I am wrestling with questions revisited at the Black Church Studies conference held at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early part of May, 2015. I come again to my second question, what is justice? As I come, I am aware that I know so little about it, or better to say, I have little understanding of it.
I can talk about it theoretically and listen to others as they speak of it, but there are always two related questions that I desire to know with every discussion: First, upon what is your understanding of justice built? Second, what would justice ideally look like among prospective human communities?
Whose Standard of Justice?
I cannot begin to pursue the second question at this juncture. Regarding the first question, it would seem that inquirers of justice assume some sort of transcendent standard that can be appealed to regardless of present realities assessed to be unjust. Situations of financial “inequality,” biased applications or misapplications of law, inequities of power in political spheres, or unequal distribution of foodstuffs are the types of matters that often draw the assessment of being unjust. Seeking the Lord’s face and walking in obedience to what is known through his Word, facilitates the orientation of soul needed to identify and to work towards justice.I am very sympathetic to such assessments in these situations. My point, however, is that in these situations, an appeal is made to a transcendent, authoritative construct in order to then make the demand for “justice” in the midst of structures determined as unjust. Many can express demands for justice in the contemporary scene without being aware of the nature of the standard to which they are appealing.
Such should not be the case in the church. The church should immediately be aware of the divine perspective on justice, though the divine and the human perspective, on anything, are not always one and the same, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). In other words, when the divine perspective is consulted, justice in the eyes of God may not be one and the same with any human evaluation. What does the church do then? I wish I had easy answers.
Reorienting the Soul
The church can certainly grapple with matters of justice with a certain awareness, a particular orientation of heart and mind that then equips the church to have impact in its surrounding sociocultural setting. Paul K. Jewett argues that justice “belongs to the very nature of God” and is to be expressed according to the holy will of God (God, Creation & Revelation [Eerdmans, 1991], p. 383). The church, regardless of race or ethnicity, inculcates its understanding of God, what God is like, and considers the patterns of God’s work in creation and in human communities in line with the Scriptures. Seeking the Lord’s face and walking in obedience to what is known through his Word, facilitates the orientation of soul needed to identify and to work towards justice.
Without the divine perspective considered, something noble and good like the pursuit of justice can degenerate into a condition similar to Antonio Martino’s comment on how “social justice” . . .
. . . owes it immense popularity precisely to its ambiguity and meaninglessness. It can be used by different people, holding quite different views, to designate a wide variety of different things. . . . [It] allows the user to praise his own ideas and simultaneously express contempt of the ideas of those who don’t agree with him. (Cited in Doing Justice to Justice [Acton Institute, 2002], pp. 7-8)
A consultation with the divine perspective can complicate analyses of situations of injustice, complicate the implementation of justice, but radical injustice will only be perpetuated without such a consultation.