Saturday, 1 April 2017

Justice: a means to a greater eschatological vision?

In preparation for the next podcast of FatScript, due for recording on Monday, I know that I need to think about this question of "ought-ness". This expression comes up quite frequently and is a reference to the idea that there are moral facts which, so the story goes, do not depend on humankind. Do you agree? How could you know that they existed independently to ingrained rules for your species' success? I think it's difficult to say.

But I need to think more carefully about justice, I realise that. It seemed from my exchange with my co-host, that justice issues might be a special case of the moral realm, that might require a perfect God, such as the God to whom I pray and worship. What can we say about justice from within and from without the Christian worldview?

When we say "justice" in English, the word "fair" is never far away. Another great friend and mentor of mine has been Dean, huge, humble, anti-corruption, American, IPA-lover, Dean. I love him, what a friendship blessing. One of the life lessons he taught me that I will take to my grave and hopefully communicate before that time, is that there is an illness that we can recover from, giving us another keyword connected to justice: entitlement. We are entitled to justice. Why? Because we feel it to be profoundly true?

I live in France, where droit (a literal translation might give you "right" or "rights") seems to give the frame for society's social and educational appatus. As a result, everyone wants to cash in on their entitlement, their inalienable rights. Part of the process of dying to self, in which I think I am caught up to some degree, has been to alienate some of those entitlement mental processes in my mind and life. Why?

It sounds stupid - okay. For humankind to make any kind of progress in this playground called planet Earth that we have been given, we probably need to recognise that every human being has the right to clean water (and probably a lot more given our developmental status, healthcare etc), which is desperately far from reality today in huge swathes of our population. We simply don't seem to have the critical mass of people and power willing to uphold and implement these kinds of rights. Jesus' profound justice statement of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is still a monumental struggle, made all the more so by the under-represented party of strugglers. The majority, albeit to varying degrees, would rather prefer others do unto us what we want, "end of".

But is there a problem in the notion of rights and justice itself? Who could ever sue for not having access to clean water? Never seen that case in court. Third world at-risk populations vs capitalism, 2017. Who'd be the judge of that case?

One of the most radical and subversive dimensions of the Christian faith is that human beings are not entitled to anything. We are owed squat. If we are owed a whole bunch of life-sustaining or enhancing stuff, then it is to insist that life itself is not a gift. That's the awkward part, seemingly propagating ideas that might be seen to endorse inequality. If you receive that to which you are entitled, then what space is left for gratitude? Gratitude has been demonstrated to be thereuptic to human minds. Should we then be grateful for our rights? Surely there has to be some middle ground if God is to be involved, and we are to acknowledge no fundamental (i.e. not God-attributed) rights, and yet that he is the God of justice, right?

Well, I suppose in a sense that is true - that human equality is a myth. There is one human whom I believe, along with 2 billion others, is not equal to the rest of us, and whom you might think might be "entitled" to more goodies than the rest of us, assuming I was right about this inequality. I'm thinking of Jesus of Nazareth, who humbled himself. Is he entitled to something more than the rest of us?

We can't answer that question without probing this word entitlement still further. What is in this word entitlement, that word to which I had to and still have to "die"? Firmly nestled in there is the word "title". The problem with titles is that they are not essential. In other words, you don't need your title in order to be you. Maybe you are a mother, or a boss, or a well-digger, an app encoder, or well, whatever. One crazy detail that I think is understated, is even your name doesn't really define you (I confess I often feel a real dissonance between "John" and me). You could have been born with a different name, or you could change your name. Those are big changes, but I believe not fundamental.

I think I believe that Jesus does not want his followers to think that he is entitled to worship. That would be worshipping the title, not the person. It would also be to rob us of also being givers of worship; merely debtors of worship.
So far, I guess my thought process is not very favourable of justice, as I see it as reductive of gratitude and the joy of gift.

But what about "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"
Well, surprisingly enough, humankind, heck with that, I do not always reckon in terms of gratitude. I do not go to the supermarket and expect the products for free, nor do I bend the knee to the cachier in gratitude. A money transaction happens at the checkout, in which my bank account is debited the exact amount that we have agreed for the goods purchased. This is justice. A product fails to work as indicated, therefore I am entitled, surely, to a refund or an exchange.

So where is justice? What is justice? One way of checking its transcendental nature - for a Christian - is to look into the eschatological hope. Will justice be a feature of that eternal life, in which the "kingdom of God" has fully advanced, every tear is wiped away and death is no more? When all of humankind's evil's are forever eliminated? What need for justice is there when everything works perfectly?

I guess from my random forray, that for us now there has to be a functional, societal baseline of justice, that assumes injury.

Tertullian argues against Hermogenes in the third century that God is not eternally Lord, because to be Lord is to assume a title of lordship over....something. Yet before creation, God was not Lord over anything and so, argues Tertullian, with the apparent backing of the opening verses of Genesis chapter 1, God was not strictly "Lord" at that time. The inaugurator of the word "Trinity" also states that it is not appropriate to call him "Father" at that time either, since he had not yet begotten his Son, but that's probably another subject for another day!

If justice requires injury in order for its invocation, it would seem that it neither belongs to eternity past nor to the eschaton.

If NT Wright et al are correct about the two stage eschaton, i.e. that Christ's resurrection inaugurates the end-times, Christianity is not called to simply uphold justice, but to invoke something more eternal than that. So justice is not the goal, even if it may be the result. If it were the goal, then you might want to say that God sent his Son in order to die to pay for the sins of the repentant world. The fact that this is a massive understatement of the divine purpose should give us purpose to situate justice within a wider and more ambitious purpose.

An iteresting question might be to debate whether or not the pursuit of justice might ever achieve justice. A non-religious perspective could, I believe, look to the optimistic Christian worldview, wherein all is privilege and for others' deep benefit, as a greater vision to secure a more realistic outcome of justice, which remains desirable for individuals and the species as a whole.

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