Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Why do we value 'justice'?

Some recent conversations, and a really good book , have got me thinking about justice, and about how significant it is that The Mustard Seed has included justice as one of its core values. I’ve started asking myself, “If values inform a community’s vision and work, how should The Mustard Seed’s valuing of ‘justice’ shape our work with those on the margins?”

‘Justice’ is an extremely slippery concept. Just think about some of the images that 'justice' brings to mind . . .

The meaning of 'justice' is so debated that many wonder if it makes sense to use the word at all.
I think it does. When Jesus and the prophets spoke about ‘justice’, they meant ‘putting things right . . . restoring broken relationships, whether those relationships are economic, political, social, or otherwise’. By valuing justice as an organization, we place ourselves in the long-line of God’s people who care about healing a broken world and ‘putting things right’.

There is a second reason I think valuing justice is important. When we talk about ‘putting things right’, we end up talking about ‘rights’. Things are wrong - things are unjust - when people are denied something that they have a right to.  What do people have a right to?  I think food, clothing, a home, fair treatment in a court or a hospital, a decent wage, and respect would make the list. When people are denied food, or do not have access to a decent home or a living wage, they are being denied basic human rights. They are being denied the opportunity to flourish. Injustice is present.

Of course, a community that cares about rights also has to take some responsibility.  When we value justice, we  take responsibility for the wrongs in our community and work together with those who have been wronged to put things right.

Having this ‘justice’ mindset can make a huge difference in our work at The Mustard Seed. For one thing, people would not have to “do anything” to demand what is right-fully theirs. By the simple fact that someone is a human being, an image-bearer of God, they deserve a home, good food, the economic resources to flourish, and respect. It is their right. Even if folks are frustrating, or are living lifestyles that might make us uncomfortable, or don’t fit into our culture’s idea of ‘deserving’, they have a basic right to the things that will allow them to flourish as God created them to flourish.  Justice demands it.

Another difference that justice makes is that, if someone finally does receive what is rightfully hers, she does not have to go out of her way to say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’. As Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it:

“Since poverty is a violation of rights, the poor person is fully entitled to stand up and demand what is hers by right. She does not have to beg for it; she may demand it. That’s what’s implied in rights. Further ... she is entitled to demand it not on the basis of her good behaviour but on the basis of her personhood - this in turn grounding her imaging of God. And if and when she does finally receive what is due her, she does not have to pen letters of gratitude. It will be quite enough for her to breathe a sigh of relief and move forward toward becoming what she can and should become.”

I realize that all of this leaves a lot unsaid. What exactly will it look like to give everyone access to a good home, a decent wage, and basic respect? How do we actually practice justice?

But, at the very least, by saying that we value ‘justice’, The Mustard Seed says that our community members have a right to some really fundamental things – simply because they are human beings, made in God’s image. Not because they are nice. Not because they asked politely. Not because it might make us feel better to give it to them. No other reason is needed than that they are a human being. They exist, and that is enough.

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