liberation theology was discussed in Mennonite seminaries and missionaries were introduced to its various forms in Latin America. At issue were questions of means and ends, since some non-Mennonite proponents of liberation theology advocated the use of violence to change oppressive structures.

In addition certain groups within the Mennonite churches became so bold as to insist upon their "rights." Minorities sought just representation on church boards. As feminist theologies upheld just treatment for women, Mennonite women appealed for just recognition as human beings and as church leaders. Clearly Mennonites of the 1970s and 1980s reflected the cause of human rights as a worldwide movement.

At the same time, christological interpretations began to shift in directions that would allow one to appeal to the life of Jesus as a basis for social action. Jesus was interpreted increasingly as a reformer in the prophetic tradition (Yoder, Politics, 90-93). Provocative criticism of Jewish power structures in behalf of the poor led Jesus, so it was claimed, to His crucifixion. Studies of the historical Jesus rendered problematic the possibility of reducing Jesus' teachings to an abstract principle such as nonresistance. Furthermore scholars tended to emphasize the Old Testament prophetic call for justice for the "widow and orphan."

Interest in justice also followed economic and social shifts as Mennonites moved from rural to urban contexts. Professional and business involvements placed justice, both in its theoretical and practical forms, within Mennonite experience. Furthermore concern for justice in its many forms and applications followed church institutionalization.

In 1960 J. Lawrence Burkholder presented a series of lectures at a conference of the Association of Mennonite Aid Societies in Chicago on "Love and justice in Mennonite Mutual Aid." In "The generosity of love" he attempted to set forth a conception of love as "limitless generosity" only to be followed by a lecture on "Justice-the arithmetic of love" in which be sought to show how love takes the form of justice in complex, structured, corporate, situations defined by law and administered by duly appointed officials. The relation of pure love and prudent justice was examined at some length (Compassionate community, 51-78).

In the 1980s Mennonite leaders came to realize that justice must be addressed officially. This led to a statement entitled "Justice and the Christian Witness" which was approved at the meeting of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in August 1983. The statement attempts to place justice within the context of Biblical faith and a covenant people. The statement consciously rejects classical conceptions of justice. What Bethlehem meant by justice was left somewhat ambiguous. Nevertheless, it tended to legitimize justice as as goal for Christian mission. Increasingly Mennonite utterances seemed to suggest that Christian love is for the sake of justice. Furthermore, Mennonites began to acknowledge a connection between justice and peace. Peace without justice is less than Shalom.

While it is clear that Mennonites became increasingly concerned about justice in the 1970s and 1980s very little was done of a theoretical nature. Mennonites had not clearly articulated a theology within which basic elements such as love, power, and justice were defined and related to one another. Possibly this could be done only by ontological analysis for which Mennonites have had no inclination. Nevertheless Mennonites, on the level of church life and witness, began to take justice seriously as part of the Christian life and witness.


Brunner, Emil. Justice and the Social Order. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "The Problem of Social Responsibility From the Perspective of the Mennonite Church." (ThD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1958; published Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1971.

Tillich, Paul. Love, Power and Justice. Oxford University Press, 1960.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon, 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Hernley, Ralph H., ed. The Compassionate Community: a Collection of Lectures Presented at the Conference of the Association of Mennonite Aid Societies. Scottdale, PA: Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, 1970.

Author(s) J. Lawrence Burkholder
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "Justice." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 12 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Justice&oldid=162904.

APA style

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. (1989). Justice. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Justice&oldid=162904.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 471-473. All rights reserved.

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