by Roger Walton.
The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project. Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/
Justice is talked about everywhere, and not least in Christian communities. Embracing Justice, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2022,is the latest in a string of books on the subject,[i] whilst The Methodist Church is undertaking a two year project, Walking with Micah, to discern how best to be a justice-seeking church. This is the tip of the iceberg. Many write from places of injustice or campaign about specific issues that demand resolution or restitution, and academic departments from politics and philosophy to science, law and theology engage with how to enact justice.
That Christians should be part of this endeavour needs no argument or justification here, I hope. We stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the call for justice is deeply embedded and an essential part of being a disciple. Our task is rather to wrestle with how to pursue justice in our own day and age.
This is not a straightforward exercise on several fronts. First, justice is a contested notion in theory and practice. Some seek justice for the unborn child in the name of right to life whilst some fight for the justice of women to decide what to do with their own bodies. Some see free speech as the key to both truth and a fair society but others point to the damage done by hate speech.
This raises the second problem. We approach justice from where we find ourselves. For some that will be from the experience of marginalisation, discrimination and the denial of rights; for others it will be places of power and privilege, the latter often benefitting, consciously or unconsciously, from the systems that perpetuate the former. Becoming aware of where we start our engagement and what are our interests, is crucial but may not be easy.
Equally problematic is that the Bible, whilst having much to say about justice, does not set out a full picture or theory of justice. Indeed, there are hints that God’s justice may be different from human notions of justice and only partially glimpsed.[ii] Further, we need to acknowledge that what some biblical texts claim in the name of justice is merely a cover for revenge and even genocide.
Having said that, we have much to aid us in our wrestling.
First, the scriptures carry persistent themes, which inform our practice of seeking justice. God is concerned about injustice particularly as experienced by the oppressed, the marginalised and the poor. The Exodus begins with God hearing the cry of an oppressed people. The prophets consistently take up this theme, which is echoed in the Psalms and in the life and teaching of Jesus. All people are made in the image of God and to be honoured and treatment fairly, but the weak and vulnerable are to be accorded special attention. In the contemporary world, this will include hearing the cries of an oppressed and exploited creation.
In the Wisdom literature, upholding justice is a prime responsibility of those in power. Here wisdom is wisdom for justice.[iii] Thus hearing the cries of the oppressed, attempting to understand the experience (if it is not our own), being alongside those seeking justice and reminding those in power of their responsibilities is the Christian calling. For this, we can learn from and be challenged by the lived experience of personal testimony and the reflections of Christians who stand in and with oppressed communities (e.g. Black, Feminist, Womanist, Queer and Eco-theologians).
Second, we are part of an ongoing active and interpretative community. The fact that the Bible does not give an exhaustive or all-encompassing view of justice acts as an invitation to participate in the ongoing search for justice, which requires the engagement of our minds, as well as our action. We cannot stand outside the concrete issues of our world theorising. We find justice in the struggle and all must be activists in some form. This requires courage, humility and a willingness to make the, sometimes costly, journey of discovery.
Finally, participation in the mission of God requires we keep in tune with God, for our transformation is part of this too. Fortunately, we have the gift of the Spirit but this requires our disciplined engagement with the means of grace. Kathy Galloway outlines a set of disciplines that the Iona’s community use in its work on justice and reconciliation.[iv] These include prayer, listening to those with first-hand experience, solidarity and acting together a community. There is much here to help us to pray and work for justice.
[i] Isabelle Hamley, Embracing Justice, 2021 SPCK. Others include James Jones, Justice for Christ’s Sake, SPCK 2021; Tom Stuckey Covid-19 God’s Wake-up Call, 2021; and Vic McCracken Christian Faith and Social Justice Bloomsbury 2014.
[ii] See e.g. Isaiah 55.9; Job; and Matthew 20.1-16.
[iii] Prov 8.15
[iv] Kathy Galloway, Living by the Rule, Wild Goose Publications, 2010
5 thoughts on “Seeking Justice”
Thank you, Roger, for a succinct exploration of a complex theme and need. What concerns me is that Methodism should perceive a need to address something in a two year programme that should be so deeply embedded from our foundation as to need no such burst of activity. May the activity continue, last and inform our existence as a denomination.
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Thank you Andrew, we had walking with Micah presented at Church Council, and while it has much to recommend it, like you I am wary of the 2 year programme, we have so many initiatives and glossy leaflets that it is easy to tire of them, Justice is complex, and should be a part of who we are.
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Having left a previous comment I do want to thank Roger for this thoughtful piece, particularly the reminder of where we are in relation to justice, it can look very different from a place of power!
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As a student I read John Rawls “A Theory of Justice” in which he proposed a theory of “justice as fairness”. This recommended equality of opportunity, equal basic liberties, and, crucially, the maximum benefit to the least advantaged members of society in any cases where inequalities occur. I seem to remember there were about 6 different theories of justice, but the important point Rawls makes is that in a just society justice must be associated with fairness. The problem with basing a society on justice alone is that since we vary in ability, opportunity, age, merit to the functioning of society etc. it is difficult to see how we can theorise a more egalitarian society. However if we think of justice as fairness we are bringing ethical concern for others into the situation. I take it that theologically to seek justice with fairness is to follow the Second Great Commandment and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In discussion justice in churches the differences between peoples will still be a problem, but the motivation towards fairness is a distinct advantage. A Government or organisation based on justice alone may argue that improved distribution of goods will suffice to bring justice for all. A Government or organisation that prioritises fairness starts with a concern for people and their needs. Example: Marx famously said “to each according to his needs, from each according to his means”. Tony Blair amended this rule to the new Clause IV as follows:- The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
I would suggest that if the Methodist Church is to discuss justice it would be wise to focus on justice as fairness.
It is also the case that we could talk about justice in “religious” language or universalise the discussion by talking in “secular” language. I know which I prefer.
Sorry, but I have more to say! I suggest that Rawls’ idea of justice as fairness in the church situation brings up a theological problem about conditionality. We are motivated to welcome everyone unconditionally, that is our duty as Christians, but there are situations where to do so puts the present congregation in danger. Should we accept registered sex offenders, paedophiles, those who refuse to respect the Covid prevention strategies or those who preach the harmful message that we are all sinners, unacceptable evil people, who must do a deal with God involving repentance in return for “salvation” and “eternal life”? We are motivated to love others unconditionally, but in practice to achieve justice with fairness for all, our love must be conditional. Should add though that some people prevaricate, like this I found on a site called christianity.com: “God’s love is unconditional according to His grace and mercy, but also conditional in His holiness and sovereignty. Unconditional love involves total acceptance, while conditional love involves discipline. God demonstrates His love for humanity through the work of Christ”. Find this very difficult to understand and unconvincing! From God’s point of view I am absolutely certain that the love of God for all people is unconditional; like that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. God gives us the earth, but places on our hearts the demand that we should love, care and take responsibility for all we meet, particularly those in need, and this sometimes means that in our endeavour to bring about justice and fairness our love should be conditional.
I am sure you will be aware that the question of conditionality is extremely important and I would dearly love to receive the thoughts of others on the subject. So here is the question – is God’s love unconditional?