No Justice, No Peace?

E. J. Hutchinson
E. J. Hutchinson is an Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Neils Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (CLP Academic, 2018) and is currently working on the first English translation of Philip Melanchthon's Summary of Moral Philosophy.

This piece is the first in a series addressing the subject of civil unrest. You can find part two here and part three here. We have more pieces engaging this important territory coming up, and we invite our readers to write to us here with any responses.

The relation between justice and peace in civil society presents something of a conundrum, a chicken-and-egg sort of problem: which comes first? If the widely chanted slogan “No justice, no peace!” is correct, then the former is necessary for the latter. Without it, we should expect conflict and chaos. Compelling for inciting a mass movement, perhaps; but as a reasoned political position, it is a fantasy.

While justice may come before peace in the order of being,[1] peace comes before justice in the order of politics. Some will find this a hard and distasteful truth; but it is a truth all the same.

The reason is a simple one. Peace and order are possible without justice. Personal experience and human history alike prove that it is so. The order may be vicious—on a football team, in a barracks, in a banana republic. It may well be unjust insofar as it does not render to each what is due to him. But it is only within the confines of order that it is even possible for justice to emerge. One does not seek justice when someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater; one simply tries to avoid being trampled. Without peace and order, there can be no upholding of justice even in principle. For that reason, the mainstream of magisterial Protestant political reflection holds the prima facie surprising view that tyranny is preferable to anarchy.

We are, of course, currently engaged in a widespread experiment in anarchy in the United States to see whether, just this once, things may turn out differently and the millennium will be ushered in. Though I am not a prophet, I feel quite confident in predicting that it will not.

We are, of course, currently engaged in a widespread experiment in anarchy in the United States to see whether, just this once, things may turn out differently and the millennium will be ushered in. Though I am not a prophet, I feel quite confident in predicting that it will not.

Our current predicament is not the first of its kind, and it will not be the last. It is therefore worth attending to parallel situations from the past to see what we might learn from them. The cynic would say that what we will learn from them, as a society, is precisely nothing.

The cynic is probably right. But we shall try anyway, and by so doing will at least better our thinking in the process, even if we do not better anything else.

One such parallel situation that springs immediately to mind is the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany in the mid-1520s, which first provoked guarded sympathy from Martin Luther, and, later, abject horror. Even in his sympathetic phase, however—my subject in this post—Luther showed nothing like the naïveté coming from many Christian quarters in response to our own recent unrest. My text is Luther’s 1525 Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia.[2]

The Swabian peasants had risen up against their lords, and had confederated themselves together according to a kind of constitution. They had, in Luther’s view, some legitimate grievances, even

if they were pursuing them selfishly: they wanted to be able to choose their own pastors and to “protest economic injustices,” especially “confiscatory tax rates.”[3]

Luther is clear that the German leadership, both civil and ecclesiastical, is to blame for the disaster. The “temporal rulers . . . do nothing but cheat and rob the people,” he says, in order to “lead a life of luxury and extravagance.”

He nevertheless urges the peasants to kindness as the best way of preserving peace. They must “act justly and with a good conscience,” or God will strike them down—both now and in eternity.

But what does it mean to “act justly” in this case? For Luther, it does not mean that the peasants can use any means available to get their way, that is, to achieve the ends they believe are just—even to ends that are actually just. It does not mean getting what (they think) they deserve. It means, first and foremost, to respect the authority that has been placed over them and to preserve civil tranquility.

The most important corollary of the injunction to respect the established authorities is that violence is absolutely prohibited. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” Luther remarks, quoting Matthew 26:52. The Swabian peasants have no right whatsoever to “arrogate authority to” themselves.

Why? The office of vengeance has not been given to them. Later he will talk about the law of the gospel, which calls us to turn the other cheek, but that is not his point here. Luther’s point here about nonviolence does not rest on a Christian account of pacifism, but rather on natural law: civil society requires that some rule while others are ruled. Even if rulers are morally unjust, subjects have no right to rebel, which is tantamount to pretending that they themselves must rule. Such a pretension violates order, or “justice” in the Platonic sense of “everyone doing his own job.” Luther puts it this way: “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” Order has priority over justice.

Why is this so? If we know what “justice” is in a given situation, or think we do, don’t we have a right to take up arms to defend it? Don’t we have a right to violently rebel? To burn down buildings? To destroy public property or take it for ourselves?

We do not, and we can see the reason if we consider an analogous case on the individual level. “Can you not think it through, dear friends?” Luther says:

If your enterprise were right, then any man might become judge over another. Then authority, government, law, and order would disappear from the world; these would be nothing but murder and bloodshed. As soon as anyone saw that someone was wronging him, he would begin to judge and punish him. Now if that is unjust and intolerable when done by an individual, we cannot allow a mob or a crowd to do it. However, if we do permit a mob or a crowd to do it, then we cannot rightful and fairly forbid an individual to do it. For in both cases the cause is the same, that is, an injustice. What would you yourselves do if disorder broke out in your ranks and one man set himself against another and took vengeance on him? Would you put up with that? Would you not say that he must let others, whom you appointed, do the judging and avenging? What do you expect God and the world to think when you pass judgment and avenge yourselves on those who have injured you and even upon your rulers, whom God has appointed?

In other words, let us suppose you have charged your neighbor with a serious crime—say, murder. Would it be right for you to serve as judge in your own case? I take it for granted that the sane answer to this question is no. But that is exactly what the agitators of rebellion do in aggregating private grievances, judging the relevant authorities as responsible for it, and therefore taking vengeance with the sword.[4] Though the action of rebels appears public, in fact it is not. It is a private action on a large scale. It is serving as judge in one’s own case. And this is prohibited not only by divine law but also by natural law. As Luther says, it is “the natural law of all the world, which says that no one may sit as judge in his own case or take his own revenge.”

If everyone were to do what Luther forbids—if everyone were to assume the right of judgment and vengeance for himself—it would spell the end of civil society and leave only civil war.  To repeat what was said above, in Luther’s view none of this exonerates those in power or to excuse them to the slightest degree. Luther remarks shortly afterwards that “in saying this it is not my intention to justify or defend the rulers in the intolerable injustices which you suffer from them. They are unjust, and commit heinous wrongs against you; that I admit.” Indeed, what they seek, or at least some of it, may well be “just and equitable in terms of natural law,” that is, “just” in the narrow, moral sense. But “using force and violence” is “against the law of the land and natural justice”—that is, “justice” in the wide sense of the preservation of authority and order.

So is the slogan “No justice, no peace” true? No, it is not. Its opposite is true: “No peace, no justice.”

For, again, it is only within the framework of authority and order that disputes about justice can be really and peaceably resolved. This is the only way in a polis or commonwealth of any kind; without it, all is chaos. Hence Luther’s advice at the conclusion of the Admonition to Peace:

I, therefore, sincerely advise you to choose certain counts and lords from among the nobility and certain councilmen from the cities and ask them to arbitrate and settle this dispute amicably. You lords, stop being so stubborn! You will finally have to stop being such oppressive tyrants—whether you want to or not. Give these poor people room in which to live and air to breathe. You peasants, let yourselves be instructed and give up the excessive demands of some of your articles. In this way it may be possible to reach a solution of this dispute through human laws and agreements.[5]

So is the slogan “No justice, no peace” true? No, it is not. Its opposite is true: “No peace, no justice.”


[1] By “justice” I mean a state of affairs in which everyone has what he deserves. There is, however, slippage in the terminology as I will use it, for which I beg the reader’s indulgence. Order is obviously a part of justice considered broadly, in the sense of the authorities receiving the respect they are due by virtue of their public position as “ministers of God,” as Romans 13 puts it. But “order” is not equivalent to “justice” in the sense of every private person receiving what he is owed in every situation, and thus I use the terms “justice” and “order” / “peace” in opposition to each other in that stipulated sense. Thus, in just that stipulated sense, it is possible to have “order” without “justice.” “Order,” furthermore, and order alone, provides the environment in which “justice” (in the narrower sense) hypothetically can be done. But even if it is not done, order must be preserved—for if it is not, justice is no longer possible even hypothetically, as noted above. Anarchy, because it has by definition no ruling principle, has no means of determining and applying justice.

Another way of expressing both of these notions (i.e., order in general and justice in the narrow sense) under the traditional rubric of “justice” as the principle of “to each his own” might describe (public) “order” as “getting what one is owed by virtue of one’s office” in contrast to (private) “justice” as “getting what one is owed by virtue of one’s person.”

[2] All quotations are taken from the sections excerpted in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M. Porter (1974; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003).

[3] The reader should note that by using this analogy I offer no evaluation of the justice, or lack thereof, of the various kinds of demands currently being made by protestors and their institutional and corporate supporters in the United States. My interest is instead to examine Luther’s response to a strong version of the opposing case: one in which protests are lodged on behalf of demands that the critic of unrest (here, Luther) thinks are just, or, more accurately, are just at least in part.

[4] Or the rock. Or the torch. Or the explosive.

[5] I should note here that my account has somewhat obscured the point in the dispute that is of most concern to Luther—namely, that both sides are cloaking their actions under the name of “Christian,” and Christianity demands a standard higher even than what is advocated here. Insisting on “rights” is a common, human thing, but it is not, for Luther, a Christian thing; the “rights” of Christians are to “keep quiet about all these matters and complain only to God when they suffer.” But I do not delve into that above as it is obviously disanalogous to the current situation in the United States, in which the mantle of “Christian” may be claimed by some on both sides but does not serve a unifying designation for either.