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


  1. Nicely done Allyson. Leave it to you to develop an eye for the continued deployment of the personification within social and political discourse, wherever it is to be found. Hard to deny the importance of Justice within the prophetic tradition, nor the rhetorical urgency surrounding it or rather her. We should all be weeping her tears for/with her.

  2. I was thinking about an example you gave in our conversation, of a man who believes that whatever the "voice of god" says in his own mind is indeed the voice of god, demanding obedience. the spiritual benefit of an authoritative holy text would seem to lie in the necessity of submitting this internal voice to critique from an external authority. If justice is just a matter of inspiration, beyond rational debate, then my pursuit of my idea of justice will almost inevitably bring me into conflict with your pursuit of your idea. the bible gives us a medium through which to converse about this kind of topic, while minimizing the danger of damaging each other's pride.