A couple of Weeks ago over at Anglobaptist.org, A photo for the D.C. Occupy Church and a quote from a post by Micah Bales was the catalyst for a dispute over the relationship of justice to the Gospel, and the role of the Church in political systems and movements.
On one level the above conversation simply took the well-worn path of “Social Gospel” vs. individual piety or faith argument that has long worked itself out in the American context. Though I had thought my friends in the conversation weren’t still stuck in that dilemma. Yet, it is hard to get out of such ruts it seems. Even I am probably stuck in it. I have not participated much in the Occupy movement though I am deeply sympathetic and have defended it in conversations with people, both progressives and conservatives. I have been attending to the health justice and righteousness of that which is closest to me, and directly my responsibility. I have not been attending to the larger structural issues of justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness in our larger society, country or world. But really it isn’t just time which has kept me at a distance: I’m not willing to get arrested for the occupy movement and its cause. I couldn’t quite see my way to how doing so would be as a witness to Christ, and God’s justice. I may be shortsighted (I’ll allow that) but I haven’t been able to get there, or see away to get there. Others have, that is clear from the Occupy Church folk. I have my questions. I admit my struggle so as to be honest about from where I speak.
I agree with those who argue that the Bible and Jesus’ teachings are full of the consistent assertion that God cares for the marginalized, vulnerable and the oppressed, and demands that God’s people act with justice and righteousness.
-Justice having to do with systems and distribution of power and wealth in a non-exploitive way. Righteousness, personal and individual morality and ethics having to do with individual acts or purely interpersonal relationships, doesn’t effect systems of power and wealth.-
Unfortunately in current usage these words have differing and unrelated meanings. Yet in the languages of Scripture and for much of the history of the Church they were synonymous, and had overlapping ranges of meaning, in Greek they are the same word for the connotations we bring to each. I think we need to recapture the union of personal and corporate righteousness, meaning that the poor, marginalized and oppressed are to be treated with righteousness (they are to have justice).
When my friend Benedict asks my friend Jeremy what about the state of our hearts and souls, are they just, have they been softened and transformed such that anger and other passions don’t rule us, and my friend Jeremy asks how can we focus on the inner person and just attitudes of our heart mind and soul and ignore the plight of the marginalized and poor, and systems of oppression, I say yes to both. Neither is just without the other.
One should ask if the systems of this world, our Governments, even those who may have some association with Christianity, or have Christians in them, are truly able to live up to God’s justice? The Biblical witness (to which all sides of such debates cling) may actually answer this question with a resounding “No!” The people of Israel were the best candidates for this achievement, according to the story that undergirds the prophetic discourse (of course if one may want to take a differing view then the Prophets own reasoning and accounting of the nature of the situation, but I wonder then how can one continue to appeal to their vision). Even though Israel had the clear laws and a covenant directly from God, through Moses, they could not live up to the justice of God. Even when they were directed by people indwelt and inspired by God to lead them they could not. In the end they demand Kings, who were chosen by God, and on whom the Spirit of God, rested even so those Kings failed to fulfil God’s justice.
Now does this then mean that we retreat from seeking to work for justice for the widow the orphan the stranger and the oppressed. I would think not! Rather the Biblical narrative gives but it the limits of what we may truly achieve, and what we are to expect on the level of the Powers (governments and systems of power and wealth which demand our allegiance).
If we are working for reform of law, we should be aware that laws authored by human beings certainly can’t be more effective in changing the human being than the very laws of God. We are told that even the Law of Moses doesn’t change our hearts, they just point out our sin, our failure to be just. In a generic sense the very need for law points out that justice can’t be achieved by law and systems of rule and government alone. Though, as the Psalmist sings and prays,” The Scepter of the wicked shall not rest over the land of the just, for fear that the hands of the just should turn to evil.” (Psalm 125) It certainly helps in being just if government and law at least are tending towards righteousness and not injustice. So there is a place, an important place for the creation of as just a society as we can bring about.
So, yes the prophets Jesus lead us to seek justice in the systems of the world. We are to seek to act justly and on behalf of the oppressed whether or not we can transform the system. Ye if we only to reform and change the system and the powers, injustice still lurks in our hearts unless we also seek to have our hearts soften by God, and submit ourselves to the work of God in Jesus Christ. For it is in Jesus Christ that God in his justice and mercy is overcoming the Powers, and all oppression and injustice, including our interpersonal and private injustices (or unrighteousness). Our internal life and its passions and little hates and prejudices are the source of the grand injustices of the systems we human beings create and then serve.
Or to put it another way from a Christian perspective, I’d argue, that the work for justice must also be an act of the cure of souls. Working for justice should be done out of a clear sense of one’s own injustice. Christians should seek not only freedom from the systemic oppression and injustice at the hands of the powers of wealth and government but seek freedom from the oppression that is found in ourselves in our attempts to preserve our own life at all costs. Which it could be argued is the root of the injustices the Occupy Movement is seeking to root out of our society, it is an important question if it is also what needs to be rooted out of the hearts of those in the Movement itself. Are the Christians in the movement seeking the cure of souls, their own and those in the movement or are they content only with a dealing with the symptoms of human injustice and evil?