Posted by: Dan | April 26, 2007

Justice as Gratitude: An Additional Thought

In a recent post, I argued that we needed to understand justice as living out the gratitude that is proper to those who are recipients of grace. Furthermore, I suggested understanding justice in this way has significant implications for how we go about pursuing justice today. I have continued to turn this around in my mind — asking myself questions like: what exactly are those implications? — and I was led back to a point made by a British theologian, David Ford.

In his book, The Shape of Living, Ford argues that our lives are shaped by “overwhelmings.” We all encounter various things in life that overwhelm us — like the overwhelming beauty of a sunset, or the overwhelming darkness of a violent assault, or whatever — and it is how we respond to those “overwhelmings” that determines the shape of our lives. Indeed, Ford argues that, because we will encounter both overwhelmingly good things and overwhelmingly evil things, we are forced to choose which overwhelming will be more foundational for how we live.

Therefore, the pursuit of justice defined as “living out the gratitude that is proper to those who are recipients of grace” requires that our lives be founded on an overwhelming encounter with God's grace and forgiveness. If this is the overwhelming that runs deeper than all others, then gratitude will naturally define us. We have encountered a God whose love for us is indescribable (I can't even find the words, staggering? profound? tender? powerful? overwhelming?). How, then, can we not live lives of gratitude?

Therefore, if this is the foundation of a Christian understanding of justice, what then are some of the implications for the Christian pursuit of justice?

First, this means that Christian justice will be marked by love. Christian justice is love because it flows from the place of being God's beloved — we are those who have been loved much; how can we not go forth to love others much as well? Thus, the pursuit of justice is nothing more than obedience to the command to “love your neighbour.” The dichotomy between love and justice (and God's love and justice, in particular) that is often made in various circles is absolutely false. Justice is the practice of gratitude-as-love within the context of injustice.

Secondly, and just as important, this means that Christian justice will be marked by forgiveness. Love and forgiveness are two sides of one coin but his point is often neglected (i.e. talk of forgiveness is ignored in social justice circles) or denied (i.e. forgiveness is seen as the opposite of justice in social justice circles) so it is worth pausing here. Here is the point that I want to make: the overwhelming that we encounter in God's love and forgiveness is greater than any overwhelming we encounter in the injustices that we personally experience. Therefore, the gratitude that flows from my state of being beloved is greater than the sorrow or anger I experience from the state of being wounded. Because of this, I am empowered to respond freely with forgiveness. This is why Paul can say that even in violent persecution, torture, and death, we are still “more than conquerors” because of the overwhelming love of God (Ro 8). Thus, Paul goes on to say that we should love, forgive, and do good to our enemies (Ro 12), just as Jesus tells us to go the extra mile, give to the thief, and turn the other cheek to the one who strikes us (Mt 5). Therefore, the only response that I can make to those who treat me unjustly is to live out the gratitude of a recipient of grace by forgiving the one who treats me this way.

This is why the notion of “justice-as-retribution” should be totally foreign to the Christian approach. This is why “vengeance” is reserved for God; it is reserved for God because the pursuit of vengeance is antithetical to the practices of gratitude. If we are truly grateful — as we will be if we have truly encountered God's love — then we will love and forgive. We are those who have been forgiven much, how can we not go forth and forgive others much as well?

[I should perhaps note that this talk of “forgiveness” should not sidetrack our resistance to, confrontation with, and excommunication of, oppressive powers but that's not the point I'm trying to make at the moment.]

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