Minimalist Justice and God’s Justice

It has been a while—certainly the longest break on my blog yet—but certain conversations revive the blogging spirit. At rare moments in life, we are blessed to gain friendships that surprise us with common footprints, that betray to us that we were all along sharing paths unknowingly. It’s that unanticipated gift to foresee where the conversation is headed; that strange but delightful sense that we are all telling the same story, in an oddly familiar language.

This is my constant experience with two great friends of mine, Erika and Gloria. The latter is a religious studies and political science double-major at McMaster, and really deserves the credit for the following insight: the Western conception of justice is impoverished and insufferably inadequate because of its minimalism.

Justice in Western thought distinguishes between what must be done and what ought to be done, presupposing the latter as an invalid goal of justice. For example, one must not take advantage of the poor, but one only ought to be generous, hospitable and compassionate toward them. In contrast to this, the Christian conception of justice bears the telos of reconciliation, and is therefore, relational justice. In the Western conception, one may fulfill justice without ever benefiting the poor; however, Christians are bound to “sell their possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12.33). The Christian draws from her own wallet and places the bill in the hand of the needy. Justice has this inner orientation towards its own fulfillment in love: “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13.10).

This distinction, between must and ought, reflects the individualist assumptions of modernity. The actualization of individual potential, and therefore, the removal of any barriers to this goal, is the aim of Western thought. Christianity, however, is deeply and essentially communal. God has made the human person a communal being: a self in need of the other. (This is certainly anathema to Western thought!) Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If any of you think you are something when you are nothing, you deceive yourselves” (Galatians 6.2-3). And the “new command” of Christ consists in this: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13.34).

The Western option leads to bare equality, nothing more than a society full of actualized individuals who are nevertheless depressed, isolated and loveless. If the ought is optional, why bother striving toward it? One only expends energy useful for self-seeking activities. For the Christian, however, the ought is expressed in the vision of the new heavens and new earth towards which we are drawn: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21.4). It is “where justice dwells” (2 Peter 3.13). The Christian ought to expend energy, to pour himself out, in love for the other. The perfect society is one of complete mutual self-giving, the happy exchange in which both individuals empty themselves into the other, and in return, receive back more of themselves than they could have ever hoped for. One could say, it is a “love to the end” (John 13.1).

Such a world will not be born of a minimalist justice, one that seeks only to avoid treading on the feet of others. Christian justice demands that we walk in their paths, join with them, and hand them our lives. This cannot come about by external coercion, by some imposing legal system, but only by an interior orientation toward the perfection of love: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4.6). The Spirit’s power is to “testify about Christ” (John 14.26): Him who was crucified in God’s justice, the “just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3.18). Christ reconciled us to God through His complete and utter self-giving, even “pouring out his life unto death” (Isaiah 53.12). This took place, notably, at the hands of a Western justice system. We, therefore, have no false optimism about the establishment of justice on this earth, but rather a hopeful realism, grounded in the actuality of Christ’s work and the Spirit’s impulse:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope. (Isaiah 42.1-4)

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