Friday, August 31, 2012

Relating justice and faith


We talk a lot about justice on this blog, and in this entry as the Summer wraps up, I want to talk about what justice is in relation to one's faith or spiritual vocation. The thing that has occasioned this particular entry is a meeting I had recently where we talked a bit about concepts of justice and how, as Dr. Wolterstorff mentioned in his address at the Social Justice and Human Rights conference, justice differs from benevolence. During this meeting, someone raised the question of whether justice had any links to piety, and to a sense of Christian calling. I thought that was a pretty good question.

It's an important question for the Christian tradition, of course, because the answer will shape the way Christian faith is understood. This is not to say that other faith traditions don't also have conceptions of justice as part of a spiritual calling—many do, and one of the greatest things about inter-religious dialogue is the fact that we can learn from each other's understandings. What, then, do we as followers of Christ bring to the proverbial table in terms of understandings of justice? And are such concepts linked for us not just to a moral imperative to do the “right thing” but to the very ground of our faith?

In thinking through this question, it struck me that both the Old and New Testaments have quite a bit to say on the matter, and many of the passages that could be cited use language that is quite striking. In Isaiah 59:15-16, for example, God is described as being “appalled” at the lack of justice, and at the fact that there was “no one to intervene” when the needs of justice were not met. Interestingly enough, earlier in the same chapter, injustice is described in terms of spurious law suits and false witness, and while law during the time the book of Isaiah was written is certainly a great deal different than law today, they are part of the same tradition (very broadly defined) stretching across time. “Intervening”, then takes on a particular tone, and justice is linked with law--with what is required of one.

In the Gospel accounts, justice does not appear in quite the same way, but Christ does issue a very specific call regarding “whatever you do to the least of these”. In that passage, he describes those who intervened in a different way: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. Furthermore, Christ draws a parallel with the treatment of “these” people, and the treatment of his own person. He seems to make it clear that however we act to those in need is how we act to Christ himself.

If, then, God is appalled at injustice, as Isaiah describes it, and Christ issues a very pointed call to feed, clothe and otherwise care for those in need, it seems to me that acting justly—where such action is understand as intervening to help those in need, treating them as we would treat Christ, were we to suddenly stumble across him in a similar situation—is in fact part of a Christian vocation, and not just “what we should do.” (Which is in no way to detract from saying that acting justly is what we should do). Going out on a limb here, I would even say that we could call it a requirement of faithful living. 

In the understandable rush to work for justice in this day and age, those of us who are already justice advocates of one kind or another can become enmeshed in structures that are not comfortable with spiritual language such as “calling” or “spiritual discipline”—another phrase I have recently heard used to describe justice work. And I think we do have to be aware of whether that kind of language can be alienating to some. But I also think, for those who consider themselves to be followers of Christ, that it is worth having a look at our own concepts of justice, and how they may be linked to our very vocation--how they may be linked to our commitment to be a follower of Christ. Can we see such a relation between justice and a life of faith?