Unsatisfactorily Superficial Prescript on Justice

I think that I shan’t come to a point where my reflections on “justice” both measure up to the standard of deliberation and soundness that the subject requires, and avoid some besetting issues pertinent mostly to my particular situation. Instead of just dropping the topic, though, or waiting till I have time to develop a mini-treatise on what I think, I’ll float a few developed-intuitions, and see what that leads to.

So, first, I’ve been struck by the recent imperative of inserting the word “justice” into every possible liturgical and hymnic opportunity, often with little rationale from context (or in a literarily painful wooden didactic setting). The effect is amplified when the writer extends the phrase to the prosaic (and possibly tautological) “social justice.” My discomfort with the constant refrain of “justice, justice” increases to the extent that these solemn invocations spin free from demonstrable pursuit of robust theological insight into “justice.” While some theologians commendably devote sustained attention to the complexities of what constitutes justice and how an ecclesial body may work toward it, the framers of liturgical and lyrical invocations of justice have generally not successfully integrated those reminders with grammar of eucharistic prayer (and often, without competent poetic expression).

The matter of justice must not be minimized in dogmatic or doxological theology. When we address “justice,” however, the reflexive recitation of the apotropaic formula “justice” neither absolves a theologian of the obligation to work out the meaning of that topic in conjunction with Scripture and the church’s inherited wisdom — not solely in terms of a liberal progressive nostalgia for “the good causes.” One certainly can articulate a theology about justice that reaches many of the ends that left-leaning, or liberal, or progressive Christians espouse, by way of taking pains to enlist a strong array of testimonies from the biblical and dogmatic tradition. That might mean placing a stronger emphasis on righteousness, charity, and impartiality (terms that cover much terrain in common with “justice”), and would certainly mean construing “justice” in terms less dominated by late-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century cultural contexts.

Yet we all ought to resist any tendency to extrude “justice” into contexts where it sits inert, disengaged from context, determined mainly by unstated premises (or by a banal rhetoric of “inclusion”). When good reasons abound for thoughtful, “progressive” theological expositions of what a just life entails, we do no one any honor by skimming past those good reasons. Indeed, if we rely not on the careful reasoning (or in hymnic context, the literary finesse) but simply on the sense that “of course, we all support justice,” we risk engendering the impression that we’re trying to arm-twist people into accepting social-progressive imperatives for societal behavior by putting the word “justice” into their mouths and ears without inculcating a corresponding understanding of what’s at stake. When we do articulate our convictions about the shape of a just life, though, we necessarily set our case in a context within which it might be controverted by people who envision a different sense for “justice”; I regard that as a good thing, since it encourages participants in theological life to offer their best cases for the Name by which they are called and for the hope that is within them.

Now, I’m writing from a position of relative social privilege; I don’t need to worry about “justice” on any social-structural grounds, and I must bear in mind that people for whom justice comes as the flicker of an elusive hope may with perfect wisdom emphasize “justice” as a constitutive element of their Name and their hope. To these sisters and brothers of mine, I conclude by just warning that when privileged people lay claim to a topic like justice and make it dance to their tunes, they often disarm its value for raising consciousness by rendering it so tediously familiar and unthreatening that those who need justice have nothing left to which to appeal: “Of course we’re for justice.” My considered intuition suggests that many of the hymns and prayers that tag “justice” into a laundry list of things “we” support, or that compel congregations into implicit endorsements of policies from which they may be inclined to dissent, do not advance the gospel. In such cases, “justice” no longer bespeaks the love, equity, and mercy of God, but only serves the cause of partisan cheerleading; it makes of “justice” a fetish, a keyword which, if cited often enough, absolves speakers from critical reflection and practice.

But at this, I relinquish the last word, and will not say more unless invited.

2 thoughts on “Unsatisfactorily Superficial Prescript on Justice

  1. Overall a good article with much I agree with. I don’t know that repeating “justice” over and over liturgically affects impartial and fair treatment, kindness, equity, mutual upbuilding, and the like, ordering our relations toward greater participation in God’s own way of relating. Just as I don’t think changing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” undoes patriarchal and dominating ways of relating. Indeed, such changes or insertions can mask ways of relating even moreso.

    Much of the hymnody and didactic, even moralizing prayers that repeat justice over and over do far less than us gathering in silence together around the Altar-Table to see one another as Christ’s own in my opinion. So much of Truth is unsaid, as is so much of justice. Indeed, “justice” can be coopted, often not by the elite, but by a comfortable middle, who gladly include as long as inclusion is not Christ’s hospitality but their own version, most often in word rather than deed.

    I might also add that we can quibble about use of the term “justice” to begin with at all as terminology only when we find that our lives are already treated with equity or beyond. We can quibble about different visions of justice when we are not directly impacted by the suffering and even violence and abuse that result from other visions of justice that destroy those affected often in the name of one part or another of Scripture or tradition without considering overall principles of the Summary or the Golden Rule and the like. As +++Benedict has noted, there is authentic tradition that runs parallel to a distorted tradition; we could say the same about how we meet Holy Writ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *