Monday, March 19, 2012

What's all this "Justice" stuff anyway?

"...with liberty and justice for all."

As a kid I recited the pledge of allegiance robotically every morning before school.  Prayer had already been removed from this daily ritual by the time I was in elementary school in the 1970s, so the pledge of allegiance was the only thing we said.  But even without the prayer, the daily repetition did its job and caused the ideas of liberty and justice, perhaps too abstract for a kid to fully understand, to slowly soak into my innermost parts.  To what ever extent I could understand them, I learned that liberty and justice were important and to be valued at the highest levels. 

As the years went by, I continued to hear about the importance of liberty (freedom) and how the United States was "the" global example of a free country. I was taught to be grateful for our freedoms.  Example after example reinforced this value: one of the most symbolic icons of the United States is the Statue of Liberty, the Emancipation Proclamation is heralded as a great milestone in our history, and there are countless others.  Furthermore, in church I was given at least two important theological bases for valuing freedom: the work of Jesus was, in part, to set us free from slavery to our own sins, and secondly, our free choice to love God was what made our love real and not robotic.  Free will, freedom, democracy, these are at the heart of Western culture and especially America.

But I heard less about justice than liberty.  Justice is harder to define. When one celebrates "justice" it's usually because there was first an "injustice" that has now been remedied.  "Justice has been served" and similar phrases tended to make me think that justice was primarily punitive. That is justice, in my limited view, was performed by law enforcement officers, vigilantes like Clint Eastwood, and lawyers (at least the good ones) but not by everyday people.  I didn't hear much about justice in church either. When I read the Bible I found many verses expressing the value of justice, but I didn't hear many (any?) sermons on it. My friends didn't talk about it. "Hey man, how 'bout that justice, eh?" We didn't sing songs about it on the fourth of July.

But then, later in life, I started hearing about "social justice".  I had no framework for understanding what this was, how was it connected to punitive justice or biblical justice?  I found that other evangelical Christians were uneasy talking about it. It raised questions of "rights" and whether or not those rights had been violated. It seemed to be too much about pointing fingers and laying blame to be the topic of polite conversation.  And though the Bible had much to say about justice, it didn't use the term "rights" or seem to speak about justice in the same way. What was I to make of this?

During this week, I plan to write several posts about my personal journey to understand biblical justice and why it matters a whole whole whole lot. I will give you my amateur thoughts about the history of the church's teaching on justice in the United States during 20th century.  I will share my struggles on whether or not I can be a Republican and like social justice. And I will share with you something special that my students and I are doing, an event called "Camp [In]justice" later this week.