Justice and the Body of Christ

Photo Courtesy of Camilo Jimenez

By Dr. James Spencer

Published September 1st 2020

            In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compares the dystopian visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley noting, “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…” [1] Whatever differences Orwell and Huxley may have had, both had a sense that there would be a battle over the human mind.  There is no need to choose between Orwell and Huxley.  It seems undeniable that, despite the wealth of information we have at our fingertips and our apparent willingness to be distracted by life’s more trivial pursuits, we are not given unfettered (or unfiltered) access to information.  Truthfully, the amount of information available to us is less troubling than its relatively superficial nature.  
            Our minds are eager to be made up and to make sense of the world.  We want a coherent story even if the “amount and quality of the data on which the story is based” do not render a faithful picture of reality. [2]  We, along with the types of media we support, have allowed our commitment to deep thought to erode in favor of pithy slogans, uninformed opinions, and sensationalized, slanted narratives even though “The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode.” [3] 
            How does our relationship with media relate to justice?  We are, in certain ways, living in a dystopian moment in the United States.  Media, in both its corporate and “social” forms, has played a crucial role in shaping the discourse of the American people.  As Wolin notes, “In the highly structured marketplace of ideas managed by media conglomerates, however, sellers rule and buyers adapt to what the same media has pronounced to be ‘mainstream.’” [4]  Drawing on his own manipulation of the media, Ryan Holiday paints a somewhat bleaker picture: “In this networked, interdependent world of blogging, misinformation can spread even when no one is consciously pushing or manipulating it.  The system is so primed, tuned, and ready that often it doesn’t need people like me.  The monster can feed itself.” [5]  If substance has little to do with what spreads, we must be ever more careful “not to mistake (1) familiarity with intimacy or (2) popularity with wisdom.” [6] 
            I would like to suggest that justice, in biblical perspective, is related to vision.  If we cannot sort out which stories are true or false, we will have little opportunity to make just judgments.  Yet, justice is not simply conditioned by a true/false dichotomy.  It also has to do with perspective and scope of vision.  Imagine, for instance, staring up at the sky from the bottom of a well.  You can see the sky directly above the well and anything else that happens to come into your rather limited field of vision.  What you see is real, yet, it is cripplingly incomplete.  Any description of the world you construct as you sit in the bottom of the well will also be incomplete even if it faithfully describes the narrow swath of reality you experience from the bottom of the well.  If justice is related to vision, we must not only take care to understand what we see rightly, but also to recognize the limits of our vision so as not to overdetermine our stories. Our vision of the world and, more importantly, of God needs the space to take on more depth and nuance even if it loses some degree of coherence as we incorporate new aspects of reality.  
            To make just judgments we need a theologically informed vision of the world, whereby God unsettles us by refusing to be captured by our limited, even if true, descriptions of who He is. While it is crucial to recognize that our limited perspectives remain capable of speaking faithfully about God as in the historic creeds and doctrines of the church, it is similarly crucial to admit that there is only so much we are capable of holding together at any given time.  We may not be looking up from the bottom of a well, but we certainly do not see God, ourselves, and the world fully.  We are always in the position of learning and of being made more complete.  
            Our limitations constrain us in some respects, but not so much that we find ourselves unable to understand God faithfully or to make truthful observations about the world around us.  We are capable of making the sort of just judgments, which are “an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context.” [7]  We are incapable, however, of establishing an order that has no further need of judgment.  Our ongoing state of sin, our finite nature, and our alienation from God create a context in which structural evil will be a continual challenge.  Beyond the individual, unjust acts that are done against God and others, sin is our human condition.  Construing sin as a human condition allows us to see “that sin carries with it serious effects, often of a structural and corporate nature.” [8]  We won’t escape those effects no matter what action we take because in our sinful, limited state we cannot help but experience moral failure behind which “lies a failure, temporary or permanent, circumstantial or structural, to keep our actions in tune with reality.” [9]   
            As we look across the landscape of conversations regarding justice in our contemporary world, an understanding of our limited perspective should make Christians wary of adopting polarized positions on matters pertaining to social justice.  We should be deliberate in adopting a posture that respects the complexity of the matters at hand and commits to making just judgments that are informed by a depth of understanding of the world around us.  We must take up the task of thinking well and finding our security not in overly simple accounts of reality, but in the knowledge that God has not and will not abandon us to our devices.  Ultimately, we must fight to retain a “shared field of discourse in which we can move at ease as thinking Christian by trodden ways and past established landmarks.” [10]  The body of Christ can ill-afford to have its discourse determined by political and/or ideological perspectives whether “conservative” or “liberal” because “the church…is the community that speaks Christianese…” [11]  Part of what it means to speak Christianese is to allow theology and doctrine to shape our speech rather than adopting the speech of the world.     
            With regard to our speech about justice, it is important for us to remember that justice  is not something we can achieve without God.  It is not something we can secure in our current state of sin.  It is not an all-consuming ideal that should overshadow all other theological commitments or take the place of God.  Instead, justice is part of what it means to be a member of Christ’s body in so much as“Seeking God, seeking one another, embodying this search through the life of the Church” are “mutually involving.” [12]  
            At some point, as we seek God we will begin to grasp the wise order He has established, to order ourselves in accordance with that order, and to lament and repent of the misalignments that have come about due to our overt rebellion and state of sin.  At some point, as we seek one another we will be moved to confront specific instances of evil, to address the various ways in which we diminish and distort what it means to be human, and to comfort those for whom justice seems distant.  At some point, as we embody the search for God and others, we will be unable to ignore justice because justice is not some abstract idea.  Justice is the outworking of a way of life committed to a crucified, resurrected Christ whose suffering and death provided a means for sinners to be judged righteous by the righteous Judge.    
            In the end, it is not enough to say we are searching.  We must be active and acknowledge the urgent need for justice.  We need to take action.  Yet, the urgent actions of the church assume God’s ongoing, active presence in the world in a way that non-theological accounts simply do not.  As such, “We may well be right to feel a sense of urgency to share the gospel with the world or to right the social and individual wrongs we see before us.  We are wrong, however, to think that the patient acts of prayer and fasting, the emotive cry of lamentation, or the slow, thoughtful engagement of the scriptures and theology are not appropriate expressions of such urgency.” [13]  The church must recall that a just world that does not know Christ is still a lost world.  It is not enough for us to pursue justice along with the world.  We must do so in a manner that reflects what it means to be adopted daughters and sons of the Father, to be joined together in the risen Christ, and led by the Holy Spirit.  
            Lord, may we be a “compelling and attractive” people “embodying not simply the cunning of reason but the power of love that constantly gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace.” [14] Grant us the peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7) so that our fears and frustrations, however legitimate, do not cause us to abandon impartiality.  Let us show the world what it means to be part of Your Kingdom as we “…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa 1:17).  Guide us so that in our pursuit of justice we faithfully proclaim the gospel to a world that needs to hear it.  Amen. 

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Footnotes:

            [1] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2006),  xix. 


            [2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrah, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 85.


            [3] Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation, 2009), 189-190.


            [4] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 7.


            [5] Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (New York: Portfolio, 2013), 30.

 
            [6] James Spencer, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind (Self-published, KSP, 2020), 150.


            [7] Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 107. 


            [8] Anthony C. Thistelton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 283.


            [9] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 25.


            [10] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should Christians Think (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1963), chap. 1, Kindle.


            [11] Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol 1: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 18.


            [12] Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology (London: SCM, 2012), 5.


            [13] Spencer, Thinking Christian, 46.


            [14] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 291.

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