Justice for All

Here is an article written by Stanley Hauerwas on the subject of inherent human rights (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/11/02/3624140.htm).  In it he critiques a Christian theologian who was arguing for a Biblical supported universal human rights theory:

(There is no theory with a universal appeal to Justice) Rather than a theory, God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.

What we need is not a theory of justice capable of universal application. Rather what we need is what we have. What we have is a people learning again to live in diaspora. And we are reminded that Israel’s political vocation took the form of a politics of diaspora through which she becomes a blessing to all people. Such a political vocation has been given to the church insofar as she has been joined to Israel’s Messiah, requiring her to be on pilgrimage to the ends of the world seeking reconciliation through the works of mercy. Such is the justice of God.

In light of recent culture-wars, it may surprise my non-Christian friends to learn that Christian theology actually has a highly developed sense of justice, fairness and equality.  The question at work in the above quote  is whether or not human beings are ontological possession of “unalienable rights,” whether by virtue of our being human we are inherently valuable to other humans.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence certainly believed that there was a God who endowed such things.  This is largely due to the language in Genesis 1, “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (God’s image is somewhat anatomically vague).

Yet Christians are compelled by something other than meta-ethical philosophical theories.  We have been commanded to do Justice; “Justice” in this way takes on a verbal quality (most notably for the poor, widow, orphan, and alien: in short those on the margins of society).  “Justice” in the bible generally refers to God’s will for the world and those who are “Righteous” are those who are acting to bring the world into alignment with Gods will.  This is to say that Justice is not a static concept of “fairness” like we have in American courtrooms by a dynamic in-breaking force of the Kingdom of God who seeks to set all wrongs to Right.  Knowing God as such is “not a mere inner spirituality but a matter of transformation of value and resulting practical commitment” (Christopher Wright OT Ethics 267).

Universal Human Rights as such may not be “just” in a Christian understanding of the term.  Take for example persons with disabilities

much good has been done in the name of disability-rights for creating new opportunities as well as institutional space for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us and they want us to want to share our lives with them. In short they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (same article above, bold mine)

People with disabilities very often are protected by those of us who are outraged by those who would mock or cheat or otherwise violate the fair treatment we would expect for people in general.  Yet, as Hauerwas points out, these people are uninterested in merely fair treatment, they want to love and be loved in community.  They want friendship.  This is one among many examples of the wisdom of people who are mentally handicapped but socially gifted.  The God of the Old and New Testament, the God of Christians, is not a God of who establishes abstract philosophical categories.  He values human beings, despite all their disabilities; thus, they are valuable.  The language of Genesis which tells us that Humans are made in the image of God is not a declaration of the inherent value of the human creature but rather a reminder of the esteem which the God of the universe has for your neighbor.  God’s love for the people around us- for the illegal immigrant, for the gay Starbucks barista, and for the Christian evangelical- is the foundation upon which are commanded to love one another as He has loved us (2 Cor 5:14ff, John 15).  This language goes far beyond the concept of human rights, it is a dynamic force which should move us with ever-greater sincerity into community with those around us.  Ultimately I think this is what our neighbors are instinctively after; I hope we will be able to be lights in the dehumanizing darkness around us.

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One thought on “Justice for All

  1. I think you’ve really hit it on the head. We have an innate sense of “right” and “Justice” and more often than not – good people try to make that sense of “rightness” in a particular circumstance the “law.” But as Christian’s we are called to do more than define the playing field we are called to be transformed by Christ and to share that personal transformation with those around us. Then God uses us, simple, broken, hurting, desperate people to do something amazing – transform the world we live in through us. Law or norms will never fully achieve God’s heart for his people – only in learning to see those around us as God sees them will we ever be able partner with him in changing the world. 🙂

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