Drilling Down on Justice

There is a lot of public wrestling these days over the issue of justice.  What is it?  Who should receive it? Who is regularly denied it?  My favorite definition of justice comes from scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann, who has said that justice is sorting out what belongs to whom, and then giving it back to them. In many cases, the sorting out process can be endless, so that the act of giving back may never fully take place. Commitment to justice requires a long view.  Doing justice requires engagement, not just with concepts but with people. It requires moving beyond making arguments on paper and instead putting feet on the ground. It requires building relationships, not just with the people who support the same position, but with those who defend the other side; and particularly with those who are the victims of the injustice.

The Western cultural emphasis on consumption subliminally and overtly reiterates that we need more stuff to live a fulfilled life. From these messages, and the other social, political, and economic dynamics in play, a growing gap has developed between those who have more and those who have less. Justice challenges us to work toward a system in which everyone’s “enough” is closer together.

Doing justice requires seeing beyond what we want to see. Doing justice requires direct engagement, which means it gets messy, confusing, and frustrating. Doing justice requires getting on an uneven playing field and working to level it out. One cannot adequately do justice from a safe distance.

Doing justice makes the claim that what is normal is, in fact, not normal.  Doing justice is seeing beyond what we want to see. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has torn off the veil on an economic and racial system that is inherently inequitable. People living in economic stability could work from home and retain their income and safety, whereas people in the direct service industry were more exposed to the virus and had to keep showing up to work to get paid (and by and large being

paid much less than people who remained at home). There has been an enormous desire to get back to normal; but underneath it was a desire to put the veil back on, and to limit what we see. The pandemic has brought an opportunity to put our collective hand into the world’s pain. When we have done so, it has often been with the expectation and desire that we pull our hands back out of that wound as soon as we can. Justice requires keeping the hand in longer.  And it is critical that we put our hands into that pain.

I once heard the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel tell a story from the Jewish Midrash about how Job came to suffer so intensely. God called in Job and two others for advice as to what God should do about the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. “Let the people go,” one of them said. Another recommended that they remain in slavery to burnish their faith. As for  Job, he said, “I am neutral; I have no opinion.” And for that non-response, the Midrash story continued, Job was punished.  The implication:  you can’t be neutral about issues of justice.   Another Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, wrote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We not only need to see dimensions of the world’s pain, we need to put our hands in it.  Our eyes and hearts will follow. As will our action.


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