Posted by: Dan | April 24, 2007

Justice as Gratitude (and a note on loyalty)

Because I am suspicious about the ways in which the language of “justice” is employed within our culture, I have tended to avoid that sort of language altogether (and have instead spoken of pursuing “cruciform love” and becoming “agents of God's new creation”). However, speaking at a conference called “Restoring Justice” forced me to, once again, confront “justice” language and try to think about what a Christian definition of “justice” might look like.

Some of these thoughts were still kicking around in the back of my mind when, as a part of my thesis research, I picked up a book by David A. deSilva called Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (this book, by the way, is exceptional. It is both scholarly and easy to read [for those who don't have a background in biblical studies] and I think that it provides the lenses that are necessary for a more genuine — and more exciting! — read of the New Testament).

DeSilva's chapter on “Patronage and Reciprocity” is subtitled “The Social Context of Grace” and it is here that he provides a very interesting read on what the word “grace” would mean to those who lived during the times when the New Testament was written. However, in order to explore that point, I should probably explain what “patronage” is for those who don't know (I'll be summarising and simplifying deSilva).

The patronage that existed in the Greco-Roman culture was a system that was based upon the fact that access to goods was significantly limited. Most property, wealth, and goods were concentrated in the hands of the few and so one needed personal connections (rather than bureaucratic channels) in order to access those things. Thus, a “client” would go to a “patron” with a petition and, when that petition was granted, the client and patron would enter into a relationship of mutual exchange (reciprocity) wherein the patron would provide the client with the desired goods and the client would then do all that s/he could to enhance the fame and honour of the patron.

Now, where this begins to get intriguing is that it is precisely here, in this social context of patronage, that the language of “grace” must be properly understood. As deSilva says: “For the actual writers and readers of the New Testament… grace was not primarily a religious, as opposed to a secular, word.” In this context, grace actually has three layers of meaning:

(1) the word grace speaks of the generosity of the patron (e.g. “the patron was gracious”);
(2) the word grace also denotes the gift itself (e.g. “we have received grace upon grace”);
(3) the word also speaks of the response of the one who receives the gift (e.g. “we received the gift with gratitude”).
[In the Greek the relationship between these three examples may, perhaps, be more clear since the words employed — charis, charitas, and charin — all have the same root.]

Now, what is intriguing about this is that, when we keep definition (3) in mind, we come to realise that, as deSilva says, “grace must always be met with grace… there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace… To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to… destroy the beauty of the gracious act.”

Now, this already should get our wheels turning in terms of the whole grace vs. works debate that seems to persist in Christian circles, but instead of pursuing that thought, I want to continue to see how this relates to our understanding of justice.

Here is the bomb that deSilva drops:

“Gratitude toward one's patrons… was a prominent example in discussions of what it meant to live out the cardinal virtue of justice, a virtue defined as giving to each person his or her due.”

Now what is so shocking about this understanding of justice? Well, it requires us to undergo a fundamental paradigm shift. According to this understanding, justice then is not about ensuring that we receive what we are entitled to (i.e. our “human rights”). Rather, justice is living out the gratitude that is proper to those who are recipients of grace! Furthermore, since Christians are those who believe that they receive grace from a divine benefactor (God), justice could more concisely be defined as worship — and this should lead Christians to argue that any definition of justice that is not rooted here will be deficient. Suffice to say, this understanding of “justice” has significant implications for how we go about pursuing justice today.

By way of closing I would like to end with one more remark related to patronage. In speaking of the gratitude-as-loyalty that clients are to show to their patrons, deSilva notes that people can be clients of more than one patron, so long as those patrons are not at odds with one another. However, a person cannot be a client of patrons that are enemies or rivals because in order to by loyal and grateful to one, the client would have to be disloyal and ungrateful to the other. Thus deSilva writes the following:

“'No one can serve two masters' honorably in the context of these masters being at odds with one another, but if the masters are 'friends' or bound to each other by some other means, the client should be safe in receiving favors from both.”

The reference to “two masters” is, of course, a reference to Jesus' words in Mt 6. In light of deSilva's argument it seems that Jesus is making it clear that God and Mammon are two masters that are “at odds with one another.” God and Mammon are not friends, they are enemies, and one cannot serve both (and it should also be noted that Jesus makes it equally clear that one is already serving Mammon if one is simply collecting money!). This, I think, is a point that will be rejected by most middle-class Christians (liberal or conservative) who prefer to think of God and Mammon as friends that can both be served.

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Responses

  1. You might be interested in reading Erlend MacGillivray\’s \’Re-evaluating Patronage and Reciprocity in Antiquity and New Testament Studies\’

    http://www.jgrchj.net/volume6/JGRChJ6-3_MacGillivray.pdf

    I believe he cites deSilva\’s work


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