Thinking about ‘justice’

3 minute read

I’m currently at the St Albans diocesan clergy conference (#StAClergy14 on Twitter) and this morning we had Sam Wells talking to us about justice (he’s talking about suffering in an hour’s time or so).

It was an interesting talk. He took us through the two standard Christian definitions of justice: one is focussed upon sin, personal relationship with God and a “transactional” model; the other largely disregards the individual and focusses upon social justice and the political. (That’s a bit of a crude summary of what he was saying, but it’s not a million miles off.)

Dr Wells was suggesting another way, a Church-centred account of justice, taking inspiration from St Paul’s letter to Philemon. He suggested that the motto of the French Republic (liberté, égalité, fraternité) might be of use to us: we frequently focus upon the first and/or second, but disregard the concept of fraternity. It is this that Dr Wells identified with the Church, and with Christian love.

All this was very interesting, especially as it ties in rather well with some of my research into the World Council of Churches’ approach to social justice when I was studying with them last year. (Dr Wells did in fact use the WCC’s pet phrase “just peace” at one point, though happily didn’t dwell on it.)

I asked a question after the talk was over, suggesting that some of Christian dialogue over the word “justice” comes from the perversion of its meaning in our modern society. (This was the thesis of my research paper last year, so I was quite keen to see what my fellow clergy made of it!)

The two models of justice that Dr Wells identified early on are frequently identified with liberal and conservative theologies, but I’m not sure that’s right. I think they originate in liberal and conservative secular politics and have been read back into the Church.

We use the word “justice” in the Church: it has a long tradition of use. But its meaning in the modern world is different to the Christian tradition. The icon of justice today is Lady Justice, standing atop the Old Bailey, with a sword in one hand and scales in the other, sometimes with a blindfold.

This is not a Christian image. This has nothing at all to do with the Christian image.

The Christian idea of justice is, to my mind, summed up in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As kingfishers catch fire. In this he explores how everything in heaven and on earth expresses outwardly what it is inwardly. So the sound made by a chiming bell expresses that bell’s inner being. Here’s the key line to me:

the just man justices

That is to say, the just man (the “justified person”) does justice. Justice, in a Christian sense, is precisely that which is done by the justified person.

The secular meaning of “justice” is so far from this Christian meaning that it perverts all our conversation.

But if we look to the Christian tradition, we discover we have a choice. The word we have in English as “justice” is in Latin iustitia, in Greek dikaiosyne, and in Hebrew tzedik. All of these have also been translated as “righteous”. It is an accident of the English that we have two groups of words that historically meant the same: just/justice/justify and righteous/righteousness/make righteous.

My proposal to Dr Wells (shorter than this account!) was that we should replace “justice” in our Christian conversation with “righteousness”, in order to clarify its Christian content. I think this chimes well with what he was saying about the community of justice that is the Church.

He was not unsympathetic to my point, but raised the reasonable concern that “righteousness” can seem like “sinlessness” when a Christian, especially a priest, says it. It can sound very judgemental and forbidding.

It’s not, of course, because for Christians righteousness comes not from our sinlessness but from Christ’s righteousness, proclaimed on the Cross and vindicated in the Resurrection and attributed to us by baptism and by faith.

But I do see his point.

Something to ponder.