A Theological Reflection on ‘Pursuing Justice’

Aug 19, 2014 | Blog

Many of us take heart from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful words that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[i]  Spoken in the midst of the dynamic political struggle for civil rights, they invoke a future in which the wrongs of racism, classism and violence will be overcome.

As people of faith, [ii] what implications might we draw from such a claim?  Clearly it infers that God is doing something, and that the divine activity can be named ‘political,’ as it has to do with shaping civil society.  If we take God’s action as our frame of reference, our own action becomes a “bearing witness to the signs of the times.”[iii]  The framework has shifted from the question of what we should do to the question of what God is doing.

Theologian Paul Lehmann describes what God is doing as “making and keeping human life human.”  For Lehmann God’s doing and coming  is promised to take place always and concretely in relation to what is happening with those who are “the least,” calling forth and enabling discernment leading to action.[iv]

So, what does it mean to live in the light of divine activity which reflects a preferential option for the “least” of our neighbors?  How do we bear witness to the signs of the times, or seek to participate in what God is doing, which for us is to pursue justice?

Nicholas Wolterstorff in his autobiographical reflection, Journey Toward Justice, writes of how coming face to face with the victims of injustice in South Africa, Palestine and Honduras completely reoriented his life and thought.  Thinking about justice from the perspective of people who are systematically wronged led him to affirm inherent human rights that are grounded in the worth and dignity of persons. He concludes:  “to act justly is to render to each what she has a right to, what is due her.”[v]

So what are we to make of this legalistic-sounding expression?  It certainly resonates with the thought of John Calvin who used the word “neighbor” as a term for human solidarity:   a “sacred and inviolable” bond which “cannot be loosed by depravity,” connects all human beings together.[vi]  Our neighbor is to be treated as “one to whom [God] has deigned to give the beauty of his image.”[vii] Loving one’s neighbor is thus giving another her due, or “rendering to each one what is his own.”  That is, to deprive someone of what they have a right to is to wrong them.  Justice is present when people enjoy or possess what is due them.[viii] This insight accounts for one of Wolterstorff’s unexpected observations– that there is an ‘invisibility’ about justice.

Wolterstorff is careful to distinguish his conception of inherent rights from the usual accounts of natural rights which connect rights to protecting individual autonomy.  What he saw happening to people of color violated their dignity, not their autonomy.

Why do so many of us find that talking about justice and human rights in our various faith communities is not always welcome and is often dismissed as “political?”  Is it that this violates the cultural assumption that faith is all about ‘spirituality?’   In Journey Toward Justice, Wolterstorff writes of having read and reread the Psalms and Scripture, and that the many passages about justice simply passed him by.  Returning from South Africa, after his experience of being confronted with the faces of the people of color who had been wronged by apartheid, the references to justice leaped out. How had he missed them?  Clearly the Old Testament writers proclaimed justice and enjoined their hearers to seek justice and to right injustice.

Have we moved beyond that?  With new eyes Wolterstorff found that the root of the Hebrew and Greek words translated into English as “righteousness” is the word for justice. The New Testament stem word for justice is almost always translated as “righteous.” He provides many examples of how English translations actually conceal the prominence of the theme of justice in the New Testament and lead many to believe love has supplanted justice.   The translation implies an individualism and subjectivity that isn’t really there.  To take one of his illustrations, Matt.5:10:  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Jesus is “blessing those who are persecuted for doing what is right; for doing justice and seeking to right injustice.”[ix]    In our culture of pietistic individualism righteousness has come to be understood as a “matter of the heart”, a “being right with God in one’s inner self.”[x]   The original hearers of these words, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have made the connection with the doing of justice and the righting of injustice, not an individualistic wanting to be right with God.

For Wolterstorff, caring love incorporates justice.  Just love does two things:  it seeks to promote the well-being of the other and it respects the worth (dignity) of the other. He had observed in South Africa that “the Afrikaners…insisted that justice was not a relevant category. The relevant category was love, charity, benevolence….They argued that it was…benevolence that motivated the entire system of apartheid…and pleaded, ‘why can’t we just be brothers in Christ and love each other?’”[xi]  What shocked him was that benevolence had become an instrument of oppression. Paternalistic benevolence is wrong because it seeks to advance what is assumed to be the good of the other without treating the other with due respect.

Riding home after serving breakfast at the 4th Annual Summit and Homelessness, Asa, Tari William’s  then 13 year old son, asked his mother, GBM’s economic justice organizer, “What does justice look like?”  She found herself “at a loss for words.” Tari’s immediate reaction accords with Wolterstorff’s surprising observation that “treating someone as justice requires often has no telltale signs, either in the mind or the actions of the agent…. It is [the] visibility of the wronging that brings to light what justice requires….”[xii]

After agonized reflection Tari decided justice looks like the “brown brick building that sits on the corner of 12th Avenue and 24th Street North,” the address for Greater Birmingham Ministries–a place where people are helped to “move from poverty, hopelessness and despair to become catalysts for change who take control of and transform their lives, families and communities.”[xiii] Or, maybe, one can also think of GBM as a divinely created space — a safe place for those who are wronged, where their dignity is honored, the inviolable bond of ‘neighbor’ which connects us all is respected.  Here they can become engaged in discerning “the signs of the times” and moved to action in the light of the divine doing and coming, thus participating in the bending of the arc of the universe toward justice.


[i] MLK used this phrase in several of his writings/speeches.  It is attributed originally to Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, 1857, who called for the abolition of slavery.

[ii] In the three Abrahamic faiths “the liberation of the poor and the oppressed is not just a social concern:  it is the heart of what it is to know God and to worship God.”  Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, Occupy Religion:  Theology of the Multitude, 2012, p. 98.

 [iii]  Christopher Morse, review of Paul L. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context,  Theology Today, October, 2008, p. 387.

Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan in Occupy Religion:  Theology of the Multitude,  raise a similar question:  “’Where is God at work?’  This question has often been raised by those involved in liberation movements….Frederick Herzog…talked about theopraxis—the work of God—in order to identify the deep roots of our own actions…that are the mark of liberation movements….Examining the actions of God in resistance to the status quo can help us broaden our sense of which actions really matter in the struggle for liberation.  The greatest challenge for people of faith from the Occupy movement, therefore, is the question of where we find God at work.”  p. 86.

[iv] Ibid., p.388. Our actions become “sensitive to, and governed by, the freedom of God’s continuing humanizing actions in ever-changing situations to elicit our primary concern for the neighbor….”

[v] Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Journey Toward Justice, Baker Academic, 2013, p. 246.

[vi] “Catechism of the Church of Geneva,” Calvin:  Theological Treatises, edited by JKS Reid, 1954, p. 117.

[vii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster Press, 1960, p. 696.
Here Calvin writes, referring to giving aid to a stranger:  “but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh.”( Isaiah 58:7)  Again, from Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 9:5-6:
Since human beings bear the image of God engraven on them, God deems himself violated in their person….This doctrine is to be carefully observed, that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself…”

viii  Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “Justice and Justification,”  B.A. Gerrish, Reformed Theology for the Third Millenium, 2003, p. 90.

ix  Wolterstorff, Journey, p. 93.

x  Ibid.

xi  Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Way to Justice,” The Christian Century, Dec. 1, 2009, p. 28.

xii  Wolterstorff,  Journey, p. 249-250.

xiii  Tari Williams “My Thoughts About Justice.” (2012).