Thursday, August 01, 2013

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

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.

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