Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Social Justice

In the Roman Catholic church, Sunday was the last Ordinary Sunday of the liturgical year; this coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, the first Sunday of Advent when we await with anticipation the birth of Christ.

The gospel reading of Sunday was striking to me in how it both confirms certain Catholic commitments to "social justice" even as it rubs against the grain of other aspects. Here are the lines from Matthew 25:31-46:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."

Having now taught at Georgetown for some three years, I have come to learn that the officialdom of the university is most apt to embrace its Catholic identity when it comes to issues of "social justice." The phrase is used promiscuously and without reflection: there seems to be a widespread assumption that we know what social justice is, and thus there is no further need for discussion about it. Yet, as someone who regularly teaches the Republic of Plato - a long dialogue devoted to the subject of exploring what justice is, and which concludes with some ambiguity whether it has been adequately defined much less made realizable - I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion that we can bandy around such terms within a university that is supposed to be devoted, in part, to the exploration of just what such terms mean.

In particular, I am constantly struck by the strain implied in the combination of the words "social" and "justice." Justice, according to the ancient definition, is according to each what is due (whether reward or punishment). Justice thus - as the word suggests - requires judgment and discrimination. By this definition, justice is a thing pertaining to individuals - according to your actions you can and will be judged. Strikingly, in last Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus (as he does often) asserts his role as judge of individuals who do, or do not, act in accordance with his precepts. It is widely the view today that Jesus preached a message of love and forgiveness - which he did - but he was also a harsh judge to those who did not measure up, even promising damnation in "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" for those who do not "do for one of the least ones." Judgment shall be rendered upon individuals, and they shall be rewarded or condemned according to just deserts.

By contrast, adding the word "social" to justice implies that justice is a collective quality. Justice, it would seem, consists of treating everyone equally. According to Georgetown's "Justice Report" of 1999, "justice issues" that can occupy the faculty include:

specific issues-focus, such as poverty, prejudice and tolerance, slavery, human rights, and language minorities; Catholic social thought; and ethics across a wide range of applications. In the social sciences, faculty research covers policy applications; structural inequalities of race, gender, and class; diversity issues related to religion, nationality, language, sexual identity, gender, and ethnicity; and specific episodes or manifestations of injustice, such as slavery, the holocaust,
and colonialism. In the natural sciences, the topics seem to fit into few categories, such as environmental justice issues--that is, differential access to resources; varying burdens imposed by exposure to pollutants or toxins; and access to technology and the effects of technology transfers. In business, the research topics include business ethics and socially responsible business practices; labor and management issues; and economic justice issues such as access to credit for minorities and the "glass ceiling."

Many of these "justice issues" imply (without reflection on what justice is) that justice has the aim of achieving equality, particularly material equality. By implication, social justice incorporates the commitment to treating unlike things equally, and thus contradicts the classical definition of justice simpliciter. It's interesting to raise the question of what would be lost by removing the word "social" to the language of justice. It could be suggested that the addition of the word "social" allows one the appearance of a commitment to justice while in fact rejecting its substance.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that a commitment to justice implies an embrace of a Darwinian world in which each person gets what they deserve from a cruel and unforgiving world. After all, Jesus asserts that he will render judgment based upon what one does - or does not do - "for the least of these." We are called to a life of charity - of love - on behalf of those who are less fortunate. Jesus does not imply that our aim or goal is to relieve their condition of poverty or inequality - after all, he insists that "the poor will always be with you" in John 12:8. He does not claim that our efforts on behalf of the poor will have the effect of eliminating poverty or suffering from the world; the human condition is one in which we will always have inequality, including the unequal capacity for charity. Rather, this gospel seems to say that what matters less is the ultimate effect of our charity - the aim to give aid and comfort to the poor - than our willingness to engage in charity for the right reasons, above all, our capacity for selflessness, the governing of our self-centeredness and self-satisfaction. In the end, charity is not the sometimes condescending actions of haves providing for have-nots, but a universal call to govern the aggrandizement of self and the call to act in the manner of Christ - a person who was himself arguably quite poor, yet who dedicated his life to helping others. According to contemporary versions of "social justice," it would be all but inconceivable that the poor and disadvantaged would be similarly called to act with charity toward others, yet this seems to be precisely what Jesus calls for. We will be judged not for alleviating poverty in this world, but on the basis of whether we acted on behalf of our own advancement, comfort and position, or whether we chastened and at times overcame our devotion to self.

We are entering a time when it will become more evident than ever that the poor are always with us. In the midst of a still wealthy and bountiful world, more people are going hungry and are put in a condition of desperation by harrowing economic times. We will see greater and more fervent demands for "social justice" accompanying these arduous days. But even as structures and programs are initiated with the aim of effecting material equality, I suspect that the proper motivation - charity born of the chastening of self - will be widely lacking. From those who will be relieved, there will likely be greed; from those whose goods will be distributed to others according to law, there will be resentment. There will perhaps be more "social justice," but little charity on the part of anyone in these coming transactions, and thus we will ALL be subject to the righteous judgment of Christ when "all the nations shall be assembled before him."

11 comments:

Tony said...

Not to detract from the main point of your post, but the sentence beginning with "We will be judged not for alleviating...", along with others, point to the specific difference between Catholicism and Protestantism: the Catholic notion that God grades on a curve in the Judgment based on our actions. The fact is His Law is perfect. Not coincidental that Paul focused on this exclusively in his Letter to the Church at Rome (Romans 1-3). One violation and we're sentenced, hence the essence and purpose of forensic atonement of Christ for all who repent and believe. No good deed we can do can merit one glimmer of efficatious justification.

Exegetically, the "least of these" is defined as new believers, not the poor, although the application by secondary extension still applies.

Sorry, but a scenic but necessary side trip, since you delved into the nature of Judgment and Salvation. A superb post in all other respects.

Patrick Deneen said...

Tony,
Phew... I'll have to read your comment more than a few times before I begin to get my head around it. I suspect I should avoid Biblical exegesis - there are just too many professionals around for amateurs like me to be mucking around.

Joan of Argghh! said...

The meditation that found me this morning was, "after I am gone, who will be thankful for me?"

A different sort of Thanksgiving prayer is being reworked into the fabric of my thankfulness, and for that, I am grateful to have lived long enough to re-remember it.

My your Thanksgiving be joyful and your Advent preparations fruitful.

S. Moore said...

Tony said:

"Exegetically, the "least of these" is defined as new believers, not the poor....."

It seems to me that what is or is not an "exegetical definition" depends very much on who the exegete is and how compelling his or her thinking is (or is not). And whether or not the wider exegetical community accepts this or that definition. It is an on-going exercise (in a community of believers, hopefully.) I am currently listening to Pope Benedict XVI's "Jesus of Nazareth" which is his own exegesis of texts and an illumination of his own understanding of Jesus. He asks the listener for a fair hearing and graciously offers the listener the right to disagree. (However, I don't disagree.)

"No good deed we can do can merit one glimmer of efficatious (sic) justification." Shiver.

Actions can result from changes of heart, after all. And changes of heart can result from actions, whether our own actions or those of others toward us. Perhaps you meant
justification "apart from Christ", with which I agree. I think Patrick Deneen's excellent post keeps Christ very much at the center of his meditation on justice, social and otherwise.

Ron Appleton said...

I respectfully raise an eyebrow at S. Moore's response to Tony. There is a difference between exegesis and eisegesis, which is really what we're talking about here. There is fairly broad exegetical support for and easily understood reasoning behind Tony's position. An even casual study of the Gospels and a reading of Matthew beyond the narrow scope of this isolated passage provides a great deal of clarity. To draw a "treat the poor well" reading out of this is impressing an agenda upon the text rather that seeking to understand what the Lord is saying.

This passage has nothing to do with the poor. The entire context of Matthew 24:1-26:46 is concerned with how the disciples would recognize one another. They were about to be cast out into the world minus their messiah. Jesus' concern at this moment is their survival and their encouragement. Their confidence must be in Christ and Christ alone (cross reference the Lord's Prayer in John 17:6-23) in order for them to carry out their mission.

To turn this into a statement about the poor (while well-meaning) is misguided. This is about taking care of the Lord's plenipotentiaries. Recall Jesus' warnings to them when he sent them out in two's in Matthew 10:11. They were to seek out worthy people to care for them; otherwise they were to shake the dust off their feet (a sign of judgment) and leave. So here likewise, he reminds them that 1) their King reigns; 2) they are subjects in his Kingdom; 3) even the least of his subjects should be treated well; 4) not doing so is a sign a person is not a subject but an enemy and will be dealt with harshly by the King. It is an analogy not a command.

We must be careful to pursue a broad understanding of Scripture instead of a desire to cast our own expectations upon the Word, well-meaning or otherwise.

Kevin said...

Hmm, OK, exegetes, we get it. But, if you happen to be a Catholic (as I am), there's a pretty good bit of traditional exegesis that reads this as "the least," simply, from Ambrose to John Chrysostom onwards. And it's entered into the doctrinal tradition as something we call the corporal works of mercy. And one would have to count the embodied biblical interpretation of everyone from the Augustinian Canons and the Franciscans to the Catholic Worker movement as counting for something. After all, as theologian Nicholas Lash reminds us, the primary mode of biblical exegesis is performative... the rest, as they say, is commentary.

Ron said...

Hmm, Ok, embodied Biblical interpretation, we get it. So did Luther, Calvin, et al., who understood it as simply a verbose form of works righteousness, missing the whole point of the Law. Grace is not grace under performative exegesis. It's salary.

Kevin said...

Ron, we may not want to rehearse an argument that I think has been exhausted. The corporal works of mercy are not the enemies of grace.

And the question about exegesis was not about justification, but about how to read Matthew 25. If you like the narrow reading of the "least" because, on the basis of a classical Lutheran reading of Paul's doctrine of grace, the Son couldn't actually be judging people's works, despite the plain sense of the text, then it's pretty hard to accuse your opponents of "eisegesis" vs. your own "exegesis."

And, of course, all of this is really tangential to Patrick's point, which was to offer a nuanced, critical reading of a certain political "orthodoxy" about social justice.... which I take to be (in the words of Michael Feldman) "well reasoned and insightful."

Maybe we should follow the lead of Patrick's reflective, critical account of his own community's assumptions and idolatries, and ask ourselves about our own. As Augustine says of antichrist, "Everyone must ask whether he be such." Much better than scoring points for the sixteenth century.

Zak said...

Outside of the exegetical debate raging here, if one reads Matthew 25 in the spirit the Catholic Church does, it seems to me to provide a good grounding for what we think of as social justice, by equating the person in need with Christ. If justice is to render to each his do, Christ tells us that we must try to render to him what he, as God, is owed. How do we do that? But providing for the needs of all those created in his image. In that sense, charity isn't just about its effect on its subject, but also about how it is owed to its object, God, or his stand-in, the poor, as expressed in Matthew.

Anonymous said...

I find it comical and distasteful the way christians will dig around their text books in order to find a loophole that will allow them to ignore the poor. Well done, good and faithful .. um...student.

Robb said...

Thanks for this intriguing post (I have only recently started visiting). While I appreciate the focus on the importance of individual acts of charity it seems that you risk feeding a common "American" way of understanding the Gospel in a very "undersocialized" way. Old Testament prophets spoke to a PEOPLE who had been given a mandate to bless the whole world but who had failed to act justly (especially, it would seem, in their treatment of the poor). In other words, the message was not merely that individual people should do good but that God's people (as a group) should promote justice. Jesus seems to have continued this theme by condemning the religious leaders of his day for worrying about tithing down to the last ounce of spice but neglecting the weightier things of justice. The point here is that the church--as carrying the "inner meaning of history" (see Yoder's "Christian Witness to the State"), that is, as God's people, is called upon in the same way to live justly and walk humbly--as a group.