Two principles need constantly to be highlighted regarding social justice and our faith in Christ because both, albeit by very different groups, continually fall off of the spiritual radar screen.
The first of these principles is the non-negotiability of justice within our Christian faith and practice. Justice is not something we can choose to do or not to do as Christians. It is in integral part of the faith; in fact, as Jon Sobrino so well puts it, the practice of justice is ultimately the criterion that determines whether or not we in fact have real faith:
“if persons and communities follow Jesus and proclaim the kingdom of God to the poor; if they strive for liberation from every kind of slavery; if they seek, for all human beings, especially for that immense majority of men and women who are crucified persons, a life in conformity with the dignity of daughters and sons of God; if they have the courage and forthrightness to speak the truth … if, in the discipleship of Jesus, they effectuate their own conversion from being oppressor to being men and women of service … if in doing justice they seek peace and in making peace they seek to base it on justice; and if they do all this in the following and discipleship of Jesus because he did all this himself – then they believe in Jesus.” Jesus in Latin America”, Orbis, I982, pp. 53- 54)
This is not simply the opinion of a liberation theologian, but a recasting of some of Jesus’ key statements in the gospels. At the final judgment, we will be judged by God on the basis of whether we practiced justice or not. We end up at God’s right hand or left hand on the basis of our response to the poor. This truth must never be allowed to slip off of our spiritual radar screens.
The second principle that also too often falls off our moral and spiritual radar screens is one that more directly challenges those who are actively working for justice. This principle asserts that, in the struggle for justice, we may never, no matter how moral, passionate, or urgent our cause, mimic the very violence, disrespect, and egoism that we are trying to change.
This principle is compromised every time we fall into one of the following fallacies:
- The urgency of my cause is so great that it is okay in this instance for me to bracket the normal laws that govern public discourse. Hence I can be disrespectful, arrogant, and obnoxious towards those who oppose me.
- Only the truth of the cause is important here, not my own private life. My own private life, whether it pertains to anger, sex, or envy, is of no relevance to the cause of justice for which I’m fighting; in fact, focus on private morality is a hindrance to working for justice. “
- Proper ideology alone can ground this quest- I don’t need talk of God and Jesus. I don’t need to pray for peace, I only need to work for it.
- I judge success and failure on basis of measurable political achievement. I am less interested in a long-range kingdom of God than in real short-term political and social gain
- I may exaggerate and distort the facts a bit to make the case for justice clearer, but the situation is so horrendous that I need not be very scrupulous about exact truth.
- I am a victim and thus outside the rules!
These fallacies are dangerous because, as we are coming more and more to realize, one of the reasons why the world is not responding more to the challenge to justice is that our actions for justice themselves so often mimic the very violence, injustice, hardness, and egoism they are trying to challenge. Our moral indignation very often leads to the replication of the behavior that aroused the indignation. As Gil Bailie puts it in his masterpiece on non-violence: “Moral outrage is morally ambiguous. The more outraged it is, the less likely it is to contribute to real moral improvement. Righteous indignation is often the first symptom of the metastasis of the cancer of violence. It tends to provide the indignant ones with a license to commit or condone acts structurally indistinguishable from those that aroused the indignation.”
Two interrelated principles should never fall off our radar screens: First, that faith demands that we practice justice; and, second, that quest for justice may never bracket the very justice it is seeking.