Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Whose Justice?"

With all the talk from political candidates about freedom and Constitutional rights, it's easy for Christians to forget about the kind of society that Christ desired "on earth as it is in heaven." Underneath much of the political discourse on rights and freedoms is the concept of justice. Here is a cogent reminder from Scot McKnight on how the concept of justice is subjectively defined and, for the Christian, ought to be "defined by Jesus and the Spirit." The following excerpt is taken from his book A Community Called Atonement.

"Before we look at atonement as the work of God that creates a pervasively just society, let me clarify the expression 'social justice.' We make a serious mistake when we write with adjectives: 'social' before justice limits justice and moves justice from the church in to the government. I propose that we drop the word 'social' in the term 'social justice.' First, such an expression tends to imply an old-fashioned dualistic spirituality in which some things are spiritual and some things are not.

In addition, the only way to define 'justice' is by reference to a standard. Social justice tends to be defined by its standard: the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution - or a watered-down version thereof. But justice for the Christian is not about freedom or liberty, rights, individualism, or the pursuit of personal happiness. When that is what justice means to the Christian, that Christian has adopted Western values as the standard by which justice is defined.

Christians can't let the U.S. Constitution (or John Stuart Mill or Karl Marx) define what 'justice' means. We have to define justice in a way consistent with what Jesus meant by 'kingdom.' Which raises postmodern a issue that cuts sharply into the deep caverns of what we mean by justice.

Kant taught that universal reason would lead us to a universal sense of justice, and then more recently John Rawls suggested rather hopefully that the consensus of reasonable people would lead us to a deeper sense of justice. But postmodernists and anti-postmodernists (like Hauerwas) have entered the fray to observe that justice does not come from answering "What is justice?" but that justice comes from those who are willing to ask "Whose justice is it?"

That is, when justice is defined by some party, the power of that party's definition determines the meaning of justice. Which is to say that justice is shaped by one's moral standards, and those in power get to do the most shaping.

I accept the postmodern critique, and I add the Christian view to the mix. I contend that a Christian sense of justice is one shaped by the Christian story. And that means that a Christian sense of justice is shaped by the love of God and love of others instead of a Western, individualized, and modernist concept of freedom and rights.

Lessle Newbigin spoke about the supposedly self-evident truths that "every human being has an equal right to the pursuit of happiness. What this affirms," he continued, "is the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to the pursuit of the end for which humans, as a matter of fact, exist." [from Foolishness to the Greeks] We might have the rights for happiness, but what makes humans happy is not determined necessarily by having those rights. We need to ask again what a Christian theory of justice looks like.

Justice in the Bible is behavior that conforms to God's standard, and we can plumb that standard in any number of ways - through detailed analysis of specific passages in the Torah, through summaries of the Torah, through the teachings of Jesus, or through the Spirit-inspired life.

Permit me two definitions: let us define justice as behavior tha conforms to the teachings of Jesus and, at the same time, as behavior that emerges from the Spirit's direction. You can have it either way; for, if I am right, these definitions end up at the same place. Justice is also structural at some level: it refers to the establishment of conditions that promote loving God and loving others or living in the Spirit.

For the follower of Jesus, justice is not defined by the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, Kant's categorical imperative, or any other social formation of law. It is defined by Jesus and by the Spirit - and we learn of its Spirit-directedness through the Bible.

Some will say that this is too religious, that it is too Christian, or that it is not practicable for a pluralistic society. I care about none of those criticisms, not because I don't think working in the public square requires common sense and even agreement to the U.S. Constitution for amicable discourse, but because we need as Christians to recover what we think the Bible says "justice" really is: the conditions that obtain when humans are right with God, with self, with others, and with the world." [p.124-125]

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