March 20, 2007 / David Fitch


RESISTING THE URGE TO MAKE JUSTICE ABOUT INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS – from individual rights to right-eousness
I’ve been sketching out here on the blog the ideas I am going to present at the seminar I am leading at the Evolving Church Conference. These are extensions of the chapter on justice in my book the Great Giveaway. Hope some of you out there will join me.
My next point here in this presentation has to do with making justice about individual rights.
I think Christians (especially evangelicals) too easily make justice about individual rights. It’s an easy default move when we don’t have visible justice going on in the local body itself. I think articulating justice in terms of rights enables us to put justice at a distance because it enables justice to become a concept separate from the way we engage victims, the poor and relationships in everyday life. I believe that even if we defend the establishment of some group’s or individual’s rights, we in effect distance ourselves from communion and reconciliation with them. For our relationship becomes defined by rights, what is yours, what is mine, what is your right, what is my right. We are not brought together in a unity and reconciliation that bespeaks the justice God is working here in this relationship. There are times when individual rights might make sense as a tool to navigate justice in the world, but alone it does not accomplish as much as we think.

Now before every body gangs up on me here, I believe we must pursue justice outside the church. I am all for the efforts to make our social system and national politics more just. And I will talk more about this in the next post. But what we must see from our own story in God’s relationship with the world thru the nation of Israel and in the Son Jesus Christ, is that justice in God’s eyes is about a horizontal transformative reconciliation that brings people into healed relationship with one another as a result of the concurrent healed relationship we share with God. If we read the accounts of justice say in Ezekiel 18:5-9, Isa 58:3-7, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 3, righteousness, that is right relationship with God and fellow human beings and all of creation, is at the core of what justice is for the Hebrew mind of the OT.

The problem is that defining justice as a concept born out of democracy and capitalism (individual rights or equal opportunity, equal distribution of resources and access to economy) too easily enables us to take a holiday on the justice of God in Christ in the body. We can argue, defend and protest for rights. But ultimately to get to righteousness (I am following J.D. Dunn who displays how justice and righteousness in the OT are one and the same) we must go beyond rights to righteousness.

I remember becoming an advocate (along with others in our church) for someone who was poor and an ex-convict who was unable to pay the rent. We could have advocated renter’s rights. We could have brought the person into a point of contention between himself, the owner of the apartment and myself a pastor and indeed the whole church. Or we could bring everyone around a table to discuss the situation (even though the building owner had never been to our church gathering). We could pray confess sin, seek reconciliation, offer to step in and make things right. We did the latter, with coffee and pastries. The building owner was amazed. I saw a miracle happen there. I’ll discuss it more at the conference.

There are of course 2 main figures who have helped me see why we must seek righteousness in our justice, not only individual rights. They are both somewhat controversial, Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. I direct you to their writings for more understanding on this.

Stanley Hauerwas’ Views on Justice in a Democracy
Stanley is famous for saying, provocatively that “the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.” A similarly provocative title comes from ch. 6 of his book After Christendom? Is entitled “Why Justice is a bad idea for Christians.” I can’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that Hauerwas seeks to illumine how working for equality, freedom, individual rights ad the pursuit of selfishness, er I mean happiness for all, might indeed perpetuate the practices that have created the poverty in the first place.

John Milbank’s “Ontology of Violence”
Milbank follows a similar line of thought to Hauerwas through different tactics. He narrates how democracy and capitalism came into place via the social contract (Rousseau) and the protection of one’s own work through private property rites (John Locke). He shows how this created a system based upon the assumption that individuals are autonomous, independent and at war against one another for power, authority and capital (he bases this on his famous read of Duns Scotus). This system then (of democracy and capitalism) is designed to maintain the rights of each individual to pursue self-interest and personal accumulation without killing one another. It is an “ontology of violence.” For Milbank, the secular society’s justice is a parody of the ecclesia purporting a simulacrum unity in the place of the true unity we in Christ receive around the Eucharist table. I don’t need to explain all of this here. For those who are interested I urge you to read William Cavanaugh’s article in Radical Orthodoxy or his book Theopolitical Imagination which are generally more accessible intro’s to this material.
The main point here to consider is, as I said in my book, “Democracy and Capitalism fundamentally play on a politics that does not restore humanity to a mutual participation in God but replaces such a participation with a politics placed based upon discrete wills of all individuals getting along without killing each another” p.163 the Great Giveaway. In other words, by basing our justice conceptually in individual rights we not only can distance ourselves from justice, enabling us to make it into a program, but we may in essence support a way of justice which undermines the very justice we seek. We must go again, beyond rights to righteousness.

Milbank and Hauerwas, two of my favorite theologians, are often disdained in emergent church land. I however think there is stuff to be learned here. What do you think? Do you find this offensive? Does it offend the sensibilities that seek to ward off anything that smacks at all of exclusivism, fundamentalism, withdrawal from society or any other such maladies?