For the past two years, I have been working my way through several books that are deeply insightful and that I find myself reading with a full set of colored highlighters and/or pens that I use to create an outline of key concepts. My current focus is on Exclusion & Embrace by Miroslav Volf and I find him speaking to me on this Maundy Thursday in 2020, in this Holy Week as I look toward Easter from a COVID-19 quarantine.
In Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf first de-constructs the roots of conflict in our world, conflict that causes us to find our identity at the expense of the “other.” Then he turns to a constructive task – to find a way for people in the West to be reconciled to each other by embracing rather than excluding each other.
In Chapter V, “Oppression and Justice,” Volf points out the difficulty of bringing justice to the world, for we each define justice from our own perspective. How can any of us lay claim to “true” justice?
As Christians we do so by asserting that God, himself, is just and, turning to the Bible, we attempt to define a Biblical justice that is universal. However, how can even Christians judge between cultures with divine infallibility, for we each stand already inside a culture, and well-meaning Christians even differ about the nature of justice from a Biblical perspective.
As an alternative, “modern” thinkers like Kant or Rawls turned to reason or “reasonableness” to develop a universal definition of justice, but any attempt to universalize justice keeps running into the same problem: we are all situated in a culture and develop our understanding of justice within one or more traditions.
Indeed, postmodernists point out that any attempt to enforce a universal definition of justice becomes inherently oppressive – any absolute justice is only possible through injustice. The postmodern alternative to unjust universal justice is to focus on local, individual solutions – but how can an absolute focus on the desires of each individual be just unless some common definition of core principles is somehow smuggled in the back door?
Communitarians like Alasdair MacIntyre turn to our rootedness in tradition. But which tradition is true or if each has validity, how can we judge between them? In short, any attempt to define justice is fraught with contradiction and conflict.
Volf’s solution is to begin with two basic propositions. First, “Nobody stands ‘nowhere’” is his way of affirming that we are each anchored in particular cultures and traditions. From a Trinitarian perspective, we may add that we, as persons, emerge from community.
Second, “Most of us stand in more than one place” is his way of affirming that we are, each of us, situated in a complex world that forces us to weigh multiple traditions and a plurality of cultures.
As Christians, it is right that we turn to the Biblical narrative, for we affirm that God is absolutely just. However, we are also situated in a plurality of cultures and traditions and find ourselves facing particular situations that demand unique interpretations. We must balance “the world of the Scriptures” with “the world of culture.” What matters, argues Volf, is our commitment to basic Christian beliefs.
What Volf is pointing to is that our traditions are defined by our practices. In submitting to them, we also become their enforcers and their creators for, in the end, our traditions are little more than a collection of our practices. Our commitments, then, are the key to our definition of justice or of any other elements that make up our culture and tradition. But those commitments are little more than an explicit expression of the tacit beliefs that have been formed in us as we submit to and rely on our traditions. Our commitments are our beliefs made explicit; they are our beliefs put into practice; they are our faith.
Justice, then, begins and ends in a Biblical understanding of the character of God, himself, for it is such an understanding that informs our commitments and our traditions and when we practice those commitments and traditions, they become tacit beliefs that are, in turn, expressed in our actions, as faith. However, justice is always situated and, indeed, personal, for it is expressed in our practices as we stand at this moment in time rooted in particular traditions and cultures.
As we find ourselves contemplating Jesus death; as we come face to face with our sin; as we look forward to Easter and the promise of new life unjustly awarded to us by a just God, it is appropriate to consider the meaning of true justice.
In Isaiah 42, we read, “Behold my servant” who will “bring forth justice to the nations;” who will “faithfully bring forth justice” and “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” This is no relative justice, but the universal justice of the God “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.”
Yet, this universal justice is not oppressive, for it is also personal; it is anchored in a Biblical understanding of God, but it is carried out by “my chosen” who “will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;” by the one “in whom my soul delights” who will not break “a bruised reed” nor quench “a faintly burning wick.” This justice is not carried out by a judge sitting in absolute authority but by one who has been called “in righteousness” and given “as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
As Jesus, himself, confessed in John 12, “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” For, he continued, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life.”
Biblical justice is universal, but it is the justice of self-sacrifice rather than of “fair” rules; it is the justice of calling in righteousness to be given as a covenant. Only a servant who is truly humble and even humiliated and crucified can ride triumphantly to judge impartially. Jesus was and is anchored in the Father’s authority, but he is also universally situated in every place, for he gives of himself unendingly to all who call on his name.
“Asanzolama! Akumisama! Nani? Yesu!” “God be glorified! God be honored! Who? Jesus!”