|Introduction to Justice|
|Thursday, 10 March 2011 17:14|
The three circles of the Partners in Faith logo are based on Micah 6:8 “This is what the Lord asks of you; only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.” The three circles reflect the three pathways laid out by Micah to: act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God. In this section of the website we will be looking at one of these three pathways, namely, acting justly and exploring what it might mean for people of faith today.
Acting justly involves living in a way which recognises the dignity which belongs to every human being. There are many people who don't profess any religious faith but who, nonetheless, feel compelled to respond to various types of situations where human dignity is denied. Organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres etc. are filled with people who are passionate about justice and acting for and on behalf of people denied dignity through tyranny and oppression. So what difference does faith make? Before focusing on particular issues from the perspective of faith we need to ask what distinguishes faith based action for justice.
To help put faith-based action for justice in context we're going to look at the Book of Revelation. The diagram above is based on chapters 11 and 12 (Walter Wink - Engaging the Powers , chap 5) and we've used five symbols to represent five key areas that John the Evangelist looks at in the book. It can help give us a very clear vision of the place of justice within Christianity. The chapters themselves from the Book of Revelation can seem somewhat obscure on first reading but by using the symbols above from these chapters we can arrive at a very clear understanding of why justice is such a central part of faith based living. The five symbols we are using are the dragon, the triangle, the loudspeaker, the woman 'clothed with the sun' and the ellipse.
St. John tells us that there was a great battle in heaven and the great dragon "known as the devil or satan" lost and was thrown down to earth. So although the dragon is a fearful creature we know it lost the battle in heaven. John is telling us that evil is fundamentally weak in the face of goodness.
But St. John also lived at the time of the Roman empire and experienced at first hand the violence that empire unleashes against vulnerable minorities which Christianity was at the time. And as he looked on he also noticed something crucial. He noticed that beneath the current manifestation of empire which he experienced in his day with the Romans was a distinct and autonomous spirit which he used the image of a dragon to represent. This distinct spirit or spirituality of evil we also refer to as the devil or satan.
What was significant about this insight is the fact that St. John knew the dragon would outlive the Roman empire. Upon it's collapse the dragon would begin working on the next empire and the next and the next. And throughout subsequent history, right up to the present day, we have experienced many different empires but all have been sustained by this same spirituality of evil. John also noticed that the empires which subsequently arose would also share many characteristics. "The dragon" St. John says "handed over to [the first beast] his own power and his throne and his immense authority". So the image of empire St. John uses is of a beast. In our own diagram we have represented this first beast as a triangle.
The triangle (or the first beast) is a particular manifestation of empire. The empire is characterised by great inequalities of power and wealth hence the triangle is narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. A few number of people hold great wealth and power, at the top of the triangle, and rule over the majority lower down. In John's time Rome was the centre of empire and also a centre of much power and wealth where decisions were taken affecting the lives of people in far-flung regions of the provinces. Life on the fringes of the empire, at the lower parts of the triangle, was hard. Life expectancy in Galilee at the time of Jesus, for example, was only thirty years.
In the intervening years the world has experienced many empires right up until the British and American empires of more recent times. But empire, at the time of John and now, is in a constant state of crisis. Because left to themselves empires would collapse. The reason they would collapse is because no-one naturally believes that some people are born more important than others. We must be constantly convinced that this is the case. One way empires convince people is through the use of violence against those whose behaviour is inconsistent with the values of empire. But even violence is not sufficient to convince people of something that is so patently untrue. It needs something more and that something is what John called the second beast. In our diagram we have represented this second beast by a loudspeaker.
The purpose of the loudspeaker (or the second beast) is to convince people that something is true which isn't. At the time of John there was a cult built up around the emperor proclaiming his divinity. At a distance of centuries we can see quite clearly now how untrue it was. The emperor was no more or less human than anyone else. But the loudspeaker or the power of the second beast is significant and the cult around the emperor was very persuasive. Anyone who failed to 'bend the knee' in the emperor's direction would have found out fairly quickly exactly how persuasive. John describes this in Revelation as the second beast "making the world and all its people worship the first beast." Rev 13:11.
Today the loudspeaker takes the form of mass media in general or the public relations industry in particular. Advertising, for example, consistently tries to convince us of things that aren't true: men will be more sexually appealing if they wear a particular aftershave etc. More generally, though, the mass media consistently serves to bolster the unequal nature of our human society. It does this by, for example, constantly directing our attention towards those at the top of the triangle, the wealthy and powerful, and ignoring those at the bottom, those on the fringes of society. Underlying this portrayal are a number of delusional assumptions which slip in under our radar if they are not challenged. Below are some examples.
The Delusional Assumptions
1. Money is the most important value.
2. Institutions are more important than people.
3. Violence is redemptive, the only language enemies understand.
4. Property is sacred and property ownership an absolute right.
5. The need to control society and prevent chaos requires some to dominate others.
6. Ruling or managing is the most important of all social functions.
7. Therefore rulers and managers should be rewarded by extra privileges and greater wealth of all kinds.
But from the middle of all this 'beastly activity' John also saw a vision of a woman appearing, "adorned with the sun, the moon under her feet." The woman gave birth to an alternative system of values to empire. She would usher in the reign of God.
John draws out two interesting characteristics of the woman who appears in Revelation 12. Firstly she is about to give birth and secondly that there is an enmity between the woman and the dragon. This enmity harks back to Genesis where we are told that God put an 'enmity' between the serpent and the woman (Gen 3:15). The enmity arises because what the woman in Revelation gives birth to is the 'Way' towards a true human community based on values very different to that of the dragon and the two cannot co-exist peacefully together. So the dragon attempts in vain to 'eat the child' and destroy the woman.
The dragon then makes war on the 'brothers' (and sisters presumably) who 'even in the face of death did not cling to life'. This points to an important difference between the empire of the dragon and the 'Way' which the woman gives birth to and that difference is violence. What holds the empire together and the main language through which it expresses itself is violence. The 'Way', on the other hand, is a pathway to true human community based on love, compassion and non-violence. Although the battle has already been fought and lost by the dragon, the faithful still have key roles to play in the creation of this new human community in the midst of empire. The woman is a hopeful sign, in this regard, in that she has achieved victory over the dragon in this struggle and also because she continues to be present with humanity as an available source of this compassion and love. This new human community we have represented by a circle.
The circle (strictly speaking it looks more like an an ellipse in our picture!) represents the type of community to which the woman gives birth. It stands over against the community inspired by the dragon and is underpinned by very different values. Although in our diagram we have represented these two different types of communities by two clear and distinct symbols, the triangle and the circle, in reality they coexist and struggle against each other in each human heart and in each human community. And yet they are distinct realities and can be described very differently. For example the values which take precedence in the circle are ...
Collaboration instead of competiton
Forgiveness instead of vengence
Service instead of domination
Compassion instead of judgement
Non-violence instead of violence
Love instead of envy
So after this brief pen-picture from the Book of Revelation we are a little closer to an answer to the question of what distinguishes faith-based justice from others?
Faith based justice is the struggle to give birth to a community based on compassion, service and non-violence in the midst of a world based on inequality, violence and domination. The model for this struggle is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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