Friday, August 30, 2013

Privacy Dies, Some Austrians Grow a Brain, and the Entire History of Philosophy Fits on a Graph

Links for August 30, 2013

It took me hours of taking apart my cell phone, scouring my apartment, looking over my shoulder constantly, checking every lamp and light fixture, and coming up empty to realize that the NSA probably won’t plant bugs on a boring graduate student in Canada. Turns out, though, the NSA seems to be pretty good at forgetting the rules when it comes to respecting privacy. Their latest case of the nosies was uncovered this week when a German newspaper reported that the NSA was playing Peeping Tom on the United Nation’s New York headquarters. Needless to say, the UN wasn’t thrilled.

This, along with the recent documentary on internet privacy policies (or should I say non-privacy policies?), Terms and Conditions May Apply, makes me wonder if it’s too early to start mourning the passing of my privacy even in the safety of my own home.

But there is good news. There may be water on the moon. Also, the existence of the super-heavy element with the atomic number 115 was confirmed this week, though it has yet to be named. On a stranger and slightly disturbing note, some scientists in Austria have grown a model brain, or as they’re calling it, a “cerebral organoid,” in a lab. It can’t really do that much because it’s nothing near a full-grown brain, but it makes for a great band name (The Cerebral Organoids...). Speaking of the brain, here’s a fascinating article on the neurobiology of empathy that might have some important implications on how we think about ethics and how we’re connected to each other.

Most importantly and the best news of all, reading that last paragraph may have made you a better person, since just thinking about science might trigger moral behaviour.

If you’re bad at keeping up with current events like I am, here’s an informative article on what’s going on in Syria right now. It’s basically a “what’s happening in Syria for dummies” that is helpful for getting a handle on the big picture and the complexity of what’s going on.

If you missed the recent debate that took the online Christian world by storm on why millenials might be leaving the church, here’s a follow up article by the author of the CNN piece that started it all, which includes some links to some of the louder voices on all sides of the conversation.

I recently came across this article that shows the awesome power of big data and how it might be able to help us even in philosophy, if we can devise the right approach. In this article, the author crunches data from Wikipedia to build an incredibly detailed map that graphs the history of philosophy and the connections between pretty much every philosopher you can imagine. Cool.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sam Harris and the Morality of Torture

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Joseph Kirby

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
Near the end of The End of Faith, Sam Harris shares an experience from his travels: a terrifying situation – a foreign land, a mob of drunks, a woman being beaten and dragged into a waiting car. Most people would have tried to ignore it, gone back to their hotel, forgotten. Not Harris – unsure of what to do, he strides up to the main perpetrator and, as the enraged man turns toward him, comes up with a brilliant plan: figuring that the mob might not speak English, Harris pretends to be a clueless tourist looking for his hotel. The mob starts to debate what the crazy American wants. The woman, momentarily forgotten, scurries away. Harris, mission accomplished, thanks the mob and walks off.

This anecdote is followed by a surprising analysis: “While my conduct in the above incident seems to meet with the approval of almost everyone, I relate it here because I consider it an example of moral failure” (The End of Faith, 201). Harris lays out three arguments for this. First, he was lying to the men, and lying is immoral no matter what the situation. Second, he was afraid of the men, perceiving “them not as ends in themselves, as sentient creatures capable of dialogue, appeasement, or instruction, but as threat in its purest form.” Third, he never made it clear to the men that he found their conduct despicable – “I never actually opposed their actions – hence they never received any correction from the world.” For Harris, this third point is most important. He now believes that he had a moral duty to teach the mob a lesson. In short, even though he successfully diverted their attention from one victim, his actions did nothing to help all future victims who might be abused by these drunks. According to Harris, the only way to protect these future victims would be by giving the brutes a reason to fear – even if “a frank intercession on the woman’s behalf would have guaranteed [his] own injury.”

This self-criticism comes at the end of a chapter arguing for the legitimacy of torture. Harris believes that he has “successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstances in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage” (TEOF, 198). The argument is simple: (1) dropping bombs onto enemy cities will be very likely to inflict horrible suffering on a large number of innocent children; (2) doing this is ethically more heinous than torture; (3) therefore, given that we are willing to drop bombs onto enemy cities in order to prosecute our war on terror, it would be irrational of us to refuse to use torture in the same conflict. He admits that “this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers.” He attributes this queasiness to a kind of “ethical illusion,” a “perceptual illusion” caused by the wiring of our brain: “our ethical intuitions are driven by considerations of proximity and emotional salience […]. Clearly, these intuitions are fallible.” In short, while our emotions will always tell us that inflicting direct physical pain on the body of a helpless human being is immoral, our reason can tell us that sometimes such actions are necessary to save the lives of many other people. So too, the “almost everyone” who approve of Harris’ conduct in the anecdote have fallen victim to the ethical illusion that saving one person is a success – when saving this one person entailed abandoning all future people to their fate.

The problem with this argument for the morality of torture is that the directions of the reasoning can easily be reversed: (1) torture is clearly immoral; therefore, (2) if causing collateral damage is ethically more heinous than torture, then (3) a war that entails causing massive collateral damage must also be immoral. Such reasoning would very quickly lead to a repudiation of the morality of warfare itself. Harris, therefore, is justifiably afraid that his “reflections on torture may offer a potent argument for pacifism” (TEOF 199). It is in this context that he includes this anecdote from his own personal experience: he is trying to prove that pacifism is “flagrantly immoral” because it is “ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs.”

If Harris wants to use of the term “flagrantly immoral” to refer to pacifism, it would seem that he will need another term to describe the conduct of a person who sees the person being beaten and gets excited, wants to watch, tries to join the action. Let us define this latter possibility as “hideously immoral,” with the term “flagrantly immoral” now referring to the conduct of people who think they are doing the moral thing but who are in reality just abetting the violence they oppose. Both Harris and the pacifists would agree that the actions of the violent mob are “hideously immoral.” However, Harris and the pacifists would disagree about what kind of action is “flagrantly immoral.” For the pacifist, what Harris actually did was the perfect response: a violent situation was defused without anybody being hurt. If this was the proper response at the personal level, however, then at the political level, the war on terror would be immoral. Having argued for the morality of the war on terror, therefore, Harris feels obliged to translate his political conclusion into conduct at the interpersonal level: even if it means being beaten to a pulp by a mob of angry drunks, we must not shirk our duty to bring fear into the hearts of the hideously immoral mob that threatens us.

The phenomenon of hideous immorality actually represents a tremendous challenge to Harris’ view of politics. Harris’ goal is to purge the world of “the religious barbarism that animates our enemies” (TEOF 202-3). Religious barbarism would presumably be another kind of flagrant immorality: its perpetrators would be suffering under an incorrect understanding of moral goodness, and Harris’ political project would be to disabuse such people of their moral illusions. The drunken mob, however, does not become a drunken mob because it believes in an inappropriate moral system. As such, a world purged of the flagrant immorality of religious barbarism would presumably still suffer from the hideously immorality of drunken mobs. If this is apt, then hideous immorality would be a different problem, requiring a different solution. Harris, like Hobbes, is arguing that this kind of violence can only be dealt with by violence and fear of violence. It would be interesting to see whether the various religions offer a different solution to this same problem.
Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Justice and Texts as Superheroes

"There’s something undeniably wonderful about the fact that a pocket-sized book that I carry around with me has the power to protect me from all kinds of discrimination. The Constitution respects me and embraces my diversity. It loves the fact that I’m black and female, and would love me just the same if I weren’t. It listens to my issues and is open to changing with the times."
With the Centre's current research focus and its partnered project on justice and faith within the Christian Reformed church, (a report for the pilot version of that project can be found here) I have increasingly had justice on my mind. Since there are many ways to think about and to do justice, I am always trying to see what's out there and what others are saying and doing. Yesterday, I ran across a recent blog post by Mbali Khumalo, a law student from South Africa who has been working on ending violence against women and girls, and who, in service of that goal, wrote about her vision of justice. There were two things in particular that struck me about her post. The first was the way she spoke about the constitution of South Africa, and the potential power it holds to protect from discrimination and to love and respect those it protects. But she also made the point that in order for this "pocket-sized book" to have any real effect, people have to act on it. If people don't act justly, and call out discrimination when they see it, demanding that it stop, then "the pocket-sized superhero just becomes a book with a plethora of great words." We can have all the best laws and protections in the world, but if people don't live by them and speak up when they see injustices happening, then the power of those potentially great laws is null.

The second thing that struck me about her post was the way she spoke of justice, personified. She writes, "I see Justice standing alone in a dim space, weeping. Justice’s screams of negligence are directed to an audience that receives the sounds as muffled tones whose vibrational frequencies have been weakened by the walls of distraction." Her point as she continues is that we--"just us" and not some convenient Other or "someone else"--have to listen, to see, to hear justice's cries and do something about it. She uses these two powerful images of the superhero book and the weeping, screaming woman whose cries are ignored to bring us, her readers (and in particular her South African readers about whose constitution she is speaking), to an understanding that we already have the resources to take up the cries of justice. It's all there, and there Justice stands, crying out what she sees and demanding action. We have to take up her cry too, and act on it.

But just as there isn't only one superhero in the comic book universe, so too there isn't only one "superhero book" out there when it comes to looking for resources for justice. And just as different superheroes operate in different ways and have different causes they fight for, justice's "superhero books" can come in many different superficially mild-mannered guises. Though we don't always recognize or remember it, there is such a superhero book in the Christian tradition--the Bible--that, especially in these days of smartphones and tablets, can be pocket-sized and carried around, either metaphorically or actually. 

For all my long hours of biblical study and the full twenty-two years I have spent in various Christian schools, (all the way from kindergarten through to PhD, with an intervening 4 years in a public high school), I have become convinced that a call to justice is one of the main strands weaving the biblical account into a whole. To put it with a bit of dramatic flair, if the biblical text had a mouth with which to speak, it would be out on the streets alternately screaming for justice or standing as gagged witness against injustice. 

Now, I'm not saying that the Bible is like a constitution, or a source of laws that we can just pick up and use. A theocracy is not the way to go, and I believe would also miss the point of what biblical authority is. Instead I'm proposing that we look--really look, and listen!--to the stories scripture tells and the cries and laments it voices. What do we hear in these laments, in these stories? We hear, for instance, Isaiah wailing and weeping like the personified justice Mbali Khumalo describes, as he cried out, "no one brings suit justly, and no one goes to law honestly...their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood... the way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths." (From Isaiah 59:4-8). Isaiah is pretty clear about how he thinks God feels about the situation he is describing, too: "The Lord saw it and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene." (from vs. 15-16). Isaiah reports then that God didn't just stand there appalled and immobile, nor did God ask someone else to intervene, or wait for them to do so. Instead, Isaiah writes, interpreting the situation he has watched unfold, God intervened for justice. We should follow that example, Isaiah seems to be saying.

In the face of the harsh realities of an unjust world, as Mbali Khumalo aptly describes our current experience, there exist a plethora of great words available that speak to that experience. Some of those great words exist in the Bible. Do we make use of them, though? Do we allow them to shape our actions, and if so, in what ways? For those of us that chose to carry this particular book with us, for whom the Bible is scripture (holy words) and not just an interesting and odd collection of documents, what do those great words mean, and how must we respond if they are to be anything other than the true but faint praise of "great words?" The justice Isaiah speaks of in the verses I drew from (and there are many others I could have picked instead)--what does he mean by it? What does he mean when he says justice? Moreover, and probably more importantly, how are those words meant to speak to us today, oceans and millennia away? Holy words don't just speak once and then stand there immobile, frozen in the air. They keep speaking. They have to. Breath, inspiration, that has frozen cannot bring life, and I think we'd be hard pressed to find anyone for whom the Bible was important who would disagree that it is meant to bring life. So when Isaiah wails for justice, what do we hear? How do we understand it? What is he, with his inspired breath, calling us to see and do and intervene in, now, in our lives? How can we be responsive to this call?

With the Bible, we have a resource book. It's not the only resource book out there, and it's not the only resource we have either, but when it all comes down, and despite all the difficult issues it raises, there is a rich tradition there to draw from. It won't protect our rights or bodies like a constitution is meant to do, so it's not a superhero text in that sense. We make constitutions and laws to ensure our protection. But, like the constitution Mbali Khumalo talks about, it issues a strong call to justice, and it lends witness to standing up against injustice. Yet it can only have that effect in our lives if we take its call seriously. If we believe that the Bible is an authoritative text, if we carry it around in our pockets and on our hearts, if we believe that after all these years it still speaks to us with holy intent, then justice is one of the themes we need to start paying more attention to. How is justice calling to us today? And how shall we respond?
Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies. Her work has spanned questions of philosophical hermeneutics, feminist philosophy, and medieval narrative. Much of her current work is engaged in the project Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada, which the ICS's CPRSE is currently working on in partnership with the Christian Reformed Church, and the Centre for Community Based Research

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sea to Sea: Cycling to End Poverty

It doesn’t take much sifting through stats and pondering poverty and injustice around the world to make a person feel insignificant, powerless, and paralyzed. After all, what can I do? I’m just one person.

On June 21 hundreds of people answered this question with the sound of spinning spokes.

Expecting to bring in no less than $3 million, which will be distributed to local and global poverty-fighting and aid organizations, Sea to Sea 2013 provides an opportunity to sponsor cyclists as they make their way from Los Angeles to New York City on two wheels over nine weeks.

Aside from the obvious goal of raising money, the cyclists involved in this year’s 3,900 mile Sea to Sea trek work their weary quads to direct our attention to poverty in our neighborhoods and across the globe and also to remind us that we can all do something to help change the world for the better. Every rider who has committed to at least six of the nine week trek across North America represents at least $10,000 raised, which will be distributed directly to people and organizations on the ground, working hands-on to promote justice for people who are economically oppressed.

As heroic as this tour might seem, maybe we should check our enthusiasm before getting carried away by the tour’s ability to empower ordinary people to do extraordinary and heroic things. “You speak about doing extraordinary things in the world,” Sea to Sea advancement manager Terry Barnes cautioned me over email yesterday. “I’m more interested in helping move a person or community one step closer to self-sustainability.” It’s not about being a real-life hero; it’s about helping real-life people.

Drawing from her experience teaching grade 6 in southern Uganda, 2013 cyclist Christeena Nienhuis reflects on her motivation for riding this year. “You see, for me, poverty has faces,” Nienhuis explains. “It’s not just some obscure notion about people suffering ‘over there.’” Sea to Sea is an opportunity for us to remember that fighting economic injustice is more than just throwing money at a problem; it’s helping PEOPLE. Poverty isn’t an abstract problem. It’s something real people face every day.

Logistically speaking, this is no easy task. As a relatively small administrative operation, the Sea to Sea team puts careful thought into selecting recipients for the funds brought in by the tour. Every potential recipient goes through an application process and submits a proposal, and each proposal is individually reviewed and evaluated by the selection committee, which chooses the particular allocation of funds based on what they think will make the biggest impact.

What’s unusual and refreshing about Sea to Sea’s approach is that their selection criteria, stated clearly on the application itself, favor proposals that fight poverty “by developing people or a communities’ capacity to provide for themselves.” The goal of the Sea to Sea fund is not to throw money at poverty and make the less privileged even more dependent on the money bags of the wealthy. Instead, Sea to Sea supports those people and organizations that recognize people as people, rich or poor, and those that fight poverty by developing one person or one community at a time to promote self-sustainability.

The fine line to walk in fighting economic oppression and injustice is between cheap charity and robust justice. If we are more economically privileged, how do we pitch in and be charitable without setting up a power imbalance or taking away the dignity of the less privileged? How do we help without deepening the injustice of the system? Is charity work just a Band-Aid fix to a problem that needs open-heart surgery?

Before we start to despair at the futility of our best attempts to engineer a solution to global economic injustice, Terry Barnes brings us back down to earth. “The scope of poverty is large but a person cannot focus on the size. The focus should be on helping people,” says Barnes. “To the person who is dying of hunger, a meal is their entire future. . . . Both Band-Aid and long term solutions are important. Otherwise the most brilliant plan will not have any beneficiaries.”

We tipped our hats as the cyclists wended their way through Toronto yesterday entering week 8 of 9 on their journey to the Big Apple, our thoughts buzzing and hearts soaring as we watched the Sea to Sea 2013 tour tackle economic injustice by building up people and communities, one at a time.

If you want to read further on how to engage with economic injustice and poverty, check out the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert as a resource that helps us find our bearings on these issues. For more information on Sea to Sea or to support the cyclists or follow their blogs, take a look at Sea to Sea’s website. Special thanks to Terry Barnes for his thought-provoking comments and for taking the time to share his thoughts with me.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, currently serving as the research assistant for the CPRSE.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Evolving Our Understanding of Evolution: A Guest Post by Jill Johnson


by Jill Johnson

When it comes to contentious issues in the North American church, a recurring source of fear and anger is the idea of evolution. I had heard these arguments floating around as I grew up in the church, but when I studied biology, I compartmentalized these ideas quite separately from my studies, for the most part. It wasn't until I casually mentioned to a clergy member, in a church building, that I had a big paper due in my Evolution class, that I realized that some might see my upbringing and my studies as incongruous. I've since given the matter quite a bit of thought, and I have come to believe that this "controversy" is largely, perhaps entirely, based on a reaction to an inaccurate idea of what evolution is and what it claims to do.

(Note: For the purposes of this piece I'll be writing about evolution as though scientists are a monolithic group that has reached a consensus. Of course, science is a mechanism that allows us to explore questions and not a textbook that provides an unchanging list of the answers, so absolute consensus among scholars is an overstatement. However, I hope to do justice in describing how evolutionary theory is applied by the majority of scientists participating in these conversations today.)

The stereotype of Big Bad Evolutionary Teaching that elicits the strongest push-back from some Christians is typically characterized by some of these features:

It requires adherents to believe in a certain beginning-of-the-world narrative;
It is solely concerned with the creation of new species (especially humanity); and

It is mutually exclusive with religious beliefs.

I hope to demonstrate that evolutionary science in its present state cannot be characterized by these statements. The version of evolution you may have been taught to distrust is a version that no one is actually advocating. First, let me provide a quick primer (with an example) on how evolution is typically defined.

Simply put, evolution is change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. For evolution to occur, three requirements need to be met:

1. Variability - A trait (colouration, height, the presence of certain enzymes, etc.) must have multiple versions simultaneously present in a population

2. Heritability - That trait can be passed down through generations

3. Differential fitness - Individuals with different versions of the trait go on to produce different numbers of offspring.

Here's a commonly used example: the peppered moth. The peppered moth population contains variability in colouration; some moths are lighter while others are more darkly coloured (Requirement 1).

Moth colouration is also heritable; darkly coloured moths have darkly coloured offspring and vice versa (Requirement 2). Now, before the Industrial Revolution, the most common colouration for a peppered moth was light. These insects spent a lot of time resting on lightly coloured vegetation, and so light colouration provided effective camouflage. Few moths were darkly coloured. 

However, during the early English Industrial Revolution, the trees where the moths rested became covered in soot. Now, lightly coloured moths stood out and were easy targets for predation. Suddenly, darkly coloured moths were much more likely than their pale peers to survive and leave numerous offspring (Requirement 3). The frequency of dark colouration in the population jumped. This change in the frequencies of the two colourations of peppered moths in response to a change in their environment (the pollution) constitutes evolution in this population with respect to colouration.

I want to point out that in this example no new species are created. Evolution is just a mechanism by which the frequency of heritable traits change in a population. A substantial change might warrant labelling the new generation as a new species, but not necessarily. Evolution does feature prominently in many origin-of-life theories, of course, but acceptance of these theories is not mandatory in order to consider how evolution may function over smaller time courses. I think that this point is where some Christians and some scientists really misunderstand each other.

A few common misconceptions about evolution

Claim 1. Evolution designs organisms according to how helpful/awesome/sexy an adaptation would be.

Response. The idea that evolution can just design things willy-nilly works well in comic universes because it mirrors the way that writers write. Unfortunately, evolution cannot say, as a writer can, "Do you know what would be awesome? Spider people!" Evolution can only act on pre-existing variability on a certain trait. In the peppered moth example, darkly coloured moths did not appear ex nihilo; they existed in the initial population.

Claim 2. All scientists believe that humans are descended from monkeys (in fact, the same monkeys you can see in a zoo).

Response. No. Evolutionary biologists do often study how related organisms are to one another (by assessing things like how much genetic material, anatomy, and behaviour are shared by the two groups). However, they do this in order to make hypotheses about how recently the two groups may have shared a common ancestor, not to determine which came first.

It is also important to note that this type of work is not always all about humans or even mammals! Work investigating genetic relatedness can provide insight into all sorts of questions. For example, chickadee population genetics can provide insight into how glaciers may have moved across North America.

Claim 3. Some organisms are "more evolved" or "more highly evolved" than others.

Response. This type of language is often used to support the idea that humans are unique, but is easily co-opted in science fiction or for evil real-life purposes like justifying racist actions. Don't do this. Scientists rarely (if ever) talk about organisms as more or less evolved. Evolution is really all about the fit between an organism and its environment, so really everything that is currently living is equally "evolved."

Now that I’ve provided a quick primer on what evolution is (and is not), I hope it’s clear that evolution as a mechanism is not the all-encompassing worldview that Christians sometimes fear. Saying that evolution forces us to deny the existence of God is like saying, “Because water seems to turn into a gas on its own at a certain temperature we have to deny God’s involvement in the process. Therefore, God can’t exist.” Discomfort with an atheistic origin of humanity, which leads some Christians to reject evolution, actually conflates “evolution” with the way some atheist scientists have used it as proof for the non-existence of God. But evolution itself doesn’t give us that kind of information. In other words, the mechanism of evolution does not make claims about the existence of God one way or the other, so our beliefs about the existence of God should not dictate our acceptance or rejection of evolution.

Returning to my initial list of statements associated with Big Bad Evolutionary Teaching, I hope that I have given a new face to mild-mannered evolution-the-mechanism. It is very possible to engage with the idea of evolution as I have described it without accepting any particular creation narrative. There are numerous examples of fruitful studies of evolution that are not interested in the creation/destruction of new species (much less the origins of humanity). And finally, I want to point out that, while evolution-the-mechanism can be described without including God in the description, it does not require God's non-existence in order to function.

Jill Johnson holds an B.Sc. in Biological Sciences and an M.A. in Psychology. She currently manages a research lab that studies developmental psychology.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Justice is Not Just Us: A Guest Post by Dawn Wolthuis

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In light of the research project budding out of a partnership between the Institute for Christian Studies and the Christian Reformed Church of North America, we are excited to feature a piece by ICS President Dawn Wolthius, reflecting on what it means for Christians to pursue justice. Dawn explores the question of whether it is worth pursuing social justice even if God isn’t explicitly mentioned and offers some thoughts on how people with diverse views might be able to share the responsibility to act justly. This piece is a great way to open the door for further conversation on this important topic, and perhaps it will get us thinking carefully together about what justice means. For more information on this partnership project, you can check out this report from the pilot project and this news story posted by the CRCNA, as well as this article from the ICS news blog.

by Dawn Wolthuis

Justice. Why is it such a divisive topic within the church?

We have been talking a lot about justice and faith in light of the recent report from the Justice and Faith pilot project. I noticed that our friends at Cardus have also recently been talking about justice and faith. Comment editor and well-regarded ICS alumnus James K.A. Smith recently posted a blog entry entitled “Naturalizing ‘Shalom’: Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist“. After talking about the word “justice” in a Jesuit statement where the words “God” and “Jesus” are missing (a good point, I thought), he adds:

In strange, often unintended ways, the pursuit of "justice," shalom, and a "holistic" gospel can have its own secularizing effect. What begins as a Gospel-motivated concern for justice can turn into a naturalized fixation on justice in which God never appears. And when that happens, "justice" becomes something else altogether—an idol, a way to effectively naturalize the gospel, flattening it to a social amelioration project in which the particularity of Jesus as the revelation of God becomes strangely absent.

There is a chance I am not understanding the point, but I really don’t get it. Justice, love, peace, … are good things for Christians to strive for, whether working with fellow Christians or with others in society, right? I have often talked about matters of justice with friends and colleagues, Christians and others, without using any of the names of God nor mentioning any parts of the Trinity in the same sentence or paragraph. Does this mean that I have lifted up justice as an idol? No. It does not.

I cannot imagine anyone saying this about using the word “love” or “peace.” Surely when I am talking with a group about any topic, God does not require that I bring up His name in the course of the conversation, right? At both Calvin and Dordt Colleges, I have taught Calculus classes from a Reformed Christian perspective, without mentioning Jesus in each class period. Does that make Calculus or Mathematics my idol? No.

When it comes to biblical justice, we are called to seek it. We are called to work for it. If a group from a synagogue were to address a particular concern related to some specific area of justice in their neighborhood, and they wanted me to sign a petition to help improve the situation, I might very well do so if it aligns with my understanding of Scripture with respect to justice. I might do so knowing that their understanding of Jesus is different from mine. I might not feel a need, at that time, to discuss this difference with them. We could talk about our common understanding of justice in this case, and work toward justice, without holding a bigger discussion about that with which we disagree.

As Christians pursuing justice in the name of God and in agreement with Scripture, we do not have an exclusive claim to justice any more than to love or peace. We need to work with others, even non-Christians, to seek peace, to promote love, to do justly. We can proselytize when appropriate, but we do not have to spend every waking hour doing so. We can work side by side with others as we do God’s work in the world. I would love to launch into a statement about common grace here, but I will resist.

James K.A. Smith’s Cardus blog entry is great as a discussion-starter. It shows that “justice” has become one of those words that trips us up as a Christian community. “The left” has claimed it, perhaps, prompting some on “the right” to try to push back against justice or against the use of the term. I hope that in the future, “the left” will not claim exclusive rights to this biblical term and “the right” will not stand against seeking it.

Justice is not just us.

Dawn Wolthuis is an experienced information technology and higher education consultant with more than 20 years experience. She has a master’s degree in mathematics from Michigan State University and taught mathematics and computer science at Calvin College and, more recently, at Dordt College. Together with husband Tom, she is currently President of ICS.