Do Christians bring a unique, scriptural understanding of social justice
to bear on the ills of society? Would such an understanding reshape the
way Christians engage and partner with others working to create a more
Much of the modern conversation around creating
justice focuses on ideas that too often reduce justice to human rights,
procedural justice, and even the consumerism of the contemporary
culture/economy. While the priorities of human rights and due process
are necessary for fashioning a just world, the Christian understanding
of the common good is much richer and calls the church beyond fairness
to forms of liberation, compassion, mercy, and peace that are even more
radical than the best notions of justice that characterize the
nation-state at the beginning of the 21st century.
A Christian Justice for the Common Good describes
a Christian justice for the common good and what it looks like on the
ground in real world settings. Calling Christians (individuals, as well
as communities of faith) to a concrete version of social well-being
befitting faithful life in Jesus and God’s vision of justice for the
world, Tex Sample drills deeper and identifies the skills that must be
cultivated to do justice work with others—work that will create a
lasting impact while extending a Christian vision for the common good.
conclusion? The freedom God offers in Christ finds its place in
concrete Christian efforts and the graced wherewithal of people who work
generously with one another for a new and just life together.
1. The Reduction of Justice to Human Rights
2. A Christian Justice
3. The Formation of a Just Church
4. Skills of Justice
5. Doing Justice with Others
6. A Justice of the Common Good
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About the Author
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A Christian Justice for the Common Good
By Tex Sample
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A CHRISTIAN JUSTICE
I remember the sixties as the baby boomer generation came of age into their late teens and twenties. We began to hear expressions that I had not heard before. Things like, "Do your own thing," "If it feels good, do it." "Do it now!" "Do whatever floats your boat." "Do whatever turns you on." "You can do whatever you want so long as you do not get in anyone else's way of doing what they want," and so on. Such phrases seemed to have great currency then, at least with the boomers.
Those sayings, however, greatly diminished in the following decades, and I have a "theory" about why that language, though it did not disappear, nevertheless lost considerable currency in the seventies and eighties. In my "theory" I argue that once baby boomers had fourteen-year-old children, they ceased, or at least greatly curtailed, their use of such claims. It became clear, it seems, that something terribly risky or inappropriate or just downright foolish came with such language when applied to their own children.
Now, let's cut the boomers some slack. They were born following World War II into a very different world, a society, as Daniel Yankelovich claimed, of such affluence as the world had never known up until that time in history. The United States had not sustained the damage to its industrial infrastructure that the nations of Western and Eastern Europe and Japan and other Asian countries had. The United States stood at the apex of the industrial world, with an economy that was producing "the affluent society," as was boasted at the time.
Boomers were the beneficiaries of that affluence, and they were the subjects of an advertising campaign on a scale never known before, especially with the onslaught of television. If a consumer society commodifies everything, that process was under way, and boomers were powerfully influenced by it.
Boomers also were born into a time when human rights were taking on powerful expression, not only in the civil rights movement but also in those protesting the Vietnam War and those giving expression to the counter-culture movement. Boomers were, of course, active participants in all of these momentous events.
There is a relationship between the affluence of that time and the movements for human rights. I want to connect the dots between the human rights movement and the boomer sayings with which I began this section. But I do not want to be misunderstood. I fully support human rights and believe them utterly necessary if we are to give people even relative protections from the encroachments of the nation state and the economic order of capitalism, indeed, from the captivities of any of the principalities and powers that dominate the infrastructure and horizon of our lives. To forsake human rights is to play the fool in today's world, indeed, in any world I can foresee.
A Justice of Rights versus a Justice of the Common Good
But there are problems when justice is reduced to one of human rights, because taken alone, human rights cannot sustain the rich realities of a justice of the common good, not to mention the even more fulsome character of a distinctively Christian justice, or the kinds of justice one finds in Judaism or Islam, as other examples.
Let me suggest, then, first, that the grave danger today is the impact of a consumer culture with its commodification of human rights into an individualistic expressivism. That is, if human rights are understood as individuals doing whatever they please so long as it does not interfere with the choices of others, then we have not only no commitment to the common good but not even a conception of it, except by default — that is, whatever happens as a result of our not getting in the way of each other's individualistic wishes. If all we do is protect individuals in doing whatever turns them on, we have nothing but "free autonomous individuals" pursuing wants now defined as rights.
Let me be clear, it is neither my wish nor the plan of this book to constrict human freedom. As much as I question an individualistic expressivism, I do not trust coercion, especially on matters of personal decision. At the same time, we need a far more profound understanding and practice of justice, and, I might add, an understanding of freedom that exceeds the narrow confines of mere choice. Even more, we need a populace formed and committed to the common good and to the policies and procedures for its discovery and fulfillment.
Further, a good deal of the political shenanigans and inequalities of the market are directly related to the absence of a widely shared commitment to the common good. While the concentrations of power in both government and the market are basic to our problems, commitments to the common good have an impact even on power distributions. Commitments to the common good, the eminence of such language, the way that our concepts shape our experience, and the politics of an aroused and concerned citizenry can certainly call into question and bring redistributions of runaway power. We are not damned to the status quo. In later chapters I hope to show some of the directions for this kind of civic action.
Second, when justice is reduced to human rights, there seems to be an unexamined faith in a preestablished harmony of outcomes if people merely pursue their individualistic choices and expressive whims. It presumes that if you do what you want to do and I do what I want to do, things will work out just fine. This harks back to Adam Smith's confidence about invisible hands that operate in a free market and is a shibboleth of those neoclassical economic true believers who maintain that such a dynamic operates to bring about the greatest good of the greatest number. Nobel Prize winner and economist Joseph Stiglitz states that "Adam Smith's invisible hand — the idea that free markets lead to efficiency as if guided by unseen forces — is invisible, at least in part, because it is not there."
What free market advocates of this kind refuse to see are the concentrations of power that occur in the market where deregulations occur on the scale that neoclassical legislation and policy promote. Not only that, these concentrations of power in the economy lead to concentrations of wealth that give big corporations control and influence over politicians and elected officials with the result that we lose a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. A powerful critique of the control of Congress by the wealthy and the necessity of campaign finance reform comes to us from David Cay Johnston. He describes the vast network of subsidies, giveaways, and legal absolutions that serve the wealthy and corporate America, a network that distributes income up at the cost of flesh-and-blood, workaday Americans.
But, more than that, a justice of rights requires some vision of the good if it is to escape the development of an individualistic expressionism that loses a sense of community and fails to build broad commitments to the common life. When such occurs, community becomes increasingly fragmented and the result is the building of lifestyle enclaves and identity politics.
Martin Luther King Jr. led one of the great human rights movements of the last century. Yet, it must not be missed that his vision — his conception of the common good — was one of beloved community, which inspired his work and called him beyond a justice of rights alone. His own sense that rights were not enough is portrayed in a story told by Harry Belafonte.
On March 27, 1968, just eight days before his assassination, King was at a party at Belafonte's home. In a conversation during the party King got in an argument with Andrew Young, who would eventually be the mayor of Atlanta, about the proposed Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington, DC. Belafonte reports King's passion for the event and his troubled frustration over the fact that he and the younger people in the movement could not agree on tactics, although King asserted that he shared their rage, pain, and frustration. He agreed with the younger activists that the problem was the system.
Young replied to this comment, "Well, I don't know, Martin. It's not the entire system. It's only part of it, and I think we can fix that."
King, angered by this remark, rebuked him, "I don't need to hear from you, Andy. I've heard enough from you. You're a capitalist, and I'm not. And we don't see eye to eye on this and a lot of other stuff."
After what Belafonte describes as "an awkward moment," King went on to argue that "we live in a failed system." He criticized the unequal distribution of economic resources, and the way this system serves the rich at the expense of the poor. He observed that the wealth of the rich "exceeds conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level." King concluded his argument stating that the system had to be changed and that it would not change itself. "We're going to have to change the system."
After a reflective moment when he spoke of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, he paused and said, "But what troubles me now for all the steps we've taken toward integration, I've come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house."
Belafonte noted that the group "had not heard Martin quite this way before. I felt as if our moorings were unhinging." He blurted out, "Damn, Martin! If that's what you think, what would you have us do?"
"I guess we're just going to have to become firemen," answered King.
This deep unrest with a program of human rights alone increasingly characterized King's last years. For example, he realized that getting people the right to enter a cafe where they could not afford to purchase a meal was no final answer. He understood the system required a more encompassing good that went well beyond rights alone. Fundamental systemic wrongs were at work, notably in America's involvement in the Vietnam War, in the unjust distributions of wealth and income, and in the unrelieved poverty that characterized so very many black, white, and brown people. For these reasons, among others, he was planning the Poor People's Campaign in the weeks before his death.
Third, a justice of rights taken alone does not build character. Simply endorsing people's claims to pursue their preferences does not develop in people the sensibilities, the dispositions, the structures of feeling, and the commitment to each other necessary to a common good. A justice of rights without character is little more than a consumerist construction, the commodification of people into the utilities of the market.
We are formed by our practices, both those of language and those of our other activities. So a language of individualism and preferential rights wedded to pursuits that are limited mainly by noninterference with the proclivities of others become the form of life into which people are invested, habituated, and shaped.
In sum, a justice of human rights, as necessary as it is, provides a grossly inadequate form of justice. It leads to an individualistic expressivism that reduces rights to wants, to a freedom of mere choice, and neglects commitment to and service of the common good. A justice of rights, moreover, has an unjustifiable faith in a preestablished harmony of outcomes that cannot be defended or sustained. It results rather in the fragmentation of community into lifestyle enclaves and a politics of identity. Further, it does not build character nor the kinds of human beings required for a community for and of the common good.
To close out this section, let me say that a justice of rights fails to take advantage of the rich faith traditions and their teachings and practices of justice. I include here the traditions of atheism, for example, which is its own kind of faith tradition. In my community activities I grow increasingly concerned that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and others find themselves addressing issues in terms of human rights and often avoid the rich perspectives and practices of justice from their own traditions. This means not only that we miss out on the treasures of millennia of discourse and practice but that the deepest wellsprings of devotion are excluded from the public square as well.
It is out of these concerns about the limitations of a justice of rights and the need for the extraordinary contributions that can be made from different faith traditions that I turn now to a distinctively Christian view of justice with the aim of naming specific understandings and approaches that grow from this form of life. As a Christian I find this to be the most compelling and encompassing approach to justice. It concerns me that often in the church justice is understood in one of two ways. For some, the gospel is understood in such individualistic ways that salvation is seen as saving single souls into heaven and that the purpose of church is subverted by calls to justice because they're seen as "politics."
For others, it seems that justice is largely a consequence, an implication, a secondary concern, or an activity that grows from the more central events of what God has done. On these views, God's work in Christ justifies us by divine grace and our faith becomes active in love. From this we then hear expressions like "justice is love distributed," or "justice is what love does when you have more than one neighbor," or "justice is the order that love requires." Such views suggest that justice is a derivative of love and often secondary to what God has done in Christ.
As central as love is in the Christian faith, I shall argue that justice lies at the very heart of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. My focus here will be especially on the writings of the Apostle Paul. I shall argue that in Paul's gospel justice is not a derivative or an implication of the human response of love but rather that justice is central in the revelation of God and that any effort to make it somehow a consequence of our responding to God has missed the centrality of justice in the very initiative of God, in the very disclosure and action of God in the world.
Let me be clear, I have absolutely no interest in diminishing the towering importance of love in the Christian faith. It is clear, God's love and our loving response to that divine grace is central and not to be qualified. My focus, instead, is to place the issue of justice in the initiative of God, specifically in divine righteousness. As Paul says in Romans, "He also did this to demonstrate that he is righteous in the present time, and to treat the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous" (3:26). That is, a Christian justice finds its character in the disclosure and action of God's righteousness. It is out of this conviction that I turn now to substantiate this claim through a brief summary of Paul's account of righteousness.
God's Revelation: Disclosure and Cosmic Historical Change
There is a terrible tendency in the Christian West to individualize the writings of the Apostle Paul. There is, perhaps, no better place to see this than the way the Greek New Testament word dikaiosune is translated into justification in English and then used to understand justification in Paul's gospel as one of saving individuals. We have heard it a thousand times; it goes like this. God has demonstrated saving love on the cross, and God's grace is available to all who will confess their sin, accept forgiveness, receive and trust God's grace, and respond in faithful living. In this framing of Paul's gospel, we often hear that we are to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
There could hardly be a more anemic misreading or misinterpretation of Paul's writing. To be sure, God's grace, the cross, and the call for our response are powerfully central to Paul's gospel, but this individualized misreading fails to appreciate the cosmic and historical sweep of Paul's proclamation.
The very center of Paul's gospel is God's revelation (Greek, "apocalypse" in Jesus Christ. This revelation of God is, indeed, a disclosure of God, of God's grace, of God's great love for the world. Yet, in Paul, it is even more. God's revelation in Christ is a cosmic, historical act of God. Not only has God disclosed Self, but God has changed the world and altered history. The world will never be the same again.
Excerpted from A Christian Justice for the Common Good by Tex Sample. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
"Chapter 1" A Christian Justice,
"Chapter 2" The Formation of a Just Church,
"Chapter 3" Fluency: Talking the Talk,
"Chapter 4" Walking the Walk,
"Chapter 5" Interests and Power,
"Chapter 6" A Justice of the Common Good,