Thursday, April 24, 2014

God-Centred Social Justice

Published in the Fiji Times 26 March, 2014

Last week I shared with you some of what I heard, at the Pacific Conference of Churches Lenten Talk session at Dudley Church, on the topic of the Bible and Governance. Today I share with you some highlights of Rev. Francois Pihaatae’s presentation last night on the Bible and Social Justice.

The last two Lenten Talks focused on the central moral issue of “the stranger” and the insights “do not do to others what others have done to you” and on stewardship are the basis for biblical morality. This new morality shaped the way governance was perceived in the political formation of ancient Israel. They are not to be governed as they were governed in Egypt. This was the Biblical narrative’s key insight into governance:
·         All are equal because all are made in the image of God
·         All are to live in freedom in a free society with the right of citizenship
·         All are to be consulted, to participate and to give free consent on community matters
·         All are to share in the graciousness of the community

Rev. Pihaatae’s presentation introduced social justice as one of the key aspects in the Biblical narrative, and particularly on the protection and care of the poor, the oppressed and the unfortunate.  Broadly, social justice is the way in which society is organised in terms of wealth and poverty, labour and leisure, power and powerlessness and the values associated with this social order.

The terminology ‘social justice’ only came up in the 19th century in the writings of a philosopher named Luigi D’Azeglio. It was picked up in the 20th century, first by the church and later by secular political philosophers. John Rawls (1971) describes it as “… the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which major social institutions distribute the fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation”. It is from this definition that social justice became known as distributive justice, which goes much further than the idea of justice as legal which is merely retributive.

The point is that if we understand social justice in its fullest sense - how society is organised around issues of wealth and poverty, access to power and so on - then the view of the biblical narrative on social justice makes direct and significant sense. Social Justice is at the heart of who God is; righteousness and justice are inseparable. The God who called a people from Egypt is God the creator and God of Justice.

An open economy does not guarantee just outcomes (deep concern to Moses and the prophets). A trace of the biblical legislations and prophetic speech reveals a commitment to an economic order that balanced freedom and equity.  A free society cannot be built on the rule of law (retributive justice) alone but must also be built on distributive justice.

The central concepts such as social justice (tzedakah), collective freedom (cherut) and responsibility confer human dignity and honour, and avoids humiliation – independence is a key value. Social justice is central to the life of the community and the covenant with God, hence, the legislative requirements to address poverty, indebtedness and inequality – so that no one is denied the right to participate in the graciousness of the community. To be responsible requires certain freedoms - that if people are denied their basic needs, a society cannot be said to be free. And freedom requires responsibility.

There are two key words in the mission God gave to Abraham and his descendants and these signify two forms of justice: “Right” (Hebrew - Tzedakah) and “Just” (Hebrew – Mishpat). These (Mishpat and Tzedekah) form what is called the covenant code or the “Torah” or the “Mosaic Law” or simply the “Law”. The “Law” which is understood not merely in legal terms but more substantially about the whole life of the community. It is to govern all aspects of Israel’s life and most importantly, it is to be seen from the perspective of the weak. This is the fundamental guiding principle of the “Law”. The fundamental point about the “Law” is that we cannot separate God from justice; righteousness and justice are central to who God is.

Mishpat means retributive justice (see Ex 21:12-13) or the rule of law. This system of justice replaces the older system of revenge. Leviticus 20 outlines the moral, ritual and civic laws that Israel should follow. The fundamental moral purpose of Mishpat is the legal protection of the poor, widow, orphans, the stranger against abuse and oppression. But this is a point often missed by biblical translations into Greek and English. Once we began to see the “Law” purely in its legal sense, we lose its purpose which in the covenant code: the protection of the weak and the powerless.The point about the new governance structure is the recognition that a free society must be governed by law, however, different it is. It is to be impartially administered, to punish the offender and free the innocent, and the freedoms for all people.It is for this reason, that the church developed what is called the “Option for the Poor” as a key aspect of its mission.

Tzedakah, by contrast, refers to distributive justice, which is less procedural but a more substantive idea. (It is an unusual term because it combines two ideas, normally opposed to one another: charity and justice). This arises from the Biblical reflections on their Exodus experience, which insists on the difference between possession and ownership. If there is absolute ownership, there will be a difference between justice (what we are bound to give others) and charity (what we give others out of generosity).

Social Justice is also a core theme in the prophetic tradition. The Biblical narrative understood the role of the prophets, not as foretellers but forth-tellers. In other words, prophecy is not about predicting what the future holds but about speaking the truth – about the past, the present and the future; they speak truth to power.They have different roles and at different times but all confronted Israel as a people, its leaders and those who oppress and exploit. For the prophet, the new social order must be just. The new governance system does not exist for itself but must ensure social justice in the social and political order.

In this regard, the view that religion is as much about the religious as it is about morality, social, political and economic make sense. It involves justice, not merely in the narrow sense of the rule of law but in a more substantive sense of conferring on all members of society an honoured place. Mercy is what is required because it honours the humanity of the other and acknowledges the bonds of human solidarity. What the periodic distributions of resources testify to is the awareness that an equal distribution will not emerge willingly and freely from the free working of the market alone. The sabbatical and Jubilee injunctions act as corrective measures to the market by restoring a level playing field to those who have been forced to sell either their labour or their land. They break the cycle of poverty and dependence.The core element in the covenant code – the protection of the weak and the powerless – is central in Jesus’ identity and mission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it this way beautifully by paraphrasing the beatitudes as follows: “One day Jesus told his followers about God’s dream of a world where all the children of God are loved and cared for, and no one is left out.
         Blessed are you who are poor, for all God’s world is yours
         Blessed are you who are hungry, for God will feed you
         Blessed are you who are sad, for God will comfort you and you will laugh again
         Blessed are you who feed the poor, for you are the hands of God
         Blessed are you who comfort the sad, for you are the arms of God
         Blessed are you who work for peace, for you are the voice of God
         Blessed are you who are loving and kind, for you are heart of God

The Lenten Talks are held every Tuesday at Dudley Church, Toorak from 7pm. Next week’s topic is “Formation in Stewardship.” All are welcome.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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