Getting to the Root Cause of Injustice, Part I

Adam Taylor | Author, Mobilizing Hope | Friday, February 25, 2011

Getting to the Root Cause of Injustice, Part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation by Adam Taylor (IVP).

Social justice has grown increasingly en vogue. Fortunately, many of the former battle lines between the evangelical fixation with personal salvation and the mainline protestant emphasis on social action is fading thanks to a growing hunger for a more holistic gospel that embraces both a personal relationship with God and an active faith engaged in God's purposes in this world. Yet the term social justice is often used rather loosely, taking on a broad spectrum of often conflicting meanings. Social justice easily becomes a catch all term that loses its specificity and power. In some cases, one person's definition of justice represents another person's sense of injustice. For example, in the highly contentious debate around abortion, pro-life advocates argue that they are protecting the rights and lives of unborn children while many prochoice proponents contend they are protecting the rights and health of women. Both sides believe justice is on their side and often appeal to protecting human dignity and rights.

People of faith often mischaracterize their acts of charity and compassion as acts of justice. I've often asked many churches whether they are engaged in social justice and they often proudly describe ministries in which their members visit the imprisoned, feed the homeless and care for the elderly. These are all beautiful expressions of Christian love, compassion and hospitality but are very different than biblical justice, which seeks to advance communal righteousness rather than simply personal righteousness. An October 2008 Barna Group survey of 1,024 Protestant and Catholic pastors nationwide found that while 80 percent supported missionaries overseas and 69 percent sent financial aid to respond to a natural disaster, only 12 percent had worked to change government or business policies that are unfair to the poor in other countries.

The Bible is clear that compassion is part of our calling as the people of God, but advancing justice is also part of our calling and clearly distinct in its character. Biblical justice seeks to redress the root causes behind people's need and pain. Biblical justice continues to ask the question "why" until these root causes are  unearthed and addressed. Charity often provides a short-term fix by helping people with their immediate needs, yet it often fails to remove the source of exploitation or oppression that violates their dignity and keeps them in need. An obvious and blatant example of this distinction was in the case of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Many white churches responded with acts of compassion to the plight of African Americans, yet no volume of charity could reverse their political disenfranchisement and economic subordination. Justice required both new laws and the enforcement of existing laws, matters that required policy and systemic change.

In a more contemporary example, charity provides critical help to a single mother working full time in a minimum wage job trying to provide for her kids. While charity provides her with a leg up, it fails to provide a leg out of poverty. Justice demands a way out of poverty, which involves higher wages and greater access to affordable health care and childcare so the mother doesn't have to make a choice between caring for her kids and trying to make a livelihood. Charity mentors a child who lags behind in test scores, often because they are stuck in a failing or inadequate school. However, justice demands reforms to our education system to ensure that every child receive a quality education in the first place. Charity can provide counseling and job training to inmates, an alarming percentage of which were wrongfully convicted. Justice demands that the wrongfully convicted are exonerated and that the criminal justice system is reformed to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the first place.

Unfortunately, justice and compassion often get pitted against each other, creating a false choice between them. The prophet Isaiah resolves this false dichotomy in the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah is addressing Israel in roughly 540 B.C., forty-five years after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire and the deportation of many Jews to Babylon. In this text, Isaiah speaks against the dangers of superficial ritual as a substitute for real justice and mercy. In this case, the cultic ritual of fasting is worthwhile only insofar as it advances our identification as the people of God, which manifests itself as loving mercy and doing justice, to borrow from another prophet, Micah. To the degree that rituals become a pattern, they can become a barrier to our discipleship and no longer serve as an act of devotion.

Isaiah 58 begins by asking what kind of fasting God seeks from God's followers. Isaiah says, "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke," and goes on to say "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58:6-7). In this passage, people fast and see it as a righteous act; however, Isaiah rejects fasting that is disconnected from works of compassion and justice. Genuine compassion for the poor and the oppressed is deemed more important than purely correct worship or sound doctrine. God prefers acts of righteousness that overturn the injustice afflicting the downtrodden over pious worship that has no bearing on loving and protecting our neighbor. Isaiah is also warning us not to let our religious acts and forms of worship devolve into a purely private and personal enterprise.

Isaiah goes on to say that the livelihood and spiritual health of the people of God is tied to the liberation of the downcast and downtrodden among them. After we've engaged in acts of compassion and justice, Isaiah says, "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly" (Isaiah 58:8NRSV). The text is clear that healing is not limited to those who are hungry and homeless but includes those who have bread and space to share. In other words, in Isaiah's vision it is not some people healing other people. Instead, we all get healed. Isaiah ends this extraordinary text saying: "The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in" (Isaiah 58:11-12 NRSV). I love this image of people being used by God to become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

This text reinforces that it is counterproductive and unnecessary to pit justice and charity against each other, particularly because both are part and parcel to building God's kingdom. In reality, charity and justice reinforce each other. Seeking justice without an orientation of charity can devolve into self-righteousness and cultural imperialism. I will pick up this theme later, but advocacy on behalf of others that isn't steeped in real relationship loses its legitimacy and moral compass. On the other hand, charity without a commitment to justice is a palliative but almost never a cure. At worst, charity without a commitment to justice can turn into paternalism and lead to an unhealthy cycle of dependency. People are often much more comfortable writing a check or giving to a mission offering that feeds the hungry, heals the sick and shelters the homeless than advocating for policies and programs that will prevent hunger, extend health care coverage and combat homelessness.

The difference between social justice and charity is real and must be better understood in order for us to live out the entire gospel. Using the familiar adage, charity is giving a man or woman a fish to eat for a day. Justice is not only teaching them how to fish, but also working to ensure that they can own the pond and that the pond doesn't become polluted by outside forces. In this case, teaching them how to fish is still necessary but almost never enough. Using another common adage, charity is pulling children out of harm's way who have been thrown into a turbulent stream while justice is going upstream to stop whatever is throwing them in. In this case, charity represents the first and necessary response.

You can't leave the children to drown while you go upstream to figure out the root cause of what's causing them to be in danger. At the same time, you can't simply pull endless kids out without going upstream to address the root cause of what's throwing them in.

Justice and Silly Putty

Justice can be a slippery concept to define. Do you remember silly putty, that forever malleable substance that you used to play with as a kid to mold and shape into almost anything your imagination could conceive? Justice often feels like silly putty. The question of how we should live together has shaped considerations of a just society throughout human history. For instance, Greek aristocrats taught the ethic "to everyone his due." The philosophical concept of utilitarianism measures morality by what will maximize "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." Liberalism places a premium on "individual autonomy" and choice. Kant gave us the principle of treating every person as an end in themselves and never only as a means. The great political theorist John Rawls defined "social justice" simply as the collective, negotiated embodiment of the basic human understanding of "fairness."

Professor Michael Sandel, who teaches a famous course at Harvard University on justice, writes that "to ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize—income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors." Sandel synthesizes volumes of political theory and ethics into three primary ways of approaching justice through the goals of welfare, freedom and virtue. Debate about justice often centers on maximizing welfare by promoting prosperity and improving standards of living. Theories of freedom emphasize respect for individual rights, even though theorists often disagree about which rights are most important. The freedom school is often divided into the laissez-faire camp, who believe that justice consists in respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults, and the fairness camp, who argue that justice requires policies that remedy social and economic disadvantages and give everyone a fair chance at success. Finally, there are theories that see justice as being bound up with notions of virtue and what constitutes the "good life."

While there are real merits to studying and applying each of these approaches to justice, these secular definitions often fail to go far enough. Secular definitions tend to start with the question of how we should live instead of the question, "To whom do we belong and give account?" The Bible provides a more holistic  definition of justice rooted in notions of shalom, righteousness and God's kingdom come. Reverend Aaron Graham believes that "biblical justice is living out your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. It is seeking God's shalom, or completeness, in areas of society that are broken and working toward reconciling all things back to God's original intention." By extension this means that for Dr. King, who was first and foremost a Baptist preacher, simply securing legal civil rights protections was not enough; the kingdom of heaven on earth demanded that the beloved community be built. Dr. King refused to embrace violent means for achieving political victories for civil rights because unjust means corrupt just ends. Nonviolent social protest became both the method and the philosophy for building the beloved community, all based in an ethic that only love could conquer enmity and hatred. For Desmond Tutu, the end of apartheid was merely a step along the way to a new "rainbow nation" in South Africa. Tutu had the faith and foresight to understand that getting there required the painful but transformative work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about apartheid's atrocities and create a platform for forgiveness to take center stage, helping to heal many of the deep-seated scars left over from the past.

Social justice is a description of an ideal reality in which every person's dignity and rights are respected and a process by which we live into that ideal reality. Meanwhile, social injustice is a reality characterized by division, conflict, violence and strife.7 In a socially just society and world, everyone would work together to put an end to exploitation, social marginalization and discrimination. A perfectly just society will always be just out of reach until God's kingdom is fully consummated. However, Christians should constantly stand out for their tireless pursuit of the ideal.

Justice is about both the end goal we seek to create as well as the process we pursue in getting there. Another aspiring transformed nonconformist, Doug Shipman, emphasizes the process around achieving a more just society, which involves "the continual protection and care for the most vulnerable; an openness and inclusion of diverse opinions and people in a way that provides equal footing for all, which has ramifications for language, process, time and understanding; continually developing an empathy for those most unlike yourself by gender, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, religion, etc." Shipman takes it upon himself to understand others and defend others because he believes "you are who you defend and love." While achieving social justice is often painful, loud and full of conflict, the destination should be the opposite: peaceful, loving and filled with joy.

Old Testament Basis for Social Justice

The Bible defines a just society and world as one in which righteousness, steadfast love and right relationships reign supreme. In both the Old and New Testament, a holy matrimony exists between justice and righteousness, as well as between holiness and doing the work of God's kingdom. Chris LaTondress argues that

social justice aims at bringing the world into greater alignment with God's best hopes and dreams. For example, in Scripture we discover 2,000 verses revealing God's concern for the poor that are too often hidden in plain sight. We see prophets holding rulers accountable for how they structure political and economic life. Most significantly, we witness a 1st century rabbi who started a revolutionary movement that rejected violence and renounced empire. Through Jesus we are rediscovering the radical (and ancient) idea that when God became flesh he joined peasants rather than kings, exposing the ultimate irrelevance of the powerful, and revealing his love for humanity at its most vulnerable.

Stated in its simplest form, a just society is one in which every person, made in God's image, is able to realize their God-given potential. Inherent in this definition is the understanding that every person is made in the image of God. This can sometimes sound cliché but if we could only learn to take this fully to heart. Thus, when we see another person, we are staring at a reflection of God. Made in God's image or imago Dei means that human life is sacred and that every person has equal dignity and worth. Anything that assaults, undermines or distorts that dignity or worth is a form of injustice. This definition ties together notions of human agency, rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Realizing our full, God-given potential requires having access to opportunities that enable these gifts to flourish. Enjoying basic civil and human rights enables us to exercise agency. With these rights come responsibilities to advance the common good.

In his work On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann outlines a strong, persuasive theological foundation for the ecumenical church's work on human rights tied to the notion of human dignity. Moltmann makes clear his conviction that God's faithfulness to creation is the heart of human dignity. Moltmann argues that human dignity requires human rights for its embodiment, protection and full flowering, and these rights are grounded in God's creation of the human being in God's image. Moltmann writes, "The human rights to life, freedom, community, and self-determination mirror God's claim upon persons, because in all their relationships in life . . . they are destined to reflect the image of God."

Part of the problem is that we miss seeing many references to justice in the Old and New Testament due to overly restrictive translations of the text. By a conservative count, the four words for justice (two in Hebrew and two in Greek) appear 1,060 times in the Bible. The noun mishpat appears 422 times in the Hebrew Bible, and it comes from the verb shapat, which means to govern and judge." Righteousness is often translated from the Hebrew word tsedeq and tsedaqah. The feminine version of tsedaqah appears 157 times and the masculine version tsedeq appears 119 times. Somehow we have overly personalized and privatized the definition of righteousness, when in reality its biblical meaning is much more communal in nature. Tsedaqah often means norm or the way things ought to be.

The words justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah), refer not only to fair legal systems but also to just economic structures. The words very often appear together in Hebrew parallelism, as in Amos 5:24 (NRSV): "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Again and again, the biblical texts say: the Lord "has made you king to execute justice and righteousness" (1 Kings 10:9 NRSV; see also Jeremiah 22:15-16).

Taken from Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation by Adam Taylor. Copyright(c) 2010 by Adam Taylor. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.