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This past week I was reading a friends blog (www.collationes.wordpress.com). Josh Brockway’s piece had a provocative title to go with a significant subject. He entitled his article, “I Don’t Believe in Peace.” While the title is titillating, the content is far more substantial. The gist of it is he argues that peace has become so ideological that it is meaningless in the current state of culture. While there is much to this idea I think that “peace” is just one of several terms that have lost their meaning. For some time now I have observed, that whenever particularly controversial topics arise, including peace, the discourse steers away from real substance to invoke the term justice (and righteousness) as a signifier with far reaching connotations. This particular term has become a power term in that it can be incorporated into arguments for the sake of shutting down any converse opinion regarding the matter at hand. And it seems to be a word that is thrown around a lot these days within the Brethren community.

Quite a few years ago I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In this text he introduces the significantly complex issue of justice.[1] Much like many things in society, pregnant signifiers, such as justice, are highly dependent upon culture and tradition for their meaning. Last month I spent considerable time blogging about Brethren and political theology. Fundamentally I have been wrestling with what it means to be a Brethren Christian in a modern, democratized, capitalistic, consumerist, nationalistic society which has commandeered Christianity syncretizing it into some idolatrous mutation, which uses the same language but transfers its own denotations and connotations into the language rendering it useless for all practical purposes. Now this admittedly is a harsh and arguable assessment, but then again I believe it is accurate.

I say all this to provide a context to my title, “Justice Is Meaningless.” When I look around at the world in which we live where we can be stuck in ideological arguments surrounding issues all in the name of justice, in the meanwhile people are losing their jobs, homes, families and are becoming more and more isolated from each other. This is not even to consider the wider global context which would include those displaced by war, tyranny, and others suffering from disease and starvation. Whose justice and where is it? Living in such a highly democratized (un)civilization we have allowed our society to define a term that has always been at the heart of the gospel. To understand it in our current setting, it is fundamentally tied to inalienable human rights that the state declares finds their source in G(g)od (which god that would be is a subject for another post) and are written on a piece of paper which is kept in Washington. And when these rights are compromised society declares that an injustice has occurred. Unfortunately, because this culture is so highly individualistic, there are numerous times when there are competing injustices based upon the various rights and dependent upon the context (globalization adds a whole new dimension to this debate, which MacIntyre’s argument highlights). What happens then? Which injustice supersedes the other? Anecdotal evidence appears to favor those with wealth and those with the greater power. An underlying problem, however, is the understanding of justice. James Davison Hunter argues that values such as justice, equity, fairness (and I would add peace) have become so politicized that they have little or no meaning outside the realm of politics.[2]

In our culture it is nearly impossible to imagine justice outside of the political realm. Even within the Brethren community it has become a regular occurrence to hear someone suing another person for a perceived injustice. Within the larger institution of the church we regularly use the legal system to protect our fiduciary capital. This is all to illustrate the framework in which our ideological understanding is governed. There was a time when the church’s ideology was so shaped by scripture that the Brethren were considered peculiar.

Justice is a significant value for the believing community, but it is distinctively different than the justice of western democracy (as well as all other politicized understandings). In the Hebrew scriptures God’s justice is intrinsically tied to God’s righteousness and judgment. God’s justice is an action of setting the wrongs right as he reaches out in defense of Israel and in particular the orphans, widows and strangers. Through the prophets God proclaims his justice by means of judgment against oppression, idolatry, and covenant breaking. In the New Testament God’s justice is also an essential value that is distinct from that of both Roman and Greek societies. In Romans, Paul describes God’s righteous work (or justice) as that of reconciliation. It is in God’s application of justice (justification) that God sets to right the relationship between God and people with an emphasis upon the bringing together of all people. In his letter to the Galatians the reconciliation of people classifications is paramount. It is in this letter that he says that there is no longer Jew or Gentile, man or woman, free or slave, but all are one in Christ. God’s justice/righteousness is, as Virginia Wiles puts it, “God’s shalom-building activity.”[3] In this sense it is God creating a new humanity that stands in stark contrast to this world. Even as human beings are building walls to distinguish between us and them, God is calling every person regardless of the human made boundaries (tribe and tongue) to be his one people. It is nothing more than the traumatic in-breaking of God’s kingdom that threatens every empire. Even as empires seek to create a sense of peace and justice through threats of violence domination, God’s kingdom applies God’s justice by tearing down walls of division and bringing reconciliation. God’s justice and righteousness are not concerned with “human rights” derived from institutional proclamations. Each human being’s value is determined by the redeeming love of God through Christ Jesus.

What this means for Jesus’ disciples is that when we work for God’s justice, we are about working to reconcile people both to God and each other. The mystery of the gospel that was so radical was that God was breaking down the walls that separate peoples. No longer is there Jew or Gentile, male or female, free or slave. What I find particularly ironic and telling in our current context, when believers are addressing issues and invoke God’s justice or righteousness to frame the issue the predominate result is alienation and division. If the church is truly about God’s righteousness and justice, then it would be about reconciliation, which in turn requires confession and forgiveness as an expression of God’s love to each other. In John’s gospel, Jesus provides a living parable that illustrates the life practices of his followers and it entails a pitcher, basin and towel. Peter Nead argues that in this central practice of the Brethren we find in it the life of reconciliation. He states, “Feetwashing . . . represents that brotherly chastisement, which the children of God are sometimes called upon to exercise toward one another.”[4]He describes this as taking place in three basic postures. First, as the brother or sister sits this person takes on the vulnerable posture of confession. Secondly, the other brother or sister bends humbly and in great meekness cleanses the confessor’s feet offering forgiveness. Finally the two stand and embrace as a demonstration of reconciliation. When Brethren live according to their core practices they step outside the dominant culture and into God’s righteousness and justice, which while existing in God’s kingdom breaks into the current reality of brokenness and sinfulness. Justice will once again have meaning when God’s people submit to God’s reign. Perhaps Brethren should begin praying once again for “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


[1] Whose Justice? Which Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

[2] To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 172.

[3] Making Sense of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 25.

[4] Theological Writings on Various Subjects (Dayton: Dunker Springhaus Ministries, 1997), 131.

 

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Comments
  1. Man, I’ve been neck deep in MacIntyre this morning, so I nearly yelped when I came and read this post! You, Josh, and I really need to get together and do a mind meld! Any chance you can make it to the #Occupy Empire conference next month in Harrisonburg?

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