In consideration of justice and the Church
“I’ve been bothered by the way justice is talked about in the Church these days,” a faithful Christian said to me several weeks ago. That was a lead in to a conversation that would certainly be complex and take more time than I would have until after Holy Week and Easter. To do right by this faithful Christian, the conversation would have to wait.
Once the topic of justice was raised, however, it became the lens through which I was to see all the events of Holy Week. I became aware that justice was threaded through the scenes of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his betrayal, his trial, his torture, and his execution. In everything we in the church heard, considered, and did that week, questions loomed — “What could possibly have been just about Jesus’ last days?” More broadly — “How do I understand justice?” “How do we as a community understand justice?” and more specifically, “Is what I/we think the same as God’s Justice?”
I may be wrong, but I would suspect that most of us think of justice in a legal sense. We may picture Lady Justice with her scales. When wrongs have been righted, her scales balance. When punishment has been meted out appropriate to the crime, justice is served. From a number of articles online I learned that this understanding of justice is based on the concept of “equity.” People should receive benefits proportionate to their contributions. The opposite is also true. People should suffer in proportion to any harm they do.
But justice can also be thought of in terms of “equality.” According to this understanding, for justice to prevail everyone should have the same, no matter what their contribution. There are other fancy terms like distributive justice and commutative justice and justice that focuses on process, not on outcome. All these kinds of justice have one thing in common: they pertain to the individual and are often couched in the language of personal rights.
It was time to go to my theological library. I went first to the 1993 edition of The Oxford Companion to the Bible. When I looked up justice this is what it said: “See Righteousness.” That’s all ... just, “See Righteousness.” So I did. As though it were highlighted on the page with a marker, a phrase jumped out at me: “For ordinary people, it [justice/righteousness] means treating one’s neighbor as a covenant partner, neither oppressing nor being oppressed (Amos 5.6-7, 21-24).”
Here was a reference to the individual person and justice, but only as the individual was part of a relationship. The individual could not be considered alone. Biblical justice, it seemed, had to do with being part of a group. I was reminded of the Umbutu phrase, “I am, because we are.”
For those of us who strive to live in accordance with God’s Way of compassion, forgiveness, radical equality, and the non-violence that Jesus showed us — being in right relationship with God (righteousness), it seems, requires neither oppressing others nor being oppressed (being just). These two are virtually synonymous.
But why even speak of oppression? In our country we certainly are just. Or could the certainty of that assertion depend on our definitions? My guess is that those of us with position and resources and power would define justice in terms of the status quo. We might use the equity argument and say that since we contribute more to society, we deserve greater rewards. We would say this is indeed a just society.
In the same way I would guess that those of us with less position and resources and power, especially those of us at the bottom of the socio-political-economic ladder, might define justice in terms of equality. We would point to our very presence as sufficient reason for this. We might look differently at our society, see oppression, and decide that it is not just.
Jesus’ followers, for the most part, were without position or power. Many of them left their resources behind. In their world of haves and have nots, they would have heard his call to justice differently from those with power.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
How do we who are the Church ... how should we who are the Church do justice?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.