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January 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 1 · pp. 12–20 

Education for Justice

Al Dueck

The task of Christian education demands a content, explicit objectives, and a set of procedures. The content of Christian education is the theological and historical message of the people of God. Its goal is to transmit to another generation, and to all who will hear, the record of God’s acts in the biblical record and in our own history. The procedures of Christian education include both an awareness of the developmental stage of the learner and a repertoire of possible ways of stimulating growth toward the objectives. In this paper I will first discuss the individual and social nature of our faith and life. Secondly, I will present Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, describing and criticizing its applicability to both the individual and social aspects of growth. Thirdly, I would like to examine Christian education from the perspective of a heritage that calls for awareness of social justice.


The structure of existence is both individual and corporate. On the one hand, I am aware of my own train of thoughts, feelings, plans, and desires. At the same time, I am in relation to other persons who also have a history of experiences. Their otherness is apparent to us by the fact that they influence us. We then interpret their action upon us and return a suitable response. There is a continuing back and forth relationship between self and other. Even while we are alone or separate, an at-one-ness with the rest of humanity remains with us.

Throughout its history, American religion, education, and culture has wavered between the poles of the individual and the community. Each time the pendulum swings, one aspect of our existence is sacrificed at the expense of the other. Those who stress the relational nature of man—the essential identity with the rest of humanity—find individualism the cause of social disintegration. Those who stress a rugged individualism find society and its institutions oppressive.

In American education, we have vacillated between an emphasis on individual growth and an emphasis on contributing to the larger society. The latter stressed the three R’s and training into the values of the prevailing culture. The former stressed the nature and limits of the students’ abilities, accommodation to the students’ interests, the development {13} of the students’ latent value system, and the emergence of personal wholeness. From this perspective, those who emphasized the learning of a tradition were criticized for teaching dead facts and being irrelevant. Those who focused on the individual were chided for their insensitivity to the needs of a given ethnic group or to the need for stability in the larger society.

The overall direction of American culture has been away from the needs of the larger community to the needs of the individual. The move toward permissive child-rearing, the emphasis on “doing your own thing,” and the value placed on the authenticity and genuineness of personal existence all tend to work against a larger social identity. Carl Rogers, for example, has stated that for the mature person the only important question to ask is, “Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?” The posters on walls in college dorms state, “I will do my thing and you must do your thing and if perchance we should meet—it is beautiful.” This kind of individualism does not “intend” the meeting of persons. Such individuals do not think of accommodating their lives to others or understand that fulfillment is dependent upon their relationships with others.

A similar analysis emerged when we look at how Protestant evangelicalism describes religious experiences. Here also is a strong trend towards “privatization” and subjectivism. This form of pietism focuses on conversion, personal disciplines of prayer and Bible reading, and the individual gifts and fruits of the Spirit. The will of God is sought alone in the closet before God. The Christian’s response to sin and injustice is in terms of one-on-one evangelism, as in Campus Crusade. A number of sociologists have pointed out that this “privatization” of existence is in part a product of a technological society. At the same time there is now slowly emerging among evangelicals an awareness of the solidarity of personal Christian existence with that of all of humanity (the global village). It finds expression in the work of many third world theologians. Closer to home it is apparent in magazines like Sojourners or Vanguard. The writings of leading evangelicals such as Clark Pinnock, Vernon Grounds, and John Howard Yoder have made us increasingly aware of this other dimension of our existence as Christians.

Our Anabaptist fathers were deeply sensitive to both the individual and social aspects of our faith. Individuality was affirmed in their radical stand for voluntary choice for or against the claims of Christ. Community was stressed in the emphasis on the importance of God’s continuing work in the people of God. The issue that faces us now is whether the contemporary Mennonite church has been so completely shaped by the culture around it that the movement between self and other is lost. When the sense of our social identity withers, the sense of {14} justice and equality is also easily lost. Individualization of faith can occur at the expense of the wider social dimension of faith.

To preach only the gospel of individual salvation is to preach a truncated gospel. We forget too easily the railing of the prophets against the injustices of the people of God against the poor in the land. Many writers are again calling for a balance of personal piety and social justice, between individual and communal faith.


In the last section I made the point that awareness of social justice is part of the Christian life-style. In this section I will describe one theory of psychological development toward awareness of justice. Kohlberg’s theory describes the development of moral thought in terms of three major levels. The process begins with the young child (or offender) who is unaware of the conventional rules of society. Conduct is modified by rewards and punishments. The second level involves conformity to social standards and includes most adolescents and adults. Here conduct is controlled by the anticipation of social praise and blame. A minority, however, while they accept the general basic moral principles that give rise to social rules, will make moral choices on the basis of personal principles when conflict between social and personal principles emerges. In this third level, moral behavior is regulated by an ideal which transcends social praise and blame. The three levels can also be described as follows:

  1. Preconventional: Social standards are perceived as external to the self.
  2. Conventional: Self is identified with social standards.
  3. Post conventional: Self is differentiated from social standards.

These three levels could be thought of as types of people, but Kohlberg views them as general ways of reasoning about moral dilemmas. In summary, the morally right is that which is demanded by power figures in Level I, by personal loyalty in Level II, and by autonomous principles (like “justice”) at Level III.

Stages of Morality

Within each of the three levels there are two distinct stages. Table 1 describes the stages at each moral level. Each stage may be considered to be a distinct moral philosophy. In the first stage, the physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness. In stage two, right action is what instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs. In both of these stages the child is responsive to cultural rules, but he interprets them in terms of pleasurable or hedonistic consequences and the physical power of those making the rules. At the next level, the {15}

expectations of family, group, or nation are the standards of correct action. Specifically, stage 3 reasoning, usually referred to as the “good boy-nice girl” orientation, assumes that conformity to what is natural or stereotypical is good behavior. The next stage (4) of moral thought is more strongly identified with authority, fixed laws, and the maintenance of the social order. Stage 5 reasoning posits that right action be defined by reference to those general individual rights which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society as in, for example, the American Constitution. The orientation of the last stage (6) defines that which is right in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that are comprehensive, consistent, and universal. These are not concrete rules like The Ten Commandments but abstract principles like “justice.”

Each of the stages described is assumed to be qualitatively different. The differences between them are determined by what the individual is valuing, judging, or appealing to in resolving a moral dilemma.


Levels Basis of Moral Judgment Stages of Development

Moral value resides in external, quasi-physical happenings, in bad acts, or in quasi-physical needs rather than in persons and standards.

Stage 1: Obedience and punishment orientation. Egocentric deference to superior power or prestige, or a trouble avoiding set. Objective responsibility. (Example: “I don’t lie because—if I do—my mother beats me.”)

Stage 2: Naively egoistic orientation. Right action is that instrumentally satisfying the self’s needs and occasionally others’. Awareness of relativism of value to each actor’s needs and perspective. Naive egalitarianism and orientation to exchange and reciprocity. (Example: “I don’t squeal on Joe. That way Joe don’t squeal on me.”)


Moral value resides in performing good or right roles, in maintaining the conventional order and the expectancies of others.

Stage 3: Good-boy orientation. Orientation to approval and to pleasing and helping others. Conformity to stereotypical images of majority or natural role behavior, and judgment by intentions. (Example: “If my father ever found out that I cheated, he’d never trust me again. So I don’t cheat.”)

Stage 4: Authority and social-order maintaining orientation. Orientation to “doing duty” and to showing respect for authority and maintaining the given social order for its own sake. Regard for earned expectations of others. (Example: {16} “The cops might catch you if you shoplift. I’d feel guilty anyway.”)


Moral value resides in conformity by the self to shared or shareable standards, rights, or duties.

Stage 5: Contractual legalistic orientation. Recognition of an arbitrary element or starting point in rules or expectations for the sake of agreement. Duty defined in terms of contract, general avoidance of violation of the will or rights of others, and majority will and welfare. (Example: “If I took fruit, the shopkeeper would be short at the end of the day. He’s a person like me. If I don’t respect his rights, he won’t respect mine. Society can’t function unless people respect each other’s rights.”)

Stage 6: Conscience or principle orientation. Orientation not only to actually ordained social rules but to principles of choice involving appeal to logical universality and consistency as a directing agent and to mutual respect and trust. (Example: “If I killed someone, I couldn’t live with myself.”)

Source: Kohlberg, 1976. The examples are taken from Davidoff, 1976, p. 352.

Each successive stage is more differentiated and hence more advanced than previous stages. (A higher stage of moral reasoning is assumed to be a philosophically more adequate way of reasoning about moral issues.)

A number of additional assumptions are made about progression through the six stages. First, Kohlberg states that movement through the various stages of moral judgment follows an invariant sequence. Subjects do not skip some stages, and movement through the stages is always upward. Second, each stage can be defined as a structural whole. Hence, the stages of growth point to changes in the form, not the content, of moral thought. Third, the moral stages are viewed as hierarchical integrations. Each new stage displaces structures found at lower stages but also reintegrates them. The elements of lower stages are reorganized and fitted into the structure of higher stages. Fourth, the stages are posited as universal. Not only do the patterns of moral reasoning transcend situations, the sequence of development is assumed to be the same regardless of culture, social class, or religion. These factors may affect the rate of development. But the nature of moral development is not relative to culture.

Moral Growth

What motivates and sustains movement through the stages of morality? Kohlberg’s response is that the natural interaction of individuals within their social environments gives rise to the various types of moral reasoning. More specifically, development is a result of interaction between the universal internal features of the child’s regulating {17} tendencies (which are “built in,” not learned) and the universal features of the child’s external social world. The growth of logical structure (the “how” of all thinking) parallels and shapes the types of moral reasoning. Since intellectual and social development are inextricably related in the process of development, distinctions between moral categories and behavioral outcomes are irrelevant. To choose an ethical principle is to act accordingly. A last assumption made is that formal instruction (in the sense of instilling values) does not affect rate of growth. As indicated above, growth emerges out of the natural interaction of the self and one’s environment. Education can, however, create a situation in which peers interact, discussion is free, frustration is tolerated, and conflicts can be realistically presented.


Turning now to an evaluation of Kohlberg’s contribution, I find the following aspects helpful for parents and educators concerned about moral growth.

  1. The theory makes explicit the stages that precede the development of an awareness of social justice.
  2. The development of morality does not end with the prevailing “cultural religion.” Stage four morality blesses any given stage of economic, political, and religious affairs. But level three transcends it.
  3. Kohlberg’s approach goes beyond a morality of passively held beliefs. He points to the inevitable struggle with ethical issues in a post-conventional society.

At the same time there are a number of problems that Kohlberg, in my estimation, fails to deal with adequately.

  1. In one sense, Kohlberg’s version of moral development is another version of the individualistic point of view. Children grow from an egocentric, other directed, and amoral perspective to an autonomous, inner directed, morality of principles. Should there be a more community-based stage 7 morality? Kohlberg makes a social ethic take second place to a personal ethic. The problem is resolved, in part, if one makes stages 5 and 6 equally acceptable as contemporaneous in our experience. That is, ethical decisions are both individual and social and emerge out of the consensus of the community and the reflection of the individual.
  2. Kohlberg assumes that thought and act are naturally related. Experience, however, tells us that there is no lock-step connection between knowing and doing. Kohlberg’s theory tells us little about how principles are translated into behavior.
  3. Are form and content in ethical judgment as easily separable as Kohlberg would have us think? The advantage is obvious. Public {18} schools can then feel free to concentrate on the modes of moral judgment and avoid the practical difficulties of ethical pluralism. However, if only formal criteria are used to evaluate moral judgment, how does one decide whether a decision is right or wrong?


Before I discuss the implications for Christian education of the preceding two sections, I will make explicit a number of my assumptions. I am assuming that together with the goal of personal renewal and fulfillment, we must also educate for an awareness of social justice. Secondly, I am treating Kohlberg’s theory for what it is, a theory with some supporting evidence which is useful in exploring implications for religious education. Thirdly, I am assuming that when we speak of Christian education we are concerned with more than the usual weekly lessons on Wednesday and Sunday. The transmission of the theological tradition involves both formal and informal channels in the context of the entire church community.

I would like to raise two questions regarding Christian education that emerge from the discussion above. The first focuses on the issue of what we will teach. The second regards the question of how to teach. First, then, the issue of what we will teach. My sense is that we need again to emphasize that dimension of our faith heritage which speaks to social issues. J.A. Toews, in his pamphlet Our Ministry of Reconciliation in a Broken World, points out that “peacemaking is at the heart of the gospel” and that this peacemaking involves standing between two alienated parties where injustice has occurred. In response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Toews answers that it is the person who is the victim of exploitation and violence. The implication for the Christian is involvement as peacemaker in economic, racial, industrial, national, and international conflicts. Where there is injustice we will call for justice. Stage 4 morality, which “blesses” institutionalized injustice, is always sub-Christian.

Lastly, what can Kohlberg’s theory teach us about the “how” of our education ministry in the Church? The following are some tentative suggestions:

  1. The theory suggests that we can determine a given individual’s stage of moral development. Any teacher or parent with an ideal in mind needs to know where the student or child is in his/her order of development. A thorough study of the stages and an awareness of the kinds of responses children make to ethical dilemmas would enable most educators to diagnose the level of development. Particularly helpful in this respect are the handbooks by Fenton (1975), Porter and Taylor (1972), Beck (1971), and Duska and Whelan (1975). 1 would also recommend the CRM film {19} “Moral Development” available from McGraw-Hill Films (Princeton Road Highstown, New Jersey 08520).
  2. Some learning requires conflict and tension. Kohlberg points out that movement to higher stages does not occur by formal instruction but through conflict that points up the current level of morality. We will not question our consumptive life-style until we experience its injustice relative to the life-style of most of the rest of the world. This may mean that pastors encourage members to spend their next vacation with a missionary in Haiti, Mexico City, or Lima instead of Banff, Florida, or Hawaii. It may mean involving ourselves directly in the lives of the oppressed by adopting them into our families. Why not bring into our discussion groups people who sense they are the object of unjust practices?
  3. Before the Sunday School era, many Mennonites used the Martyr’s Mirror as their source of teaching. This would be a powerful way to sensitize children to the fallenness of any age and the costs involved in a discipleship which is based on personal convictions and principles. If Toews’ call for peacemakers in a broken world is a theology that emerges out of our history as Mennonites (and it does), then our history bears retelling to our children. We may want to consider more seriously a curriculum for our education program which is sensitive to our Anabaptist heritage. The Foundation Series is an example of a curriculum that does so.
  4. Current educational specialists often refer to the “hidden curriculum” as opposed to the one that occupies most of a teacher’s time. It is a curriculum that is implicit in the social environment. Often it is in direct conflict with the material used in the classroom. Our church education programs may be no exception. We may teach one thing in the lesson material and quite another by the structure of our churchly community. We state that reconciliation in the area of race relations should find expression in accepting all people as equal regardless of race, ethnic origin, or sex. Yet our church memberships are almost exclusively white and ethnic Mennonite. We have often limited the areas of service open to women despite the apostle Paul’s “failure” to distinguish between males and females when he lists the gifts of the Spirit. Somehow when that gets translated into practice it is mostly the men in the congregation and church boards who exercise the gifts.
  5. Finally, a few practical applications of an education for moral development and a sense of justice.
    1. Provide opportunities for children to participate in deciding rules for common living in the family.
    2. Focus on establishing the classroom as a community where the participants learn and live together in an atmosphere of respect and security. {20}
    3. Focus on reasons for moral judgment, not on behavior or beliefs alone.
    4. Bring older children or adults into a discussion of morality rather than the usual procedure of rigid segregation by age groups in the Sunday School.
    5. Role play situations from daily life that lead to disappointments, tension, fights, or joys so as to help students to see an event from another perspective.

In summary, Christian education includes education for awareness of injustice and the encouragement of Christians to involve themselves in social conflict. We cannot be “Die Stillen im Lande.”


  • Beck, Clive. Moral Education in the Schools: Some Practical Suggestions. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971.
  • Davidoff, Linda L. Introduction to Psychology. New York: McGrawHill Book Company, 1976.
  • Duska, Ronald and Whelan, Mariellan. Moral Development: A Guide to Piaget and Kohlberg. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.
  • Fenton, Thomas P. Education for Justice, A Resource Manual. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1975.
  • Kohlberg, L. “The Child as a Moral Philosopher,” Psychology Today, Sept. 1968.
  • Kohlberg, L. “Moralization: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach.” In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976 (January).
  • Porter, Nancy and Taylor, Nancy. How to Assess the Moral Reasoning of Students. Toronto, Ontario: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1972.
Dr. Al Dueck teaches Psychology at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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