Christian Practice, Part 4: Justice

Reviewing from last week, we have the following Christian practices:


Given my evolving thinking about gelassenheit, I've decided that I'd like to invent a new term which links gelassenheit, not to an externally imposed, hierarchical submission, but to an internally chosen act of "taking up the towel of service" in order to empty the self (kenosis). So, to signal that nuance, I'm going to invent a term to link kenosis with gelassenheit: Kenostic Gelassenheit. So, our list changes slightly:

Kenostic Gelassenheit

Our practice today is Justice.

I initially wanted to group justice with the practices of stuff (charity, hospitality, and simplicity). Those practices are a part of living justly on the personal level. That is, they affect how I handle my own resources. But justice, to me, takes in the bigger picture. It looks at personal finances, but it also looks at structural forms of injustice and seeks changes at higher levels of social organization.

I take the practice of justice from multiple Biblical sources. For example,

Amos 5: 11-12, 15, 21-25
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps."

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

So, how do we practice justice beyond charity, hospitality, and simplicity? Well, it seems to me that it involves two things:

1. Prophecy
That is, speaking out in the name of God on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Following the lead of Walter Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic imagination, a key role in prophecy is to declare the "freedom of God." That is, God is routinely co-opted by the powers that be, using God to support the current power structures. Further, religious institutions tacitly support the prevailing hierarchies, keeping some people on top and others on the bottom. Prophets, as we see here with Amos, follow the lead of Moses who declared that God was not aligned with Power (for Moses it was the pharaohs, for Amos the Davidic monarchy) but with the oppressed. As Brueggemann suggests, before the people can be freed God must be freed from the chains of established power structures. And it is the role of the prophet to declare that God has, indeed, effected this escape. Once free, God is now flexible enough (in the imaginations of the people) to realign himself. And, as he does repeatedly throughout Scripture, God aligns his interests with "the least of these."

So, Christians practice prophecy. They continually try to extricate God from prevailing power structures. Pointing out that God is not "here," but "there." Creating the imaginative possibility that God might not be supporting or endorsing the current hierarchy but, gasp!, actually against it! That God might, in the words of Amos, "hate our church assemblies." Is that even conceivable? It is the role of the prophet to make it so.

2. Satyagraha
But what if talk isn't enough? Given that we practice ahimsa (non-harming), I think we find some active outlet for justice via Gandhi's practice of Satyagraha. Satyagraha literally means "insistence on truth." But this insistence involves ahimsa. Gandhi's words:

"In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered, in the earliest stages, that pursuit of Truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For, what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of Truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but one's own self."

But why am I speaking so much of Gandhi when this is a discussion about Christian practice? Well, I do find Satyagraha at various places in Scripture, where self-suffering highlights the injustice thus effecting change in the oppressor's moral consciousness:

Romans 12:20
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

During Jesus' trial and crucifixion, Jesus' demeanor clearly lead to a change in Pilate's consciousness. Also, after witnessing Jesus' death, the Roman centurion declared "Truly, this was the Son of God."

Matthew 5: 40-41
"But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

Given that the audience of the Sermon on the Mount was an occupied territory at the time, the consensus is that when Jesus speaks of "enemies" and "evil persons" the audience was thinking of their Roman oppressors. This is supported by two things in this passage. First, the "go the second mile" speaks to the Roman dictate that allowed a Roman solider to demand an inhabitant to carry his bags a mile. Thus, by going two miles, we see Satyagraha clearly practiced. That is, the "going the second mile" is occurring within an oppressor-oppressed relationship. Further, some commentators suggest that the same dynamic is going on in "turn the other cheek." Given that most people are right-handed, to be struck on the "right cheek" would involve being hit with the back of the right hand. A back-handed slap. The slap of a master to a slave. Of the oppressor to the oppressed. Thus, after this back-handed blow, we see the servant slowly moving her head to display the other cheek to the master (or Roman). To what effect upon the aggressor? I think to powerful effect. The effect of Satyagraha.

Okay, now we have the following Christian practices:

Kenostic Gelassenheit

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3 thoughts on “Christian Practice, Part 4: Justice”

  1. Richard,

    I think your points on justice are worthwhile, but incomplete. There are several additions that come to mind: education, activism, spiritual intercession and an overall greater awareness and change in living in light of all the aforementioned. Let me explain.

    Education is often the key to multiplying justice. We see this constantly in history and present-day. A converse example would be the rhetoric of hatred and violence used during the Rwandan genocide. False education spread injustice to an unprescedeted level. The challenge for followers of Jesus is to bring the truth of injustice to believers everywhere.

    Second, Ghandi was not only a prophet but an activist. The two are interwoven. Jesus stresses this when he says it is not enough to wish our starving, naked and homeless neighbor good luck. We must act in justice.

    Spiritual intercession is an often overlooked, yet critical part of seeking justice. If we believe that God is dynamic then we will engage him in whatever avenues we choose-meditation, prayer, silence, etc.

    Finally, what does it mean to live in awareness of justice? Examining what products we buy is one way to practically promote justice. The Fair Trade movement is an excellent community that provides a sustainable living for third-world workers.

    A long comment today, but it's because I am passionate about justice.

  2. Teresa,
    Thanks for you comments. After I posted I grew dissatisfied with my post, for the very reasons you cite. So I appreciate you filling out the picture.

    As I reflected on the post, I guess my struggle was with the "other." That is, I take it as a given that I, personally, should practice justice. So I reflected very little on that in my post. Rather, I'm trying to come to terms with a world that acts unjustly and might not care to change. How do I deal with that world? For me, justice is kind of like evangelism: You are trying to get someone to change. How do we do that? Well, in my incomplete list, I start with speaking the truth (the education part) and the "insistence on the truth" (the activist part).

    But there is so much more to be said and I'm happy you're hear to say it!


  3. Hi Richard,

    I've never posted in here before, but I've read through your blog thoroughly and have found it a huge blessing to me and my small group. I was prompted to write a comment on this particular blog about Justice, because I believe that the Christian community at large ignores one fundamental injustice that is occurring today. I speak here of the meat/dairy industry, and its endlessly cruel, wasteful and demeaning practices that should make any seeker of "Truth" and "Justice" shiver. I'm wondering, how do you feel about the Vegan/Vegetarian movement, and its ethical implications? I believe Henry Beston says it best in his book "The Outermost House"-

    "We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

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