This is part of a study in theological language, the rest of the posts can be found here.
Justice is a word often used in theological circles, well, mostly in liberation theology circles. Still, it crops up elsewhere as well, albeit, less frequent than it ought to. Also, I’m partially unsatisfied with justice as it is commonly used. It seems to be used in a number of ways: first, one’s rights or freedom have been blocked and seeking justice is the struggle for the recognition of said given rights; second, a notion of retribution or punitive — eye for an eye, lawsuit for malpractice, or lethal injection for murder with revenge at heart; third, setting aright relationships, or to the blind and objective judgment of lady justice in America, the scales are made even.
When it came to freedom, I argued that any notion of freedom is tied to a community, and what freedom really seems to mean, is is the space and power provided by the Christian community (and God) to be and do the things your Christian community (and God) needs or asks of you. (Or said in a way that mangles the English language: the action that a community pushes its adherents towards.) One is free to do something means that one is allowed to do something without the societal backlash from its community, because it is what the community wants. However, an American definition of freedom often relies on specific ideas of justice. When freedom is hindered, it is considered just for the freedom to be restored — freedom for pleasure and happiness.
However, when it comes to a definition of justice, understood by a Christian, justice is different. For one, rights language is unnecessary. A creation theology is more expansive and deeper than any rights language within the Christian community. Other shifts in justice also happen when freedom is understood from a Christological perspective. Freedom ceases to be empowerment for happiness — in our case, room made for the commodification and fetishizing of anything the market can lay hold of, like revenge — and becomes a complex salvation. In a word, liberation. Lastly, lady justice cannot and should not be a substitute for the crucified God. In the gospels, scales are used in the temple, the temple that Jesus overthrew. And in contrast, the salvation of Jesus is universal and not limited to those who can pay with coin. Jesus wasn’t also objective like so often our institutions claim to be (i.e. Justice, Science, Journalism), rather, Jesus advocated for people, preached the basileia, and died doing just that. So, of all the definitions above, justice may mean that we may need to fight for the recognition of one’s humanity for specific human beings (as opposed to using rights language), but that still falls underneath a better definition: setting aright relationships. This definition liberation theology affirms when it seeks to rehabilitate both the oppressor and oppressed.
Notably, if justice is truly putting people back into right, healthy relationships — if justice is holistic, then the government cannot fulfill true justice. Neither can certain institutions maintain a just understanding. Take for instance the less than freemarket market running amok as it created the housing/mortgage crisis. Even with some regulations, the “market” (as if it is a nebulous and uncontrollable force, which is just flat wrong) gave/pushed predatory loans. The most that seems to have happened so far is that the big lending banks got a boost from the government to keep them from folding, and now there is a new bill for some who did get hurt. At best, this is working with scales again. “We put everything back together again (presumably), so no harm, no foul, right?” Clearly there is nothing wrong with the system itself.
Now, I am myself sympathetic to the old time Social Gospel, I really am. However, despite the good it did do, it would not have worked without the ecclesial grounding from which the need for care came from. Dorrien insists that the Social Gospel movement should be referred to as the Third Great Awakening. I’m all for laws protecting people from harming children, yet, I do not think we can confuse the move towards using laws to curb evil by aligning self-interest with doing good, with a holistic salvation of Christological justice. The justice of Jesus, setting the possibility of righting relationships is grounded in the rule of God. God doesn’t weigh the misdeeds, but rather she redeems the people and their dysfunctional relationships. Redemption and new creation are the paradigms through which justice is done. Quite simply, the problems with the government, the market, the old time social gospel, and even some liberation theologies, is that they are not substantial enough. They are too narrow. Justice, holistic justice, cannot be achieved. But in the church, the communal body founded around the memory of Christ, redemption and new creation, found in the in-breaking of the basileia, is the entire idea.