The Real Meaning of Justice

As part of a larger discussion in my classroom yesterday, I asked my students how they define justice. Then, I asked them how they could better demonstrate justice.

The results were fascinating to me. Some students very quickly said justice means “fairness.” More students, however, said things like “being nice,” “treating people equally,” and “enforcing the laws.”

The context of the conversation was an examination of the following passage of scripture, a passage that shows the real meaning of justice. We are to change our hearts and ways to imitate God who is compassionate and fair: God who doesn’t necessarily treat everyone equally–but fairly–by giving special attention to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Now, therefore, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, to follow in all his ways, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with your whole heart and with your whole being,

 To keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD that I am commanding you todayfor your own well-being?

Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it.

Yet only on your ancestors did the LORD set his heart to love them. He chose you, their descendants, from all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your hearts, and be stiff-necked no longer.

For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes,

who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing.

So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.

The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and him shall you serve; to him hold fast and by his name shall you swear.

Deuteronomy 10: 12-20

The way we are called to love and serve God is by loving and serving the most vulnerable in our society. For my students and me, that is people who are different than us.

My students are studying the Old Testament and they are 9th graders. Most of them are white and privileged, and enjoy lives of safety and comfort.

Justice may have been difficult for many of my students to define because they don’t have to think about it very often. Most of them are able to go through their days without having to worry about whether they will be stopped by the police when they walk down the sidewalk. They do not worry about being wrongly harassed by police. They don’t have to fear coming home to find that their parents have been deported.

Like my students, I also enjoy being able to trust that the police will protect me and keep me and my dearest loved ones safe. I don’t fear racial discrimination, brutality, or false accusations for crimes.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and we have much to be grateful for. We also have a lot to do.

It is a time of tension in this nation.  The protests and violence concerning the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the debate about immigration reform show that a lot of intense emotion is stirring all over the land. (By the way, I am a supporter of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform, along with the Catholic Bishops).

During this time of chaos and conflict, what type of justice do we need to demonstrate?

The Scripture and our tradition make it clear. As people of faith, we are called to protect the most vulnerable. We must enter into intense social analysis in order to see what’s really going on in the systemic problems that cry out for the need for changes: we need immigration reform and less militarization in our police forces. We need more compassion.

We must rally non-violently. We must hold prayer vigils. We must offer loving presence to the hurting, the suffering, the vulnerable and oppressed. We must listen to their voices and not be quick to judge.

We must engage in simple acts of generosity and kindness, like God, and lovingly give the vulnerable food and clothing.

This is the real spirit of Thanksgiving: attitudes of gratitude that become actions for justice and kindness, recognizing we are blessed and making social changes so more people can experience the blessings. The type of Thanksgiving that our nation needs now is a celebration of generosity and compassion that honors the real meaning of justice.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Me (on the far left), protesting the immigration raid in Postville, Iowa with other Sisters in my FSPA community, summer of 2008.
Me (on the far right), protesting the immigration raid in Postville, Iowa with other Sisters in my FSPA community in the summer of 2008.

encounters allowed

It’s really hard that living the Gospel and

following Jesus means that we are willing

to encounter the injustices in

society and experience poverty.

It’s not easy that being Easter people-

living up to the resurrection-

means that we allow ourselves

to encounter the uncomfortable

places in our lives and our world.

Loving Jesus makes a mess.

We get into the ugly, awful

places of our lives and societies.

Layered into tombs and crosses,

beautiful newness and Easter

glory glow.

As we allow ourselves

to encounter the stories

of the Truth,

we open ourselves

to encounters with the mysteries

of God’s goodness.

We are united in the mess.

Together we celebrate

the awesomeness of God’s love.

Amen! Alleluia! Amen!

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.